The French Failure

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The French attempt to construct a waterway across the Isthmus was foredoomed to failure because the project fell into the hands of promoters and speculators.  A contributory cause was the very high sick and death rate among the French employees on the Isthmus.   This added greatly to the cost of administration and resulted in an unstable labor force.  Many of the best engineers left the Isthmus after short service, or died, and these constant changes made it difficult to pursue any regular plan to keep up an effective organization to carry on the work.  The company had to pay high wages and offer special inducements to persuade men to take the chance of high wages and offer special inducements to persuade men to take the chance of one in five of surviving an attack of yellow fever which they were liable to contract.  Had the work been in charge of a rich and powerful government, public opinion would not have allowed the work to have been carried on at such an appalling cost of life.  When the enterprise was started the method of transmission of malaria and yellow fever was unknown, and, even if the French had taken the sanitary precautions prevailing at that time, they could not have stamped out these two fevers which gave the Isthmus the reputation of being the most unhealthy place in the world for a white man.  As a private corporation, it could not enforce sanitary regulations had it desired to do so, for, unlike the United States, it did acquire absolute jurisdiction over the Canal strip, but was at the mercy of the Colombian courts.

De Lesseps—Promoter

The first French Canal Company, La Societe International du Canal Interoceanique, inaugurated the undertaking with an exclusive concession from Colombia, but with an incomplete survey of the proposed work, and an estimate of cost and time placed much too low.  The necessary money was obtained from the French middle classes, who were induced to part with their savings through the magic name of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had just brought to a successful close his great work at Suez, and who was placed at the head of the new enterprise.  De Lesseps was honest and sincere, but he was an old man, somewhat blinded by his previous good fortune, and therefore, easily deluded.  He was enthusiastic over the idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific, and made himself and others believe that the work could be accomplished more quickly and much easier than the Suez.  His ability as a missionary made him valuable to the promoters, for the difficulties of the work across the Isthmus, as compared with the work at Suez should have been apparent even to the layman.  he was not an expert engineer; it did not require any engineering ability, but merely imagination, to see the practicability of cutting a sea level channel through the low desert region of upper Egypt, while at Panama, a hilly and rock country had to be traversed, torrential streams diverted, and a tidal basin constructed, problems which the world's foremost engineers have differed in the solution.  And yet De Lesseps sincerely believed that he was to achieve a second triumph, and much easier than his first.  (The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, took ten years to build, and cost about $100,000,000, or a million dollars a mile.  This low cost was due to the fact that the cut was made through a stretch of level sand, and Said Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, a large stockholder in the enterprise, practically forced his subjects to work on the project in much the same manner as Rameses of old).

Procuring the Concession

The concession for the privilege of constructing the Canal was obtained from Colombia in May, 1876, By General Stephen Türr, a Hungarian, who had become acquainted with De Lesseps when the latter was planning his work at Suez, and who was later incited by the Frenchman's success in an effort to duplicate the feat at Panama.  He organized a provisional company in France and sent an engineering party to the isthmus in November, 1876, to make explorations and surveys.  The party was in charge of Lieutenant Napoleon Bonapart Wyse, of the French Navy, a brother-in-law of General Türr, and at that time only 23 years of age.  the first expedition was only partly successful, several of its members falling victims to disease.  Wyse was again sent out in the spring of 1878 with Lieutenant Armand Reclus, also of the French Navy.  On this trip he obtained a new concession, approved May 18, 1878, in the name of the association presided over by General Türr, which modified and extended the former one, so as to give the promoters the exclusive privilege of building a canal across the isthmus anywhere within the United Sates of Colombia.  This concession was to remain in force 99 years, provided the necessary permission was obtained from the Panama Railroad Company which held a monopoly of the Isthmian route.  Work was to be begun not later than 1883, and was to be completed within 12 years, with an extension of six years in case the original term proved too short.

