Modern history


Distant Shores

. . . and I maintain that Panama will be easier to make, easier to complete, and easier to keep up than Suez.



With no further delay Ferdinand de Lesseps swung into action. In a matter of days he had organized a private syndicate of some 270 rich and influential friends who, for providing 2,000,000 francs, were to receive founders’ shares at a bargain price, once a company was legally established. It was the same as he had done for Suez.

Next he bought out the Türr Syndicate for 10,000,000 francs ($2,000,000). Payment was to be half in cash, half in stock in the new company. The Wyse Concession was now his alone, as much as the Suez concession had been, and Wyse, Türr, and the rest realized a profit on their initial investment of more than 3,000 percent. Istvan Türr took his money and went off to negotiate a concession from the king of Greece to build a canal across the Isthmus of Corinth. Wyse and the others, however, were in to stay, convinced that the best was yet to come. Wyse was happily telling friends that de Lesseps had promised to put him in command of the work, as reward for his efforts. But as others had learned at Suez, de Lesseps was not one to share power or glory. He denied having guaranteed Wyse a role of any kind. The young officer had served his purpose and so now he was dropped—“betrayed” Wyse felt.

A prospectus was prepared for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama and de Lesseps was off on a whirlwind tour of the provinces to drum up 400,000,000 francs, twice what he had raised to launch the Suez venture. His support, he said, would come as it had before, from small investors, people from every walk of life. His self-confidence had never been greater. He would go to Panama, he said, to make a personal evaluation. He would tour the United States to explain his mission to the people of that great land. “M. de Lesseps is convinced that it [the canal] is the right thing,” wrote the Paris correspondent of The New York Times, “and . . . the simple fact of his connection with it will secure that Archimedean lever of the nineteenth century, money . . .”

But it was not to be that simple. Times had changed since the Suez company had been organized. The powers of the financial world and of the press had advanced considerably and the new venture had already become the target of a calculated attack. Influential French bankers wished to demonstrate the indispensable nature of their services at such times, then to step in and take control of subsequent stock subscriptions, once de Lesseps’ initial subscription failed, as they assured everyone it would. Influential publishers expected to be paid for their editorial backing.

Rumors were started in the Bourse that de Lesseps was in his dotage and ought not to be trusted with other people’s money. It was claimed that at the first blow of a French pickax at Panama, the American fleet would arrive and massacre the workers. Crédit Maritime said the canal would cost so much that it would never pay a dividend. Another financial paper called the scheme a swindle and warned readers not to risk their savings in it.

The result was the failure of the stock issue, a failure so resounding that almost any man other than de Lesseps would have abandoned the whole plan there and then and spared himself any further humiliation.

Of 800,000 shares offered, a trifling 60,000—less than 10 percent—were purchased. Yet “the wonderful old man” appeared undaunted. It was obvious what had to be done, he said privately. The bankers would be invited to participate. “The financial organs were hostile,” he explained, “because they had not been paid.”

Those who had subscribed to the stock got their money back along with a new circular promising another issue the moment things were straightened out. Meantime, the firm of Couvreux, Hersent et Compagnie, one of his Suez contractors, was sending its best man to appraise the Panama route from end to end. “I have never feared obstacles and delays. Experience has proved to me that those who are too quick to believe have no deep roots.”

On September 1 appeared the first issue of the Bulletin du Canal Interocéanique, an eight-page newspaper published for propaganda purposes that was to appear regularly thereafter twice monthly, its contents comprised largely of selected articles reprinted from French newspapers and magazines. (A similar journal, underwritten by Mohammed Said, had been published all through the Suez years.) The pledge to go to Panama was renewed. He would be accompanied by a party of internationally famous engineers—his own new International Technical Commission—who would be responsible for the final survey required by Colombia according to the Wyse Concession. To demonstrate that there was nothing to fear from the climate, he would also take several of his family.

When the representative of Couvreux, Hersent, an engineer named Gaston Blanchet, returned from Panama with a favorable report, de Lesseps announced that a crew of sappers would go next to make test borings along the projected canal line. That was in November. In December, with a large entourage, he boarded the Lafayette at Saint-Nazaire, leaving his affairs in the hands of Charles. Included were his wife, two young sons and a daughter—Mathieu, ten; Ismael, nine; Ferdinande, seven—a governess, Henri Bionne, Lieutenant Réclus, Gaston Blanchet, Abel Couvreux fils (the son of de Lesseps’ old friend), the Dutch engineer Jacob Dirks, and about a dozen others. Expenses for the trip were to be met by Couvreux, Hersent et Compagnie.

The crossing appears to have been pleasant and without incident, other than an angry scene in front of everyone in the ship’s salon between de Lesseps and Lieutenant Wyse, who had not been asked to make the voyage but had booked his own passage at his own expense. For the rest of the trip Wyse remained “apart and taciturn,” while de Lesseps seems to have been quite literally the life of the party.

It was a voyage of approximately 4,595 miles, a great circle route, plotted, when weather permitted, by the brightest stars in the heavens, by Capella, the double star; by Altair and Vega; and afterward by Rigil Kent and Acrux, new stars in a new southern sky. The ship, a handsome, black two-masted steam sailer, made about eight to ten knots, and her progress into lower latitudes was marked by the steady decline toward the horizon of Polaris, the North Star, the great constant at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. And low on the opposite horizon, meantime, off the port bow, rose the Southern Cross.


