Canal Essay, Research Paper
THE FRENCH CANAL CONSTRUCTION
The Geographical Society of Paris organized a committee in 1876 to seek international cooperation for studies to fill in gaps in the geographical knowledge of the Central American area for the purpose of building an interoceanic canal. The committee, a limited company, La Soci?t? Civile Internationale du Canal Interoc?anique de Darien, was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. Exploration of the Isthmus was assigned to French Navy Lieutenant Lucien N. B. Wyse, a grandson of Lucien Bonaparte. Armand R?clus, also a naval lieutenant, was his chief assistant.
After exploring several routes in the Darien-Atrato regions, Wyse returned to Paris in April 1877. De Lesseps, however, rejected all of these plans because they contained the construction of tunnels and locks. On a second Isthmian exploratory visit beginning December 6, 1877, Wyse explored two routes in Panama, the San Blas route and a route from Limon Bay to Panama City, the current Canal route. In selecting the latter, his plan was to construct a sea level canal. The route would closely parallel the Panama Railroad and require a 7,720-meter-long tunnel through the Continental Divide at Culebra.
With this plan for a Panama canal, Wyse traveled to Bogota, where, in the name of the society, he negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government. The treaty, signed on March 20, 1878, became known as the Wyse Concession. It granted exclusive right to the Soci?t? Civile to build an interoceanic canal through Panama. As a provision of the treaty, the waterway would revert to the Colombian government after 99 years without compensation.
A congress, the Congr?s International d’Etudes du Canal Interoc?anique (International Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal) was planned to take place in Paris on May 15, 1879, with invitations sent out by the Soci?t? de G?ographie (Geographical Society) of Paris. Critics claimed that a principal purpose of the congress was to give needed legitimacy to the Wyse Concession, legitimacy greatly needed, as recognized by de Lesseps, to bring in financial backing. The purpose of the congress was not to approve a route or a plan, that decision had already been made by de Lesseps, but to give that decision and the already negotiated Wyse Concession a public introduction and ceremonial sendoff. It also served to provide the appearance of impartial international scientific approval.
Fourteen proposals for sea level canals at Panama were presented before the congress, including the de Lesseps plan of Wyse and R?clus. A subcommittee reduced the choices to two — Nicaragua and Panama.
As might be expected, engineers and others offered differing opinions concerning the various plans. One such engineer was Baron Godin de L?pinay (Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de L?pinay, Baron de Brusly). The chief engineer for the French Department of Bridges and Highways, L?pinay was known for his intelligence, as well as his condescending attitude towards those with whom he did not agree. He was the only one among the French delegation with any construction experience in the tropics, 1862 construction in Mexico of a railroad between Cordoba and Veracruz. At the congress, he made a forceful presentation in favor of a lock canal.
The de L?pinay plan included building dams, one across the Chagres River near its mouth on the Atlantic and another on the Rio Grande near the Pacific. The approximately 80-foot height of the artificial lake thus created would be accessed by locks. The principal advantages of the plan would be the reduction in the amount of digging that would have to be done and the elimination of flood danger from the Chagres. Estimated construction time was six years. Since this plan required less digging, there would be, according to prevailing theories that tropical diseases were caused by some sort of toxic emanations coming from freshly dug earth being exposed to the air, less such problems. The de L?pinay design contained all of the basic elements ultimately designed into the current Panama Canal. The French company would use these concepts as a basis for the lock canal they would eventually adopt in 1887 following the failure of their sea level attempt. Had this plan been originally approved, France might well have prevailed in their canal construction effort. Had it been adopted at the beginning, in 1879, the Panama Canal might well have been completed by the French instead of by the United States. As it was, however, the de L?pinay design received no serious attention.
The American delegation’s Nicaragua plan was introduced by Aniceto Garc?a Menocal. Cuban by birth, Menocal was a civilian engineer assigned to the Grant surveys in Nicaragua and Panama by Admiral Ammen. The well organized and persuasive presentation by the Americans very nearly upset de Lesseps’ carefully orchestrated plans. But, again, this was not to be.
De Lesseps thought a week enough time to gain consensus and wrap up the details. With things now threatening to get out of hand, he, on Friday, May 23, “threw off the mantle of indifference,” as one delegate wrote, and convened a general session. Striding confidently in front of a large map, a relaxed de Lesseps addressed the congress for the first time. He spoke spontaneously, in simple, direct language, and with great conviction, if not abundant knowledge, making everything sound right and reasonable. The map, which he referred to with easy familiarity, clearly showed that the one best route was through Panama. It was the route that had already been selected to develop Panama’s transcontinental railroad. There was no question that a sea level canal was the correct type of canal to build and no question at all that Panama was the best and only place to build it. Any problems – and, of course, there would be some – would resolve themselves, as they had at Suez. His audience was enthralled.