Although Wyse went over not more than two-thirds of the distance from Panama to Colon, he submitted what were supposed to be complete plans and a statement of cost for a sea level canal between the two points, following the line of the Panama railroad.  These plans and estimates were submitted to an international engineering congress which was convened in Paris, May 14-29, 1879, in accordance with the terms of the concession, with Ferdinand De Lesseps at its head.  These plans were the basis of a decision by the congress in favor of a sea level canal, following the route of the Panama railroad, by way of the pass at Culebra, using the valley of the Chagres river on the Atlantic side, and the valley of the Rio Grande on the Pacific side of the continental divide.  It is pertinent to note that in this congress, consisting of 136 delegates from France, Germany, the United States and other countries, only 42 were engineers, while the remainder were promoters, politicians, speculators, and personal friends of De Lesseps.  The Wyse concession and plans were "shoved through," approved, and turned over to La Societe International du Canal Interoceanique, commonly known as the first French Canal Company, for a consideration of $2,000,000.  This was the first "step in the dark," taken by the company.

De Lesseps' Plan.

De Lesseps made two visits to the Isthmus, the first in December, 1879, and the second in 1886, remaining for about two months on each occasion.  On his first visit he was accompanied by his wife, three of his children, and an international technical commission, consisting of nine members.  At one of the numerous receptions and banquets tendered him, he said:  "There are only two great difficulties to be overcome, the Chagres River, and the deep cutting at the summit.  The first can be surmounted by turning the headwaters of the river into another channel, and the second will disappear before the wells which will be sunk and charged with explosives of sufficient force to remove vast quantities at each discharge."

The engineering commission, after a superficial study of the route and former incomplete surveys, in a report submitted February 14, 1880, estimated the cost of $168,600,000.  The engineering congress estimated the cost at $214,000,000.  On February 20, De Lesseps reduced this estimate to $131,600,000, and again on March 1, without apparent reason, to $120,000,000.  The proposed sea level canal was to have uniform depth of 29.5 feet, a bottom width of 72 feet, and a width of the water line of about 90 feet, and involved excavation estimated at 157,000,000 cubic yards.  The engineering congress estimated seven or eight years as the time required to complete the work.  De Lesseps, with his usual optimism, reduced the time to six years.  To control the floods of the Chagres River, various schemes were proposed, the principal one being the construction of a dam at Gamboa, a little below Cruces, and the construction of channels to the sea to carry the impounded water away from the canal.  On account of the great difference in the tides of the two oceans, a maximum of two and one-half feet in the Atlantic and 21 feet in the Pacific, a tidal basin or lock was to have been built at the Pacific entrance.  (The high tide on the pacific side is due to the fact that the Bay of Panama is funnel-shaped).  No work was ever accomplished on either of these two projects.  A dam at Gamboa was found later to be impracticable, and the problem of the diversion of the Chagres River was left to some future time.

Inaugurating The Work

On January 1, 1880, the ceremony of breaking the ground was to have been performed by De Lesseps at the mouth of the Rio Grande, about three miles west of Panama City.   The boat bearing a party of ladies and gentlemen who were to take part was delayed in starting, with the result that it could not get within two or three miles of the shore on account of the ebbing tide.  This, however, did not dampen the ardor of the versatile Frenchman, as the arrival of the steamer in the entrance of the river mouth was considered by him a sufficient beginning.  The first blow was thereupon struck with a pick in a box of earth upon the deck of the steamer, while the observers aided their imagination by copious draughts of champagne.  On January 10, 1880, De Lesseps, with another party of civil and church dignitaries, went to Culebra to witness the first blast.   Accounts differ as to this event.  Tracy Robinson, the oldest American on the isthmus, states in his book on Panama, that the blast never came off, and as he was present, he ought to know.  On the other hand, the "Star and Herald" of the day following gives a circumstantial account of the affair, ending with:  "The mine had been carefully laid in an exceedingly hard and compact formation of basalt at a few feet below the summit, and charged with 30 kilograms of explosive.  The operation was performed with complete success and, immense amount of solid rock being hurled from its original position."  No photographs of the incident are extant.