The Lafayette steamed into Limon Bay under a scorching sun, and with all passengers crowding her rail, on the afternoon of December 30, 1879, at the start of Panama’s dry season. On the Pacific Mail wharf a little brass band was playing mightily.

The welcoming ceremonies were held in the ship’s salon, moments after she tied up. It was proclaimed an occasion second only to the arrival of Columbus in Limon Bay. Señor J. A. Céspedes, chairman of an extremely sober-looking reception committee, made the first and longest of several speeches. De Lesseps, when it was his turn, responded in perfect Spanish, “very pleasantly, wearing the diplomatic smile for which he was noted,” in the words of the one American present, a Panama Railroad official named Tracy Robinson. “When he spoke, the hearer would not fail to be convinced that whatever he said was true, or at all events that he believed it to be true.”

After dark the town blazed with Japanese lanterns, and when the final burst of a fireworks display fell into the bay, de Lesseps came down the gangplank. Accompanied by a few friends and a small, noisy crowd—mostly ragged black children—he walked a while along Front Street, Colón’s sole thoroughfare.

The following morning he was up in time to see the tropical dawn that comes all at once. With Madame de Lesseps he set off on an “inspection tour,” their children, thrilled to be on solid ground again, racing ahead, climbing posts and stanchions, and astonishing the local citizenry, who, because of the long hair and velvet clothes, thought all three were girls. De Lesseps, fresh in a white linen suit, talked incessantly, concluding one remark after another with the assertion, “The canal will be made.” The upper Chagres would be turned into the Pacific, thus ending floods in the lower valley. “The canal will be made.” At the great cut at the summit, the work of many thousands of men would be handled by modern explosives. “The canal will be made.” He was overjoyed by the morning air. Colón was a delightful place. “The canal will be made.”

Yet it is hard to conceive of his being anything but terribly disappointed by Colón. Seen from a distance, from an inbound ship, the town appeared to float on the bay as if by magic. White walls and red roofs stood out against blue water and flaming green foothills. But close up, it was a squalid shantytown set on stilts, paint peeling. There was a stone church that the railroad’s guidebook made much of but that would have been of little interest anywhere else. A variety of saloons and stores lined the east side of Front Street, facing the harbor. There were an icehouse, a railroad office, a large stone freight depot, two or three seedy hotels, and the “tolerable” Washington House, a galleried white-frame affair, which, like virtually everything else in sight, belonged to the railroad company. The railroad itself ran down the middle of Front Street, and in a park, or what passed for a park, in front of the Washington House, stood an ugly red-granite monument to the railroad’s founders, Aspinwall, Chauncey, and Stephens. In a nearby railroad yard there was also a bronze statue of Columbus, an Indian maiden at his side, which had been a gift from the Empress Eugénie years before. But that was the sum total of Colón’s landmarks.

The town had been built by the railroad on Manzanillo Island, a coral flat, no more than a mile by three-quarters of a mile in area, at the entrance to Limon Bay; and so there was open salt water on all but its southern side, where a narrow channel, the Folks River, divided it from the mainland. John Lloyd Stephens had christened the town Aspinwall, but the Colombians had insisted on calling it Colón, for Columbus, and so a silly dispute had been dragging on ever since. To most of the older Americans it was still Aspinwall.

Streets, barely above tide level, were unpaved and strewn from end to end with garbage, bits of broken furniture, dead animals. (One French visitor would write of walking ankle-deep in “les immondices imaginables.”) Enormous dark buzzards circled interminably overhead, and the human populace, most of which was black—Jamaicans, by and large, who had been brought in to build the railroad—lived in appalling squalor. Disease and poverty, hopeless, bedrock poverty as bad as any to be seen in the Caribbean, seemed to hang in the air of back streets, heavy as the atmosphere.

The entire town reeked of putrefaction. There was nothing to do. It was as if a western mining camp had been slapped together willy-nilly in the middle of an equatorial swamp, then left to molder and die. Once, at the height of the gold rush, there had been a kind of redeeming zest to the place, and old-timers talked of such celebrated establishments of the day as the Maison du Vieux Carré, which specialized in French girls. Now travelers disembarking to take the train dreaded spending an hour more than necessary.

There was, however, one quite pleasant section of the town, at the northern end of the island, near a tremendous iron lighthouse that could be seen from ten miles at sea. There the houses faced onto a white coral beach. Neat and freshly painted, with green lawns and surrounding palms, they were the quarters reserved for the white Americans who ran the railroad, and it was to one of them, the home of Tracy Robinson, that de Lesseps and his family were conducted, to judge for themselves the supposed privation of life in the American tropics. Robinson, a personable and intelligent man, had spent twenty years in Panama. He was fascinated by the country, liked the people and the life, and he was certain, as he told de Lesseps, that the great future of mankind was in the tropics.

• •

About ten o’clock the Pacific Mail steamer Colon docked beside the Lafayette, bringing Trenor W. Park and a party of gentlemen from New York who were to join the tour. By 11:30, the introductions completed, baggage ashore, everyone climbed aboard a train standing on Front Street, its bright-yellow coaches bedecked with French and Colombian flags.

The new arrivals included several stockholders in the railroad, who by their own admission had come more for pleasure than business; a reporter from the New York World; a rotund and overbearing former Union Army engineer named W. W. Wright; and Colonel George M. Totten, one of the original builders of the Panama Railroad. Wright and Totten had agreed to serve on de Lesseps’ Technical Commission. Wright, however, was a man of no particular reputation. It was Totten who got de Lesseps’ attention. Totten had been in charge of the railroad all through the years of construction. He had weathered the heat, the bugs, the mud, political uprisings, stockholders’ inspection tours, floods, fever, even a siege of yellow fever that brought him so near to death that his companions had his coffin ready and waiting. Now he was a leathery, white-bearded old figure with steel-rimmed spectacles. It is said also that he had a nice sense of humor, but a search of available sources reveals no evidence of it.

