WILL the Panama Canal ever be completed ? The officials of the new French company which has taken charge of the work say that it will. They have had 3,000 men labouring on it for three years, and in that time a vast deal of dredging and cutting has been accomplished.
During my stay on the Isthmus, I walked over a large part of the canal route. The deepest cutting is to be done at the Cule-bra tunnel or Pass. Here I found 800 men at work cutting down the mountain, and was told that more than 2,000 were employed within a mile of each side of this point. The scene was a busy one. Long trains of iron cars were carrying their loads of rock and clay from one point to another. Immense steel dredges, each as tall as a two-story house and ten times as big as the largest threshing-machine, were gouging out rock and gravel and carrying them in big iron buckets fastened to endless chains, and pouring them into the cars. Here negroes from Jamaica were drilling holes in the mountain and charging them with dynamite ; and from the other side of the hill, a mile away, I could hear the boom, boom, boom of the explosions of another gang.
A little farther on, at the station of Emperador, seven huge dredges were scooping up rock into enormous buckets, which the machinery elevated to trolley lines so arranged that the rock was carried by gravity to the places where it was most needed.
On the Pacific the entrance to the canal is being deepened by dredges; and at different points along the line more or less work is going on. The construction is now in the hands of the new company which was founded after the bursting of the great Panama bubble. This company, I believe, is working honestly, and it has done a vast amount of cutting and dredging with the money it has spent since its organization. Its managers estimate that at least one-third of the canal has been already completed, and that they can finish it at an expenditure of a little more than $100,000,000. Their claims have, however, a questionable foundation.
Many people on the Isthmus think they have really no hope of completing the canal, and that they are merely working with the idea that the United States government or some syndicate of capitalists will buy them out. They claim that the Panama route is far superior to the Nicaragua route, and that the United States can never build the canal which it contemplates farther north.
But let me give in a nutshell the story of the canal. It is one of the most remarkable, yet most scandalous, in the annals of civil engineering. First, let us see what has been attempted. The Isthmus of Panama as it lies on the map looks like the neck of an hour-glass, of which North and South America are the globes. It is a neck uniting the two continents, and it is made up of hard rock and of exceedingly stiff soil. It ranges in width from 30 to 180 miles, but it is big enough to block the commerce of the world. If it could be dropped down under the sea, San Francisco would be i0,000 miles nearer to New York, as far as our ships are concerned, and the commerce of Europe and the United States would in large part pass through it on its way to and from Asia.
The Isthmus of Panama is just about as long as the distance between Washington city and Boston via New York. A range of low mountains runs through it, and along the coasts are miasmatic swamps and morasses. The distance between the two ends of the canal, as the crow flies, is not more than forty miles; but the canal route winds about so that it is more than forty-five miles in length. It has the advantage of the river valleys of the Chagres on the Atlantic and of the Rio Grande on the Pacific. Where it crosses the Isthmus, there is a pass through the mountains, which is only 1,360 feet high, and the deep cutting which is to be done through this is not more than twelve miles in length.
If the canal should be cut down to sea level, it will be necessary to cut away all this 1,360 feet of rock and earth; but if, as is now contemplated, locks are made, much less cutting will be necessary. Already a large part of the deep cutting and dredging has been done.
On the Atlantic side, for instance, the contract for dredging the Chagres river and constructing some miles of the canal was given to Americans. They employed modern machinery, and opened up the canal for about fourteen miles hack from the coast. From six to eight miles have been dredged out on the Pacific side, so that after the mountains are cut through, the excavations from ocean to ocean will be comparatively easy. I examined the work at the Culebra ridge. The rock is soft, and the cutting is by no means an impossibility. It is merely a question of money and labour, and these are the conditions, so the best engineers say, as to all parts of the canal.
One of ,the great difficulties is the taking care of the water of the Chagres river. The canal will cross the river six times in its course. In dry seasons the Chagres is a sluggish stream, 300 feet wide, and about three feet in depth. When I crossed it on my way over the Isthmus, it seemed little more than a creek. In the wet season it often rises thirty feet in one night; it then becomes a raging torrent, and bears along everything on its floods. This river will have to be held back by a mighty dam, so constructed that the waters can be let out gradually, so as not to injure the canal.
This was one of the problems which De Lesseps proposed to solve when he founded the Panama Canal Company. With his triumph as to the Suez Canal before him, he thought the canal could be easily made. He organized a great association. Stock was issued by the hundreds of millions of francs, and was greedily taken up by the French people. ‘ When the money gave out, printing-presses were set to work to make more stock, so that within less than ten years the enormous amount of $265,000,000 worth of stock and bonds was manufactured and sold.
A large part of this vast sum was spent on the Isthmus of Panama. The French officials poured out money here for years. They bought everything wholesale. When the bubble burst they had on hand among other things, 150 floating derricks, 180 tow-boats and launches, 6,000 iron dumping waggons, 190 miles of rail-road track constructed for canal work, and more than 10,000 cars. This plant was scattered along a distance not greater than from Washington to Baltimore. They had, moreover, built beautiful cottages on every hill along the line of the canal. There were 5,000 buildings along the route, some of them costing thousands of dollars. They constructed quarters for 30,000 workmen, and had hundreds of houses made in pieces in the United States and brought to Panama to be put together. Most of these houses are now unoccupied save by negroes, and all are fast going to ruin.
The waste is indescribable. I saw machinery, which must have cost millions, rotting and rusting away. I saw enough car-wheels to equip a trunk line of railroad; and there were so many rotten trucks that if their pieces could be put together, they would make a train reaching half-way across the Isthmus. The officials bought these materials in vast quantities because they made money out of every contract, and the more they bought the more they made; so when a train ran off the track or rolled down an embankment they let it lie, and ordered more cars.
Those were the days when money was the cheapest of all things on the Isthmus. Gold was more common at Panama than copper is in Montana. Train-loads of it were carried across the Isthmus, and men made fortunes in a lump. Eiffel, the man who built the big tower at Paris, had one contract which netted him $5,000,000. New York parties had contracts amounting to $20,000,000. They did honest work, too. Irresponsible engineers took all sorts of contracts, and made fortunes. I heard of one man who had been discharged as worthless by a New York contractor. A few weeks later his old employer met him driving about in state with a black valet. Being asked how he had got along, the ex-engineer replied :
“I am rich now. I took a contract to fill a hole along the canal for $50,000. Another man had a contract to cut down a hill near my hole for $150,000. We joined hands, and I charged him $50,000 to put his hill into my hole. The result was that I made $i00,000 without spending a cent.”
Another man measured up a part of the Chagres river as a section of his excavation contract, and by collusion with the French accountants received the money. And so the game went on. Everybody was getting rich. The banks made loans at ten per cent. a month. Champagne flowed like water; and Sarah Bernhardt and other actresses were brought from Paris to amuse the canal officials.
At the same time the corruptionists of Paris were sharing the profits. Five million dollars were spent upon the French news-papers, other millions were used to bribe the officials of the French government ; altogether more than a quarter of a billion dollars were spent before the owners of the canal stock realized that they were being swindled. The stockholders were chiefly the peasants of France, the most hard-fisted, economical, and accumulative people of Europe. They had come to the assistance of the government at the close of the war with Germany, and had lent it a billion dollars to pay its debt. They had again shown their faith in the so-called great men of France in this canal scheme, but only to find themselves terribly swindled.
If France is ever to finish the canal, it is from the French people that its money must come. Will they respond with the investment of another hundred millions or so when the money is needed ? In all probability not. The Panama canal may be built; it probably will be built some day; but that France alone will build it does not seem among the possibilities.