Actual excavation work did not commence in Culebra Cut until some time later.   "The Bulletin du Canal Interoceanique," published by the company for the benefit of the stockholders, of February 1, 1882, states:  "The first work in the great cut of the maritime canal was formally inaugurated today (Jan. 20, 1882), at Empire in the presence of the dignitaries of the state, the leading citizens of the city and a great assemblage of the people.  The first locomotive has arrived at the newly opened excavation.  The city of Panama is celebrating the event with a great fete."

DeLesseps left Colon for the United States on February 22, 1880, for the purpose of interesting Americans in the undertaking.  Although he was received with a great deal of enthusiasm everywhere, he was unable to dispose of the stock which he had thoughtfully reserved.  Americans were interested in a canal, but not in a canal under French control.  he then proceeded on a similar tour of Europe, where he was more successful from a pecuniary point of view.  The first issue of stock, 600,000 shares of $100 each, was subscribed twice over, mostly taken in France.  These shares were distributed among 100,000 persons, indicating the great Frenchman's popularity with the people of his country.  In 1888, when the company failed, the total subscriptions, stocks and bond issues, had reached $393,505,100, and the shareholders numbered 200,000.

Two years of feverish preparation followed which witnessed the making of hasty surveys, the bringing together of machinery and a labor force, and the erection of quarters and hospitals.  The actual construction work was let to a firm of French contractors, Courvreaux & Hersent, but they soon realized the difficulties of the undertaking and withdrew from the last part of their contract.

French Labor Force

There seems to have been little difficulty experienced in obtaining a labor force, which in 1888, numbered about 20,000 men.  Nine-tenths of these were negroes from the West Indies, and many of them held clerical and other similar positions.  the white employees, mainly from France, were treated with extreme generosity.  Economy was an unknown factor in the administration of affairs of the first company.  The average pay of a clerk was $125 per moth, and of a division chief from $200 to $300 per month.   After two years' service, five months vacation, with free traveling expenses to and from France, were granted.  The hours of labor for the clerical force was from 8 to 11 a.m., and 2 to 5 p.m., six hours a day.  Free quarters,furniture, bedding, lamps, kitchen utensils, etc., were provided.  As there was no system of accounting in vogue, many did quite a profitable business in the buying and selling of the company's furniture.  This was merely none of the petty forms of graft in vogue, however,   Enormous salaries were paid to the directors, engineers, and other officers on the Isthmus.  The director-generals lived in a house that cost $100,000, now used as the American Legation in Panama City, they received $50,000 a year, and when they went out on the work they were allowed $50 a day additional.  One of the private cars in which they rode cost $42,000.

La Folie Dingler

There formerly stood on an artificial terrace on the western slope of Ancon Hill a building that commanded ready attention from passersby on the road from Panama to La Boca, now Balboa.  It was the prospective home of M. Jules Dingler, probably the foremost director-general of the first French company, prospective, because he never occupied it.   Work on the mansion was begun shortly after he came to the Isthmus in February, 1883, and the cost including the grounds is said to have been about $50,000.  For many years it had been called La Folie Dingler, or Dingler's Folly.  The experience of M. Dingler on the Isthmus constitutes, perhaps, one of the saddest incidents in French canal history.  Stories of the fatal effect the climate of the Isthmus was said to have on foreigners reached France, but Dingler scoffed at these reports.  "I am going to show them," he is credited with having said, "that only drunkards and the dissipated contract yellow fever and die."  In this spirit he brought with him to the Isthmus, his wife, son, and daughter.  His son, who was made director of posts, shortly fell victim to yellow fever and died.  Dingler subsequently went to France on leave of absence, and upon the return of himself and family to the Isthmus, his daughter met with the fate of his son.  On his return from a second trip to France, his wife also sickened and died from the same fell disease.  Dingler later relinquished his post and went back to France a man broken in mind and body.  AT the time the American Government took possession, La Folie Dingler had fallen into partial decay.  needed repairs were made and for several years the building was utilized as a detention station for the quarantine service.  It was sold in 1910 for $525, and removed to make way for quarry work on the side of Ancon Hill.

