Sunday, February 13, 2005

Building The Panama Canal

My friends Matthew and Janice just came back from a cruise through the Panama Canal and told me a bit about the history of the thing, and this sparked my interest in finding out exactly how the canal was built.

My son and I took some books out of the library yesterday to read about it. What an impossible mess it was. The French attempted it, failed, gave up and finally sold the whole thing to the the Americans who untimately succeeded at it.

The French had managed to pull off the successful building of the Suez Canal, so this inspired people to invest in the lead engineer for that project, Ferdinand De Lesseps who had no idea what he was getting into. Too bad he visited in the sunny season and missed the rainy season, which happens to be 250 of 365 days a year in Panama.
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.
It's also fascinating to see what engineering approaches the French took and when the Americans came in, how they solved the challenges in a completely different fashion. One of the lead engineers brought his own coffin with him to Panama. How's that for optimistic?