Panama or Nicaragua?
On This Day:
June 26, 2016 — New Panama Canal Project finished and opened.
August 3, 1914 — The United States SS Cristobal — both carrying cargo and passengers, was the first ship to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
August 15, 1914 — Officially opened.
History & Facts:
It would be over four hundred after the first recorded crossing of the isthmus by Balboa that the Panama Canal would be completed.
Panama was not a country before the Canal. It was a province of Columbia.
It would be the 1849 California Gold Rush which would spike a renewed interest in building a railroad across the isthmus.
The distance across the isthmus is approximately 50 miles.
The sea level of the Atlantic and the Pacific are the same. It was the terrain which created a need for a canal with water locks.
The French began the project in 1891 and gave up in 1894 — after . . . .
• it was led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal which opened in 1869
• France spent approximately $287,000,000
• costing approximately 22,000 lives — by primarily malaria and accidents
• devastating the finances of approximately 800,000 investors
The United States officially assumed the project on May 4, 1904.
• It was begun under President Theodore Roosevelt.
• The plan was originally to build it across Nicaragua.
• At the time, there was an existing railroad (begun in 1850) which went carried people and cargo across the isthmus.
• The railroad was in existence from the days of the California Gold Rush.
• 102 new large, railroad-mounted steam shovels were transported to the area.
• Other equipment included concrete mixers, rock crushing machines, cranes, dredges, and bulldozers.
• Approximately 5,600 people died of primarily yellow fever, malaria, and accidents.
• It was William C. Gorgan, a military medical doctor — Surgeon General of the U.S. Army — who realized that it was the mosquitos which carried the deadly disease and instituted a sweeping removal and/or fumigation of all standing water puddles, ponds, and swamps, as well as the use of netting.
Sixty million pounds of dynamite was used.
On October 10, 1913, President Wilson telegraphed from the White House to proceed with the explosion which would destroy the Gamboa Dike which would then flood the Culebra Cut and which would then connect the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal is open for business. The U.S. cargo ship, the SS Ancon, was the first ship to travel through the Panama Canal after it was completed.
The Panama Canal was the most expensive building project of the United States in its history to that date — Approximately 375 million dollars
The building of the Panama Canal was the most challenging and successful engineering project in American History — to that day and perhaps since.
The locks are approximately 100 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. The original gates and locks are still used today.
The locks operate completely on the principle of gravity for the flow of water in and out of the locks.
Over 14,000 ships use the Canal every year.
The millionth ship passed through the canal on September 4, 2010.
It takes approximately 8 – 10 hours to traverse the locks. It takes around two weeks to travel around South America.
Passenger ships such as the Disney Cruise line can pay up to $330,000 to use the canal — a private yacht around $2,000 – a small cargo ship $150,000 — the highest toll 1.2 million.
The ships which use the Canal the most are The United States, China & Japan.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed away the United State’s rights to the control of the Panama Canal, which would take effect on December 31,1999.
One of the most interesting books on the Panama Canal was written by David McCullough — “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.”
In his book, he covers the many individuals who “surveyed” the project. McCullough highlights at least three reasons that the Panama Canal was such a daunting task, which bankrupted scores of men who invested in the idea in France, and took the lives of thousands of people . . . .
#1) The unreliability and even fictitious nature of reports as to the geography, terrain, possible routes and/or the so-claimed success of past expeditions.
#2) The arrogance – “confidence” of men during that time in America’s history.
#3) The lack of knowledge about the spread of disease.
For this illustration, let me focus on just the first reason . . . .
#1) — Those who envisioned the idea, along with those who were actually sent and/or went were not prepared for the reality of the terrain, the weather, the seasons, the forest, AND — the non-existence of what was claimed to be a path across the isthmus.
All those factors — and others — collided!
Men who have never traversed, or had not even seen or visited the actual terrain and geographical conditions weighed in on the project. Even imaginary — yes imaginary and mythical routes were explored based on the fanciful stories of men who either never set foot in Panama and/or never traveled the route they talked about . . . .