During the period of greatest activity there were probably 2,000 Frenchmen on the Isthmus, all non-immune to yellow fever.  Life was a gamble and, with no suitable social diversion, they naturally resorted to the only forms of amusement available, the saloons, gambling rooms, and houses of ill-repute.  Colon and Panama became the Mecca of the parasites of society, the non-workers who live on vice, with the result that an efficient labor force could not be kept long under such conditions, and it was continually changing.

The Sick Poorly Cared For

Two hospitals were built in 1883, which, with additions and alterations have been in constant use by the Americans.  Ancon hospital originally cost $5,600,000, and Colon hospital cost $1,400,000, a total of $7,000,000.

The hospitals, although fairly well equipped, with excellent doctors and surgeons and supplied with the best medicines and instruments of the time, were poorly managed.   They were handled under contract, and the administration was left almost entirely to French Sisters of Charity, who, although they were devoted and religious women, were not trained nurses.  These worthy women left the wards at night after prayer, closing the doors and windows tight to keep out the night mists, which were supposed to bring malarial fever, leaving the patients without any other care than that which was given by the less feeble among themselves.  When the wards were opened for morning prayer it was often found that some patient had died during the night, who might have been saved with proper attention.  The legs of the hospital beds were placed in tins of water to keep insects from crawling up.  These pans of stagnant water, and also the many ornamental basins containing flowers and plants in the grounds outside made ideal breeding places for mosquitoes, and it is quite probable that many patients fell victim to fever while in the hospital suffering with some minor illness, due to the unscreened windows and doors.

The hospital records show that during the construction period of the old company—1881-1889—there were 5,618 deaths, 1,041 of which were from yellow fever.  The old yellow fever ward in Ancon hospital, now ward No. 16, was called St. Charles, and it is believed that more people died from yellow fever in it than in any other one building in the world.  The West Indian negroes were immune to yellow fever, and very few of them were admitted to the hospitals.  the victims, therefore, were nearly all white persons, and mostly Frenchmen.  A large proportion of the sick did not enter the hospitals, as the contractors were charged one dollar a day for skilled medical treatment of employees.  Colonel Gorgas estimates the number of laborers who died from 1881 to 1889 at 22,189, or a rate of something over 240 per thousand per year.   He also estimates that as many died of yellow fever outside the hospitals as in, and places the total number of deaths from that disease at 2,082.  In September 1884, during an attack of yellow fever, the Canal Company lost 654 employees out of a force of about 18,000.  This in part based on surmise, for the truth was partly suppressed or minimized by the Canal Company in order not to destroy the confidence of the people in the project, and outside of the hospital rolls, the records were incomplete.  A virulent form of malaria, known as "Chagres fever," caused a greater toll in lives than any other one disease.  The negro laborers, although immune from yellow fever, succumbed quickly to attacks of this form of malaria.

Under the new canal company, the hospitals were turned over to the Sisters of Charity who took care of the few patients admitted at a fixed charge.  As the revenue from patients was small, they had a hard time to keep them open at all, and were compelled to sell flowers, fruits, vegetables and other products from the hospital grounds.  when the Americans took charge these women were replaced by trained nurses.

The Crash

The crash came in December, 1888.  At this time $156,654,687.00 had been expended on the Isthmus, and in Paris, $78,140,330.00, a total of $234,795.017l.00.  This vast sum is said to have been "one-third expended on the canal work, one-third wasted, and one-third stolen."  Of that spent at Panama, salaries and expenses of management aggregated $16,540,883; rents and maintenance of leased property, $3,301,070; material and supplies, $29,722,856; buildings, $15,397,282; construction and engineering expenses, $89,434,225; land purchases, $950,655; and medical and religious attendance, $1,836,768.   In view of the various forms of graft, extravagance and waste, it is not surprising that there was so little to show in actual work accomplished.  At the end of eight years the work was about two-fifths completed.

