Modern history


Consensus of One

Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibers.



The Congrès International d’Études du Canal Interocéanique, as it was formally titled, convened in Paris at two in the afternoon, Thursday, May 15, 1879. After centuries of dreams and talk, of hit-or-miss explorations and hollow promises, of little scientific knowledge, little or no cooperation among nations, leading authorities from every part of the world—engineers, naval officers, economists, explorers—were gathering under one roof “in the impartial serenity of science” to inaugurate La grande entreprise,greatest of the age. Or so it was being said.

The setting was the handsome new headquarters of the Société de Géographie, in the Latin Quarter, at 184 Boulevard Saint Germain, where rows of neatly spaced young chestnut trees, each fenced in ornamental iron, were in full leaf and crowds of bystanders gathered in the sunshine to watch the delegates alight from their carriages. De Lesseps had picked mid-May because it was the perfect time to be in Paris. He personally had issued every invitation. He had had final say on agenda, rules, the make-up of committees, even the entertainment. He would have nothing left to chance.

In all, 136 delegates entered through the great oak doors that opened onto the street. In addition to France and her colonies (Algeria and Martinique), a total of twenty-two countries were to be represented: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Great Britain, Guatemala, the still-independent nation of Hawaii, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Russia, El Salvador, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Among the Dutch delegates was the renowned Jacob Dirks, builder of the Amsterdam Canal. Sir John Stokes and Sir John Hawkshaw, equally distinguished engineers, had come over from London. The Germans had sent a general inspector of mines; the Russians, an admiral. (The Russians had actually been so little interested in the historic convocation that they had neglected to appoint a delegate, and none would have appeared had de Lesseps not cabled a last-minute reminder.) Colombia had sent a four-man delegation, one of whom was young Pedro Sosa; and the Mexican delegate, Francisco de Garay, was in such a rush not to miss de Lesseps’ opening remarks that he left his baggage in customs at Saint-Nazaire and arrived on the Boulevard Saint Germain unshaven and still in his traveling clothes. At a nearby shop he picked out the appropriate attire (top hat, morning coat, gray gloves), had a barber sent in, then made his entrance with time to spare—a story that greatly pleased Ferdinand de Lesseps.

The American delegation, largest of the foregoing groups, numbered eleven, including Ammen, Menocal, and Commander Selfridge, plus delegates from the American Geographical Society, the National Academy of Science, the United States Board of Trade, and the City of San Francisco. And among the French were such recognizable personages as Jules Flachat, the explorer; Levasseur, the economist and geographer; Daubrée, president of the Académie des Sciences; Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of the Société des Ingénieurs; and the very elegant Admiral de La Roncière-Le Noury. Finally there was de Lesseps himself, the star attraction, his young wife on his arm.

They gathered in the grande salle on the first floor of the Société, a beautifully detailed, cream-colored auditorium with a lofty arched ceiling, a small stage, and a seating capacity for nearly four hundred people. De Lesseps, his officers, and Admiral de La Roncière-Le Noury occupied the stage; the delegates filled the first five rows, while every remaining seat was taken by spectators, including, as no newspaper reporter failed to note, a surprising number of fashionable women in the feathered bonnets of the day. When de Lesseps stood up to bid all welcome, there was a storm of applause.

This first session, however, was purely ceremonial and amounted to little. De Lesseps offered a few pleasantries (“The presence of ladies at a scientific gathering is always a good omen . . .”), and Henri Bionne, who was to be secretary of the congress, read a rather tedious paper on the Société’s prior interest in the canal idea. Then de Lesseps introduced those who were to head the various committees, hastily described the work of the committees, and read off the full list of delegates, asking each to rise in turn and be recognized. (The most prolonged applause was for the Chinese delegate, Mr. Li-Shu-Chang, first secretary of the Chinese legation in London, since China, as the newspapers explained, was expected to provide the labor to dig the canal.)

Several of the Americans were highly annoyed by all this. De Lesseps’ remarks were obviously unprepared. The whole session had not lasted an hour and nobody but de Lesseps and Bionne had been heard from. Everything seemed too neatly and arbitrarily prearranged. Despite the emphasis on the numbers of nations represented, there was an obvious predominance of French delegates, most of whom seemed committed already, out of past loyalties or for reasons of personal ambition, to take whatever course the old man dictated. The more prominent French delegates, for example, included the former director general at Suez, Voisin Bey; Abel Couvreux, of the giant Couvreux, Hersent et Compagnie, a major Suez contractor; and Alexandre Lavalley, who had built the great steam dredges used at Suez.

