Panama Canal

America took over the building of the Panama Canal in 1904.  France had started the project and had a difficult time.  America’s recent success in building a transcontinental railroad gave them the confidence and knowledge of building on difficult terrain to tackle the Panama problem.  Panama is noted as one of the largest building expansions in history as it connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans unlike ever before.



  • The French Experience

In the first months, the digging progressed slowly but steadily. Then the rains began. De Lesseps, who visited Panama once-during the dry season-had disregarded the warnings of men who knew Panama intimately. Now his crew discovered the real Panama-mile upon mile of impassable jungle, day upon day of torrential rain, insects, snakes, swamps, hellish heat, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever-and the Chagres River.

The Chagres snaked across the canal route a total of 14 times. Ignoring the warnings of engineers who deemed the task impossible, de Lesseps’ decided to dam and divert the river, which he had only seen at low ebb. In the rainy season, the Chagres rose to a monstrous, churning torrent that swept away anything that stood in its way. It was distinctly inhospitable to taming.


Chest deep in mud, the French force dug onward. Time and time again, the rain and the Chagres destroyed what engineering and hard labor had wrought. Mudslides buried men, supplies, and machines. And from the freshwater pools that lay everywhere, a deadly plague of insects rose.

In 1881, the French recorded about 60 deaths from disease. In 1882, the number doubled. The following year, 420 died. Malaria and yellow fever were the most common killers. Because the company often fired sick men to reduce medical costs, the numbers probably reflect low estimates. Believing the fumes from rotting vegetation caused the disease, doctors at the French hospital at Ancon advised workers to avoid the night air. Only after thousands of deaths would the cause be attributed to virus-carrying mosquitoes.


Three out of four men hospitalized at Ancon died, despite the massive investments that made the hospital among the finest in the tropical world. In no small manner was this hastened by the architecture of the hospital gardens. To protect the potted plants from attack by ants, gardeners had set the pots in pottery bowls filled with water. Disease-carrying mosquitoes multiplied in these reservoirs by the million and carried their deadly cargo through the screenless windows of the hospital each night.


Year after year, the digging-and the dying-continued. As the toll mounted, so did discontent. French investors grumbled at the lack of progress. In the page’s of Harper’s Weekly, American cartoonist Thomas Nast caricatured de Lesseps, wondering “Is M. de Lesseps a Canal Digger or a Grave Digger?”


When the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique failed in December,1888, thousands of French investors lost their money. The word Panama quickly became synonymous with scandal and fraud. About $287 million had been spent. Fifty million cubic meters of earth and rock had been moved. Eleven miles of canal had been dug. Twenty thousand men had died. The canal remained unfinished, but the dream had not yet ended. Theodore Roosevelt would soon take up the cause.


  • Americans in Panama

Overall Americans improved conditions greatly in Panama and the workers conditions were much better than the Frenchmen.

1904, the Americans’ first year in Panama, mirrored the French disaster. The chief engineer,John Findlay Wallace, neglected to organize the effort or to develop an action plan. The food was putrid, the living conditions abysmal. Political red tape put a stranglehold on appropriations. Disease struck, and three out of four Americans booked passage home. Engineer Wallace soon followed. The Americans had poured $128 million into the swamps of Panama, to damned little effect.

Dr. William Gorgas, who had helped to eradicate yellow fever in Havana years before by killing the mosquitoes that carried it, directed sanitation efforts. Workers drained swamps, swept drainage ditches, paved roads and installed plumbing. They sprayed pesticides by the ton. Entire towns rose from the jungle, complete with housing, schools, churches, commissaries, and social halls.


Articles for further reading


First Hand Accounts


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