The brass band was pumping away again as the train rolled down Front Street, bell clanging, a cheering crowd chasing alongside in the brilliant sunshine. Then, after affording a brief open view of the glittering bay, the tracks turned into the jungle.

Of several surviving accounts of the tour, the most detailed is that by the World reporter, J. C. Rodrigues, who was as fascinated by the “lively Frenchmen” and their leader as the group was by the passing scenery.

M. de Lesseps himself rode most of the way on the platform of the car on the rear of the small train. For half an hour that I was at his side I could witness the deep interest which he took in the luxuriant nature, which was to him so extremely novel . . . . Inside the car, however, there reigned more than tropical—simply torrid—enthusiasm. A yellow butterfly would cause a commotion in these excitable people. But you do not imagine what an event the first approach to the Chagres River was. The car was pandemonium. The train had to be stopped and the Chagres—the enemy—had to be inspected.

The point where they first saw the river was Gatun, a native village seven miles from Colón, at the confluence of the Rio Gatun, the place Godin de Lépinay had picked for his great Chagres dam. Before that, just out of Colón, they had passed Mount Hope, or Monkey Hill, as it was better known, a low rise on the left where during construction days the railroad had buried its dead. Then for the next several miles they had crossed a broad mangrove swamp on tracks only inches above the water. Between the swamp and Gatun, the growth of vegetation was as exuberant as any on earth. Giant cedro trees towered a hundred feet or more in the air, their smooth gray trunks like pillars of concrete. Trailing vines, blossoming creepers, scarlet hibiscus, orchids, crimson passionflowers, parasitic plants of every imaginable variety, hung wherever one looked. Bamboo crowded the tracks in clumps the size of a house. It was as if the train were running along the bottom of a narrow green canyon that went winding on and on with only a thin trace of bright sky to be seen straight up, in the gap between the crowns of the trees. Every so often there would be a sudden break—a patch of banana trees, a canebrake—but as quickly it would be gone again. So relentlessly did the jungle try to recover what it had lost to the railroad, the passengers were informed, that parts of the line had to be cleared several times a year.

At Gatun the entire population had gathered for the occasion, several hundred brown, square-faced, friendly-looking people, men in white linen and straw hats, women in loose-fitting muslin in a variety of sun-faded colors, children mostly naked, everyone smiling and waving. On the left side of the train was Gatun station, a two-story white-frame building with green shutters and picket fence that might have been transplanted directly from Massachusetts. On the other side of the train was the river, “now very low, running sluggishly,” as Rodrigues noted. The actual village was across the river. About fifty grass huts were scattered within a great bend in the river and in the forefront of a sun-flooded green savanna that reached to a range of darker-green hills, two, three miles in the distance.

Most of the passengers got out for a look, and the overwhelming green of the landscape, the intensity and infinite variety of green under a cobalt-blue sky, caught them unaware. Like so many before, they had come to Panama with little thought of being stirred by landscapes. That the place could be so breathtakingly beautiful struck them as a singular revelation. “La plus belle région du monde,” de Lesseps exclaimed in a letter to Charles.

At Gatun the flags that hung over some of the train windows were taken away to give a better outlook. They were running along the valley of the Chagres now, where the river came down in big, wide loops, brown and unhurried—now that the dry season had returned—through intermittent patches of deep shadow and sharp, white sunlight. The river was on their right; their general direction was south and slightly east. They were still barely above sea level, climbing only very gradually, going “up” the valley (that is, against the current of the river) but “down” the map, as several of them needed to have explained.

They crossed miles of swamp, including the infamous Black Swamp, which supposedly was bottomless. It was not—Totten and his engineers had found bottom at 185 feet—yet the roadbed kept sinking there and had to be built up year after year. “Everything kept going down and down,” an old-time employee would tell a Senate committee in Washington years later, “and they kept filling in and filling in.”

There were more white station houses, all quite similar, neat, almost prissy, but often with names very much in keeping with the surroundings—Tiger Hill, Lion Hill, Ahorca Lagarto (which means “hanging lizard”). There was a glimpse of the Chagres again at Bohío Soldado (“place where a soldier lives”) and at Frijoles (“beans”). Then, twenty-three miles from Colón, or just about halfway to Panama City, the train stopped and everyone was asked to get out. They had arrived at Barbacoas, an Indian word meaning “bridge,” the point where the railroad crossed the Chagres. Only, at the moment, the bridge at Barbacoas was out of service.

The river here was swift and rocky, about three hundred feet wide and contained between high embankments. The bridge, a heavy wrought-iron structure set on stone piers, was more than six hundred feet in length and built forty feet above the river, or what had been presumed to be safely above the flood line. But in November, just weeks earlier, a violent “norther” had struck, bringing three days of torrential rain and the worst flood on record. In three days the Chagres had risen forty-six feet. Thirty miles of track had been under water and the bridge had been wrenched apart or out of line in several places. As future hydrographic studies would show, the discharge of the Chagres in the vicinity was normally less than 1,000 cubic feet per second in the dry season. In the rainy season, under normal conditions, the discharge would be ten times that—or more—with fluviograph readings of 10,000 to 13,000 cubic feet per second. But in the November flood, according to later studies based on the railroad’s records, the flow of the river must have been nearly 80,000 cubic feet per second.

