Modern history


The Incredible Task

For country, science, and glory.

—Motto of the École Polytechnique


The early years of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique were a time of soaring hopes, a considerable amount of misleading propaganda, and some real, if costly, progress. In Panama amazing things were accomplished by men whose devotion to the task was exemplary, often heroic. Their achievements were never quite what Ferdinand de Lesseps promised, and for all their noble intentions, they made serious mistakes almost from the beginning. Still, in view of the difficulties they had to face, the sheer magnitude of the task, the things they simply did not know, the repeated instances of personal suffering and tragedy, they did extremely well.

In Paris the sale of stock in the company—Ferdinand de Lesseps’ second attempt to go public—turned out to be one of the most astonishing events in financial history.

La grande entreprise was to be the biggest financial undertaking ever attempted until then. Panama stock was to be more widely held than any ever issued before. And never had any strictly financial proposition inspired such ardent devotion among its investors. The explanation, of course, in good part, was that to most of them it was never a strictly financial proposition. Nothing so vital to French pride just then, nothing led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, could have been seen as that only. Of enormous importance also were the almost limitless expectations associated with venture capitalism—pionnier capitalisme. The talk was of “the poetry of capitalism” and of “the shareholders’ democracy.” The unprecedented response of the French people to de Lesseps had many sides, many psychological levels, and only later, in hindsight, would their allegiance seem blind or his leadership purposefully deceitful.

He put the management of the sale this time in the hands of Marc Lévy-Crémieux, vice-president of the powerful Franco-Egyptian Bank, who had been among his vigorous opponents during the first go-around. Lévy-Crémieux also sent his own man—an engineer—out to appraise the situation at Panama, and the man returned with the confidential report that the canal would never pay. Half a dozen companies would go down in ruin before any ship passed through Panama, the man insisted. But not a word was said of this publicly.

A consortium of commercial and investment banks was put together. The initial capital was set at 300,000,000 francs ($60,000,000). Clearly, this was nowhere near enough, but it was de Lesseps’ decision. And it was a bad one.

Six hundred thousand shares were offered at 500 francs ($100) each. So for the average person, the investor de Lesseps was banking on, it was very expensive stock: 500 francs was nearly a year’s wages for about half the working population of France. The terms, however, were tremendously appealing—only 25 percent down, with six years to pay off the rest. And added to this was the knowledge that Suez stock, which also had cost 500 francs a share initially, was presently listed on the Bourse at more than 2,000 francs and was paying dividends of 17 percent.

During the time of construction, shareholders were to receive 5 percent on their paid installments. Once the canal was completed, they were to get 80 percent of the net profits. The remaining 20 percent was to be divided among the “founders”—de Lesseps, Charles, those friends who had put up the initial 2,000,000 francs—and the Lévy-Crémieux syndicate. Founders’ shares in the Suez company, priced the same as these originally— 5,000 francs each—were currently valued at 380,000 francs!

“Subsidization” of the newspapers and magazines commenced the moment the syndicate was formed. Payments were made discreetly for the most part and the effect was pronounced. Almost without exception those papers that had so vociferously denounced the canal and its progenitor now praised it and him to the skies. Panama became “the magic word,” le synonyme de dividendes fantastiques. “Capital and science have never had such an opportunity to make a happy marriage,” said the Journal des Débats. Le Figarosaid the canal would be built in seven years and de Lesseps could then proceed with some further titanic work. La Liberté declared that the canal had no more opponents. “Oh, ye of little faith! Hear the words of M. de Lesseps, and believe!”

Émile de Girardin, proprietor of Le Petit Journal, among the most powerful of French press lords and one of those who had been particularly unpleasant in his attacks on de Lesseps the year before, was now delighted to become a member of the company’s board of administrators.

The price paid for such enthusiasm was high—1,595,573 francs, as near as could be determined by subsequent investigations—and the brokers’ commissions for the flotation were higher still, in excess of 4,000,000 francs. For the bankers it was a perfect bonanza. Their commission on the stock sales was 4 percent, or 20 francs a share. Still, as some of the foreign correspondents in Paris were to note, such houses as the Crédit Foncier and the Rothschilds had steadfastly “refused to allow their counters to be used for such a flytrap.”

The results were far beyond anyone’s wildest hopes. Indeed, the success of the sale was such that it dramatically underscored how very much de Lesseps had misjudged the accumulative effect of all he now had working for him. He had asked for far too little money—less than half what even he was saying the canal would cost—and the irony is that he could have had all he thought he needed and more, right then at the start. Furthermore, he could have had it on relatively easy terms, and conceivably he might have succeeded without payoffs to the press. But he had failed to comprehend the difference that support from his former adversaries in the financial world could make, or, most importantly, the psychological impact of his trip to Panama.

Sale of the stock began December 7, 1880. Within three days, more than 100,000 people subscribed for 1,206,609 shares, or more than twice the number available. As a result many people had to be satisfied with considerably less than what they wanted.

As de Lesseps had forecast, it was the small investor who made the sale such a runaway success. Some eighty thousand people had bought one to five shares each. Only fourteen people owned a thousand shares or more. And about sixteen thousand of the shareholders were women.

Nothing like this had ever occurred before. The Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railway, a huge corporation, with capital valued at 1,200,000,000 francs, and with 800,000 shares—or 200,000 more shares than were offered by the Compagnie Universelle—had but thirty-three thousand shareholders, or less than a third the number that the Compagnie Universelle was starting with. The first stockholders’ meeting, in January 1881, had to be held in the Cirque d’Hiver, the circus building on the Boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire, but even it held only five thousand people. All problems had been solved, de Lesseps said, all difficulties had been smoothed over.

The official incorporation of the company took place on March 3, 1881. De Lesseps was formally designated president; Henri Bionne was to be secretary general. Charles de Lesseps was named a director.

Salaries were remarkably low, considering the scale of the enterprise. De Lesseps would receive only 75,000 francs a year ($15,000); Bionne, a mere 18,000 francs ($3,600). But by contrast, interestingly, a salary of $25,000, or more than de Lesseps’, would be paid to an American, Richard Wigginton Thompson, who had agreed to head the Comité Américain, which was to be among the most costly and fruitless of the company’s operations.

Thompson, who had been Secretary of the Navy, was actually de Lesseps’ second choice for the job. His first choice, General Grant, had been approached through Jesse Seligman, but had flatly declined the offer, a decision Grant explained in a letter to Daniel Ammen: “ . . . while I would like to have my name associated with the successful completion of a ship canal between the two oceans, I was not willing to connect it with a failure and one I believe subscribers would lose all they put in.”

The committee, as de Lesseps described it, was to mount opposition to the rival Nicaragua project—through the press, by lobbying in Washington—and to impress upon the American people the surpassing virtues of a canal at sea level. It was to supervise the purchase of American-made equipment and material for Panama. But its primary mission was to induce American investors to join in the Panama venture, and in that, as in most everything else, the committee proved just about useless. Thompson was the only member to do anything to justify his pay, chiefly as a lobbyist. The New York office served little purpose. Few investors were found. About all de Lesseps got for his bargain was the use of some impressive stationery, plus the freedom to mention, when need be, the name of somebody such as Jesse Seligman as among his backers.

