The First Canal

The Panama Canal is considered one of the great engineering feats of history, however it was not without its problems, especially during the first attempt by French.

In the mid sixteenth century, the Spanish identified the need to create a canal to connect Pacific and Atlantic ocean trade routes, and while Panama was always the ideal location to do so, no real attempts were made until the 19th century.

In 1881 the French began work on constructing the Canal in Panama, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who rose to fame through his success at building the Suez Canal in Egypt. The project was ill fated from the get go, with poor planning and design, and the incredibly high mortality rate of workers who succumbing to local diseases such as malaria.

Initially the Canal was designed in a similar manner to the Suez (without locks), but Lesseps soon learned that it was not going to work without them. That’s when he brought in Gustav Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower), to design the locks for him.

By 1889, Lesseps company had gone bankrupt, despite the $260 million the French had invested, and the project had claimed over 22,000 lives. Upon their return to France, Lesseps and his son Charles, along with Eiffel were all brought up on fraud charges in response to the public backlash for mismanagement of French funds.

They were all convicted and sentenced to prison, but the sentences were soon overturned. Lesseps died not long after Eiffel left the business world. Another French company took over the building of the Canal not long after, however they abandoned the project after a short time.

The United States made the decision to purchase the assets of the canal in 1902, but they were initially blocked by Colombia (which had control of Panama at the time). The Unites States response was to recognise and support Panama's independence from Colombia, and provided assistance for them to do so.

The United States gained access to the Canal in 1904, and finished its construction by 1914.