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Plan general du Canal, 1886.

You have to admire the optimism. Fresh from the successful opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, an historic joining of the Red and Mediterranean Seas, French diplomat and enterprising businessman Ferdinand de Lesseps turned his attention to the narrow strip of land in modern-day Panama which was forcing ships to navigate the long and treacherous route around Cape Horn, Chile, to get between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His goal: to repeat the triumph of Suez in the Americas.

'I maintain that Panama will be easier to make, easier to complete, and easier to keep up than Suez,' de Lesseps was quoted as saying. Unfortunately, he was destined to witness the project experience scandal, death, and ultimately stagnation, before his eventual passing in 1894.

Leading a research team organised by the Societe de Geographie, the Geographical Society of Paris, in 1876 de Lesseps founded the company La Societe Civile Internationale du Canal Interoceanique de Darien--the International Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal. He undertook multiple visits to the region, at the time controlled by Colombia, to scout out a route, which he determinedly aspired to keep lock-free, just like in Suez. In 1880, de Lesseps' young daughter had the honour of removing the first spade of earth, at the mouth of the Rio Grande, on the Pacific side of the isthmus.

All this scouting work was converted into the Plan General du Canal in 1886 by Parisian map-makers Erhard Freres, which depicted the heights and geological characteristics of the route. A colour lithograph, it involved the pressing of ink upon multiple dissected segments of linen, which were then joined to create the finished product. While it started out purely as a black-and-white printing process, this method of lithography became commercially popular in the mid-to-late 19th century, and offered multiple perspective depictions such as the one above.

Unfortunately, by the time of the revealing of the cartogram, the overwhelming problems of the Panama Canal project were becoming devastatingly apparent. Ignorance of the disease-ridden mosquitoes which infected labourers with malaria and yellow fever, combined with a technical commission undertaken prior to the start of construction that, due to the extremely short time period the International Technical Commission had to complete it, was astonishingly lacking in detail, meant that human and engineering problems continued to escalate. After the loss of 22,000 lives, the whole project was eventually halted in May 1889 when the pockets of the hundreds of thousands of investors de Lesseps had charmed Anally ran dry.

The lower part of the above image portrays one reason why de Lesseps' determination not to use locks quickly became a major obstacle for the project; unlike the Suez Canal, the land changes elevation throughout. The very brief technical commission gave no indication of the difficulty which would subsequently be experienced trying to cut straight through the Culebra mountain range, despite it reaching 110m above sea level.

It wasn't to be until after the turn of the century, 15 years after the French effort had stopped, that the US government arrived on the scene, equipped with a new plan to complete the project. Chiefly by ditching de Lesseps' lock-free system, ten years later the Americans had completed their excavations, including dynamiting their way through what is now known as the 'Culebra Cut', and in 1914 were able to announce the opening of the iconic Panama Canal.

Map courtesy of Altea Gallery:


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Title Annotation:ARCHIVE: MAPS; Panama
Geographic Code:2PANA
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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