Yet a fee of $300,000 was paid outright to the Seligman firm, and to each of the other two firms, and all three organizations would receive another $100,000 as time went on. The total cost of the Comité Américain would be $2,400,000.

So with brokers’ commissions running to more than 4,000,000 francs, with “remuneration to banks” totaling about 1,800,000 francs, plus a commission of 11,800,000 francs for the Lévy-Crémieux syndicate, plus 12,000,000 francs to the American committee, then the 1,600,000 francs for “publicity,” and another 750,000 francs for miscellaneous organization expenses, the grand sum for getting out the stock and getting the company under way came to something over 32,200,000 francs, or about $6,400,000.

Early in 1881, between his first and second stockholders’ meetings, de Lesseps also purchased for 1,000,000 francs an office building at 46 Rue Caumartin, which stood back to back with the Suez Canal office on the Rue Charras. Ten thousand shares of stock that had been withheld from sale were turned over to the Türr Syndicate as previously agreed, and de Lesseps relinquished to the new corporation, at no charge, all rights and privileges obtained earlier from the Türr Syndicate. Thus the Wyse Concession now belonged to the Compagnie Universelle. The project was under way.


French civil engineers of the nineteenth century were an exceptional breed and justly proud of their heritage. It was the French who pioneered in the use of pneumatic caissons for bridge foundations and who perfected the use of wrought-iron I-beams for building construction. Les Halles, the famous Paris market building, the Menier Chocolate Works, the stunning Galérie des Machines at the recent Paris exhibition, were recognized as bold and innovative structures suggesting infinite possibilities for the future of architecture. It was in France that reinforced concrete had first been tried and French engineers remained preeminent in its use. Over all, the French were preeminent in civil engineering in general, and French technical schools, like French schools of medicine, were the finest in the world.

There were two varieties of engineers in France, other than the military engineers: the ingénieurs de l’état, who had been trained first at the École Polytechnique, then at the École des Ponts et Chaussées; and the ingénieurs civils, whose school was the newer École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. Of these, the graduates of the École Polytechnique were the cream of the crop, an elite technical class of a kind, who had vast influence in the bureaucracy, and, consequently, over the whole economic life of France.

Just to be accepted at the state-run Polytechnique was a supreme honor. A rigorous entrance examination excluded all but the most brilliant applicants. And from the moment a young man walked through the gray stone portals on the Rue Descartes, he knew that nothing less than intellectual superiority and full devotion to La Patrie, les Sciences, et la Gloire were expected of him. Founded in 1794, the school was the chief scientific creation of the Revolution. Napoleon hailed it as his hen with the golden eggs, and the symbol of hen and eggs had been carved into keystones and made the centerpiece of the stained-glass skylight over the largest lecture hall, lest any student forget. It was not an engineering school, but a military school—rigid rules, tight-fitting blue uniforms, swords, the traditional bicorne for parade-ground ceremonies—and devoted to the study of pure science. The curriculum provided what was essentially a classical secondary education plus what was then the most advanced mathematical education in the world.

Upon finishing at the Polytechnique, the highest-ranking graduates generally went on to the Ponts et Chaussées—an école d’application— from which they emerged as engineers in the service of the state, as builders of bridges, highways, harbors, or as officials with the state-run railroads. Early in the 1860’s, after a thorough study of the system, an American authority on education, Henry Barnard, declared it gave France the best-trained corps of civil and military engineers of any nation. Lavalley, builder of the Suez dredges, Sadi Carnot, Godin de Lépinay, had come out of the Polytechnique, as had Ferdinand Foch, and as would, in another era, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

The ingénieurs civils, the graduates of the École Centrale, were the engineers of private enterprise and closer to American engineers in spirit. Gustave Eiffel was an outstanding example; another was William Le Baron Jenney, a Chicago architect and engineer, who was to build the world’s first skyscraper.

But all French engineers, and those from the Polytechnique especially, regarded themselves as men of science. Their creations were the result of abstract computation. The Americans, in the French view, were merely adroit at improvisation, which, however inspired or ingenious, was nonetheless of a lower intellectual order. The bias concerning American engineers was not wholly justified. Still the essential American spirit was improvisation. It was the attitude expressed in a remark attributed to the engineer John Fritz, who, upon building a new machine, is supposed to have said, “Now, boys, we have got her done, let’s start her up and see why she doesn’t work.”

But at Panama the French had to improvise—or rather they had to learn to improvise under pressure. And they had no past experience to go by. Virtually everything had to be learned by trial and error, and their chief difficulty as time went on was the fearful cost of their errors. The experience at Suez was little help. Probably they would have been better off in the long run had there been no Suez Canal in their past. For despite all de Lesseps told the press and his public, Panama had only one advantage over Suez: the distance to be covered. Everything else at Panama was infinitely more difficult. Panama was an immeasurably larger and more baffling task than Suez, just as Godin de Lépinay had warned.

There was, to begin with, the fundamental geology of the Isthmus, a subject that had been given scarcely a fraction of the study it deserved. At Suez the digging had been mostly through sand. The climate at Suez had been hot, but dry; the climate at Panama, eight months of the year, was not only hot, but heavy, smothering, with a humidity of about 98 percent. At Suez there had been the problem of bringing enough water to the canal site to sustain the labor force; the annual rainfall at Suez had been about nine inches. At Panama the annual rainfall could be measured in feet, not inches; ten feet or more on the Caribbean slope, five to six feet at Panama City.

Suez was as flat as a tabletop, with a maximum elevation along the canal line all of 50 feet above sea level. Panama was covered with steep little mountains, and the maximum elevation on the canal line would prove to be 330 feet. There was the Panama jungle. And there was the Chagres River, which still stood directly in the path of the canal.

Questions of housing, labor supply, and health had to be faced. John Bigelow, who would visit the Isthmus later to appraise the French effort, wrote, “There probably was never a more complicated problem—a problem embarrassed by a larger proportion of uncertain factors—presented to an engineer . . . . Every step . . . is more or less experimental.”

Ferdinand de Lesseps would never see it that way, however. “It is,” he informed his stockholders, “an operation the exact mathematics of which is perfectly well known. . . .” Couvreux, Hersent had built Suez; Couvreux, Hersent and exact mathematics would build Panama. He could never quite put Suez out of his mind and his engineers in the field had had no experience in the tropics and had not been trained to improvise. So they not only had to learn as they went along, which would have been difficult enough, but they had to learn to learn as they went along and to unlearn nearly everything that had been supposedly “taught” at Suez.

•   •

The first group arrived at Colón on the faithful Lafayette at the end of January 1881. There were some forty engineers, headed by Gaston Blanchet and by Armand Réclus, who was the new general agent of the canal company, and his assistant, Louis Verbrugghe, the lawyer who had gone to Bogotá with Lieutenant Wyse. Several of the engineers had brought their wives with them and there were various festivities at Panama City to honor the occasion. There is, however, nothing to the story that Sarah Bernhardt had also come out on the Lafayette or that she “presented a drama in the wretched little box of a playhouse that was then the only theater in the city.” Bernhardt’s one and only visit to the Isthmus came later, in 1886.

On February 1, Réclus sent a two-word telegram to Ferdinand de Lesseps that was to thrill newspaper readers all over France: “Travail commencé”—“Work begun.”

