CHAPTER V

THE FRENCH IN PANAMA

Opinions as to the advisability of an Isthmian canal ran all the way from the attitude of Philip II, of Spain, that it would be impious to tamper with natural land configurations as arranged by Providence, to the bold determination of the French to do at Panama what they had done at Suez.

Ferdinand de Lesseps and his Panama career vindicate strikingly the truth of the adage that nothing succeeds like success.  The French Panama Canal Company was floated on the strength of his achievement in cutting a sea-level passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, thus making an island of Africa.

When he turned his attention to Panama as a new field for glory, the French people enthusiastically applauded his audacity and, what is more significant and substantial, invested, first and last, $265,000,000 in the enterprise.  American capital entered practically not at all into the French project, and not a great deal of outside European capital, the French middle and peasant classes being the principal shareholders.

There had been talk and paper negotiations aplenty before M. de Lesseps became active.  In 1838 a French syndicate sought to interest their government in the enterprise but the plan fell through, and the failure later of the French companies to build the canal cannot be censured as a failure of the French government, which never financed it as a national enterprise as has been done in the successful American attempt.

President Simon Bolivar, of New Grenada, or Colombia, in 1827, had ordered a study made of the Isthmus to ascertain facts about a route for a canal or railroad.   Any concession that might be granted must come from his government.  The various American nibbles at the idea have been noted, and as a way of stirring us up to real action, Colombia paid assiduous court to France.  Gen. Stephen Turr, a native of Hungary, in 1876, obtained a concession, in association with Lieut. Lucien N.B. Wyse who, in 1878, revived the concession on the following terms:  Its life was for ninety-nine years after the completion of the canal, allowing two years to organize the company and twelve years in which to dig the canal.  Colombia was to receive $250,000 annually after the seventy-six year of the life of the concession and it expressly was stipulated that though the French company might sell to other private companies, it could not sell out to any government, a provision which played a vital part in the transactions leading up to the American control in 1904.

The French were theatrical in their plans for launching the enterprise.   A world congress of engineers was invited to assemble in Paris in May, 1879, to decide upon the type and cost of the canal.  M. de Lesseps presided and guided the decision to a sea-level type, the same as at Suez.  There were eleven Americans in the assembly but this was the extent of American interest.  It was at this congress that the first suggestion of a dam at Gatun for a lock-type canal was made by Godin de Lipinay, a French engineer.  The sea-level advocates advanced the plan of digging a great tunnel for ten miles through the Cordilleras and so divert the Chagres River into the Pacific Ocean away from the canal, as that river was useless in a sea-level type.

Under the stimulus of these proceedings, the new company's stock was over-subscribed by the admiring countrymen of the great de Lesseps, the first issue being for $60,000,000.  M. de Lesseps then made a spectacular trip to Panama, arriving at colon on December 30, 1879.  The Panamanians and foreign colony received him with wild acclaim as the forerunner of a golden stream of money abut the enrich their country, and as the first concrete step toward realizing the dream of four centuries.

The first blast of an explosive in the construction of an Isthmian canal was set off by one of the young daughters of M. de Lesseps at Culebra on January 10, 1880.   After several weeks of banqueting, Count de Lesseps left for the United States to stir the imagination of the Americans over the enterprise.  About the only result was to attract the attention of some contractors to the work, notably in the case of the Slaven brothers who, previous to their Panama adventure, had seen no experience in construction work, but who did the most creditable work on the project, dredging thirteen miles, making fortunes for themselves and leaving machines which the Americans repaired and used from 1904 onward.

As estimated by M. de Lesseps, the sea-level canal was to cost $131,600,000, although the Paris congress had gone higher in its figures.  He was, of course, sadly mistaken in this estimate and the French ultimately spent twice that mount before throwing up the sponge.  Conditions totally were different from those at Suez.   There the sandy dunes rose no higher than forty feet above sea-level at any point and excavation work comparatively was easy.  In Panama a mountainous configuration with solid rock a short depth beneath the surface had to be faced, with torrential streams to be controlled and diverted.

