In his exhaustingly detailed book Panama Fever, Matthew Parker says, “Apart from actual wars, it is the costliest project ever yet attempted in history….” After reading his book about the Panama Canal, I don’t doubt that this is true.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal, promised France that it would become the #1 country in the world if it constructed a canal in Central America and began seeking financing for it in 1881. Malaria, weather, and money problems eventually defeated him and his 25,000 workers. Construction ceased in 1889. One third of the canal across the Isthmus of Panama had been built. The man who created the Eiffel Tower was involved in its locks’ design. Five years later Americans became involved, and about 5 years after that the United States earned the legal right to build a canal. The American government began operations in 1904 because it took 3 years to complete plans and begin construction. The 1st ocean going ship passed through the Panama Canal’s locks in 1914. 639 million dollars had been spent, the 1st earth dam ever built had been constructed, and a huge artificial lake, Gatún, had tamed the Chagres River and filled an incredibly large space.
Many human beings died to build the Panama Canal. I don’t recall every hearing that a female worker took part in the Canal’s building. Parker’s book talks a lot about the racial discrimination that occurred. White workers were favored and paid far more than the ones who came from places like Jamaica and Barbados. Living conditions for all were dismal, however. Many drank to reduce stress. Panama City had 200 bars and Colón had 131. The Culebra Cut through the most difficult passage to excavate became known as “Hell’s Gorge”. One West Indian worker commented, “Today you dig and tomorrow it slides.” In the peak month of 1909, 68 shovels were at work in this Cut. The sound of them and exploding dynamite must have been stress producing. Eventually 2 million cubic yards of dirt were excavated despite adverse conditions. Ten feet of rain fell in the Cut that year and tons of explosives were accidentally ignited. Mountains were literally moved to create valleys. The story of the building of this wonder is way too big to tell succinctly.
I have learned a lot. Yellow fever and malaria are not the same thing. They are caused by different mosquitos. Both plagued Canal workers. Those who got Yellow Fever either died or recovered and didn’t get the symptoms again if they survived. Those who got malaria almost always got the symptoms again. Ruth & I talked to a young man with children who had already had 4 bouts of malaria. Any time it came back could mean his death. When Europeans first came to Panama, there were already 2 well-used trails across this isthmus. When gold was discovered in California in the mid 19th century, 600,000 gold seekers crossed here rather than travel all the way around South America.
de Lesseps biggest mistake was in thinking that the Panama Canal would be as easy to build as The Suez, which cut through desert but not a continental divide. His involvement broke his gung-ho spirit.