Réclus had overall control, as things were organized, but Blanchet, as the ranking official for Couvreux, Hersent, was the one in charge of the actual work. De Lesseps’ contract with the construction firm was for two years and the work was to be done on a cost-plus basis; that is, any costs above the estimates were to be met by the canal company.

As someone to set things in motion, Blanchet was a good choice. He was decisive and forceful and his marriage had smoothed the way in Panama society. His strategy was to spend a year preparing to dig. He wanted to cut a path four hundred feet wide the whole way across the Isthmus, nearly fifty miles, to provide enough open space for the most accurate siting of the canal line as possible. But right away the idea was rejected by the Paris office. He had to content himself with clearing a strip of only fifty feet, which proved too narrow to do what he wanted, so, eventually, the entire line would have to be redone as he had intended in the first place.

With a force of black and Indian laborers hired locally, he proceeded to chop his way from Colón to Panama City on a line that crossed the looping brown Chagres no less than fourteen times. This in itself was an enormously difficult and dangerous task. Immense trees and all their tangled undergrowth had to be taken down by hand. Except for the path of the railroad, the jungle was no different than it had been when the railroad was begun, or, for that matter, than in the time of the earliest Spanish explorers. The men worked in constant fear of poisonous snakes (coral, bushmaster, fer-de-lance, all three among the world’s most deadly reptiles) and of the big cats (puma and jaguar). Days and nights were made a living hell by bichos, the local designation for ticks, chiggers, spiders, ants, mosquitoes, flies, or any other crawling, buzzing, stinging form of insect life for which no one had a name. The only tools were machete and ax, and the jungle, as one engineer wrote, was “so thickly matted that one could only see a few yards in any direction. . . .” Beyond Gatun the line cut through seven miles of marshy flats and swamp.


And before the job was finished, the rains had begun.

There were, as all newcomers learned, but two seasons in Panama: the season Ferdinand de Lesseps had seen and the wet season. The dry season, with its clear skies and trade winds, began normally about mid-December and lasted four months, during which, in Panama City, water carts had to be used to keep the dust down. Then, abruptly, about the first of May, the rains returned. It did not rain all the time in the wet season, as many supposed. In a country where an inch of rain can fall in an hour, 120 or 130 inches in a year may not mean a great many more than 120 or 130 hours of rain all told. Some of the most torrential downpours lasted only a few minutes. But it did rain nearly every day and it never just rained. At Colón six inches in twenty-four hours or less was not uncommon. In the single month of November, when the heaviest storms struck, rainfall along the Chagres basin—on the Atlantic slope, that is—could range from two to three feet.

But no statistic conveyed a true picture of Panama rain. It had to be seen, to be felt, smelled; it had to be heard to be appreciated. The effect was much as though the heavens had opened and the air had turned instantly liquid.

The skies, when it was not raining, were nearly always filled with tremendous, towering clouds—magnificent clouds, and especially so in the light of early morning. Then there would be an unmistakable rush of wind in the trees, a noticeable drop in temperature, a quick darkening overhead followed by a sound that someone likened to the “trampling of myriad feet” through leaves. In villages and towns everyone would instinctively dash for cover. From the hills at Culebra the jungle could be seen to vanish before onrushing silver cataracts of rain, and howler monkeys would commence their eerie ruckus.

If one were to wait out the storm beneath a corrugated iron roof, the sound was like that of a locomotive. Often these storms became violent thunderstorms, with lightning “so stunning,” wrote one American, “it just makes a person feel as though he were drunk.” And then, while the trees still tossed and roared, the rain would be over—in an instant. The sun would be out again, fierce as ever. Everything would glisten with rainwater and the air would be filled with the fecund, greenhouse smell of jungle and mud.

•   •

By May the canal line had been cleared from Colón to Panama City and Colón had become a beehive of building and of ships unloading. A sawmill went up, along with fifty prefabricated houses that had been shipped from New Orleans. Crates of equipment and vast quantities of material were piling up the length of Front Street.

Great gaps in the jungle were cleared for intermediate towns at Gatun and Emperador. (The one at Gatun was to be called Lesseps City.) There were to be machine shops at Bohío Soldado, labor camps at San Pablo (just beyond Barbacoas) and at Matachín. Barracks for black workers were set on high concrete footings, a precaution against floods and rats. The buildings were large enough for fifty bunks each. Well-seasoned lumber was used, and the design was sensible for the climate, with long verandas and plenty of windows.

The “cottages” for the white technicians were also as comfortable and as well constructed as conditions would allow. They were built near the water, along the eastern shoreline in what was to be a new community called Christophe-Colomb (later renamed Cristobal). They were one-story buildings, all very much alike, white with green shutters, each enclosed by verandas, and generally there was a Yucatán hammock slung at one corner of the front veranda. Everything considered, the location was ideal. At night, with a full moon flooding the white beach and a breeze coming in off the water, a young newly arrived French engineer might well find Panama all that he had dreamed.

At Panama City, the company bought the Grand Hotel and set up headquarters. From a second-floor office overlooking the plaza, Armand Réclus wrote regularly to Paris, as instructed, to report on local politics, employee morale, his own daily problems. To maintain an adequate labor force seemed nearly impossible. In this first year only about ten out of every one hundred newly arrived laborers remained on the job after six months. But contrary to later accusations, the well-being of the men was regarded as a priority responsibility. “We must make certain that the personnel suffer no privations and that their welfare is looked into,” Charles wrote to Réclus. “You will always find us disposed to approve any measures that you may have to propose in this matter.” The great hope of the de Lesseps’, father and son, was to establish a “Panama family.” “Everything you can do to ensure the well-being of the personnel, including their pleasures, will be immediately approved,” Charles would advise. “Do all you can so that off-duty there are no bosses and employees, but only members of the same family united by sentiment.” And at the bottom, his father added in his own hand, “This is an excellent letter and I am one with it.”

A hospital, to be known as L’Hôpital Notre Dame du Canal, was being planned for a spacious site on Ancon Hill, overlooking the city and bay. The physician in charge, Dr. Louis Companyo, was the former head of the sanitary division of the Suez Canal. There were to be several handsome buildings, with good ventilation and comfortable verandas, set among magnificent gardens. There would be a full-time staff of doctors and nurses, the Filles de la Charité. A smaller hospital would be built on the northern shore at Colón, to take advantage of the sea breezes; and a hotel on the island of Taboga, a rambling, filigreed white ark, was to be converted into a sanitarium for convalescents.

It would be told later how the French had plunged into Panama blithely disregarding the threat of disease, and how hopelessly primitive their medical facilities were. But the intentions expressed repeatedly in personal correspondence between Panama and Paris, the efforts taken in Panama, the money spent by the canal company, all belie this. De Lesseps had once faced a cholera epidemic in Egypt; he had lost a wife and a son to disease; he was no fool, however frequently his public declarations concerning health conditions in Panama would appear to prove otherwise. The facility at Ancon, which was to include some seventy buildings by the time it was finished, would cost $5,600,000, a staggering sum in that day. Another $1,000,000 was spent on the hospital at Colón, nearly $500,000 on the Taboga sanitarium. Dr. Wolfred Nelson, the Canadian physician who had opened an office in Panama the previous year, a man who was to be severely critical of almost everything the French did, wrote, “The canal hospitals on the Panama side are without doubt the finest and most perfect system of hospitals ever made within the tropics.” William Crawford Gorgas, writing some thirty-five years afterward, was to appraise the Ancon complex as “a very much better institution than any in the United States . . . at the same period carried on by a firm or corporation.”