Following the speech, everything fell into place for the de Lesseps camp, and the building of a sea level canal through Panama was the recommendation of the Technical Committee. By no means, however, was everything peaceful and unanimous. Before the vote was even taken nearly half the Committee, walked out. Following the vote, with the full congress reconvened, the Committee report was read and the final, historical vote cast. The Committee resolution read:
“The congress believes that the excavation of an interoceanic canal at sea-level, so desirable in the interests of commerce and navigation, is feasible; and that, in order to take advantage of the indispensable facilities for access and operation which a channel of this kind must offer above all, this canal should extend from the Gulf of Limon to the Bay of Panama.”4
The resolution passed with 74 in favor and 8 opposed. The “no” votes included de L?pinay and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Thirty-eight Committee members were absent and 16, including Ammen and Menocal, abstained. The predominantly French “yea” votes did not include any of the five delegates from the French Society of Engineers. Of the 74 voting in favor, only 19 were engineers and of those, only one, Pedro Sosa of Panama, had ever been in Central America.
Following organization on August 17, 1879, of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoc?anique de Panama, with de Lesseps as president, the Wyse Concession was acquired from the Soci?t? Civile. A new survey was ordered and an International Technical Commission of well-known engineers went to Panama, accompanied by de Lesseps, to get a first-hand look at the Isthmus.
Making good on his promise to dig the first spade of earth for the Panama Canal on January 1, 1880, de Lesseps organized a special ceremony at which his young daughter, Ferdinand de Lesseps, would do the honors of turning the first sod. The ceremonial act was to take place at the mouth of the Rio Grande, scheduled to become the Pacific entrance to the future canal.
On the designated day, but later than the designated time, the steam tender Taboguilla took de Lesseps and a party of distinguished guests three miles to the site on the Rio Grande where the ceremony would take place, following appropriate feasting and festivities on board. However, since late guests had delayed the Taboguilla, the Pacific Ocean tide had receded such that the vessel could not land at the designated site. The undaunted de Lesseps was, of course, ready with a solution. He had brought a special shovel and pickaxe with him from France especially for the occasion. Now, declaring that the act was only symbolic anyway, he arranged for his daughter Ferdinande to strike the ceremonial pickaxe blow in a dirt-filled champagne box. The empty champagne box is, perhaps, a clue to the gaiety and applause that followed the official act.
De Lesseps then decided that another ceremony should inaugurate the section of the canal that would have the deepest excavation, the cut through the Continental Divide at Culebra. A ceremony was arranged, and on January 10, 1880, appropriate officials and guests gathered at Cerro Culebra (later known as Gold Hill) for the ceremony, which included witnessing the blast from an explosive charge set to break up a basalt formation just below the summit. After blessings by the local bishop, young Ferdinande again performed the honors, pushing the button of the electric detonator that set off the charge that hurled a highly satisfactory amount of rock and dirt into the air.
As de Lesseps was a trained diplomat and not an engineer, a fact that he should perhaps have more often remembered during canal design decisions, his son Charles took on the task of supervising the daily work. De Lesseps himself handled the important work of promoting and raising money for the project from private subscription. Not having the least scientific or technical bent, de Lesseps relied upon a rather naive faith in the serendipitous nature of emerging technology. Thus he worried little about the problems facing this gigantic undertaking, feeling sure that the right people with the right ideas and the right machines would somehow miraculously appear at the right time and take care of them. His boundless confidence and enthusiasm for the project and his consummate faith in the miracles of technology attracted stockholders.
In the meantime, the International Technical Commission set about the difficult task of exploring and charting the canal route. Between Colon and Panama City, the canal line was divided into sections, each section in charge of a team of engineers. Survey findings were compiled into a final report by the commission headquarters in Panama City.
The International Technical Commission was required to verify all previous surveys, including those done by Wyse and R?clus and the U.S. studies of Lull and Menocal. The ultimate goal was to determine the final line of the canal leading to the preparation of design specifications and working plans. Another goal was to convince investors that de Lesseps was not just the promoter for a hastily conceived, half understood, imperfectly planned project that, most likely reflected unreliable cost estimates.
However, the few weeks’ time allowed for this survey work was far too short for an investigation of such importance. Owing to this fact, the content of the technical commission’s report, submitted on February 14, 1880, was scientifically and professionally thin. In fact, it comprised little more than a rubber stamp for the project as conceived by de Lesseps. In approving a sea level canal, the commission reported no significant construction difficulty in cutting the deep channel through the Continental Divide at Culebra Cut and estimated that construction would take approximately eight years. The recommendations also included a protective breakwater at Limon Bay and a possible Pacific-side tidal lock.