The river’s drainage basin, from its headwaters to the Caribbean, was comparatively small—about 1,300 square miles, an area about the size of Rhode Island. Yet except for the dry season, virtually this entire basin was running water. The river originated in the steep jungle uplands miles off to the east, a “quick and bold” wilderness with mountains of two thousand to four thousand feet, where at the time of the Spanish conquest a legendary Indian chief, Chagre, had ruled. Even under average conditions, the runoff from such country was phenomenal. With abnormally heavy rains in the mountains, it was as if a dam had burst. And while the recent flood had been the worst since the railroad began bothering with records, the floods of 1857, 1862, 1865, 1868, 1872, 1873, and 1876 had been nearly as awesome.

The situation at Barbacoas should have been the clearest possible warning to de Lesseps and the others. The condition of the massive iron bridge was such that no through trains had crossed the Isthmus, no freight had moved between Colón and Panama City, in five weeks. Only by a crude arrangement of planks put across the breaks was it possible for passengers to walk over and transfer to another train. The river’s violence, quite obviously, had been greater even than what A. G. Menocal had described in his speech before the Paris congress.

Readers of the Bulletin du Canal Interocéanique were to be told nothing of the broken bridge, however. The official account of the tour would contain only passing mention of an unexplained delay at Barbarcoas.

• •

Most of them crossed single file, slowly, cautiously, amid much good-natured banter, the river sliding by forty feet below. A fuss was made over the safety of the de Lesseps children, who greatly enjoyed every moment of the experience, and then two or three of the Americans, after appraising the problem, decided to risk the crossing another day. Quantities of champagne had been available on the train since leaving Colón and this seems to have had a bearing on their decision.

On the other side stood a second train and beside it another official delegation, a dozen or so citizens from Panama City, all as formal as pallbearers. Among them were the president-elect of the province, Demaso Cervera, and a former president, Rafael Aizpuru, “a disreputable revolutionist,” de Lesseps was told. Because of the heat, there was just one very short speech; then with several blasts of the whistle the journey resumed.

The river was on the left now as the train rolled smoothly along through open meadows. “In Suez we had to build everything,” de Lesseps remarked; “here you already have a railroad like this. . . .” The first mountains came into view, small and bright-green and heaped up like the mountains in a child’s drawing. Lunch was served—“with wines, etc., etc., and everything gave entire satisfaction.”

Within the space of a few miles the railroad crossed the Rio Caimilo Mulato, the Rio Baila Monos, the Rio Culo Seco, the Rio Caribali, all tributaries of the Chagres. (Forty-seven and a half miles of railroad had required 170 bridges and culverts of 15 feet or more, 134 bridges and culverts of less than 15 feet, a statistic that gives some idea of the difficulties there had been in making headway in such half-drowned country.) Past Gorgona Station the train left the river again, taking a shortcut through steep red-clay embankments. Then it swung around a hill to meet the river at Matachín, another cluster of grass huts and the point where Menocal had proposed to build his giant stone viaduct. Again the train stopped, to be instantly surrounded by beaming brown faces.

Matachín was best known as the place where Chinese workers, hopelessly lost to “melancholia,” had committed suicide en masse. Matar is Spanish for “to kill,” it was explained; chino, the word for “Chinese.” The fact that matachín is also a perfectly good Spanish word meaning “butcher” or “hired assassin,” and that the place had been called that long before the railroad came through, did not seem to matter. Everyone who passed through Matachín heard the story.

To what extent de Lesseps and Totten discussed such topics, whether Totten was closely questioned on the death toll during construction of the road, or how much, if anything, may have been said about disease or bodies pickled in barrels, how much Totten may have been willing to admit, even to himself at this late date, is not known. The point he does seem to have stressed—the great lesson to be learned from his experience—was that everything, everything, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.

Beyond Matachín the train left the Chagres bottom lands and entered the narrow valley of the Rio Obispo, largest tributary of the Chagres. After Emperador, or Empire, as the Americans called it, came the summit at Culebra (“snake”), or Summit Station. On January 27, 1855, at midnight, in the pitch dark and in pelting rain, the last rail had been laid. Totten himself had driven the last spike with a nine-pound maul.

Summit was ten and a half miles from Panama City, and on the rest of the ride, descending to the Pacific, the party looked out on scenery reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting, with feathery green conical mountains rising on every side. At one dramatic turn, a cliff of basalt seemed to hang precariously close overhead, the great crystals of the dark rock lying every which way. The route now followed the Rio Grande, “a narrow noisy torrent winding along through dense forests below the track.” Its drainage was south, to the Pacific.

Paraíso, another native village, was tucked between high hills shaped like inverted teacups. Pedro Miguel and Miraflores followed, then a stretch of spongy lowlands, a brackish swamp with soil the color of coal, then, ahead, the bald top of Ancon Hill, overlooking Panama City. The train covered the last few miles with its whistle screaming, bell clanging. Cathedral towers and red tile roofs were in view ahead on the right, and dead ahead was the Pacific. At once everyone was cheering.

With all stops en route, the delay at Barbacoas, the trip had lasted six hours. In his letter to the Bulletin, de Lesseps said they did it in three.


The original city of Panama had been founded in 1519, or just six years after Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific, and by an extraordinarily treacherous individual, Pedro Arias de Ávila, usually referred to as Pedrarias, who had been governor of Castilla del Oro, as the Central American isthmus was known, and who, to solidify his power, had Balboa beheaded on a trumped-up charge of treason.