The effect of the climate on tools, clothing, everyday personal items, was devastating. Anything made of iron or steel turned bright orange with rust. Books, shoes, belts, knapsacks, instrument cases, machete scabbards, grew mold overnight. Glued furniture fell apart. Clothes seldom ever dried. Men in the field finished a day drenched to the skin from rain and sweat and had to start again the next morning wearing the same clothes, still as wet as the night before. Without laundry facilities, a clean shirt or fresh pair of trousers were luxuries beyond compare.

Panama was “a hell upon earth,” an English traveler on the Panama Railroad once observed; besides, he said, it was “overrun with Yankees.” And for those French officials struggling to establish system and order to their efforts, the Yankees who ran the Panama Railroad were proving to be as large an aggravation as anything they had to face. To judge by the correspondence of Armand Réclus, the railroad people seldom if ever did anything as he wished, and since the railroad was the sole means of transportation and communication, the results were maddening. When nothing moved on the railroad, nothing moved on the Isthmus. If there were delays, if shipments were held up, lost, damaged, the effect was felt all down the line.

Réclus saw more than poor or indifferent management or simple bad luck as the root causes of his troubles. It was all, he believed, part of a diabolic scheme to force de Lesseps to buy the railroad at an inflated price. “I am persuaded that this, in effect, is their plan,” he informed Charles. The Americans were merely following “orders from New York to do everything to create the greatest possible difficulty for us.” The only conceivable solution was the one the railroad company wanted. “It is necessary that we become the absolute masters of the railroad,” and that, he emphasized, could only be done by buying the road outright as quickly as possible.

Trenor Park by now owned even more stock in the line than he had before—and he had raised his price, should the French still be interested. The $200-a-share figure quoted initially had been advanced to $250 a share. Park insisted on full payment in cash.

It was a holdup, a great many people felt, but there was little that could be done about it. He had de Lesseps in a corner. “It is necessary at any price to settle the question of the railroad,” Réclus pleaded again in desperation, “because on its possession or not depends the accomplishment of the canal.”

So in June 1881, after drawn-out negotiations between Paris and New York, the sale was agreed to. The canal company bought some 68,500 of the existing 70,000 shares, which at $250 a share came to more than $17,000,000. In addition the company took over a sinking fund amassed by the railroad toward the eventual amortization of its bonded indebtedness of some $6,000,000. So all told the little stretch of track cost over $20,000,000, which was more than equal to a full third of the company’s resources. On a per-share basis the stock actually wound up costing $292 at a time when the true par value was less than $100.

For all that the legal status of the road remained the same. It was still an American company, incorporated under the laws of the state of New York; its franchise from the Colombian government remained unchanged. Trenor Park, who personally cleared approximately $7,000,000 on the transaction, did step down as president of the line. However, the man who replaced him was John G. McCullough, his son-in-law.1

Furthermore, the old Bidlack Treaty, the 1846 treaty between Colombia and the United States, was as much in effect as ever. The railroad’s fundamental right of transit still rested on Article XXXV of the treaty, and to guarantee uninterrupted traffic on the line, as well as Colombian sovereignty on the Isthmus, remained the obligation of the United States. So an American military presence would continue, in the form of gunboats standing off Colón and Panama City.

At a stockholders’ meeting in June, de Lesseps explained the purchase in straightforward, businesslike terms. He asked for approval to borrow the money to pay the bill, plus another 300,000,000 francs, which, with the company’s present capital, would give him, he said, an ample amount to build the canal. The stockholders approved.

•   •

Gaston Blanchet, meantime, had led a surveying party far up the Chagres, to begin work on the first serious maps and surveys. They were the advance guard and they made a striking picture—intent, tanned faces under white sun helmets, pistols at the belt. They chewed on Havana cigars as they squinted into the brass eyepieces of surveying instruments. They slapped at the interminable mosquitoes; they picked scorpions the size of a hand from their boots in the morning. They shot alligators, some twenty feet in length, and brought back the stripped pelts of jaguars. And they were extremely good at their work.

Copies of their surveys, compilations of the data accumulating, were sent off to Paris, and as a detailed picture began to materialize in the office on the Rue Caumartin, de Lesseps called in a new superior advisory board, still another technical commission, to give an opinion on all plans. None of these men was to take part in making the plans, or in the preparation or control of contracts; they were merely to give an opinion. And of course the mere fact that they were gathered, that they were known to be sitting as a jury over all technical decisions, had considerable public-relations value.

The important point is that de Lesseps, once again, would get exactly what he wanted; he would follow his own lead and they would nod in agreement and go along with him as willingly as his stockholders had, raising no serious objections about anything, which must be viewed as another testament to his powers of persuasion, rather than any lack of perception on their part. Unmistakably these were men of eminence and ability. At the head of the group was Lefebure de Fourcy, inspector general of Ponts et Chaussées. Jacob Dirks, Daubrée, Voisin Bey, participated again. There were six chief engineers of Ponts et Chaussées. One man was the chief-of-port at Marseilles. Another was an admiral. Yet none was willing, or bold enough perhaps, to challenge de Lesseps’ judgment or to take seriously the inevitable cost of a sea-level canal. Later it would be charged that de Lesseps never listened to his engineers. But in fact it was the other way around; it was they who were listening to him.

“Perhaps no other man ever possessed to such a marvelous extent the power of communicating to other minds the faith and the fervor which animated his own,” a writer for the Illustrated London News once observed.


By summer of 1881 there were two hundred French or European technicians and clerical help on the Isthmus and some eight hundred laborers at work—making test borings with great, cumbersome steam drills, building barracks and hospitals, assembling and testing newly arrived equipment.

But by summer it was also apparent that yellow fever had returned to the Isthmus. The wet season was traditionally the time of sickness and this year had been no exception. Several cases were reported in May. Then in the second week of June the first canal employee died of yellow fever, another of those incidental details not featured in the Bulletin.

On July 25 an engineer named Étienne, a graduate of the Polytechnique and one of the ablest of the young technicians, died at Colón—of “brain fever,” supposedly—and was hastily buried at Monkey Hill that same afternoon. On July 28 Henri Bionne died.

Bionne’s death would be attributed in Paris to “complications in the region of the kidneys.” But on the Isthmus the story would be told for as long as the French remained. He had arrived from France to make a personal inspection for de Lesseps, and several of the engineers had arranged a dinner in his honor at the employees’ dining hall at the camp at Gamboa. It was a festive evening apparently. Bionne, the last to arrive, had come into the hall just as everyone was being seated. One of the guests, a Norwegian woman, was exclaiming with great agitation that there were only thirteen at the table. “Be assured, madame, in such a case it is the last to arrive who pays for all,” Bionne said gaily. “He drank to our success on the Isthmus,” one engineer recalled; “we drank to his good luck. . . .” Two weeks later, on his way home to France, Bionne died of what the ship’s doctor designated only as fever, not yellow fever. The body was buried at sea.

“The truth is that the climate . . . like all hot climates, is dangerous for those who underestimate its effects . . . and who fail to observe the principles of hygiene,” explained the Bulletin. Yellow fever was not prevalent in Panama, the paper assured its readers, though “unhappily” a few laborers had been victims of the disease.

