PUNTARENAS, Costa Rica — When boomers add the Panama Canal to their bucket lists, patriotism isn’t usually a deciding factor.
Yet, it was the prowess of our Army Corps of Engineers, Dr. Walter Reed’s fingering of the annoying mosquito as the source of yellow fever and malaria, an expenditure of $8.6 trillion in tax dollars and our indefatigable can-do spirit — that picked up where French hubris left off.
The Panama Canal story begs for a Cecil B. DeMille close-up. Ferdinand de Lesseps is both the hero and villain of our 19th century morality play. With an ego the size of Montana, he carried the charisma of a realized Suez Canal with him into the 1879 Congres International d’Etudes de Canal Interoceanique.
Yet, his unrealistic Panama pipe dream resulted in needless deaths, the loss of nest eggs by French pride-blinded investors, and a political scandal that rocked confidence in capitalism as well as the French Republic itself.
Leading authorities in engineering, naval science, economics and exploration from 22 countries arrived in Paris to supposedly debate “in the impartial serenity of science” the most expeditious Central America location for a canal. Unfortunately, however, the French fix was in and a 74-year-old megalomaniac took charge.
The American delegation pushed for a canal across Nicaragua. While reports of their extensive field research got a polite listen from the other delegates, there was no doubt that the majority of voters would be backing de Lesseps and his “sans locks” canal across Panama. David McCullough, in his award-winning “The Path Between the Seas” described the sham balloting as “a consensus of one.”
After forfeiting approximately 22,000 lives to accidents, malaria or yellow fever and running through $287 million, the bankrupt French put their remaining assets up for sale in 1890.
Not only had de Lessep’s management team lacked training and experience, but their equipment, especially the steam shovels that had served Suez so well in the easy-to-move desert sand, immediately rusted out. Furthermore, rain-induced landslides poured nearly as much material back into the steep-sided cuts as had been removed.
Finally, fiscal mismanagement and political bribery eventually landed most of the principals in prison.
Yet, the French flag could still be flying over one of the seven wonders of the modern world had the delegates not snubbed a diminutive aristocrat and engineer named Baron Godin de Lepinay. His ingenious yet practical solution put people first.
In 1862, while constructing a railroad between Cordoba and Veracruz, a third of his workers perished from yellow fever. Since he considered Panama to be equally “poisonous” — the link between the mosquito and disease was not yet known — staying out of the jungle was his No. 1 priority.
Echoing the less digging advantage argued by the American contingent with Lake Nicaragua, de Lepinay proposed building a bridge of water, instead, across Panama. He would construct dams on the Chagres near the Atlantic and the Rio Grande approaching the Pacific. Connecting the two resulting lakes and building flights of locks at either end would complete the project.
The pluses to de Lepinay’s proposal included minimizing expensive excavation, being able to control the constantly flooding Chagres River, providing an unlimited water supply, allowing ships to transverse (in either direction) in only 12 hours, reducing the completion date to six years and (excluding the purchase of the Panama Railroad) being accompanied by a price tag of only $100 million.
Most important to de Lepinay, however, was the preservation of life. Not only would his plan disturb as little of the noxious jungle as possible, but terrain that produced disease-bearing mosquitoes would be sealed off in the future by the lakes.
Incredibly and tragically, the delegates didn’t even give his proposal a token discussion.
In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt became a fan. After the Americans bought out the French, Roosevelt asked John Frank Stevens, the engineer who designed the Great Northern Railroad, for a proposal.
Stevens’ strategy, which was more than faintly reminiscent of de Lepany’s, so impressed the rough-riding president, he instructed his newly appointed Isthmian Canal Commission “to make dirt fly.”
After several chief engineers appointed by Roosevelt resigned, though, the chagrined president turned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They, he quipped, couldn’t quit. Eventually, the Corps would finish all the breakwaters, locks, dams, reservoirs and complete the challenging Gaillard Cut as well.
After 10 years of backbreaking effort, they had succeeded — minimizing the threat of disease with extensive mosquito abatement, relocating/upgrading the Panama Railroad, excavating more than 200 million cubic yards of earth and constructing the (then) world’s largest dam and lake.
So, as we transit the Panama Canal on Friday, I will lift a glass of gin and tonic (to ward off malaria) and toast a nation where, more often than not, no dreamer ever becomes more important than the dream.