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regained its old-time importance, and curiously enough it was again the search for gold that gave the impetus. A railroad across the Isthmus was established, promoted by Americans. The success of this road was continuous on account of the increasing amount of traffic. Even the establishment of the transcontinental railroads did not vitiate the importance of the trans-isthmian road, nor did any of the railroads have a real deterrent influence on the canal scheme.
Almost innumerable projects, examinations and reports were made during the latter half of the nineteenth century, in which the United States, France and Great Britain led. Prior to 1850 no extensive and accurate surveys had been made. After that date work was done in earnest; no longer were the results of reconnoissances afoot or on horseback sufficient; the methods of modern engineering were taking their first grip upon large enterprises, and no company or government could entertain a proposition not based on surveys by engineers and on detailed estimates of cost. Several companies were incorporated, including the American, Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company in 1850. All failed from one reason or another to do much more than organize or conduct surveys. Always some insuperable obstacle was met. It is no doubt true that very few fully realized the enormous difficulties that subsequent experience disclosed, and fortunately so, since the enthusiasm for the idea might have received a setback from which it could not easily have recovered. A predicted cost of $400,000,000 would have made the enterprise seem impossible.
In 1869, official recognition was given to the subject, and President Grant's first message to Congress called attention to the advisability of an American canal on American soil. Theappointment of a commission, known as the Inter-Oceanic Canal Commission, was authorized by Congress; this commission not only examined all available data previously gathered by others, but had new data collected and had access to new surveys made principally under the direction of officers of the army and navy, covering the Panama, Nicaragua and Darien routes. In 1876, after six years work, the commission reported that “After a long, careful, and minute study of the several surveys of the various routes, the one known as the Nicaragua route
... possesses, both for the construction and maintenance of a canal, greater advantages and offers fewer difficulties from engineering, commercial, and economic points of view than any of the other routes."
A further survey of the Nicaragua route was made in 1885 by order of the Secretary of the Navy. This was followed in two years by the organization of the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua, incorporated by Congress and having a concession from the Nicaraguan government. The company actually dug a portion of the canal on the Atlantic side, but failing to secure government aid the concession lapsed and the property reverted to the State.
In 1895, the Nicaragua Canal Board was appointed by the President by authority of Congress. The board visited Nicaragua, conducting investigations, but in the six months allowed them did not have sufficient time for further necessary explorations, for collecting the vast amount of information and reaching a definite conclusion on so momentous a matter, and accordingly recommended a further board. As a result the Nicaragua Canal Commission of 1897 was appointed, and in its report of May, 1899, proposed a route which followed closely the one suggested in 1852. The United States was apparently committed to the Nicaragua route. The Panama route had been pre-empted by the French, but their hold was loosening. Congress in its next step authorized a further commission with greatly extended authority, to consider the Panama as well as the Nicaragua route and to evaluate work done by any private company, having in mind the French. The first Isthmian Canal Commission was accordingly appointed in 1899 — a distinct broadening in scope and title from those of the previous boards and commissions.
FRENCH CONTRIBUTION TO THE ENTERPRISE At this point it is well to pause in the account of American doings, to consider briefly what the French had contributed since the middle of the century to the canal idea and to construction. In 1844 a French engineer, after surveys having both a railway and a canal in view, made an accurate report concerning Panama, all in the interests of a French company holding concessions. Like so many others the project failed and the concessions lapsed.
At the Congress of Geographical Science in 1875, in Paris, M. Ferdinand de Lesseps came upon the scene with the sweeping announcement that in his opinion the authors of all plans up to that time had committed the serious error of examining only canal routes with locks, and that the interoceanic canal in order to meet the requirements of navigation, must be constructed at sea level like the Suez. Thus early did he show that the elements of his character — force, unbridled enthusiasm, convictions without investigation, and a sublime faith in himself — which had carried him on to a magnificent success in the straightforward problem at Suez, were, in the infinitely more difficult problems at Panama, to make of him a consummate blunderer and a deceiver, brushing aside and ignoring the advice and estimates of competent and trained engineers when they did not follow his own preconceived ideas, and leading many unfortunate investors, including himself, to financial ruin. Under such a leader the French project was foredoomed to failure. De Lesseps, so far as the French were concerned, made the project his own; he dominated the committees, moulded a popular sentiment, all being eager to follow his lead; if doubts arose, his was the reassuring word, and at his solicitation the subscriptions to the stock of the company poured in. His success at Suez was his most valuable asset and had indeed placed him on a pinnacle. He was a man of undoubted ability, but lacked an element of discrimination which should have caused him to appreciate the true magnitude of the problems before him. De Lesseps having attempted great projects must be measured by great standards. He did not lack strong opposition nor able expert advice, but he beat them down with the same indiscriminating
ability as he did natural obstacles and the financial troubles that interfered with his idealized delusion of a sea-level canal.
In 1876, a French committee with de Lesseps at the head was formed; also, in 1876, a civil association undertook actual surveys, which were under the direction of Lieut. L. N. B. Wyse. In May, 1878, after completing the surveys, Lieutenant Wyse secured for his association a concession from the government of Colombia for a ship canal. This was the real beginning of the canal which, after many vicissitudes, is now the American canal. An international congress of surveys was held in Paris in 1879, and after elaborate discussion decided on the route from the Bay of Limon to the Bay of Panama, and that it should be at sea level. The decision for the sea-level canal was by no means unanimous. “When one reads the reports of the sessions of that commission, one constantly recognizes the inspiration of M. de Lesseps, one perceives the action of his will, so persistent in forming a general opinion in favor of a plan for a canal on a level.” There were those who foresaw the difficulties and who advocated a lock canal. In fact, de Lesseps had against him the majority of the engineers and contractors. The predicted cost was 1,200,000,000 francs, and the time twelve years. About three months later the Universal Interoceanic Canal Company was formed, but less than one-tenth the stock was subscribed on the first attempt. De Lesseps did not have a bed of roses; he consented to new surveys and new estimates, and he personally went to the Isthmus in December, 1879, accompanied