The British vice-consul at Panama, young Claude Coventry Mallet, decided out of curiosity to join one of the surveying parties in the upper reaches of the Chagres. The expedition consisted of twenty-two men. Within a few weeks everyone but Mallet and a Russian engineer named Dziembowski was sick, whether of so-called Chagres fever or yellow fever is not clear. The expedition returned, in any event, and of the twenty men who went into the hospital ten died. Mallet and Dziembowski returned to Cathedral Plaza feeling no ill effects, however. Mallet, who told the story later, said they agreed to meet for lunch the following day and that Dziembowski asked for a loan to buy a new suit. When Dziembowski failed to show up for lunch, Mallet went around to the canal offices to ask his whereabouts. The Russian, he was told, had died of yellow fever at three that morning and had been buried at dawn in a new suit of clothes.

There were more deaths as the summer wore on, but in October, speaking before a geographical congress at Vienna, de Lesseps said there were no epidemics at Panama and that the few cases of yellow fever had been “imported from abroad.”

Then, in November, a few days after he had returned from a particularly strenuous exploration of the upper Chagres, Gaston Blanchet died, apparently of malaria. The importance of Henri Bionne to the operation in Paris had been considerable and his death had been a heavy personal blow for Ferdinand de Lesseps, but Blanchet was the driving spirit of the enterprise in the field, and his loss would be felt for a long time.

How many died that first year is uncertain. The official company estimate on record is about sixty. Malaria, which is an entirely different disease from yellow fever, probably accounted for a great many of the fatalities then as later. The fact is that more people would die of malaria at Panama than of yellow fever, notwithstanding the popular impression to the contrary.

Malaria, the most common of tropical diseases and the one endemic disease at Panama, takes many forms and went by many different names on the Isthmus: calentura, miasma, the shakes, the chills, paludisme, ague, pernicious fever, putrid fever, intermittent fever, and, in its most virulent form, Chagres fever. Historically, malaria was the world’s greatest killer and it was confined to no one geographical area. Only the year before, there had been a serious epidemic in New England. But in places such as Panama, malaria never went away. The prevailing attitude was that everyone got a dose of it sooner or later. Among the native population, infection usually began in childhood.

The typical malarial attack began with terrible chills, uncontrollable shivering, and chattering teeth, the spell lasting perhaps fifteen minutes, sometimes more. Often the shivering of patients in a malaria ward would be so violent that the room could actually be felt to tremble; a single bed would move on the floor.

The chills would be followed by high fever and a burning thirst. As the fever fell off, the patient would break out in a drenching sweat. For those who survived, the experience was unforgettable. With the passing of the fever, the patient was left feeling totally debilitated, mentally as well as physically. Acute depression usually set in, the “melancholia” that was so well known in Panama.

And the patient could be stricken again. Indeed, it was considered impossible ever to recover fully from malaria so long as one stayed on in such country. But by the same token, a patient could move to some distant, seemingly safe climate and still experience a return siege of malaria, which was perhaps the most insidious characteristic of the disease. John Lloyd Stephens, as noted, was struck down by malaria in the spring of 1852, recovered sufficiently to return to New York, only to die of a recurrence of the disease in October.

There was no such thing as an immunity to malaria. With yellow fever it was different. A person had yellow fever only once. Either he lived or he died. If he lived he would never get it again. Malaria could be a lifelong infirmity, and if the first dose did not kill, the second, third, or fourth could.

Yet in the tropics, malaria was taken as an inevitable fact of life, part of the landscape. Yellow fever, by contrast, came and went in vicious waves, suddenly, mysteriously. In those places where it was most common—Panama, Havana, Veracruz—it was the stranger, the newcomer, who suffered worst, while the native often was untouched. Wherever or whenever it struck, it spread panic of a kind that could all but paralyze a community. It was a far more violent and hideous thing to see; a more gruesome way to die.

The mortality rate among those who contracted the disease could vary enormously, from 12 or 15 percent to as much as 70 percent. Generally speaking, however, a yellow-fever patient in Panama in the 1880’s had a less than fifty-fifty chance of survival. As with malaria, the patient was seized first by fits of shivering, high fever, and insatiable thirst. But there were savage headaches as well, and severe pains in the back and the legs. The patient would become desperately restless. Then, in another day or so, the trouble would appear to subside and the patient would begin to turn yellow, noticeably in the face and in the eyes.

In the terminal stages the patient would spit up mouthfuls of dark blood—the infamous, terrifying vómito negro, black vomit. The end usually came swiftly after that. The body temperature would drop, the pulse fade. The flesh would become cold to the touch—“almost as cold as stone and [the patient] continues in that state with a composed sedate mind.” Then, as a rule, in about eight to ten hours, the patient would die. And so great was the terror the disease generated that its victims were buried with all possible speed.

Blacks and nonwhites were somewhat less susceptible to malaria than were whites. But while it was commonly believed among whites, and repeatedly published on supposed scientific authority, that all blacks were naturally immune to yellow fever, they were not. Panama, famous as “the white man’s graveyard,” was in fact deadly territory for any nonimmune of any race or color. Many blacks, lifelong residents of Caribbean islands or coastlands, had an immunity resulting from previous mild cases of the disease, usually during childhood. Modern medical research also indicates that the common tropical disease known as dengue, or “breakbone fever,” can also have the resulting effects of an immunity to yellow fever. But no human being ever achieved an immunity to malaria; there was no such thing as a natural immunity to yellow fever, and if many blacks had been made immune to yellow fever before reaching Panama, there were vastly more blacks at work than whites, so the number of nonimmune blacks on the Isthmus was always quite large. Black laborers died of both malaria and yellow fever and no less miserably than the whites.

Yellow fever—yellow jack, fièvre jaune, fiebre amarilla, the “American plague”—had been a terror of seamen for centuries. A single case on board ship could mean death for the entire crew. The legendary Flying Dutchman was founded on the story of a ship condemned to haunt the seas after yellow fever broke out on board and no country would permit the ship in its harbors. The Philadelphia yellow-fever epidemic of 1793 had been as savage as an attack of bubonic plague and doomed the supremacy of Philadelphia among the cities of North America. Recently, in 1878, in Memphis, Tennessee, more than five thousand people had died of yellow fever and the estimated financial loss, due to the entire cessation of commerce, was upward of $100,000,000.

Historically, the disease had played a critical role in Central America and the Caribbean since the first known outbreak in Barbados in 1647, and ironically, the French had already seen one New World dream fail disastrously, in good part because of the disease. Napoleon, with plans for an American empire of his own, had sent a military expedition of twenty-five thousand men under his brother-in-law General Leclerc to Haiti in 1801 to put down the black insurrection led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. With that accomplished, the French army was to have occupied New Orleans and Louisiana. But yellow fever cut through the veteran troops like no enemy imaginable; thousands died, including Leclerc, and this was a major contributing factor in the ultimate triumph of the black patriots. Haiti achieved independence, and Napoleon, thoroughly disenchanted with his American venture, decided to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

There was still no known remedy or palliative for yellow fever. The medical profession stood helpless. For malaria, however, there was quinine, the bitter, colorless powder made from the bark of the cinchona tree, a palliative the Indians of Peru had known for centuries. Quinine was distributed freely among the French in Panama and was taken regularly in preventive doses, usually at meals and mixed with wine to kill the dreadful taste. Nobody knew why quinine worked, but it did. The one big problem with it was that a heavy dose could cause vomiting and headaches, or, worse, a horrendous ringing in the ears that rendered the patient deaf.

