Lessons From History: The Panama Canal And Working With Nature

By Richard Howard

Technology forms a critical link in our relationship with nature.

Without technology, humanity could not control, affect, or manipulate our environment: heat and cool our immediate surroundings, construct roads, and divert and dam rivers.

Without technology, we could not outperform the natural world: travel overland at 80mph, fly over oceans at 500mph, and build 800m skyscrapers.

Yet the proliferation of this technology is not without environmental consequences. 

And to many the answer is more technology. An ever-increasing escalation of technologies will lead us to harmony with nature. It is definitely the case that some old technologies will need to be replaced with new ones, but technological progress is not necessarily the silver bullet to all of humanity’s ills. Without carefully respecting and understanding the natural world and incorporating all of its complexities into the applications of new technology, we are doomed to blindly apply the ‘successes’ of the past to the future.

Many failed endeavours neatly illustrate this point, none more so than the first attempt to build a canal to link the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Ultimately a canal was built, but only after the environment and landscape were firmly placed at the heart of the project.

Background to the Panama Canal

Ever since the discovery of the Americas, the narrow width (or Isthmus) of what is now known as Central America was identified as a potential shortcut to the Pacific from the Atlantic. This shortcut would avoid the long and dangerous journey round the southern tip of South America – otherwise known as Cape Horn. By the 1600s European powers were actively exploring the option of an overland link between the two oceans, of which the ill-fated Scottish Darien Expedition is probably the most famous. But for another 200 years the long and treacherous trip around Cape Horn was the only reliable route, funnelling shipping traffic through an area of the world which today seems quite remote.

French Ambition

In November 1869, the world toasted the opening of an engineering marvel. After 15 years of toil the Suez Canal had finally been completed allowing ships to cross from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Sea without having to circumnavigate Africa. The canal was a political and commercial success of genuine historical proportions. Every major power since the Egyptians had wanted to build a direct seaway through the desert. Brimming with confidence, canal building knowledge, and plenty of financial backing, the French team that built the Suez Canal set their sights on the next great seaway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Ferdinand de Lesseps
Ferdinand de Lesseps (from Wikimedia)

The construction of the Suez Canal was led by a French ex-diplomat turned extrovert entrepreneur called Ferdinand de Lesseps. De Lesseps skill as a salesman and a mediator enabled him to successfully manage the financial and political side of the project, whilst outsourcing much of the technical know-how. The project moved in fits and burst but was ultimately successful. That is not to say it did not have any major issues, but the technicalities of building the canal were gradually overcome. Labour was plentiful and cheap (if not free in some cases), the climate was hot but not inhospitable, and crucially the land was flat and easy work. Furthermore during the construction of the canal de Lesseps developed a blind faith in new technology, and at key points during the project when things were not looking so good a new technological solution would suddenly come to the rescue, such as mechanical excavators to speed up material extraction.

Buoyed by his success with the Suez Canal, a reputation for successfully building canals, profits from the Suez Canal and an unwavering faith in technology, de Lesseps set his sights on linking the Atlantic to the Pacific via a Central American seaway.

Planning the Canal

Efforts commenced in 1876 to survey the land as well as to put the necessary financial and political agreements in place. A series of different routes and designs for each route were put forward to the Congrès International d’Etudes du Canal Interocéanique, which took place over the course of a week in 1879 (de Lesseps limited the Congrès to one week in order to speed up the design and decision making process).

Although the potential routes were up to 40% shorter than the Suez Canal the options were varied and there were many factors to consider: A route through Nicaragua or Panama? Sea-level canals or high-level canals that use dams to create an inland lake and locks to raise ships up to and down from the lake? The design discussions were fraught and little consensus could be found.

De Lesseps was keen to repeat his success at Suez and that meant repeating as many of those successes as possible. Panama is not the Suez, however. It is a mountainous tropical terrain with high rainfall, which varies dramatically throughout the year and can cause large variations in water level as well as seasonal flooding. Many of the engineers in the delegation knew this and were primarily in favour of the high-level routes, which required significantly less digging and reduced the risk of flooding and landslides greatly.