In 1850, Dr. Edward Cullen, an Irish physician and member of the Royal Geographical Society, had announced the discovery of a way across Darien by which he walked from the Atlantic to the Pacific several times and quite effortlessly, He had been careful to mark the trail, Cullen said, and at no place head he d found the elevation more than 150 feet above sea level. It was a miracle route everyone had been searching for and the story caused a sensation . . . . Navy Lieutenant Isaac Strain and a party of twenty-seven men started into the jungle without waiting, taking provisions enough for only a few days and fully expecting to pick up Cullen’s trail . . . . Strain was not seen again for forty-nine days. Cullen’s trail was nowhere to be found. Within days the expedition was hopelessly lost. Food ran out; rifles because so rusted as to be useless . . . .
Verging on starvation, his men devoured anything they could lay hands on, including live toads and a variety of palm nut that burned the enamel from their teeth and caused excruciating stomach cramps . . . . . Seven men died, one other went temporarily out of his mind.” — pgs. 22 – 23
The fact was, there was no such trail, it was only in the imagination of Cullen!
Cullen was a fraud!
When the team was rescued, “They were literally living skeletons, covered with foul ulcers . . . . .” Strain himself weighed 75 pounds and died at the age of 36. (pg. 23)
Then there was “Humboldt’s Route” — Alexander von Humboldt’s [published in his “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” — 1811] published his conclusions. Nicaragua was the correct path. His route was also examined and believed to be a possibility, even though . . . .
“as it happens, had never set foot in Nicaragua, or in any of the four alternatives he named. He had built his theories wholly from hearsay, from old books and manuscripts, and a few pitiful maps then available, all of which he plainly acknowledged. . . . . Panama he judged to be the worst possible choice.
. . . . he had been almost everywhere else (other than Panama or Nicaragua) and no one was assumed to have more firsthand knowledge of the American jungle. The rather vital fact that his canal theories were almost wholly conjecture was generally ignored.
Another imaginary approach was called the “Lost Canal of the Raspadura,” located somewhere off the Raspadura River. “All one had to do was find it.” But it too was non-existent
Outside of Colonel Charles Biddle, who was sent under President Andrew Jackson to determine if the Panama or Nicaragua route was best, there were few skeptical or cautionary voices.
Having made his [Biddle] way up the Chagres River by canoe, then overland to Panama City, a trek of four days, Biddle concluded that any talk of a Panama canal was utter foolishness and that this ought to be clear to all men, “whether of common or uncommon sense.” — pg 31
As McCullough states, “A skeptical or cautionary voice was a rare exception.”
As is often repeated as an example of how unprepared the expeditioners were because of the belief that there was a route which existed — men were not even prepared for the deluge of rain which descended on the region, raising the river water levels up 35 feet overnight. Some of the men were forced to climb trees to stay alive.
“Frequently the men were obliged to pass the night in trees, the water rising so rapidly as to thrive them from their beds.”
The reality of what that 50-mile swath of land across the isthmus was idealized, simplified, romanticised, imagined, and lied about!
The truth is that all the canal projects proposed, every cost estimated, irrespective of the individual or individuals responsible, were hopelessly unrealistic, if not preposterous. Every supposed canal survey made by mid-century was patently flawed by bad assumptions or absurdly inadequate data. Assertions that the task would be simple were written by fools or by men who either had no appropriate competence of who, if they did, had never laid eyes on a rain forest. — pg. 32
The suggested canal projects may have been hopeless,
and even preposterous
but they were believed!
And men died because they were believed!
Key Illustrative Thoughts:
• Dashed Aspiration
• No idea what they were walking into
• Conjecture, not facts
• Truth: When what we believe matches the real world
• Bad assumptions
• Fooled by men
• It ought to be clear
• He never set foot there
• He was a fraud / lie / imaginary
• The imaginations of men
• Mankind’s amazing drive / endurance / creativity
• Men’s ability to overcome obstacles
Other Information & Links:
You will want to read: “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal – 1870-1914” by David McCullough. And then take a cruise, as we did, to see one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history!
Excellent YouTube Video on the Construction of the Panama Canal