The word “malaria” was from the Italian mal’aria (“bad air”), and it had been widely agreed long since that bad air, “noxious effluvium”—poisonous marsh gas in particular—was the cause. The French for malaria, paludisme, was even more specific, being derived from a word meaning “marsh fever.” This miasma theory, as it was called, had been undisputed for centuries and seemed perfectly logical since the disease prevailed in hot, low-lying country where the humidity was high, the growth and decomposition of vegetation extremely rapid.

Yellow fever also was believed to be airborne, but filth was supposedly its source—sewage, the putrefying carcasses of dead animals, all the distasteful human and animal waste to be found in the streets of Colón or Panama City. The greatest source of contamination supposedly was the patient himself, and to touch his clothing, his soiled bedding, anything he had come in contact with, meant almost certain death—hence the mortal fear of the body after death and the quickest possible burial.

The night air was thought to be especially dangerous in any area infected by fever of any kind. It had been observed also that the wind had an effect. People spoke of yellow-fever winds, for example. At Panama City, south winds, those blowing in from the marshy lowlands near Panama Viejo, were regarded as especially deadly.

There was, however, another theory—even as early as 1881.

Dr. Josiah Clark Nott was a general practitioner in Mobile, Alabama, and it is one of those extraordinary coincidences of history that he happened to be the doctor who, in 1854, attended Amelia Gayle Gorgas at the birth of her son, William Crawford. In 1848 Dr. Nott published a paper in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in which he made the fantastic claim that malaria and yellow fever were undoubtedly conveyed by insects and possibly by the mosquito. His mention of the mosquito was only in passing. His main point was that the spread of the disease could not be explained by any laws governing vapors or gases. But in 1854 a “traveling naturalist” for the Paris Museum, Lewis Beauperthuy, then in Venezuela, concluded that malaria and yellow fever “are produced by a venomous fluid injected under the skin by mosquitoes like poison injected by snakes.” Swamps and marshes spread sickness, he said, not by the vapors they exuded, but because mosquitoes bred there. In Washington, a Dr. Albert Freeman Africanus King, a professor of obstetrics, had arrived at the same conclusion.

King was a well-known figure. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he had been in Ford’s Theater and was the first physician to reach the dying President. His mosquito theory was not to be formally presented until 1882, however, and when he suggested how malaria might be eradicated from the capital, many people, understandably, took the whole thing as a jest. The way to do it, he wrote, was to encircle the city with a wire screen as high as the Washington Monument. Still, well before the French engineers arrived at Panama, King had worked out the means for reducing the spread of the fever—by window screens, the drainage of swamps and pools, and the destruction of the insects by special traps.

Others as well had all but hit on the solution. Amazingly, buried in the reports of the Nicaragua Expedition of 1872–1873 and the Panama Expedition of 1875 are two small notations by John Bransford, a Navy doctor who accompanied both expeditions. He had observed that the mosquito netting provided by the Navy afforded notable protection against fever or miasma of all kinds—“by straining the air of germs and moisture.”

In 1880, the very year de Lesseps launched his Compagnie Universelle, a French doctor on the staff of a military hospital in Algeria, Dr. Alphonse Laveran, discovered the presence of tiny crescent-shaped bodies wriggling in a blood sample taken from a malaria patient. Incalculably minute, they were detectable only under the strongest microscope, but he had little doubt that they were living organisms and it dawned on him that here was the cause of malaria. He described his discoveries in a letter to the Académie de Médecine in Paris and published a small monograph.

Laveran’s claims were not accepted, however, any more than were the theories of Nott or King. The miasma theory had been fixed in people’s minds for generations. In addition, there now appeared a rival claim that seemed to support the miasma theory with scientific fact. Two doctors working in Rome, a German named Klebs and an Italian, Tommasi-Crudeli, had isolated a bacteria from the soil of a malarious region that when injected into a rabbit produced a malaria-like fever. The phenomenal discoveries of Pasteur and Koch had educated everyone to the role of bacteria, that whole other world beneath the microscope, and so it was widely accepted that a bacterium—bacillus malariae—was the long-sought cause of malaria.

(Ronald Ross was at this time in his early twenties and newly enlisted in the Indian Medical Service, having barely passed the entrance examination. An indifferent student, a physician because it had been his father’s ambition for him, he was as yet mainly interested in music and poetry.)

But in 1881, the year the ill-fated Gaston Blanchet began chopping his path across Panama, the mosquito theory was voiced once more, and with greater conviction than ever, by a Havana physician.

Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay was the son of a Scottish father and a French mother. He had been educated in France and at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and having practiced medicine in Havana for twenty-odd years, he had concluded that yellow fever was not only transmitted by the mosquito but by a specific mosquito—a silvery, comparatively noiseless household variety, Stegomyia fasciata (later to be called Aëdes aegypti). Out of some eight hundred known varieties, he had picked this one as the carrier of the disease.

Finlay was an ingratiating hawk-nosed individual who looked out on the world through gold-rimmed spectacles and spoke with a lisp, the result of a childhood case of chorea. He was a linguist, an amateur historian, and he was a tireless worker. But he had failed to produce any proof of his theory—he was not very good at research—and his professional peers in Havana gave no encouragement. He applied innumerable mosquitoes that had bitten yellow-fever patients to healthy persons, yet no case of yellow fever ever resulted. Thus it was his own work that appeared to bring the most discredit to his theory.

Like Nott, Beauperthuy, and King, Finlay had the right idea about mosquitoes, and with astonishing precision he had singled out the right variety. Gorgas was to call it a splendid example of medical clairvoyance, “a beautiful manifestation of scientific imagination.” However, it made little difference. Finlay was utterly ignored. At the Ancon hospital, Dr. Girerd, chief surgeon of the canal company and a “profound microscopist,” set up a system of experiments whereby he examined the blood of new workers upon their arrival, then again in another month or so, when, invariably, he found the supposed malarial bacillus.

And all the while, in the lovely gardens surrounding the hospital, thousands of ring-shaped pottery dishes filled with water to protect plants and flowers from ants provided perfect breeding places for mosquitoes. Even in the sick wards themselves the legs of the beds were placed in shallow basins of water, again to keep the ants away, and there were no screens in any of the windows or doors. Patients, furthermore, were placed in the wards according to nationality, rather than by disease, with the result that every ward had its malaria and yellow-fever cases. As Dr. Gorgas was to write, had the French been consciously trying to propagate malaria and yellow fever, they could not have provided conditions better suited for the purpose.

•   •

But if malaria and yellow fever were airborne, if plague could come or go with the wind, if the slimy pools and swamps along the railroad and the suffocating back streets of Colón and Panama City were the sources of deadly night airs and miserable death, it was also “known” that not everyone was in equal jeopardy. Fever struck according to a discernible pattern. Some people stood a better chance of surviving than did others, as countless examples attested. Simply stated, the odds on one’s survival were in direct proportion to one’s moral fortitude. The clean, blameless life was the long life in the tropics. Confidence, courage, belief in one’s destiny, a “disdain of peril,” as Philippe Bunau-Varilla would say, also mattered enormously. Debauchery, sins of the flesh, moral or physical cowardice, were sure paths to ruin.