A Cueva Indian word, Panama means “a place where many fishes are taken.” For the Spanish, Panama became a marshaling point and clearinghouse for the most important crossroad in the New World, the camino real, or royal road, which was nothing more than a narrow, mean mule track cut from Panama to Nombre de Dios, then the one Spanish fort on the Caribbean side. The gold of the Incas, pearls, Bolivian silver—no one knows how many thousands of tons of treasure —went across to Nombre de Dios, to be picked up by Spanish galleons. And though Panama never became especially large—because of disease primarily—or achieved the fabled wealth pictured in some old accounts, its importance was considerable. The stone ruins of the original city, Old Panama, or Panama Viejo, still stood several miles down the bay. The site had been abandoned after the city was sacked and burned by the pirate Morgan in 1671, and the present Panama, a walled city, was begun three years later, at the head of the bay, on a narrow tongue of volcanic rock with water on three sides.

“Panama is a very miserable old town . . . fast crumbling to pieces,” an American sea captain noted in his journal, at the start of the gold rush, having brought the California, the first of the San Francisco steamers, around the Horn. “The houses are miserable and going to decay and the churches are crumbling. . . .” The harbor was also too shallow for a ship of any size. He did, however, find the climate “delightful at evening and in the morning.” Thereafter, for the next several years, the city had been a wide-open booming seaport wherein, as one disapproving traveler commented, “most of the people are deficient in the higher moral attributes.” Now the pace was more what it had been centuries before.

Fire had ravaged the city again and again. As recently as 1878, nearly a third of it had burned to the ground. Streets were narrow, with hardly room for two carriages to pass, and shadowed by overhanging balconies. There was not one proper sewer, little sanitation of any kind. As at Colón, fresh water had to be collected in huge rain barrels that could be seen everywhere, or carried in from the country in jars on mules; and whatever its source, the water never looked particularly clean. Tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, and malaria were all common. A Canadian physician named Wolfred Nelson, who took up residence soon after de Lesseps’ visit, described the city as “simply awful.”

Still, it was a considerable step up from Colón, and, unlike Colón, almost entirely Spanish in feeling—Spanish architecture, Spanish faces, Spanish traditions. The government of the province was in Panama City; the bishop of Panama resided there. The Star & Herald, in English and Spanish, appeared daily. There was an established society among patrician landowners and professional people whose family names could be found on the rolls of Balboa’s and Cortez’ companies. Panama City was Panama. The humidity was not quite so oppressive as on the Atlantic side; there was less rain. The climate was indeed “delightful at evening and in the morning”—just about ideal in the dry season with the trade winds blowing—and on moonlight nights the view of the bay from the Bóvedas, the old Spanish seawall and the city’s “choice promenade,” was one of the loveliest sights anywhere in the American tropics.

For de Lesseps’ arrival, furthermore, an almost miraculous transformation had been worked. The local populace had been told to clean up the streets, to paint, scrub, or whitewash everything within sight of his path, or face a stiff fine. Such an air of neatness, according to one report, had not prevailed within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. To give the celebrated visitor the right impression, to see that he was properly honored and entertained, the local government had allocated its entire budget for the forthcoming year.

• •

“The reception of M. de Lesseps at this town was something never to be forgotten,” wrote J. C. Rodrigues in his first dispatch from Panama City.

It seems that every one of the 14,000 inhabitants was at the railway station, shouting, struggling to get a glimpse of the distinguished guest. I doubt very much whether more than one twentieth of them knew the true importance and meaning of the occasion. But . . . [their] enthusiasm did not know any bounds. We may laugh all we want at their ways of expressing it, but it was a most genuine triumphal entry, this one of M. de Lesseps.

After the predictable speeches at the depot, a procession of carriages rolled off to Cathedral Plaza, along the Avenida Central, which was lined the whole way by an honor guard of little Colombian soldiers in white trousers, white tunics, and blue caps trimmed with red. The plaza was in the exact center of the city and was dominated by the old brown cathedral with its twin bell towers, the most imposing structure on the Isthmus. De Lesseps and his party were to be quartered in the handsome new Grand Hotel, also on the plaza, and so the entire square, lampposts, every window and doorway, had been hung with French flags—the perfect sign, de Lesseps would tell readers of the Bulletin, of “nos bonnes revanches.”

There was a state banquet at the hotel that evening, followed by dancing and singing that went on through the rest of the night, spilling out into the plaza, which was lit by hundreds of Japanese lanterns. Almost nobody was able to sleep. But bright and early the following morning, New Year’s Day, de Lesseps was up and dressed in full formal attire, all his medals pinned on, and parading across to the cathedral for the inaugural ceremonies of President Demaso Cervera.

Then he was off to the harbor, where a steam tug stood by to take perhaps a hundred people and a large supply of champagne and cognac three miles along the bay to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the projected Pacific terminus of the canal. Before leaving Paris, he had promised to strike the first blow for the canal on the first day of the new year.

Some six hundred people turned up, in addition to de Lesseps, his family, his Technical Commission, the bishop of Panama, and the boat was so late getting under way that they missed the tide and were unable to get anywhere near the appointed spot. “The whole fun seemed to be spoiled,” Rodrigues remembered. De Lesseps, however, was “not a man to change plans.” He climbed onto a wooden seat, as two men held him by each arm, and he called the passengers to attention, which was no easy task since the boat was pitching badly and the champagne and cognac had been distributed freely in the hot sun for nearly two hours. Wherever it was made, the first stroke—“le premier coup de pioche”—would be symbolic only, he said. There was no reason why it could not be done where they were, on the boat. His little daughter, Ferdinande, would deliver the historic blow.