The delegation even included one proposal that was very similar to the successful design implemented today, using a series of dams and locks across the Chagres river, near the Atlantic, and the Rio Grande on the Pacific Coast. This idea was put forward by Baron Godin de Lépinay, who was the only attendee with experience of civil engineering projects in the region, and was vehemently against the idea of a sea-level route, he wrote:

“At Suez there is a lack of water, the terrain is easy, the land nearly the same level as the sea”

He describes the building of a sea-level canal would be to “outrage nature” and describes his plan as “the most natural method”. De Lepinay knew digging down to sea-level was unrealistic and he wrote that the success of Suez distorted the ability of the committee to see that Suez and Panama were not comparable.

By the end of the week the Congrès was in disarray. Many splinter groups had formed, with competing ideas. This was de Lesseps’ time to shine, addressing the delegates for the first time he spoke confidently and at length about his proposal for a sea-level canal through Panama. Behind him was a large map of the region and he described a sea-level route which followed a similar route to the trans-Panamanian railway. De Lesseps conceded that there would be technical difficulties, but like Suez solutions would be forthcoming and technology would advance to meet those challenges.

The Vote

At the end of the week the Congrès’ resolution was put to a vote and it read:

“The congress believes that the excavation of an interoceanic canal at sea-level, so desirable in the interests of commerce and navigation, is feasible; and that, in order to take advantage of the indispensable facilities for access and operation which a channel of this kind must offer above all, this canal should extend from the Gulf of Limón to the Bay of Panama.”

In the end the resolution passed with 74 for and 8 against, which included de Lépinay and Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower fame). However, this does not tell the whole picture. 38 members were absent and 16 abstained. Crucially only 19 of the 74 yes votes were from engineers, of whom only one had ever been to Central America.

French Construction Efforts

Following the conclusion of the Congres the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama was formed in August 1879, and a new survey was commissioned. In late 1879, de Lesseps and an International Technical Commission made up of well-known engineers headed to Panama for the first time.

The Commission sought to validate all previous surveys, as well as determine the final route for the canal. The Commission’s report ultimately had very little in the way of scientific and technical substance and was seen as more of a rubber stamping of de Lesseps’ plan. The report approved of the sea-level plan and estimated an eight year construction time.

Ferdinand de Lesseps seldom visited Central America again, and he left the day-to-day running to his son Charles. De Lesseps senior remained in Paris for most of the construction time. His strategy of hiring the right people and machines would, he thought, surmount any technical difficulties, and even contracted the same company, Couvreux and Hersent, who helped him build the Suez Canal. His optimism for the project kept stockholders engaged and the money flowing.

Back in Panama, however, nature was biting back. The terrain was difficult and the sheer volume of earth that needed moving meant progress was slow. The heavy rains caused landslides increasing the number of earthworks required. Flooding and torrential rain were one thing, but tropical diseases were another thing entirely. By mid-1884 the death rate was 200 lives per month, by comparison the workforce in 1884 peaked at 19,000. In order to keep up the supply of works, recruiters were having to downplay the rumours coming from Panama. In total 20,000 workers died from either disease or accidents during construction.

Not only did tropical diseases ravage the workforce they inflicted serious tolls on the engineering staff. Deaths and staff turnover meant that knowledge about the project and engineering experience was thin on the ground. At one point the Director-General of the entire project was only 26 years old.

By 1886 only one-tenth of the excavation work had been completed and landslides were a constant threat. Something that the engineers still had little knowledge of how to solve.

French construction in 1888 (from Wikimedia)

In 1887 it was increasingly apparent to the engineers in Panama that a high-level canal with locks at each end was required in order to complete the project. After much delay from de Lesseps himself plans for a high-level canal were put into practice. Although this was only supposed to be a temporary measure and excavation of the sea-level canal was supposed to continue once the high-level canal was operational. But by 1888 the money had run out, de Lesseps failed to raise more funds and in January 1889 shareholders voted to dissolve the company. The ensuing “Panama Affair” saw de Lesseps charged for misappropriation of funds and his reputation was left in tatters. 

In 1894 a second separate company tried to drum up investment for a high-level canal, but they were unable to build up a head of steam, and eventually sold the project to the US Government in 1902.

American Construction

The Americans were well aware of the issues the French had had with the Panama Canal. For the Americans, however, the Panama Canal was of geopolitical importance as well as commercial importance.