The work was let to contractors, very few of whom faithfully performed the service for which they were paid.  Many made small fortunes.  Those who were intrusted with the work of excavation were paid for the amount of spoil which they took from the canal prism.  As there was no data available on the cost of such work, it was impossible to even estimate what the charge should be.  In many cases the contractors took out what was most easily excavated, avoiding the hard spots.  One notable exception to this was the dredging work done by the American Dredging and Contracting Company, which dredged the opening of the Canal from Colon to beyond Gatun.

Much worthless material was shipped to the Isthmus, due to ill advised buying, the French manufacturers undoubtedly in many instances cleaning house to their profit at the expense of the Canal stockholders.  when the Americans took over the property they found torch lights in one storehouse apparently brought to the Isthmus to be used in the celebration of the opening of the Canal.  At another time a lot of wooden shovels, made from one piece, were brought to light.  They have been referred to as snow shovels, but were evidently intended for handling sand or ashes.  A ton or more of rusted pen points found in the stationery store furnished additional proof as to where some of the money went.

Early in 1885, it became apparent that the Canal could not be completed under the sea level plan within the time or estimated cost.  During the previous year the promoters foresaw the end, and began to sell their stock.  M. Leon Boyer, who succeeded Dingler as director had time to report before his death from yellow fever a few months after his arrival on the Isthmus, that the canal could not be completed by 1889, and to submit a plan for a lock canal.  In May, 1885, M. De Lesseps asked the French Government for authority to issue lottery bonds for a loan of $120,000,000, to replenish the depleted treasury.  Before granting permission, the Government sent out M. Armand Rousseau, an eminent engineer, to investigate conditions.  He reported that the canal could not be finished within the time and cost estimated unless changed to the lock plan.  Similar reports were made by an engineer sent out by the company, and by the agent of the Colombian Government on the Isthmus, the latter stating that the canal could not be completed before the expiration of the concession in 1892.  In February, 1885, Lieutenants Winslow and McLean of the United States Navy, reported that there remained to be excavated 180,000,000 cubic yards; that the work would take 26 years at the then rate of progress, and that the cost would total $350,000,000.

M. De Lesseps withdrew his request for permission to issue lottery bonds, but would not consent to a change in plans.  He obtained temporary financial relief by the issue of bonds to the value of about $70,000,000, but as money again began to get scarce, he consented to a change in plan, and in October, 1887, a temporary lock canal, with summit level above the flood line of the Chagres River, to be supplied with water by pumping, was decided upon.  Under the new plan, it was estimated that the cost would reach $351,000,000 and would require 20 years to build.  There had already been spent at this time nearly $250,000,000, and only about two-fifths of the work had been accomplished.  The end was in sight.

Work was pushed forward under the new plan until May, 1889, when the company became bankrupt and a liquidator was appointed to take charge.  Under the liquidator, the work gradually diminished and was finally suspended on May 15, 1889.  It was soon realized that the only way anything could be saved to the stockholders was to continue the project.  Late in 1889, the receiver appointed a commission composed of French and foreign engineers, eleven in number, to visit the isthmus and determine whether or not the canal could be completed.  This commission reported on May 5, 1890, that a lock canal might be completed within either years at a cost of $174,600,000.  It reported that the plant on hand was in good condition and would probably suffice for completing the canal.  It also estimated the value of the plant and the work already accomplished at $87,300,000, or one-half of the total cost.

Meanwhile, as a result of the exposure and investigation of the affairs of the old company, M. De Lesseps and his son Charles were sentenced to five years imprisonment, and similar sentences were imposed upon several others of their associates.  The French Court of Appeals annulled the sentence of Charles de Lesseps, and that against his father was never executed for, at that time, January 10, 1893, he was 88 years old and a physical and mental wreck; he died in the month of December, following.

As the Wyse concession had nearly expired, the receiver obtained from Colombia an extension of ten years.  it was stipulated that the new company should be formed and work upon the canal resumed on or before February 28, 1893.  As this condition was not fulfilled, a second extension of 10 years was obtained, to run not later than October 1894.