Of the several committees, only one really mattered, the fourth, or so-called Technical Committee, which was charged with deciding where the canal should be built, what kind of canal it should be, and what it was all going to cost. It was the largest committee, the one de Lesseps himself would sit on, and of the 52 other delegates he had assigned to it, more than half were French. Indeed, of all the 136 delegates in attendance, a total of 73—well over a majority—were French and not a quarter were engineers.

Further, de Lesseps seemed bound to hurry things through in record speed. The congress, he had said in conclusion, should get on with its work “in the American fashion—that is to say, with speed, and in a practical fashion . . .” One week, he thought, should suffice.

Probably the least inhibited appraisal of the congress was that of the representative from the American Geographical Society, Dr. William E. Johnston, a New York physician who described de Lesseps as “kind-hearted and obliging, but . . . ambitious also,” and from the start was convinced that he and the other non-French delegates would count for little. Ammen and Menocal especially had no business even being there, he wrote. No plan other than that of the famous Frenchman and his compatriots stood the least chance of adoption.

Still, de Lesseps had welcomed the Americans with such warmth and courtesy that even Ammen could be seen to thaw. He had made Ammen the first of five vice-presidents of the congress; he had Ammen sit at his right hand; he insisted that Ammen and Menocal serve on the Technical Committee.

The labors of the smaller committees, which met elsewhere in the building, were minimal and of little significance. One group concluded that the canal would be opened ten years hence and accommodate an annual traffic roughly twice that at Suez. (In the committee’s report it was stressed that such traffic should not be anticipated for the first year of operation, but de Lesseps would choose to disregard that.) Another group, estimating world commerce, a committee headed by Nathan Appleton, of Boston, the delegate from the United States Chamber of Commerce, met only three times and accomplished nothing. A committee on ship dimensions concluded that the canal need be no wider or deeper than Suez, and a committee on tolls, hamstrung to do much of anything without knowing what the Technical Committee would decide, made a gallant guess. With tolls set at $3 a ton, it was thought the canal could bring in a gross revenue of $18,000,000 a year, which was worked out to mean an annual net profit of no less than $8,000,000, or a return of 8 percent on a canal costing $100,000,000.

The deliberations of the Technical Committee, held in the auditorium, remained the focus of attention, the “impartial serenity of science” being pretty well shattered at the very first of these sessions on May 16.

The first speaker was to have been Admiral Ammen—another of de Lesseps’ courtesies—but the trunk containing the reports and maps from the American surveys had been delayed somewhere between Liverpool and Paris. So it was Commander Selfridge who spoke instead and his subject was the Atrato River route, which should have been no problem, and would not have been, had Ammen been willing to let Selfridge simply have his say. Ammen, however, thought very little of any and all Atrato River schemes; nor did he wish anyone to get the impression that Selfridge spoke as an official representative of the American government; nor apparently did he like the idea that Selfridge was even in attendance; nor does he seem to have much cared for Selfridge personally. (What the issue was between them remains obscure.) Ammen openly challenged certain of Selfridge’s claims and in no time a sharp and rather undignified argument resulted between the two: Ammen insisting that he, as the rightful head of the American delegation, should have the final say; Selfridge refusing to defer to the august admiral (now retired) and insisting with equal conviction that he had a perfect right to be heard and, further, that he could speak with authority since he at least had been there.

Selfridge would be asked to address the committee again in another few days. His explorations in Darien, his advocacy of a canal à niveau, his passable French, all made him a popular figure. (Later, the congress at an end, Selfridge would receive the Legion of Honor for his pioneering efforts in Darien.) But the Atrato scheme, though a “projet sans écluses,” never really had a chance of attracting serious attention, as Ammen should have recognized, and it was put aside just as soon as Selfridge had had the opportunity to speak his piece. What was interesting to the delegates was the tone of the exchange between the two eminent Americans—to see how intensely, how passionately, such an issue could matter to fellow countrymen, fellow officers and gentlemen.

Ammen had his turn the following day, the crucial trunk having been located meantime, and was followed immediately by Menocal. The effect was stunning. “When it came to the turn of Messrs. Ammen and Menocal to give their figures and estimates of the different routes, a complete revolution took place,” wrote Dr. Johnston. “The great body of able engineers who had come to seriously study the question without prejudice, were astounded to find that nobody in Europe knew anything about the question. Theexposéof the American delegates was a revelation. . . .”