The new political nature of the canal and the US government’s involvement meant that major strategic decisions had to be approved by the US Congress. And that involved deciding on the design of the canal. Again, the trade-off between a sea-level vs high-level canal was presented to Congress.

Chief Engineer John Frank Stevens was given the task of convincing President Roosevelt and Congress of the benefits of a high-level canal. Stevens was the American equivalent of Godin de Lépinay 25 years previously. He knew Panama, he knew about the flooding and the high rainfall of the Chagres River. Stevens was grilled by the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce on the use of locks and the high-level plan.

Stevens recognised that a sea-level canal as “an entirely untenable proposition, an impracticable futility”, calling it “a narrow, tortuous ditch” with the constant threat of landslides.  Even with infinite resources, Stevens still saw the high-level canal as the best option:

“It will provide a safer and quicker passage for ships… It will provide, beyond question, the best solution to the vital problem of how safely to care for the floodwater of the Chagres… Its cost of operation, maintenance and fixed charges will be much less than any sea-level canal.”

Even after Stevens’ testimony and the French failure the Senate only just voted for the high-level canal by 36-31 votes.

In 1904 The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were given the task of overseeing the operation and one of their first acts was to set up public health operations under Dr William Gorgas. Armed with new knowledge of yellow fever and malaria Gorgas’ team set about putting in measures to control mosquito populations as well as implementing strict sanitation rules. Although malaria was an ever present threat throughout the project, yellow fever was eradicated in the Panama region by late 1905.

Panama Canal – Gatun Locks 1910 (from Wikimedia)

With these victories the US Panama Canal was set up to succeed. There were still geopolitical and technical challenges to overcome but the project was on the right track. By 1913 the dams were built, the channels dug, and the locks in place. On the 10th October 1913 President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegram from Washington DC, which detonated a charge that demolished the earthworks separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean. Over the next year the waters rose behind the dams to fill Lake Gatún and on the 15th August 1914 the SS Ancon became the first cargo ship to traverse the canal.

Humanity, Technology and the Environment

Unlike any other species or natural process on the planet, humans have the ability to affect the environment in a targeted way. But things don’t always work out as planned and success is not guaranteed. There are limits to our abilities and there are importantly nearly always side effects in one way or another.

In the construction of the Suez Canal French engineers and businessmen thought they had hit upon a successful and easily replicable formula for linking oceans. In the Panama Canal they faced insurmountable problems, both in terms of engineering challenges as well as human costs. Simply scaling up the Suez plans was not enough, nor was the blind faith that a new technology was just around the corner. Hope, ambition and ingenuity were not enough to tame the Panamanian landscape and create a sea-level canal as anticipated. Though they eventually realised the errors of their ways it was too late and the money ran out.

Upon taking on the project the Americans sought to plot an easier path, working with the landscape and building a series of locks to carry ships above sea level to traverse the Isthmus of Panama. By 1914 the canal was completed and ships were no longer required to face the treacherous journey round Cape Horn, saving hundreds of lives and millions of tonnes of fuel.


In the challenge to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero and prevent continued environmental degradation, we face an analogous scenario to that of the Panama Canal. Our current technological methods are causing widespread damage and are no longer fit for purpose. The more we continue to use them the more damage we will cause.

But we must beware that having a blind faith in technology is not the complete solution. Just because we can fix the problems of one old technology with a new technology does not guarantee that all problems have been solved and that we can continue to live exactly as before. We also might have to adjust our ways of working and living to run with nature’s own rhythms.

In changing tack, we will have to put working with nature at the heart of any future practices. Understanding the effect of technology on nature is important, but understanding nature itself and the world around us is even more so.

In the end it is not humans versus nature. We are part of nature. Humans are not all conquering. And nature will bite back.


Panama Canal Authority, A History of the Panama Canal, French and American Construction Effortshttp://www.pancanal.com/eng/history/history/index.html

D. McCullough, The path between the seas : the creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, 1977, Simon and Schuster, New York


P. Hains, The Panama Canal: Some Objections to a Sea-Level Project, The North American Review , Mar., 1905, Vol. 180, No. 580 (Mar., 1905), pp. 440-452, http://www.jstor.com/stable/25105376


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