The Biggest Construction Project Ever

The Pass Between the Seas authored by David McCullough (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
The Pass Between the Seas authored by David McCullough (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)

After feeling the emotional blow of losing my hard disk and having nothing  useful to do for almost a week, I had to turn to something to forget about the long and tedious days ahead.  I decided to turn to reading.

Recently I had purchased the book, The Pass Between the Seas written by David McCullough.  It was the best investment in time for years.  This book is the best source of information about the construction of the Panama Canal.  There is so much information in this books, it’s almost unbelievable how large-scale this building project was at the turn of the century.

Being a Panamanian, I was very interested in what McCullough had to say about this risky enterprise.  He not only wrote about the construction itself, but undertook many related topics as well, such as:  history, technology, diplomacy, engineering, biographies, politics, sociology, medicine, geography, finance, law, trade and a whole lot more.

For many years, I thought the Panama Canal could be compared with the building of the great pyramids of Egypt.  I was wrong.  It’s much greater than that.  This international waterway is the most monumental human endeavor made by man in all its history.  There is no building, structure, wall, bridge or canal ever built by man anywhere in the planet which can be remotely compared with this feat.

Below is a brief excerpt of the book which depicts the sheer size of this construction enterprise in Panama:

“Its cost had been enormous.  No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.  Dollar expenditures since 1904 totaled $352,000,000 (including the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 paid to the French company).  By present standards this does not seem a great deal, but it was more than four times what Suez had cost, without even considering the sums spent by the two preceding French companies, and so much more than the cost of anything ever before built by the United States government as to be beyond compare.

Except for war, the only remotely comparable federal expenditures up to the year 1914 had been the acquisition of new territories, and the figure for all acquisitions as of that date—for the Louisiana Territory; Florida; California; New Mexico, and other western land acquired from Mexico; the Gadsden Purchase; Alaska; and the Philippines—was $75,000,000, or only about one-fifth of what had been spend on the canal.

The other cost since 1904, according to the hospital records, was 5,609 lives from disease and accidents.  No fewer than 4,500 of these had been black employees.  The number of white Americans who died was 350.

If the deaths incurred during the French era are included, the total price in human life may have been as high as twenty-five thousand, or five hundred lives for every miles of the canal.

The total volume of excavation accomplished since 1904 was 232,440,945 cubic yards and this added to the approximately 30,000,000 cubic yard of useful excavation by the French gave a grand total, in round number  of, of 262,000,000 cubic yards, or more than four times the volume originally estimated by Ferdinand de Lesseps for a canal at sea level and nearly three times the excavation at Suez.

The canal had also been opened six months ahead of schedule, and this too in the face of all those difficulties and changes unforeseen seven years before.

That so vast and costly and undertaking could also be done without graft, kickbacks, payroll padding, any of the hundred and one forms of corruption endemic to such works, seemed almost inconceivable at the start, nor does it seem any less remarkable in retrospect.  Yet the canal was, among so many other things, a clean project.  No excessive profits were made by any of the several thousand different first dealt with by the I.C.C.  There had not been the least kind of scandal from the time Goethals was given command, nor has evidence of corruption of any kind come to light in all the years since.

Technically, the canal itself was a masterpiece in design and construction.  From the time they were first put in use, the locks performed perfectly.”

Shortly, I will visit the Panama Canal installations to take some pictures for Lingua Franca. I will look at this monumental piece of work with a new set of eyes, certainly in awe of what the American will, determination and courage were able to accomplish when modern technology was at its infancy.  Until then, Good Day.

2 thoughts on “The Biggest Construction Project Ever”

  1. Looks like an interesting read–I remember doing a report in undergrad on the topic and was very surprised at the enormity of the project.

    1. Hi Slamdunk:

      Looking at the canal, it doesn’t seem like much, because most of it is covered with water. But when you read of the amount of dirt that flew, the amount of concrete that was mixed, the amount of people of died, and the amount of money it costs, it’s well beyond our wildest imagination.

      If you have an opportunity, I encourage you to read the book. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.



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