Ammen’s part was a brief overall description of the American surveys, but the maps and plans he used to elaborate his remarks had an instant effect, since nothing of the kind had been seen before in Europe. Then followed the “technical exposition” on Nicaragua by Menocal.

A Nicaragua canal would involve fewer engineering problems than a canal at any other possible location, the audience was informed. The cost, based on an actual survey of the line, was so much less by comparison that for economy reasons alone a Nicaragua canal had to take precedence. The plan was for a lock canal, a sea-level canal at Nicaragua being out of the question.

The route of the canal was similar to that laid out by Vanderbilt’s engineer, Orville Childs, in the early 1850’s. The San Juan River would be made navigable by building several small dams and these would be bypassed with relatively short canal sections. Going west, up to the lake, there would be about forty miles of canal in total and ten locks. From the lake to the Pacific, a distance of only sixteen miles, there would be another section of canal with ten more locks descending back to sea level. The entire route, from Greytown to Brito, on the Pacific, would measure 181 miles, or more than three times the length of the Panama route. But as with the Childs’ scheme, 56 of those 181 miles were already provided for by Lake Nicaragua and almost 70 miles of the San Juan could be made navigable for seagoing ships. So that left only 50-odd miles—58.23 according to Menocal’s figures—of actual canal construction, or not much more than the length of a Panama canal.

The cost of such a canal he put at $65,600,000, a third less than the price being quoted by Lieutenant Wyse for his project.

It was a polished, confident performance lasting five hours, and it was made to look even better by the speaker who followed—Lieutenant Wyse. Menocal had spoken as one who had appraised all sides of the problem, seen to every detail, who had covered every foot of the ground on his own two legs. He was the thoroughgoing professional, the voice of experience. Wyse, by contrast, was often vague on details, unsure of his facts. He talked, said one delegate, as though he had dreamed up his entire plan without ever having left Paris.

Wyse, General Türr, Armand Réclus, and several others associated with them had been present from the first session, and though they were not accredited delegates, and so in theory had no real power or say, they were, as members of the Société de Géographie, perfectly at home in such surroundings and known to all. Wyse, as it happened, was the recipient of the Société’s gold medal for that year, for his Darien explorations. Yet virtually from the moment he began to speak of his Panama project it was clear to a large number of delegates that he had little substantive knowledge of the terrain and that there was really no such thing as a Wyse Survey. And whereas Menocal had encouraged questions at the conclusion of his remarks and answered them to the satisfaction of every engineer present, Wyse was at a loss to defend his plan on even the most fundamental level. Specifically, he did not know what could be done about the Chagres River, which stood in the path of any canal taking the route of the railroad, or how, when he went down to sea level, he could cope with the twenty-foot tides of the Pacific.

When on Monday, May 19, General Türr and Lieutenant Réclus appeared before the committee and talked for several more hours, they contributed scarcely any more than Wyse had.

Tuesday, May 20, Menocal took the platform again. It was his professional judgment, as a result of three months in the Chagres valley, that any attempt to build a Panama canal would be disastrous. The absolutely unavoidable problem was the river. Any canal at Panama—a lock canal, a sea-level canal—would have to cross the river at least once, possibly several times. If a sea-level canal were cut through the river, the result, as anyone could readily picture, would be a stupendous cataract. The fall of the river into the canal would be 42 feet and this measurement was based on the level of the river in the dry season, when the river was only a few feet deep. In the rainy season the river could be instantly transformed into a torrent. It could rise 10 feet in an hour. At flood stage it could run as much as 36 feet deep, he said, and measure 1,500 feet across. The cost of controlling so monstrous a force—if it could be done at all—was beyond reckoning.

When he first went to Panama, in 1875, his own intention, he said, had been to plan for a sea-level canal. He had abandoned the idea as soon as he grasped the true nature of the Chagres River. Any plan that did not take the river into account was altogether unrealistic.

Lieutenant Wyse asked to be heard. Where had the speaker obtained his data? From actual surveys and from local authorities, Menocal replied. His figures had been obtained through surveys in the field.