The Second Or New Company

The Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, the New French Canal Company, as it is generally known, was organized under a special law on October 20, 1894, with a capital stock of $13,000,000, with shares valued at $20 each.  Six hundred thousand shares were sold for cash, the greater part being taken by the receiver, the contractors, and others, who had been interested in the old company and escaped criminal prosecution by taking the new stock; and 50,000 shares given to the Colombian Government for the extension of the concession.  the new company took possession in 1894, and work was immediately resumed in Culebra Cut with a force large enough to comply with the terms of the concession.  As excavation work to this point was necessary under any plans that might be decided upon, it was continued, while elaborate and extensive studies of the Canal project were begun by competent engineers, and extensive studies of the Canal project were begun by competent engineers.

The plan finally adopted by the new company involved two levels above the sea, one an artificial lake to be created by a dam across the Chagres River at Bohio, and another a high level canal through Culebra Cut at an elevation of 68.08 feet above mean tide, to be fed by water by a channel leading from a reservoir to be constructed at Alhajuela in the upper Chagres River valley.  The lake level was to be reached from the Atlantic by a flight of two locks, and the summit level by a second flight of two locks.  On the Pacific side four other locks were provided for, the two middle ones at Pedro Miguel being combined in one flight, and the others being located at Paraiso and Miraflores.  On the Atlantic side there was to be a sea level channel to Bohio, 17 miles inland, and on the Pacific side at Miraflores, about 8 miles inland.  The depth of the canal was to be 29.5 feet, with a bottom width of 98 feet.  The locks were to be in duplicate, 738.22 feet long, 82.02 feet wide, with a normal depth of 29.5 feet.  The lifts were to vary from 26 to 33 feet.

A second plan was also worked out in which the upper level was omitted, the cut through the divide being deepened to 32 feet above sea level, making the artificial lake created by the dam at Bohio the summit level.  Under this plan the feeder from Alhajuela was omitted, although the dam was to be retained to control the Chagres.  One flight of locks on the Atlantic side and one lock on the Pacific side were also to be omitted.   The estimated cost of completing the canal under this plan was not much greater than the first, and all work on the first plan for several years would be equally available under the second.

Although the first plan was adopted on December 30, 1899, no effort was made to carry it out, on account of the interest being shown by the United States in a canal across Nicaragua.  It was realized that if the United States should undertake to construct such a waterway, the work accomplished and the plant on the Isthmus would be practically worthless.  In 1895, there was a force of men numbering about 2,000 at work in Culebra Cut, and a year later this was increased to 3,600.  This was the largest number of men employed under the new company, for only enough work was done to hold the concession and keep the equipment in a salable condition.   The French at that time were beginning to look for a purchaser; they wanted $100,000,000 for the work and equipment, but the only likely buyer was the united States.   The Isthmian Canal Commission, appointed by the Spooner Act of 1899, reported in November, 1901, in favor of the Nicaragua route unless the French company was willing to sell out at $40,000,000.  This recommendation became a law on June 28, 1902, and the New Panama Canal Company was practically forced to sell for that amount or get nothing.

Although the French on the Isthmus worked under difficulties which eventually forced them to give up the Canal undertaking, they removed with their clumsy side excavators, now obsolete dredges, small Decauville cars and toy Belgium locomotives, a considerable amount of material from the Canal prism, a large part of which has been useful under the present plan.

The old company excavated 66,743,551 cubic yards, from 1881 to 1889, and the new company excavated 11,403,409 cubic yards up to 1904, a total of 78,146,960 cubic yards; 18,646,000 cubic yards of this total were taken from Culebra Cut, the operation of the new company being practically confined to that portion of the work.  Of this total, it has been figured that 29,908,000 cubic yards have been useful to the Americans.  The old company dredged a channel from deep water in Panama Bay to wharves at Balboa which has been used by ships docking at that port.   On the Atlantic side, the channel dredged inland, known at the French canal, was found useful upon deepening in bringing sand and stone for the locks and spillway concrete at Gatun.

The French also turned over valuable surveys and studies of the work, together with plans that have been found of great value to the American organization.  The best of this class of work was done under the new company.  This is especially true of the records kept of the flow and floods of the Chagres River, together with rainfall records, so essential to the present plan.