Operations went ahead rapidly from 1880 onward, the method being to let contracts for the different phases of the work.  The canal started near Colon, in Limon Bay, and was to follow the valley of the Chagres River for about thirty miles, thence through the continental divide to the Pacific, three miles west of Panama, about where the present canal begins.

By 1885, however, extravagance and graft had emptied the company's treasury.  The contractors, as a rule, did little and exacted much.  It became apparent, too, that a sea-level type presented staggering difficulties.  M. de Lesseps gave his consent to a change in plans to a lock type, as had been recommended by the engineer Lepinay, but the dam was to be at Bohio, instead of at Gatun.  Bohio is seventeen miles from the Caribbean, while Gatun is only seven miles distant from that sea.

All the theatrical methods conceivable were employed to float a new bond issue for $160,000,000, but the public had grown dubious over the success of the enterprise.  The amount was raised, however, and was poured into the project with more millions until 1889 when, after $234,795,017 had been invested, the company became bankrupt.  Of this vast amount, $157,224,689 had been invested on the Isthmus,the remainder having gone to organization expenses, for promotion, and overhead expenses generally.  For engineering and construction, $89,434,225 had been spent; for machinery and materials, $29,722,856; for buildings, hospitals, etc., $15,397,282.   Various needs and graft absorbed the rest.

The French treated their white employees with extravagant generosity.   Living accommodations were on a scale of open-handed liberality.  Little was done, beyond building hospitals, to conquer the bad health conditions of the Isthmus, and, while the French left patterns for much of the later American activities, the sanitary control of the jungle distinctively is an American triumph.  The death rate among French employees on the canal was from two to three times as high as under the Americans.

Older natives in Panama still speak of the period of French operations as the "temps de luxe."  M. de Lesseps was charged with fraudulent manipulation of the company's affairs, but escaped punishment for his alleged wrongs.   There was graft everywhere, and when the Americans invoiced the property left by the French they found stores of articles that had been bought in quantities absurdly beyond the needs of the enterprise.  The purchase of the Panama Railroad, while at a high figure, was the only investment by the French that approximated sound judgment.

In 1890, an extension of ten years to the time for completing the canal was granted by Colombia, and subsequently extensions were permitted that advanced the life of the concession until October 31, 1910.  A new Panama Canal Company was organized in 1894 with a capital of $13,000,000, and while it spent this amount and more, it never attained the momentum of the first company.  The maximum force under the first company was 25,000 men and under the second régime 3,000.

The total excavation by the French in Panama was 78,000,000 yards, of which the first company took out 65,000,000 yards.  Between gold Hill and Contractors Hill, where the surface at the center line of the canal was 312 feet above sea-level, the French dug down 161 feet, this being the deepest cut they made.   It is here that the work they did was useful to the American plans for a canal, but out of all their work only 29,908,000 yards were excavated from the present American route.  For years before the Americans came the French did just enough work to keep their concession alive.

Summing up, the efforts of the French in Panama were a lamentable failure, but it probably is true that a private company of any nation would have met the same fate.  The riot of graft that attended the French effort is its chief blot, just as the honest construction of the canal by the American government is its chief honor.  Indisputably, the French efforts made the American effort easier.  Much that they did stood as landmarks to guide our way.  Much that they failed to do emphasized the work cut out for us before success could be attained.

The mechanical equipment we took over from the French, the houses and hospitals, and especially the engineering records, were invaluable from the start of American operations and much still is in use.  In 1912 there were 112 French locomotives, seven ladder dredges, hundreds of dump cars, machine-shop equipment, and other materials in profusion actively employed in canal construction.

An effort was made by the French company in 1898 to interest the United States government in the enterprise, provided permission could be secured from Colombia, but this failed, and the plan of 1903 for turning the property over to the Untied States, was its successor.

Today, as one views the abandoned French equipment, overgrown by the luxuriant tropical vegetation, he is reminded of the retreat from Moscow.  The quaint locomotives and machinery lying desolate and rusting away suggest the batteries that Napoleon left in the Russian snows.  Indeed, there was much of the same exquisite French dash about the two enterprises that ended so disastrously.