The official American plan for Panama was for a lock canal that would dispense with the problem of the Chagres by going over it. Menocal had designed a colossal stone viaduct 1,900 feet long to carry the canal over the river at a point known as Matachín. The elevation of the canal at the viaduct—the summit of the canal, that is—was to be 124 feet, and to carry the ships to this height there were to be a total of twenty-four locks (an equal dozen in either direction from the summit). To build such a canal would cost $94,600,000, a figure that startled a large number of his listeners, since it was approximately what Wyse was claiming for the cost of a canal at sea level.

Menocal believed it to be as ingenious a solution as possible, considering the circumstances, but he had no heart for it. In good conscience he was unable to recommend a Panama canal of any kind. Even a lock canal, he emphasized, would always be threatened by possible floods, and he further warned that the deep cuts that would have to be made through the Cordilleras at that section known as Culebra—even for a lock canal—would be subject to persistent mud slides.

“The surprise and painful emotion on the part of those who had plans à niveau, and of their many friends in attendance, can hardly be conceived,” wrote Daniel Ammen. “The fact stared them in the face that the plans which they had presented so confidently for adoption were absolutely impracticable.”

“From this moment,” observed Dr. Johnston, “the Congress became a real Congress and not a sham.”

• •

All together the Technical Committee was to consider proposals for fourteen different points on the map of Central America. Frederick Kelley’s old San Blas plan was presented, for example. The Mexican delegate, de Garay, spoke for Tehuantepec. But these other options were rejected one by one. In less than a week the issue had come down to the Wyse plan for Panama and the American plan for Nicaragua, and to a great many delegates, having heard Menocal, the choice had been narrowed to Nicaragua. Had a vote been taken at the conclusion of Menocal’s remarks on Panama, it is probable that the congress would have picked Nicaragua, as de Lesseps himself conceded privately. But with de Lesseps in charge nothing of the kind was even to be considered.

Behind the scenes he was extremely busy, talking to the French delegates in a manner that “would do credit to a modern American political boss.” There could be no turning back. They could agree to no decision other than Panama. “That was the French route,” wrote Dr. Johnston; “they had been manufacturing enthusiasm for that route; the bankers and the public would not give a cent to any route that was not patronized by M. de Lesseps and Lieut. Wyse. So that to abandon that route was to abandon entirely for France the glory of cutting the interoceanic canal, and that was not to be thought of for a moment.”

By now, moreover, it was commonly understood that large sums of money were at stake. A Panama canal company had been formed in secret, it was rumored. “We were to be brought face to face with the singular spectacle of a congress which had become serious and honest, and which saw its way clear to the truth,” observed Dr. Johnston, “and yet which was obliged to remain dishonest, and carry out the original plan, no matter by what means . . . . It was the game of ‘I see you, and go you one better,’ played by men who had no cards, but plenty of money.”

Nor, it should be emphasized, were the warnings voiced solely by the Americans. A noted French engineer named Ribourt, one of the builders of the Saint Gotthard Tunnel, urged the delegates not to misjudge the magnitude of the undertaking. To cut through Panama à niveau, to dig a tunnel such as Lieutenant Wyse spoke of, would require not less than nine years of continuous labor, even if the work went on twenty-four hours a day. The cost, said Ribourt, would be at least twice what Wyse was saying. In the view of the revered John Hawkshaw a sea-level canal was physically impossible, since it would have to provide for the entire drainage of the Isthmus at that point. The tunnel being advocated would not be big enough to handle such a volume of water, he said, let alone any ships.

Wyse and Réclus were livid. Réclus could respond only with a rapid list of extraneous claims and countercharges. When the chair requested that he confine his remarks to the subject under discussion, Wyse all but shouted that their plans were being constantly attacked yet they were never given a chance to defend them. His manner, noted Daniel Ammen, was “very excited.”

Wyse and Réclus, meantime, were working all hours making drastic revisions. The idea of a tunnel was dropped. Their canal would be an open cut from ocean to ocean. The Pacific tides, they announced, would be handled by a tremendous tidal lock at that end of the canal. The Chagres would be “diverted” into a man-made channel, although Wyse was less than clear as to how this was to be managed.

The week that de Lesseps had thought sufficient to settle all issues and problems had by now passed and a consensus seemed farther away, less likely than ever. So on Friday, May 23, he “threw off the mantle of indifference,” as one delegate wrote, and convened another general session in the auditorium. “He is tenacious as well as able,” observed Dr. Johnston, “and did not propose to suffer a defeat.”