The child then swung a shiny pickax, brought especially from France for the occasion, into a champagne box filled with sand, after which each of the Technical Commission took a swing (“en signe de l’alliance des tous peuples qui contribuent a l’union des deux océans, pour le bien de l’humanité”). The bishop, José Telesforo Paúl, blessed the work and the boat turned back to the city.

There were more banquets in the days following, more speeches, toasts, fireworks, a horse race, a bullfight. Between times the French visitors went fishing in the bay or strolled the Bóvedas or picked out Panama hats at the “emporium” of Vallarino & Zabieta across from the cathedral.

The hotel was the center of all activity. “Everybody meets everybody at the Grand Hotel,” wrote Rodrigues. The food was “à la Française,” as advertised, and the best to be had in Panama. The salon featured a “FIRST-CLASS PIANO PLAYER.” Everything was new and clean. Large, airy rooms opened on to interior galleries that looked down on a cool interior court that served as bar and billiard room and was the place where most of Panama’s business was transacted. The billiard tables, the largest the guests had ever seen, were busy at all hours; the bar, in their words, was “one of those vast bars that have such a place in American life.” At a crowded roulette table adjacent to the bar, a croupier called out the winning numbers in Spanish, French, and English.

Once, for posterity, de Lesseps gathered everybody for a formal portrait. The photograph, though badly faded, has survived. They sit or stand in three rows, some holding their new hats, some with umbrellas, every man in coat and tie in a country where a light shirt can feel heavy. De Lesseps sits in the center of the middle row, in his white suit, looking handsome and a bit distracted. Totten is at his right, the seat of honor; Dirks, at his left, wears thick round spectacles that give him a strange popeyed look. It is not hard to imagine the occasion de Lesseps made of the sitting, the bit of ceremony that must have gone with the placement of each man.

Wyse, who is on the far right, holding a large umbrella, looks as if he is about to break into a smile or a sneer—it could be either. Gaston Blanchet, the Couvreux, Hersent engineer who stands in the center of the back row, is a tall, good-looking man with a big shock of dark hair. Rodrigues, also in the back row, end man on the right, is full-bearded and dapper and especially uncomfortable-looking in a heavy three-piece suit, complete with wing collar, stickpin, and watch chain.

Trenor Park is not in the picture, which may or may not say something about de Lesseps’ feelings toward him. Nor is it clear what Park was doing all this time. We know only that he and most of the others who had come down from New York sailed for home shortly after the picture was taken. We have only his parting comments. He still saw no reason, Park said, why a sale of the road could not be arranged once the French company was organized, which was the polite way of saying once de Lesseps had the cash.

• •

The Technical Commission got down to business officially at the Grand Hotel on the morning of January 6. The first meeting was brief. The canal was to be an open cut, de Lesseps reminded them. “And now, gentlemen,” he said, “you see what you have got to do, go ahead and do it.”

“From that time,” General Wright would recall, “he left us entirely to ourselves—went out of the room and left us to consult. We were of different nationalities and different ideas as to how the work should be done . . .” Later in the day, de Lesseps, Wright, and Jacob Dirks—all three of them past seventy—took a train back to Matachín, and for an hour or more, under what de Lesseps benignly categorized as a “rather bright” sun, they drifted down the Chagres in a dugout canoe. They saw several drowsy alligators, andWright, who spoke neither French nor Spanish and so was unable to converse with de Lesseps, decided after looking around that, indeed, “the best type of canal is obviously one at sea level.”

A ball at the hotel the night of January 15 went on until one in the morning, when there was an enormous banquet, after which the music and dancing resumed until dawn. There was a day’s outing to the island of Taboga, ten miles out in the bay. A French man-of-war, Grandeur, arrived. There was even a wedding one evening at eight at the cathedral, which was described as “gay with the presence of a multitude of the best of our Panama society.” Gaston Blanchet was the groom; the bride was the daughter of the proprietor of the Grand Hotel, a stunning Panamanian girl whom Blanchet had found time to fall in love with during his previous inspection tour. Madame de Lesseps, “with great sweetness and expression,” sang a selection from Gounod.

If Ferdinand de Lesseps was not having the time of his life all this while, he certainly left everyone with that impression. The Panamanians adored him, for his energy, for his “vivid interest in our rather dull Isthmus life” (as the Star & Herald said), for his beautiful children, his beautiful wife. (“Her form was voluptuous and her raven hair, without luster, contrasted well with the rich pallor of her . . . features,” Tracy Robinson would still be able to recall nearly thirty years later.) “They really believe he is their man,” wrote Rodrigues.

Rodrigues, who had the room next door to de Lesseps, described how at five in the morning de Lesseps’ hearty laugh could be heard resounding through the halls of the hotel. Then, in the comparative cool of the early morning, the old man would be off on a fishing expedition or a hike with his sons. One morning, in the plaza, as Madame de Lesseps watched from the balcony of their room and a large and approving crowd gathered, he put a lively horse through its paces. Had there been a stone wall, as once there had been in Egypt, no doubt he would have attempted that as well.

