This week in 1884: Excavating the Panama Canal

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The Engineer’s report on the machines used to create one of the modern engineering wonders of the world included hints at some of the terrible troubles it would go on to face.

When the Panama Canal was opened in 1914, it revolutionised world trade, allowing ships for the first time to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific without making the long and treacherous voyage around Cape Horn. Today, around 13,000 vessels use the 50-mile (80km) passage every year, serving 144 maritime routes used by ships from 160 countries and 1,700 ports worldwide.

But the canal’s genesis was an incredibly slow, arduous and, for many people, lethal process that was nearly never completed. Construction began in 1881 by a French-led international company, headed by the former diplomat and developer of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Three years later, The Engineer published a report on the machines being used to dig the channel that gives some indication of the scale of the challenge.

Portions of the canal works accessible by water were dug using steam dredging machines, but inland the process relied on excavators to open and then enlarge the trench, the latter type of which were essentially mechanical systems of buckets on chains. Though these appear quite primitive compared to today’s excavation equipment, they included what The Engineer called at the time ‘a very ingenious arrangement’ for emptying the buckets once they reached the top of the chain.

Because the machine was essentially scraping earth from the side of the trench with buckets on the underside of the conveyor arm, simply allowing it to empty as it turned over the top of the device would just have poured the rubble back into the hole. To solve this problem, the buckets were attached in such a way that once they began turning around the top cam wheel they opened at the bottom into a “shoot” that carried the earth away.

It was estimated that 80 of these kinds of excavators could remove around 8m-9m cubic metres of earth per annum (although only 40 were operating at the time). However, despite The Engineer’s delight at the engineering of these machines, the report also noted that there were already rumblings of discontent with the canal’s progress that hint at the problems it would face.

‘There is but too much reason to fear that the works are not progressing as satisfactorily as is desirable,’ the report said. ‘M. de Lesseps states that the Panama Company will complete the work it has undertaken without the assistance of any Government and that up to the present time nothing has occurred to justify the assumption that the Canal will not be finished by the anticipated time, viz., 1888.’

The machines were described as resembling those used to dig the Suez Canal. And de Lesseps’ plan was to build a sea-level channel similar to the one he had created in Egypt. However, rather than digging through a flat patch of sand in the desert, the new project involved cutting through much more difficult and varied terrain.

Landslides due to heavy rains proved to be a frequent problem and the tropical climate made progress even more difficult for the recruited labourers and engineers, not least because of the extensive impact of mosquito-borne diseases that killed thousands. Those employees that survived often didn’t stick around for long.

The Engineer’s report also gave some hints of these difficulties in a horribly racist account of the use of black labourers that reflects the attitudes of the times: ‘The severe climate has prevented the employment of as many men as could be worked advantageously, and has forced the company to substitute black for white labour. Although the sanitary regulations are enforced as rigorously as possible, it is not in the power of any company to make a negro – such as are found upon the isthmus – obey rules which he will not understand, and which interfere with his present comfort.’

The project would drag on for five more years before the company went bankrupt with only around two-fifths of the work complete. Although a new French company was formed in 1894, eventually it was forced to sell up to the Americans. who would eventually finish the canal twenty years later.

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