To do the work, de Lesseps contracted Couvreux and Hersent, with whom he had worked at Suez. Looking at the work in retrospect, it can be seen as falling into four phases. During the first phase, from March 12, 1881, to the end of 1882, the entire project was under Couvreux and Hersent. During the second phase, 1883 through 1885, following the withdrawal of Couvreux and Hersent, the work was accomplished by a number of small contractors under supervision of the company itself. The third phase, between 1886 and 1887, saw the work done by a few large contractors. Finally, in the fourth phase, beginning in 1888, the sea level project was finally, though temporarily, abandoned for a lock canal with the idea that, after the lock canal was functional, the channel could be deepened gradually to make a sea level canal. But it was already too late, and the work gradually ground to a halt. Armand R?clus, the Agent G?n?ral or chief superintendent of the Compagnie Universelle, led the first French construction group of about 40 engineers and officials. They landed at Colon on January 29, 1881, aboard the Lafayette. An optimistic R?clus expected preparatory tasks to take about a year, but Panama’s sparse population did not lend itself to labor recruitment, nor did its thick jungles lend themselves to quick movement through the countryside to accomplish the work. Gaston Blanchet, Couvreux and Hersent’s director, accompanied R?clus to the Isthmus. As Blanchet was known to be the company’s driving force, it was a terrible blow when, just 10 months into the project, he died, apparently of malaria.
Work went forward, however. Surveys were completed and the canal line more accurately determined. Construction was begun on service buildings and housing for laborers. The delivery of machinery was expected soon. Some was manufactured in Europe and some in the United States. All manner of equipment was needed, from launches, excavators, dump cars and cranes to telegraph and telephone equipment.
De Lesseps was aware that the railroad was important to the work, and control of this vital element was gained by the French in August 1881. But it cost them dearly, more than $25,000,000 — about a third of Compagnie Universelle resources. Strangely, however, the railroad was never organized to serve anywhere near its full potential, especially in moving material from the site of excavation to deposit areas.
As the work force increased, so did illness and death. The first yellow fever death among the 1,039 employees occurred June 1881 soon after beginning of the wet season. A young engineer named Etienne died on July 25, supposedly of “brain fever.” A few days later, on July 28, Henri Bionne died. Holding degrees in medicine and law, as well as an international finance authority, he was a significant player in the Paris operation. In his book, “The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough wrote: “The cause of death would be attributed in Paris to ‘complications in the region of the kidneys.’ But on the Isthmus, the story would be told for as long as the French remained. He had arrived from France to make a personal inspection for de Lesseps, and several of the engineers had arranged a dinner in his honor at the employees’ dining hall at the camp at Gamboa. It was a festive evening apparently. Bionne, the last to arrive, had come into the hall just as everyone was being seated. One of the guests, a Norwegian woman, was exclaiming with great agitation that there were only thirteen at the table. ‘Be assured, madame, in such a case it is the last to arrive who pays for all,’ Bionne said gaily. ‘He drank to our success on the isthmus,’ one engineer recalled; ‘we drank to his good luck…’ Two weeks later, on his way home to France, Bionne died of what the ship’s doctor designated only as fever, not yellow fever. The body was buried at sea.”
By October, equipment and materials were arriving and accumulating in Colon faster than a work force could be hired to use them. By December 1881, the French had set up headquarters in Panama City at the Grand Hotel on Cathedral Plaza.
A banquet and ball in Panama City marked the official beginning of Culebra Cut excavation on January 20, 1882. However, little actual digging was accomplished because of lack of organization in the field. Engineers continued doing survey and preliminary work, work necessary to the project considering the skimpy studies originally done, and sending reports to Paris.
On the Isthmus, the Compagnie Universelle established medical services presided over ty the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. The first 200-bed hospital was established in Colon in March 1882. On the Pacific side, construction for L’H?pital Central de Panama, the forerunner of Ancon Hospital, was begun on Ancon Hill. It was dedicated six months later, on September 17, 1882. With the information on the mosquito connection in the transmission of yellow fever and malaria not yet discovered, the French and the good sisters unwittingly committed a number of errors that were to cost dearly in human life and suffering. The hospital grounds were set out with many varieties of vegetables and flowers. To protect them from leaf-eating ants, waterways were constructed around flowerbeds. Inside the hospital itself, water pans were placed under bedposts to keep of insects. Both insect-fighting methods provided excellent and convenient breeding sites for the Stegomyia fasciata and Anopheles mosquitoes, carriers of yellow fever and malaria. Many patients who came to the hospital for other reasons often fell ill with these diseases after their arrival. It got to the point where people avoided the hospital whenever possible.
Finally, with all excavating arrangements made, Couvreux and Hersent decided to withdraw from the project and wrote to de Lesseps requesting cancellation of their contract on December 31, 1882.