French Aid To American Project

Much of the work of preparation during the first two years of American occupation—1904-1905—would have been seriously delayed without the French supplies and equipment.  In the shops and storehouses were found a plentiful supply of repair parts, shop tools, stationary engines, material and supplies of all kinds of good quality.  At Gorgona, where the principal shops were located, known during the French times as Bas Matachin shops, were found sheds filled with old locomotives, cranes and excavators.  One hundred car loads of foundry and machine shop material were removed from this point.  Repair shops were found at Empire, Paraiso, Gatun and Bohio.  A small machine shop was uncovered in the jungle at Cimito Mulato, when American engineers were running the center line of the Canal.   There was also a dry dock at Cristobal, which was originally 190 feet long, 32 feet wide and 16 feet deep over the sills at ordinary high tide.  At Balboa on the Pacific side, there was located a repair and marine shop for the floating equipment.  The old French shops in every case formed the nucleus of the larger and better equipped shops maintained by the Americans during the period of construction.

During the first two of American occupation, French locomotives were the only ones available by the Isthmian Canal Commission.  On June 30, 1906, there were 106 in service, and only 15 American locomotives.  The same is true of the French dump cars.  In 1904, there were 308 in service, and in 1905, over 2,000 had been repaired and put in commission, as compared with 300 American-built cars.  At the present time there are about 100 French locomotives and 200 Decauville dump cars in serviceable condition.  In December, 1904, there were six old French excavators working in Culebra Cut, which had been overhauled and placed in service.  These were similar to ladder dredges, and the excavation was accomplished by an endless chain of buckets which carried earth and rock from one side and dropped it into a hopper from which it fell into dump cars on the other side.  These machines were effective only when working in soft material.  They remained at work 18 months before they were replaced by modern steam shovels.

The floating equipment on hand was considerable, and many dredges, clapets or self-propelling hopper barges, tugs, launches, etc., were found in the marine graveyards at Folks River, Cristobal, and in the mouth of the Rio Grande at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, as well as along the banks of the Chagres River.  Many of these were floated, rebuilt and placed in commission.   On account of the excellent material used in the construction of this equipment, most of which was Scotch-built, the Americans found it highly profitable to repair them.   heavy coats of paint and oil, which 20 or more rainy seasons could not penetrate, had been given the machinery when it was retired, so that when the hulls were not worth repairing, the valuable parts were used elsewhere.  Several dredges were reconstructed from parts of others.  A Scotch ladder dredge with a capacity of about 130,000 cubic yards per month was repaired at a cost of about $30,000, which, when new, cost about $200,000.  At the present time there are several French dredges doing excellent work on the Canal.

Two thousand, one hundred and forty-nine buildings scattered along the line of the Panama Railroad were included in the turn-over.  These were generally small and ill-suited for use, other than as laborers' barracks or storehouses, but it was found profitable to repair some 1,500 of them even after they had stood unused for ten years or more.  The large piles of French scrap, old locomotives, boilers, dump cars, parts of machines, etc., which used to be one of the sights along the line of the Panama railroad have slowly disappeared.   Much of it has been sold as junk to contractors, while the copper, brass, white metal, rails, and cast iron have been used in the foundry at Gorgona.  Old French rails have been used in the reinforcement of concrete in the lock walls, for the repair of dump cars, and for telephone and telegraph poles.

Seven years after the Canal was taken over from the French, May, 1911, the present Isthmian Canal Commission made a careful official estimate of the value to the Commission of the franchises, equipment, material, work done, and property of various kinds for which the United States paid the French Canal Company $40,000,000.  it places the total value at over $42,000,000 divided as follows:

Excavation, useful to the Canal, 29,708,000 cubic yards
Panama Railroad Stock
Plant and material, used, and sold for scrap
Buildings, used
Surveys, plans, maps, and records
Clearings, roads, etc
Ship channel in Panama Bay, four years' use



From:  America's Triumph in Panama by Ralph E. Avery,
The L.W. Walter Company, Chicago, IL, 1913

May 29, 2001