For the first time now he spoke at length, alone on the dais, a large map displayed behind him. The audience hung on every word and he spoke as though they were all his dearest friends, as confident of their eventual support as he was in his own preeminence in such matters. Walking back and forth freely before the map, he talked effortlessly, without pause, without notes. He was more like an actor on stage, radiant, virile, his ideas phrased in the simplest, most direct, and sensible-sounding terms.

One had only to look at the map to see that Panama was the proper place for the canal. The route was already well established, there was a railroad, there were thriving cities at each end. Only at Panama could a sea-level canal be built. It was really no great issue at all. Naturally, there were problems. There were always problems. There had been large, formidable problems at Suez, and to many respected authorities they too had seemed insurmountable. But as time passed, as the work moved ahead at Suez, indeed as difficulties increased, men of genius had come forth to meet and conquer those difficulties. The same would happen again. For every challenge there would be a man of genius capable of meeting and conquering it. One must trust to inspiration. As for the money, there was money aplenty in France just waiting for the opening of the subscription books.

He knew his audience and he delivered every line with perfect confidence in its effect. His audience adored him.


It was later that same day that another of the French delegates, one who had had nothing to say thus far, came to the front of the auditorium to deliver the most extraordinary pronouncement of the entire congress. A man of genius stepped forward then and there, in fact, although no one, not even de Lesseps, perceived this.

He was Baron Godin de Lépinay—Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lépinay, Baron de Brusly—a small, bearded aristocrat who was a chief engineer with the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (the French Department of Bridges and Highways), and a man known both for his brilliance and his ill-concealed disdain for those who failed to agree with him. He had devised an original answer to the Panama problem, including Panama’s deadly climate, which he regarded as the most serious aspect of the problem. He was, as he told the delegates, one of the very few present who had had any actual experience with engineering construction in “the warm lands of tropical America.” This, as he did not say, had been the building of a railroad between Córdoba and Veracruz, in 1862, during which a third of the labor force and two-thirds of the engineering staff died of yellow fever.

His solution was what Philippe Bunau-Varilla would call the “Idea of the artificial Nicaragua.” Incredibly and tragically, the delegates paid him no attention. The Americans dismissed the plan as ridiculous. Menocal could hardly bring himself to mention de Lépinay’s name in his report on the congress. Ammen referred only to the “plan,” in quotes, as an illustration of the extremes some of the French had gone to in an effort to rescue the Panama route. Had the delegates reacted differently, had they taken de Lépinay seriously, the story of the canal could have turned out quite differently.

He acknowledged the truth of all Menocal had said regarding the Chagres River. He himself had been considering the problem of a Panama canal for some years. The idea of digging down to sea level was thoroughly unrealistic if one understood the terrain and ought to be discarded without further fuss. Those who talked of diverting the Chagres River in some fashion were sadly misinformed and deceiving themselves. They were allowing the triumph at Suez to distort their capacity to see things for what they were. Suez and Panama must not be regarded as comparable, he said. The environmental conditions were opposite in the extreme. “At Suez there is a lack of water, the terrain is easy, the land nearly the same level as the sea; in spite of the heat, it is a perfectly healthy climate. In tropical America, there is too much water, the terrain is mostly rock, the land has considerable relief, and finally the country is literally poisoned.” To act in the same manner in places of such opposite character, he declared, would be to “outrage nature” instead of to benefit by it, “which is the primary goal of the engineer.”

His own plan—“the most natural method”—was brilliantly simple, a genuine stroke of genius, and, as time would tell, it was absolutely sound.

Like Menocal, he had concluded that the Chagres must be bridged, but instead of a stone viaduct at Matachín, he envisioned a bridge of water across most of the Isthmus. There would be two artificial lakes, with flights of locks, like stairs, leading up to the lakes from the two oceans. As Lake Nicaragua was the essential element in the Nicaragua plan, providing both easy navigation and an abundant source of water for the canal, so his man-made lakes would serve at Panama. Through engineering, in other words, he would create at Panama what already existed at Nicaragua.

What he was proposing was not really a canal at all in the conventional sense. His lakes would be created by building two huge dams, one at the Chagres near the Atlantic, the other on the Rio Grande, which flows into the Pacific. The dams would be built as near to the two oceans as the configuration of the land permitted. The Chagres dam, the largest, should be built, he said, at the confluence of the Chagres and the Gatun rivers, at a point called Gatun, and it would hold the largest of the lakes. The surface of the lakes would be eighty feet above sea level and the lakes would be joined by a channel cut through the mountain spine at Culebra, this being the only heavy excavation required.