“Then, M. de Lesseps is one of those men who know how to please,” observed Rodrigues. “He begins by enjoying hugely those popular attentions, and because he wishes to retain them he tries to deserve them.” Which was perhaps as good an explanation as anyone ever offered of why the old hero did what he did. His exuberance was irrepressible. At one point an elderly resident Frenchman told him that if he persisted with his plan there would not be trees enough on the Isthmus to make the crosses to put over the graves of his laborers. De Lesseps appeared unmoved. As Robinson wrote, “Nothing ever seemed for an instant to dampen the ardor of his enthusiasm, or to cloud the vista of that glorious future which he had pictured in his imagination.”

Yet there is at least one clear sign in the record that the old hero saw more than he let on. In an amazing interview published a few years later, he told Emily Crawford, Paris correspondent for the London Daily News and the New York Tribune, that in fact he knew as soon as he traveled across Panama that the task would be far more difficult than he had been led to suppose, that the Wyse plan for a canal was a fraud—“daringly mendacious” were his words. “But,” wrote Mrs. Crawford, “he was in for the enterprise, and as he thought it feasible, he meant to go on with it.”

• •

Less than twenty-four hours before de Lesseps was scheduled to sail for New York, his nine-man Technical Commission presented its final report. Three hundred pages in length, it was little more than a rubber stamp for what he had been planning. A canal à niveau was approved. A dam to hold the Chagres in check was recommended. There was to be a breakwater at Colón, as he wanted, a tidal lock on the Pacific end. Construction time was figured to require eight years rather than twelve, as declared at the Paris congress.

De Lesseps liked everything but the estimated cost—843,000,000 francs, a figure 357,000,000 francs below what had been estimated at the Paris congress. The new figure was still too high, he thought, and this in spite of the fact that now no interest on capital for eight years was included, or administrative expenses, or the sums due the Türr Syndicate and the Colombian government, or the very large expense of buying the Panama Railroad. Many such details had not been bothered with in the Paris estimate, it is true. However, the figure produced in Paris had included an extra 25 percent for contingent expenses, whereas the amount now added for contingencies was only 10 percent.

But what made the new estimate look even more remarkable was the further fact that the anticipated volume of excavation—the amount of digging to be done—had been increased by more than 50 percent (from 46,000,000 cubic meters, as reckoned at the congress, to 75,000,000 cubic meters). Having seen Panama, having been over the ground, having decided that the job was to be half again greater than previously declared, the commission had reduced the total cost of the canal, then allotted less for unexpected difficulties. And de Lesseps’ sole complaint was that their reductions were too timid.

“Our work will be easier at Panama than at Suez,” he announced. To Charles he wrote: “Now that I have gone over the various localities in the Isthmus with our engineers, I cannot understand why they hesitated so long in declaring that it would be practicable to build a maritime canal between the two oceans at sea level, for the distance is as short as between Paris and Fontainebleau.” Talk of the deadly climate, he said, was nothing more than the “invention of our adversaries.”

None of the party had experienced any sign of ill health. The nearest thing to a crisis had been a case of sunburn suffered by Madame de Lesseps on the outing to Taboga.

• •

On board the Colon, somewhere between Limon Bay and New York, seated quietly in his stateroom, de Lesseps took a pencil and went to work on the commission’s report. By the time the ship reached the East River he had cut the estimated price by another 184,400,000 francs, or by nearly $37,000,000. The canal, he told the reporters who came aboard at New York, was going to cost no more than $131,720,000. It was, everyone agreed, an impressive reduction from the $240,000,000 predicted at Paris.


To nobody’s surprise he was front-page news the whole time he was in New York. Not for twenty years, the papers declared, had a foreign visitor been greeted by the city with such warmth and wholehearted appreciation. Newspaper articles made much of his striking physical appearance, the snow-white hair, the tropical tan, the youthfulness and intellectual vigor—all in notable contrast, it should be added here, to the claims made later that he was a dim, muddled old man by the time he first saw Panama. One reporter who had interviewed him years before at Suez found him “not a whit changed. The same marvelous bright eyes, the same earnest voice, the same sympathetic chuckle, personally magnetic as ever, erect, impulsive, and, if anything, younger.” A writer for the Worldthought he looked about fifty-five.

It was his first time in the United States and, as at Panama, he enjoyed himself grandly. He strolled Fifth Avenue, took a ride on the El, went by elevator to the top of the Equitable Life Assurance Building on Broadway (a full six stories high), “inspected” the half-finished Brooklyn Bridge. The great Culebra Cut at Panama, he declared dramatically, would be as deep as the bridge towers were tall—274 feet!

In his suite at the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue, talking rapidly but softly, and with numerous gestures, he assured reporters that his Panama plan posed no conflict with the Monroe Doctrine. The venture was a private enterprise and the American people especially should understand the virtues of private enterprise. The point was that he welcomed American investment. “I am but an executor of the American idea,” he insisted, and in fact he would be happy to see a majority of the stock sold in the United States and to have the company’s headquarters located in New York or Washington.

The tricolor flew over the Windsor as though a head of state were in residence. He was received by the American Geographical Society, and a reception given by the city’s French community was attended by an estimated eight thousand people. Another night, wearing white tie and tails, he walked onto a stage banked with potted palms and told the American Society of Civil Engineers that he was a diplomat, not an engineer, but that he was honored to be welcomed as a colleague. As at all such occasions he spoke through an interpreter and extemporaneously. He never used notes, he explained, because he always spoke the truth, the truth required no preparation.

