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A tale of death and despair

History of the Panama canal

The Panama Canal was among the most challenging civil engineering projects in history.

Between 1883 and 1914 at least 20,000 construction workers died on the Isthmus of Panama, primarily from malaria and yellow fever.

By the time the canal opened more than 300M. m 3 of mud and silt had been excavated and 1.5M. m 3 of reinforced concrete poured. At peak an army - literally - of 50,000 men were toiling in the Panamanian jungles.

Men had dreamed of a link across the isthmus almost since the Spanish first arrived there in 1513. Many impractical canal proposals were put forward before the first rail link opened in 1854.

Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse obtained a concession for a canal at Panama from the Colombian government in 1876. He sought out an old friend, Suez Canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, and convinced the 74-year-old to back the Panama project.

Fatally, de Lesseps threw his huge reputation behind a sea-level canal similar to that at Suez.

A subsequent visit to Panama and the revelation that a 110m deep cutting through the Culebra ridge would be needed failed to deter him, and on his return to France he set about raising the FFr765M he estimated the project would cost.

Unfortunately, his visit had taken place during the three-month dry season. During the other nine months rainfall topped 3m, and malaria and yellow fever were rife. Deaths resulted as soon as work began in earnest in 1883. Some 2,000 were French civil engineers, many of whom succumbed within days of stepping off the boat.

The French efforts eventually foundered in the unstable soils of the Culebra Cut, where landslips were a constant threat. When the canal company finally gave up the ghost in 1889, FFr1bn had been spent and de Lesseps was a broken man.

American interests now took over. A coup was organised, and Panama declared its independence. The US government bought the defunct canal company, and handed the project over to the army. A programme of mosquito control eventually overcame the diseases along the canal route.

Upgrading the rail link proved to be the other key to success. By 1909 the sea level design had been abandoned. Instead, flights of locks were to lead up to the huge central Gatun lake created by damming the local rivers, at a height of 26m above sea level.

On 15 August 1914 the SS Ancon was the first vessel to pass along the 92km route.

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