The virtues of the plan were enormous. To begin with, it greatly reduced the amount of digging to be done. Further, it eliminated all danger of Chagres floods, since the river would feed directly into the lakes. The dams would control the river; the river would serve as an unlimited water supply for the lakes—for the canal. Thus the river would become the life blood of the system, rather than its mortal enemy.

The resulting passage, furthermore, would be a broad lake, rather than a narrow channel. Ships would be able to move at greater speeds and they would be able to pass one another without shunting into sidings, or tying up, as was necessary at Suez. Passage through such a canal would take no more than twelve hours, even if one were to figure the time in each lock at half an hour, when, in fact, actual time in the lock would probably run closer to fifteen minutes. And twelve hours was only an hour and a half more than could be expected for passage through the best-engineered sea-level canal at Panama.

Such a project could be completed in six years, he said, and at a cost of 500,000,000 francs ($100,000,000), including interest and overhead, but not including the cost of buying the Panama Railroad, which, he stressed, would be an essential step and a very sizable expenditure.

Most important of all, he said, was the saving the plan would mean in terms of human lives. As was understood by everyone in the audience, nearly all varieties of tropical fever and miasma were caused by “noxious vapors” released from the putrid vegetation and rank soil of the jungle. Any excessive disturbance of such ground, therefore, naturally meant the spread of disease in epidemic proportions. But since his scheme called for a minimum of excavation, there would be a minimum of disturbance during construction and the incidence of disease would be correspondingly small. Furthermore, once the canal was built, much of the poisonous terrain would be sealed off by the lakes, producing a long-lasting beneficial effect. To dig a canal à niveau in Panama, he said, would cost the lives of no less than fifty thousand men.

His ideas were eloquently expressed and uncannily prophetic, but the delegates did not think enough of them to grant him even a token discussion. The congress turned to other matters.

• •

Two subcommittees—one on tunnels and another on lock canals—were in closed session through the weekend and on Monday, May 26, presented their conclusions. Menocal’s Nicaragua canal was found to be perfectly practicable. Its cost was figured at $140,000,000 and the opinion was that it could be built in six years. The Wyse plan too was declared practicable. But the cost was put at $209,000,000. It was further stated that at least twelve years would be needed to build such a canal and all claims were qualified by a final explicit warning that construction of a Panama canal at sea level, as well as any measures designed to restrain the Chagres, presented many problems past reckoning.

Those delegates friendly to Lieutenant Wyse responded by asserting privately—in the halls outside the auditorium, over lunch in nearby cafés and restaurants on the Boulevard Saint Germain—that de Lesseps “would positively refuse” to lead the building of any canal other than one at Panama, a statement that had the desired effect of bringing a number of wavering delegates quickly back into line.

Commander Selfridge joined those attacking the Nicaragua plan and for the first time raised the issue of Nicaragua’s history of earthquakes and volcanic disturbances. But two of the most prominent French members of the Technical Committee, Cotard and Lavalley, both former engineers with de Lesseps at Suez, sided with the Nicaragua forces, as did Gustave Eiffel.

Wednesday, May 28, following a late night at the banquet tables (at the Hotel Continental, overlooking the Tuileries Gardens), the language of several speakers became considerably less diplomatic than heretofore. Menocal in particular made no effort to conceal his mounting disgust. He had come to Paris, he said, to present serious proposals based on volumes of information gathered through great effort and at great cost. He and his colleagues had expected other delegates to present material of comparable character, and that from a proper consideration of all such data, serious people, professionals of proven competence, would make their decisions in a spirit of reason and impartiality. Instead, the American plans were being weighed on the same scale as were imaginary schemes traced on imperfect maps, some of them the result of a night’s inspiration.

With that the oratory became highly charged. One French delegate, speaking for several hours, declared that it must be a sea-level canal, no matter what the cost.

The final recommendation of the Technical Committee, the decision the whole congress had been waiting for, was arrived at late that night amid tremendous confusion and excitement. Even in the stilted official account of the proceedings it is apparent that the session very nearly became a brawl. Twenty delegates, nearly half the committee, walked out before the vote was taken. In the end, only Ferdinand de Lesseps and eighteen others were willing to vote on a resolution, and of these, just three refused to vote as he wished.

