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The Panama Canal


When the Panama Canal is opened to navigation in 1915, it will be three hundred and eighty-one years since the first survey for a Canal was made; for neither the Americans nor the French were the first to dream about a canal across the Isthmus, nor even to investigate its possibility. Columbus touched at Nombre de Dios and Porto Bello, quite likely sailed into Limon Bay, in 1501, and he died believing that such a route existed. There were traditions of it among the Indians, or of what sounded like it to the Spaniards; and Balboa, Pizarro, and others of the conquistadors, must have thought many times of the advantage of such a passage, as they toilsomely drove the enslaved natives, overladen with parts of ships and other cumbrous freight, over the mountain passes and through the jungles of Darien. As early as 1530 the Chagres River was used as a means of crossing to within 15 miles of the old city of Panama on the Pacific; and in 1534 Charles V of Spain had a survey made for a canal from the end of navigation on the Chagres to the Pacific. This is the route of the present Canal. At regular intervals from that time forth the project was discussed, and in 1814, Spain actually took active steps to construct a canal, but the revolution of her colonies put an end to the plans. The discussion, renewed by Von Humboldt in the closing years of the 18th century, has never ceased.

Although the Spaniards were the first to ke a survey, and to consider as a national measure, the construction

of a canal, the interest of the United States Atrato, San has been constant since 1825, and more has Blas, Cale- actually been done by that Government in donia Routes. the matter of surveys and investigations than

by all others together. Of the many routes surveyed between Tehuantepec and Colombia, the Nicaragua and Panama are the only ones ever seriously considered, and yet there are three others that have been made the subject of several investigations.

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The Atrato route is the most commonly known of these. There is an Indian legend that at a point on the headwaters of the Atrato a canoe can be carried for a distance of a mile and then floated on a river through which it can go without danger or interruption to the Pacific. The idea is that there is a point in the cordillera of Colombia at which the headwaters of the Atrato are very close to those of the Traundo, Napipi, Doonado, Bando, and San Juan. This is true. But the obstacles in the way of building a Canal on this route are greater than on any of the others. They include continual dredging along the Atrato River for a hundred miles, a cut through the continental divide that is greater than the cut at Culebra, and the canalizing of rivers on the Pacific side which for many miles are rugged mountain torrents. It is a dream of the Colombians that some day they will build a barge canal along this route, thus connecting their eastern with their western domain.

A glance at the map will show that the Gulf of San Miguel on the Pacific side, and Calidonia Bay on the Atlantic are so close to one another that a route for a canal would seem to be possible there. This route has been surveyed, and the amount of excavation required makes the project many times more difficult than the Panama route. The same is true of the route from the Bay of San Blas on the Atlantic to the Bayano or Chepo River. The Isthmus at this point is at its narrowest, 35 miles, but the excavation required is so great that the only projects ever suggested included a tunnel 4.2 miles long, through which ships with masts 180 feet high must pass. The project has long been regarded as chimerical.

The Nicaragua route became the subject of actual investigation in 1825, when the newly federated state of Cen

ral America, having established its independNicaragua ence from Spain, advised the United States Route. that it would encourage in every way any proj

ect by Americans for the opening of a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of Nicaragua. A company was immediately formed in New York, but it failed to raise the money for the surveys. An effort made by an English capitalist from 1826 to 1838 to interest capital in the project resulted in a reconnaissance survey, but no actual construction work. In 1839 the United States Government sent John L. Stephens to report upon a canal route, and after an examination of the isthmus both in Nicaragua

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Nicaragua, Panama, San Blas, Calidonia Bay, and Atrato.


and Panama he reported in favor of Nicaragua, as being the less expensive. He later became one of the organizers of the Panama Railroad.

The canal projects were given a definite status by the ratification on July 5, 1850, of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, by which the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to enforce the neutrality of any canal. Under this treaty, and an agreement with Nicaragua, a vey was made in 1850-1852 by an American, O. W. Childs, and a land transit route was opened, which carried on an extensive business by steamer and stage coach for several years, while the plans for a canal advanced. The concession was forfeited in 1858, and was renewed for a Frenchman, Felix Belly, who in turn forfeited his rights, for nonaction, ten years later. Another Frenchman, Michel Chevalier was given the franchise, but he also failed to begin the work.

In 1869, upon the recommendation of President Grant, the United States Government began a systematic survey of all the isthmian routes from Tehuantepec to the Atrato River, and in 1876 the commission, under which the surveys were executed, reported in favor of Nicaragua. A more complete survey of this route was made in 1885 by A. G. Menocal, and in February, 1889, the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua was incorporated under concessions from Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It was an American company with enough capital to make a beginning, and results of its work are still evident at Greytown and along the San Juan. It failed for lack of funds in 1893. The United States Government had meanwhile become interested in the project of its citizens, and on March 2, 1895, the Nicaraguan Canal Board was appointed to make further plans, it being understood that if the work were ever to be done the Government itse must do it. On mber 16, 1901, this board, later known as the Isthmian Canal Commission, reported in favor of the construction of a canal across Nicaragua, providing the property of the New Panama Canal Company of France on the Isthmus of Panama, could not be purchased at $40,000,000, about one-third of the price actually asked.

The Panama Canal project went through much the same course of development as the Nicaraguan. Surveys were

made and remade, none of them thorough, Panama until 1890, and each resulted in the verdict Route. “feasible," and estimates now known to have

been grotesquely small. Bolivar in 1827 sent an English surveyor, J. A. Lloyd, to the Isthmus of Panama to survey a route for a wagon road or a canal. He recommended a wagon road from Limon (Navy) Bay to Panama, along the line of the Chagres River, knowing that the cost of a canal was far beyond the resources of the government.

In 1835, Charles Biddle, sent by the United States Government to investigate routes across the isthmus, obtained from New Granada a concession for a railroad, but the prosecution of his plan was not deemed expedient at that time. In 1838, New Granada granted a similar concession to a company of Frenchmen; and a misleading report of a pass 37 feet above sea level caused the French Government to send Napoleon Garella to make a survey. He corrected the error, but recommended that a canal be built with summit level at 48 meters above the sea, a tunnel 31 miles long, through the continental divide, and 18 locks to make the lift from the sea to the summit level. The opening of California and Oregon to settlement and the discovery of gold in California in 1849, gave the isthmian crossing new value, and the United States made a treaty with New Granada in 1848 to guarantee an open transit across Panama. The construction of the railroad (1850-1855) had a deterrent effect on canal enterprises in Panama for some years, although surveys were made under direction of the United States Government in 1854 and 1866.

In May, 1876, the Government of Colombia (formerly New Granada) granted a concession for a canal to a French company, and under this concession the first work was done.

The French Attempt.

Surveys made for this company by Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse were the basis of the decision (May 15-29, 1879) by an international congress at Paris, in favor of a sea-level canal from the Bay of Limon to Panama Bay by way of the pass at Culebra. In 1881, The Universal Interoceanic Panama Canal Company, with Ferdinand de Lesseps as nominal head, took up the work. The canal was to be constructed, as the Suez Canal had been, as a business venture. On January 10, 1881 a ceremonial breaking of ground was performed by Lesseps himself at the Pacific entrance. Then followed a period of hasty surveys, assembling of machinery, and organizing and housing a working force. The first excavation was begun (January

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