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Great Minds Fail Alike

How two titans of engineering got the Panama Canal wrong

Posted on 3/21/2017 12:32:00 PM in Travel Trivia

It was a bumpy ride, but the Panama Canal is regarded as a miracle of engineering—no thanks to these two otherwise brilliant gentlemen.

Question: How did the creators of the Suez Canal and the Eiffel Tower almost end up cellmates?

Answer: By losing $260 million of other people’s money when they botched the Panama Canal.

By birth, Ferdinand de Lesseps was French aristocrat, a Count whose life seemed preordained for grandeur. A diplomat for the first 25 years of his career, he served French interests in Lisbon, Alexandria, Cairo, Madrid and more. He dealt with an outbreak of plague in Egypt and an insurrection in Spain, and was considered an unflappable strategist. But during his last posting in Rome, when he attempted to broker the return of the exiled pope to the Vatican, he stepped on the wrong political toes and was recalled to Paris for “exceeding his competencies.”

He made his detractors eat their words when he pulled off the stunning sea-level Suez Canal project across Egypt. That would have cemented his place in history enough for him to rest on his laurels, but de Lesseps wasn’t satisfied. Soliciting money from investors and the French government, he turned his attention to a project in Panama that would work just the same way as his Suez success—except that de Lesseps was not an engineer and didn’t realize that the new canal would require locks. That fact only became clear once construction had started and stopped several times, and he turned to someone else who already had a triumph under his belt: Gustav Eiffel, famed for his eponymous Paris tower.

Eiffel’s solutions didn’t work either and de Lesseps’ company eventually went bankrupt—taking $260 million of French investment down with it. De Lesseps and Eiffel were charged with—and convicted of—fraud, in a trial that dominated the newspaper headlines of 1893. Though they were sentenced to prison, neither served time; the point had been to shame them, while demonstrating France’s tough stance, but they were still men of great achievement who few wanted to see imprisoned.

Eiffel retired and de Lesseps died in 1894. The next French company to take over their project collapsed as well, which turned the tide of opinion back toward the two men, who were no longer seen as uniquely having failed at the task. Today, both are better known for their successes—the Suez Canal, busier than ever thanks to a new expansion, and the Eiffel Tower, still gracing the Paris skyline 128 years after it opened.

Bumpy Ride to Smooth Sailing: More Twists and Turns in the History of the Panama Canal

  • 16th-century explorer and conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, having crossed the Isthmus of Panama, was the first European to spy the South Sea, now known as the Pacific. He claimed the Isthmus for Spain, which was the first nation to entertain the idea of building a canal. Balboa should have been a hero; but, thanks to a longtime rival, he was instead beheaded just before returning to explore the land for a second time.
  • The canal idea languished for three centuries, before both France and the U.S. each took interest. The American plan was for a Nicaraguan Canal. For decades, talks occurred between officials in the two countries about a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific at a location far north of Panama. Nicaragua stood to increase its fortunes exponentially until a French engineer assured the U.S. that Nicaragua was too dangerous, as it was home to more volcanoes than Panama. The engineer did not mention his own assets and investments in Panama, and Nicaragua lost out.
  • In the late 19th century, France’s attempts (both under de Lesseps and after) to make the Panama Canal dream a reality played out like a comedy of errors turned tragedy: engineering miscalculations, underestimations of the climate, heavy rainfall, and tropical disease killed 20,000 workers before France gave up.
  • The U.S. (which had abandoned Nicaragua at this point) picked up the mantle in 1904, hiring experienced Chief Engineer John Findley Wallace, and pledging not to repeat France’s mistakes. At a salary of $25,000, he was the second highest paid person in the government. (Only his ultimate boss, the president, made more.) But then he hated his new job. How badly? He quit before the year was over.
  • The U.S. team worked with medical experts around the globe to figure out how yellow fever and malaria, the two top killers of French canal workers, were spread. Once officials realized the role of mosquitos, they put in place strategies to decrease insect breeding and to protect the men. Yellow fever deaths dropped precipitously—as predicted—but malaria did not. Five thousand more workers would die.
  • Dr. William Gorgas, Chief Medical Officer, oversaw the installation of screens on worker’s lodgings, ordered fumigations, and made sure that running water was available for hygiene. In the midst of his efforts, he and his wife both contracted malaria, and were terribly ill. He described the feeling as being “like fighting all the beasts of the jungle.”
  • Four years into the U.S. efforts, a massive landslide at Cucaracha sent 500,000 cubic yards of clay into the steep cut, burying steam shovels and setting the project back by months. Engineers had miscalculated the pitch of the cut, making it unable to sustain the weight of the earth.
  • August 15, 1914 was announced as the grand opening date of the Panama Canal, and a global array of vessels with heads of states and their representatives were set to parade through the first transit. Instead, World War I broke out on August 4, and most of the foreign dignitaries stayed home. Nonetheless, the canal opened and changed the face of the Americas forever.
  • A century after the opening of the Panama Canal, Nicaragua marked the anniversary by announcing that its day had finally come: it would after all build its own sea-level canal which would be wider, longer, and deeper than its rival. Instead, the Panama Canal re-opened last summer with its newly expanded capacity allowing double the number of passages, while the Nicaraguan canal plan remains stuck in transit.

Experience the expanded Panama Canal and all the wonders of the region when you join our Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United Small Ship Adventure.

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