Panama was pronounced the proper place for the canal and a sea-level canal was especially recommended.

It had been raining off and on for the past few days and it was raining again the following day, Thursday, May 29, when at 1:30 in the afternoon the full congress convened to hear the committee’s report and to cast the final, historic vote. “The hall was densely crowded, many ladies being present,” recalled Admiral Ammen; “about one hundred members or delegates and three to four hundred other persons. . . .” Dr. Johnston, who had no illusions as to how the vote would go, wrote bitterly:

We had arrived at the moment of “sublime resolutions,” of those “sublime resolutions” which have been the glory and ridicule of France; they were going to carry hundreds of millions of money abroad for the good of mankind in general. It would cost much money, but the money they had; it would require men of genius, but these also they had; the absurd barrier which nature had thrown up between the two seas was going to fall before the force of French genius and the power of French money.

French observers would recall the solemnity of the moment as de Lesseps read aloud the crucial resolution:

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 Limon to the Bay of Panama.

The necessary time for construction was fixed at twelve years—a finished canal by 1892—and the cost of construction was estimated at 1,070,000,000 francs, or $214,000,000. Supposing the interest payable in the meantime would amount to 130,000,000 francs, the total expenditure worked out to 1,200,000,000 francs, or $240,000,000-almost triple the cost of Suez.

It was a voice vote in alphabetical order. Henri Bionne called the names.

Daniel Ammen rose and abstained on the grounds that only professional engineers should be allowed to vote on such a proposition. Two other Americans, Nathan Appleton and Christian Christiansen, the latter from San Francisco, voted yes. The first no was sounded by the Guatemalan delegate. Daubrée, who had been chairman of the Technical Committee, voted yes, as did a former Suez engineer named Dauzats. Gustave Eiffel voted no.

Flachat, Hawkshaw, and Dr. Johnston decided to absent themselves from the proceedings. Alexandre Lavalley was also absent. When Godin de Lépinay was called, he got to his feet and looked about the large crowd. “Though unable to make my advice triumph, I will not abandon it. And in order not to burden my conscience with unnecessary deaths and useless expenditure I say ‘no!’ ” When he sat down it was to a noisy chorus of jeers and booing.

Seventy-seven of the delegates had voted at this point and forty-three had voted yes. The next name in alphabetical order, everybody knew, was Ferdinand de Lesseps.

“I vote ‘yes!’ ” he cried out, his voice filling the room. “And I have accepted command of the enterprise!” It was his first such public declaration and it electrified the house. The applause and cheering went on and on, interrupting the roll call for several minutes.

The rest went swiftly. Eli Lazard, of San Francisco, the Russian admiral, the Chinese delegate, a man from the Italian Geographical Society, declared themselves in the affirmative. A. G. Menocal abstained. As the final tabulation was being made, de Lesseps, looking immensely pleased, told the audience, “Two weeks ago I had no idea of placing myself at the head of a new enterprise. My dearest friends have tried to dissuade me, telling me that after Suez I should take a rest. Well! If you ask a general who has just won a first victory whether he wishes to win a second, would he refuse?”

To other audiences later he was to say that it was the overwhelming approval of the congress, the faces he saw before him, and especially the look his wife gave him that propelled him to make the decision, adding that to have backed down then would have been an act of cowardice. His wife, he would say, had been the foremost of those dearest friends who had tried to dissuade him. She had wished only that their life could continue as it was. So apparently she too had been swept up by the spirit of the moment.

There was absolute silence as the vote was declared: in favor of the resolution, 74; opposed, 8; abstaining, 16; absent, 38.

Delegates were on their feet cheering; women were waving handkerchiefs. It was as if an astonishing victory had been won. De Lesseps stepped forward and promised success; Admiral de La Roncière-Le Noury declared that the day marked the beginning of one of the greatest undertakings of modern times. “It seems to me that nothing could have been more glorious . . .” Henri Barboux, attorney for Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, would recall years later before a packed courtroom. “Might not one think of it as a council ordaining, after the lapse of seven hundred years, a new crusade?”

