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Across the Isthmus

CHRIMES WATCH

IN OCTOBER 2006 Panama approved plans for the expansion of its eponymous canal and the creation of a third lock lane. At much the same time Nicaragua announced plans for a rival canal, costing $19bn and projected to take 18 years to complete. Both are justified by reference to the growth in world trade.

The Panama Canal was nearly half a century in the making and is generally acknowledged as one of the engineering wonders of the world. Engineers had to contend with both engineering difficulties, notably major landslides, and also disease, which severely reduced the workforce.

Less well known, however, is the early history of the canal proposals, both at Panama and Nicaragua, and the involvement of Thomas Telford.

Following the disintegration of Spanish America at the start of the 19th century, the newly independent states sought investment in a number of schemes, including communications across Central America to link the Atlantic and Pacific.

In 1824 Mexico set up the Tehuantepec Commission and in 1826 John Baily was invited to survey a crossing through Nicaragua on behalf of an English company.

Although nothing was done, in 1837?38 Baily surveyed a route from San Juan del Sur via Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan river.

Perhaps the most interesting early scheme was that originating in 1818. On 27 January the British Consul in Panama was approached by the Colombian government (then Government of New Grenada) with a view to Captain (later LieutenantColonel) John Augustus Lloyd (RE AICE) surveying a route across the Isthmus.

Apparently, Telford was first approached in 1825. In 1827 Lloyd and the Swedish engineer, Captain Falmare, began two seasons of surveys on behalf of Simon Bolivar's government.

Nothing happened. Bolivar died in December 1830 and Lloyd was posted to Mauritius.

Telford, however, retained a large bundle of drawings, now lost, on the Isthmus of Darien scheme.

Lloyd's proposals were published by the Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society, and later by ICE. He determined the levels between the Atlantic and Pacific , identifying both canal and rail routes. Of the Chagres river he noted: 'The banks are precipitous, of trap and porphyritic formation, worked to the very edges.' A hint of the arduous environment is given in his description of Portobello: 'Such is its dreadful insalubrity that at no period of its history did merchants venture to reside in it? No class of inhabitants can long exist in it.' Telford was fortunate to be in Westminster giving his views, rather than on site with Lloyd.

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