There were some, to be sure, who held that a dose of whiskey or rum was as dependable a palliative as quinine. (Bourbon and mustard seed was a popular “infallible specific” for yellow fever.) But few old-timers on the Isthmus subscribed to such theories.“Many foreigners have fallen victims to fear rather than fever,” Tracy Robinson wrote, “while many others have wrought their own destruction by drink, which . . . has killed, directly and indirectly, more than the entire list of diseases put together . . .” (Robinson had arrived at this conclusion, he said, after trying both abstinence and “moderate indulgence.”) Dr. Nelson was “firmly of the opinion that the people who best resist such climates and make the best fight against disease, are the total abstainers.”

Like numbers of North Americans on the Isthmus, Robinson and Nelson had a low regard for the manner in which the French were conducting themselves off-hours. Nelson, from the suffering and death he was to witness professionally, would develop an abiding hatred of Ferdinand de Lesseps—“The Great Undertaker,” he would call him. But many of the French engineers were the most puritanical of all in their views, and nearly everyone was profoundly shaken whenever the death of some notably upright person seemed to make a mockery of such views. “Certainly his moral character was above reproach,” wrote one bewildered, grieving French engineer of another who had died of yellow fever the first year.

In the United States especially, the death toll among the French would be attributed largely to moral decadence. One of the American railroad contractors, for example, would tell a congressional committee of seeing with his own eyes piles of discarded wine bottles in Colón that were as high or higher than a two-story house. Joseph Bucklin Bishop, a prim New York newspaperman who was to spend a decade in Panama, wrote that the French years had been a “genuine bacchanalian orgy.” Colón was a “veritable sink of iniquity . . . . Champagne, especially, was comparatively so low in price that it ‘flowed like water,’ and . . . the consequences were as deplorable as they were inevitable.” Bishop was to be Theodore Roosevelt’s official biographer, and his views on the French in Panama, expressed in one of the popular early books about the canal, would have a broad and lasting effect.

The most frequently quoted summation was by James Anthony Froude, the reigning English historian and biographer of the day, who declared that “in all the world there is not, perhaps, now concentrated in any single spot so much swindling and villainy, so much foul disease, such a hideous dung-heap of moral and physical abomination as in the scene of this far-famed undertaking of nineteenth-century engineering.” According to Froude the place was overrun with cardsharpers and “doubtful ladies.” “Everything which imagination can conceive that is ghastly and loathsome seems to be gathered into that locality. . . .” Froude, however, was speaking only from what he had been told during a visit to Jamaica. He had been urged to go on to Panama, he wrote, to see for himself, “but my curiosity was less strong than my disgust.”

For all the underlying self-righteousness of such (for then) lurid descriptions, they were probably justified. We have no eyewitness account of what went on; no private diaries of professional gamblers or confessions of “doubtful ladies” have come to light. But the general tone can be imagined. Tracy Robinson, who must have seen a good deal of life during his years on the Isthmus, was appalled by the spectacle. “Vice flourished,” he wrote. “Gambling of every kind, and every other form of wickedness were common day and night.” Issues of the Star & Herald are filled with reports of barroom brawls and riots. In the first year alone there were half a dozen murders among the canal workers. At Gatun, for example, the night of May 25, 1881, a Dutch employee went wild and stabbed two men to death in their sleep, then vanished into the jungle.

As to the consumption of wine there is little doubt. It was phenomenal—and for understandable reasons. The French were accustomed to wine with meals and wine happened also to be a great deal safer to drink than the local water, as even Joseph Bucklin Bishop conceded. The bottle dumps at Colón were every bit as high as a house. The foul alley behind Front Street was actually paved with wine bottles turned bottom-side up and became famous as “Bottle Alley.” Nearly a hundred years later construction workers and amateur archaeologists would be turning up French wine bottles.

Gambling was widespread, and prostitution appears to have flourished from the start. The three most thriving industries were gambling houses, brothels, and coffin manufacturing. To signal the arrival of new “ladies of leisure” on the Isthmus, a code announcement was flashed along the railroad’s telegraph line: “langoustes arrivées” (“lobsters arrived”). And the women, like the labor force and the technicians, came from every part of the world. If there was one obvious characteristic of the so-called French years that would be misunderstood in time to come, it was this cosmopolitan quality of society at every level.

By the end of 1881 there were two thousand men at work, including the technical staff and office help. Any thought of reliance on local labor had been put aside. Some of the laborers were from Colombia, some from Venezuela and Cuba. The vast majority, however, were English-speaking blacks from the West Indies—from Jamaica mostly. Subsequently some five hundred black Americans would come down from New Orleans and other Gulf ports of the United States. So among the actual laborers the language was English, not French.

Also, more white Americans were involved than was ever fully realized in the United States. White American technicians arrived along with equipment purchased in the United States. Nearly all the mechanics were Americans. American contractors arrived, bringing their own people, and the Panama Railroad was run by Americans—engineers, conductors, stationmasters, telegraph operators.

There were German, Swiss, Russian, Italian engineers, Dutch and English contractors. The Gamboa camp had a Belgian cook. Looking back, Tracy Robinson could recall no country that was not represented.


The actual digging of The Great Trench—La Grande Tranchée—began at Emperador on Friday, January 20, 1882, with much champagne and dynamite. Thereafter the work at Emperador proceeded by steam shovel and by pick and shovel—mostly by pick and shovel—and it moved faster than expected, the ground in the vicinity being unusually soft. It was again the dry season.

In February, Couvreux, Hersent et Compagnie agreed to subcontract the dredging of the Atlantic end of the canal to an American firm, Huerne, Slaven & Company, and later, in November, a second American firm, the Franco-American Trading Company, was signed to start at the Pacific end. Presently other small subcontractors, several of them American, appeared and went to work. Excavation was under way at Culebra, Monkey Hill, Gorgona, and Paraíso. At Colón a gigantic earth platform was built out into the harbor from spoil brought from Monkey Hill. The hospitals were completed; the first fire engine arrived.

But it was a year marked by repeated and entirely unexpected setbacks, beginning with the sudden resignation of Armand Réclus and ending with the complete withdrawal of Couvreux, Hersent from the Isthmus and from all further responsibility for the project. In between, the death toll mounted alarmingly, and the Isthmus was struck by an earthquake.

Réclus’ decision to quit was never explained. The best guess is that he had about reached the breaking point, trying to cope with what he described as “the disorder of details.” Whatever the facts, he returned to Paris to serve as a “consultant” to de Lesseps, his real usefulness ended. Until a suitable replacement could be found, Louis Verbrugghe, a lawyer, not an engineer, became the ranking official in the field. When the new man, Commodore Richier, finally arrived, he proved no more capable of mastering “the disorder of details” than Réclus and soon he too quit.