• •

Ferdinand de Lesseps was a man accustomed to having his own way and he had not been disappointed. The congress, as its severest critics claimed, had been put on primarily to give the Wyse Concession a legitimacy, an authority, that it otherwise lacked and that it greatly needed to attract the necessary financial backing, as de Lesseps knew better than anyone. The grand international gathering had been conceived not to arrive at a consensus, but to provide an inaugural ceremony for a decision already made by the one delegate who mattered, Ferdinand de Lesseps. The objective from the start had been to ordain, to consecrate, the Wyse Concession, the Wyse plan, in full public view, with all possible ceremony, to give the appearance of an impartial, scientific, international sanction. The Americans with their maps and plans and convictions had come alarmingly close to spoiling the effect, but even they had been no match for “the first promoter of the age.”

Virtually all of de Lesseps’ blind spots, all the tragic errors of his way, had shown themselves in the course of the two weeks—the jaunty disregard of technical problems, the inability to heed, to trust, the views of recognized authorities if those views conflicted with his own, the faith that the future would take care of itself, that necessity would give rise to invention in required proportions and at the proper moment, the unshakable faith in his own infallibility.

But then all these same qualities had been fundamental to his success in Egypt, and combined with his love of people, his charm, these were what made him Ferdinand de Lesseps. And who then was to say that he knew more about building a canal, more about success in such grandiose undertakings?

The Americans went home furious and extremely skeptical that anything would ever come of the affair.

Why Ammen and Menocal had failed to vote no, to record their negative views in public when it counted, remained a puzzle to many and a disappointment to the handful who had. By way of explanation Dr. Johnston offered that “these delegates were met and surrounded during their whole stay with such a large hospitality, they were so dined and feted, that they will be excused for lacking the heart to look their entertainers in the face and pronounce so harsh a word as ‘no.’ ”

A. G. Menocal, afterward, did an interesting analysis of the vote. Though the yea votes were predominantly French, not one of the five delegates from the French Society of Engineers had voted for the proposal. Of those seventy-four delegates who did declare themselves for a sea-level canal at Panama, only nineteen were engineers and of those nineteen only one had ever set foot in Central America and he was young Pedro Sosa of Panama.



Ferdinand de Lesseps



Jules Verne



the second Madame de Lesseps, Louise Hélène Autard de Bragard


Lieutenant Lucien Napoleon-Bonaparte Wyse



Charles de Lesseps



Secretary of State William Evarts



Admiral Daniel Ammen



American skepticism over the vast undertaking as expressed by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly: “Is M. de Lesseps a Canal Digger or a Grave Digger?”



view of the Chagres River at the time the French arrived. The Panama Railroad is in the foreground; the village of Gatun is across the river.



Front Street, Colón, as it looked during the French era



headquarters of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, Cathedral Plaza, Panama City


Ferdinand de Lesseps with his entourage in Panama in 1880



four unidentified French engineers and an unidentified companion. Probably three of the five died of disease.



one of the giant French excavators upon which de Lesseps based his high expectations



I’Hôpital Nôtre Dame du Canal, the French hospital on Ancon Hill outside Panama City



operating room at Ancon sometime in the late 1880’s



crockery rings filled with water were used by the French to protect plants on the hospital grounds from the ravages of umbrella ants, but served also as perfect breeding grounds for Stegomyia fasciata, the yellow-fever mosquito



one of hundreds of surviving death certificates from the Ancon hospital, this of a twenty-nine-year-old Frenchman who died of yellow fever in 1886



Philippe Bunau-Varilla at the time of his graduation from the École Polytechnique



the hanging of Pedro Prestan at Colón, August 18, 1885, following the disastrous “Prestan Uprising”



West Indian labor gangs ride a raft specially devised by Bunau-Varilla for the underwater placement of dynamite charges prior to dredging. Long steel drills were driven by hand according to his mathematically calculated pattern.



French ladder dredge at work. It was upon machines of this kind that Bunau-Varilla rested his novel scheme for rescuing the French effort during its desperate finale.



Baron Jacques de Reinach



Georges Clemenceau



Charles de Lesseps pleads his case in the Paris Court of Appeal in January 1893, at the start of the first of two sensational trials. The three other defendants seated behind Charles are, from left to right, Gustave Eiffel, Henri Cottu, and Marius Fontane. Henri Barboux, attorney for Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, is the small white-haired figure standing behind Charles’s empty chair. This courtroom looks today exactly as it did then.



a contemporary artist’s conception of the bedridden Cornelius Herz, the “mystery man of Panama,” sequestered in his hotel room at Bournemouth, England



The abandoned château of the first Directeur Général, the much-publicized “folie Dingler”



An abandoned French excavator is overtaken by the jungle near Tabernilla.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!