The most horrendous and immediate problem for anyone in command was the volume and diversity of equipment in use. The display was terribly impressive and terribly confusing—thirty-odd steam shovels, three thousand flatcars and dirt trucks, fifty locomotives, steam launches, tugs, coal lighters, dredges, hundreds of rock drills, pumps, some eighty miles of railroad track—and this was only the beginning. Most of the machinery arrived in parts and had to be assembled at Colón. Most of it was also the best available at the time. The fashion later among American politicians and writers would be to ridicule the European-built machinery and various items ordered by the French engineers for their tropical empire—including “ten thousand snow shovels” to a land “where snow never ever has fallen.”

The problem with the equipment was not its quality, but the bewildering variety of it. The track put down by Couvreux, Hersent had a different gauge than that on the Panama Railroad. French-made railroad cars came in differing sizes and gauges. French and Belgian locomotives, though built like a watch in workmanship, some with all-copper fireboxes, had such a rigid wheelbase that they required track built to the most exacting standards; otherwise, as one American noted, “they just went off and started for somewhere else.”

The French “plant” was in effect something of a mechanical Noah’s Ark, with every imaginable species represented. To get it all working efficiently, according to some kind of harmonious system, seemed nearly impossible. And while in a few instances certain tools and machines proved of little or no use in the tropics, there had been no certain way of knowing that in advance. No ten thousand snow shovels were ever sent out to Panama, as later charged—only a thousand shovels that looked like snow shovels but were in fact specially designed for scooping the ash out of steam-shovel boilers, a use for which they were ideally suited.

•   •

The first shock of the earthquake occurred at 3:30 the morning of September 7, and though it lasted but a fraction of a minute, it was the longest and worst ever experienced on the Isthmus. At Panama one of the two towers on the great cathedral crashed through the roof near the main entrance, while a big part of the front wall toppled into the plaza. The Cabildo, or town hall, was wrecked, and the walls of the Grand Hotel were so badly cracked that it was feared another tremor would bring the building down.

Wolfred Nelson, who lived in an annex of the hotel, said it was difficult to see anything at first. He had jumped from his bed and rushed out into the plaza. “It was black with people who had . . . got in the open and away from buildings that were expected to fall. There was still a little light, and the moon was in its last quarter. The hum of voices and excitement was something astonishing. There they were, people of all classes—black and white—some dressed, and some very hastily dressed, and some had brought chairs with them.” One elderly lady, duenna of an old, distinguished family, was found dead sitting in her chair, the victim of a heart attack.

Damage along the railroad was extensive. In some places the roadbed had sunk as much as ten feet, leaving rails torn and twisted. At Colón, starting at the freight depot, a fissure in the earth, inches wide, ran some four hundred feet down Front Street.

There was another violent tremor the next morning, again before daylight, and the sense of panic this time was worse. All told, five people were killed, including the old lady in the chair. A week was lost getting the railroad back in running order. Cable communication with Jamaica (and the United States) was not resumed for another month.

Of greatest concern among the French officials, however, was the psychological damage the news might have among investors in France, since Panama was supposed to be safe from such natural convulsions. But when the news reached Paris, de Lesseps simply promised that there would be no more earthquakes and one cannot help but wonder if his deceptive propaganda was becoming self-deceptive.

More progress had been made at Panama in the first two years, he told his stockholders, than there had been at Suez in the first six years. And who was to refute such a claim? Those closest to the financial side of the company had already seen their founders’ shares soar from 5,000 francs to 75,000 in the over-the-counter market. The press remained enthusiastic. The public had every confidence that all was well. A first bond issue, to meet the cost of buying the Panama Railroad, had been heavily oversubscribed. Nor was belief in de Lesseps by any means limited to the French. “With $30,000,000 already invested in the enterprise,” reported the New York Tribune, “and with applications for shares showering him from all quarters of France . . . he can now reckon with confidence upon the resources required for so vast a scheme. He can get the money, and unquestionably he has the genius requisite for surmounting the engineering difficulties. Englishmen and Americans may as well reconcile themselves to the situation.”

At the end of the year, when it was suddenly announced that the great firm of Couvreux, Hersent was retiring from the field, leaving the work entirely in de Lesseps’ hands, he again stood unfazed, his leadership unchallenged. Such news could well have been a mortal blow to almost any other venture. His public composure and poise were total.

By its contract Couvreux, Hersent had every legal right to back out. The contract had been drawn up in an atmosphere of monumental mutual trust—for instance, it named de Lesseps as among those who could arbitrate any misunderstandings that might arise—and now the parting was carried off with comparable equanimity. The partners Couvreux and Hersent declared themselves honor-bound to say that the excavation could be carried forward more effectively without them. The canal could proceed faster and at less cost, it was said, by parceling the work out to a number of smaller contractors, each specializing in a particular task, an arrangement partly in effect and showing excellent results. The canal company henceforth should merely supervise the work on its own.

To this de Lesseps obligingly agreed; the contract was not renewed, and Couvreux and Hersent were out in the clear.

The real reason for the break, however, appears to have been rather different, as revealed by subsequent investigations conducted by the Chamber of Deputies. The death of the resourceful Gaston Blanchet had been a disheartening blow to Couvreux, Hersent et Compagnie. Nor was there anyone else in the firm of comparable ability who was willing to go to Panama and take Blanchet’s place. But much more important was the realization, after two years, that the canal could never be built in anything like the time or for anywhere near the cost foreseen by the exuberant Grand Français, whose glowing declarations often as not were derived from figures and forecasts supplied by Couvreux and Hersent.

They could, of course, have made public their disheartening view of the situation. But they chose not to, as they later explained, out of respect for Ferdinand de Lesseps and so as not to add to his burdens. “The truth is,” reads the report issued later by the Deputies committee, “that during the trial period Couvreux and Hersent had been able to form a shrewd idea of the difficulties of the enterprise but were unwilling to undermine the [canal] company’s credit by a frank admission of the motive behind their retirement.”

For the Compagnie Universelle the situation was really quite serious, and it is hard to imagine anyone in de Lesseps’ position failing to go to Panama as soon as possible to determine to his own satisfaction what should be done. However, he saw himself as the company’s major asset—its sole asset—and he believed, as did the financial interests involved, that his visible presence in Paris, at the helm, was essential. Appearances, as always, mattered enormously. There must be no sign of alarm, nothing to suggest that the contractors’ defection had been either harmful or indicative of some deeper, fundamental flaw or anything other than a perfectly natural administrative reorganization.

Also, he had other demands on his time just then. British troops had seized Alexandria, ostensibly to protect the khedive’s government, and de Lesseps had rushed to the scene in a futile, single-handed effort to keep the British from occupying the Suez Canal zone. Later he was in London to negotiate with more success an agreement covering Suez operations, only to rush back to the Avenue Montaigne to be present for the birth of his tenth child.

Twenty years before, at Suez, “with jealous personal authority,” he had taken a direct interest in everything that went on. Now, more often, it was Charles who took the initiative, who handled the numerous small decisions that had to be dealt with daily—Charles, who had never set foot in Panama. “With your good judgment you will arrange things as they should be,” reads a line from one of his notes to Charles; “everything you do will have my approbation.”

Thus it was Charles, rather than his father, who departed for Panama in the wake of the Couvreux, Hersent defection—Charles and a new chief engineer, the first Directeur Général.

1 Trenor Park would have little chance to enjoy his new fortune. A year and a half later, in December 1882, en route from New York to Colón, he died on board the ship. The cause of death was reportedly an overdose of sedatives.

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