For a banquet at Delmonico’s, the main dining room was decorated with French and American flags, a central chandelier had been transformed into an enormous floral bell from which ropes of evergreen intertwined with flowers ran to all corners, and every table had its ingenious confectionery centerpiece—Ferdinand de Lesseps in evening dress, shovel in hand, bestriding Africa; a sphinx; a Suez dredging machine; the steamer Colon. The menu was embossed with the de Lesseps coat of arms, and the all-male guest list, some 250 “notables,” included Mayor Cooper, Andrew Carnegie, Jesse Seligman, Russell Sage, Albert Bierstadt, Clarence King, Octave Chanute, Abram Hewitt, Chauncey Depew, Peter Cooper, David Dudley Field. At about nine o’clock, just before the speeches began, Madame de Lesseps made a dramatic entrance onto the musicians’ balcony, accompanied by Emily Roebling, wife of the crippled chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The speakers were Alexander Lyman Holley, pioneer of the Bessemer process in America; John Bigelow, the diplomat and publisher; Dr. Henry W. Bellows, the famous Unitarian; and Frederick M. Kelley, who gave the main address. In terms of who was there, the things said, the setting and all, it was one of those marvelous moments around which a whole study of an age could be developed. (One of Bierstadt’s vast western landscapes had recently been purchased by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, for example; Carnegie’s steel empire was by now the mightiest in the world due primarily to the innovative skills of Alexander Holley; a spiritual leader such as Henry W. Bellows could still speak, as he did, with perfect faith in “the white winged dove of commerce.”) Nonetheless, as several editorials stressed the morning after, the occasion and the sentiments expressed were plainly in honor of the man, not his present scheme. New York was enormously interested in Ferdinand de Lesseps, interested—but guardedly—in his Panama canal.

“For what he has done we give him our most cordial welcome and the homage of our heartiest applause,” declared Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune. “What he proposes to do is another matter . . .”

And so it was to be everywhere else he traveled in the United States. In Washington, where there were no banquets or receptions, the message was especially blunt. Everybody was perfectly cordial, to be sure, including President Hayes. On Capitol Hill, de Lesseps was received by the House Interoceanic Canal Committee and gave an eloquent plea for his project, then was invited to hear Captain James B. Eads, builder of the famous St. Louis bridge, present his proposal for a colossal ship railway across Tehuantepec. The plan was to hoist ships out of the water bodily, in huge wheeled cradles, and haul them overland with enormous locomotives pulling in tandem. An ingenious system of hydraulic rams, Eads explained, would push supports, or blocks, against the ship’s hull. Each block would be equipped with a universal joint so that it would automatically conform to the shape of the hull at the point of contact, thereby distributing equally the weight of the ship. To put a six-thousand-ton ship into the cradle would take half an hour. The cradle itself would ride on twelve rails placed five feet apart and on 1,200 wheels (100 on each rail). The locomotives, five times as powerful as the largest then in existence, would have an average speed in crossing of ten to twelve miles per hour. The complete transfer of a ship from one ocean to the other, over a distance of 134 miles, would take sixteen hours. And to build such a system, Eads said, would cost only $50,000,000, about a third that of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ canal.

De Lesseps’ listened politely to all this and perhaps some of it touched a vital nerve. Such visions of ships being picked from the water like toys and towed over the mountains of Mexico might have been hatched by Jules Verne in his tower study at Amiens. In any event, he offered Eads his compliments and made a gracious exit, only to be confronted by reporters carrying the full text of a new Presidential message to Congress. The United States, Hayes avowed, would not surrender its control over any isthmian canal to any European power or combination of powers. Nor should corporations or private citizens investing in such an enterprise look to any European power for protection. “An interoceanic canal . . . will be the great ocean thoroughfare between our Atlantic and our Pacific shores and virtually a part of the coastline of the United States.” The “policy of this country is a canal under American control.”

The message was a clear and deadly serious repulse to de Lesseps’ intentions. He could have protested, or he could have been diplomatic and evasive, or he could have said nothing for the moment. Instead he had Henri Bionne send off a cable addressed to Charles in Paris and, ultimately, to the Bulletin: “The message of President Hayes guarantees the political security of the canal.”

He, Le Grand Français, had won another noble victory, that was the implicit claim. If the United States declared that no European power could function as protector over the canal, then this meant that the United States would fulfill that vital function. And with the United States watching over the enterprise during construction and afterward, investors could be certain of success. That was not at all what had been meant. “What the President said,” wrote J. C. Rodrigues in his subsequent analysis, “[was that] he did not wish to see European corporations building canals in Panama; but M. de Lesseps was equal to the occasion, and consistent once more with all the plot of a play of which he was protagonist.”

Then, like the veteran performer who knows how well physical movement alone can command attention, he was on his way, barnstorming across the continent by train, from Philadelphia to St. Louis to San Francisco, then back by way of Chicago, Niagara Falls, and Boston. Madame de Lesseps and the children meantime remained in Philadelphia, where she had relatives.

He made the trip in three weeks and he was news at every stop. His crowds were large, often very large, and they were always friendly. Frequently they were even as enthusiastic as the Bulletin claimed. He called Americans the most hospitable people on earth. In Chicago a heckler shouted a gibe about the Monroe Doctrine. “Here are twenty thousand of you Americans,” de Lesseps responded. “Now explain to me how the Monroe Doctrine prevents my making the canal.” He waited; no one answered. Then he patiently explained their Monroe Doctrine to them and why it had no bearing on his canal, adding, “I cannot agree with a town only a third my own age . . . which says that the thing is impossible.”

“Hurrah! That’s the boy we want!” somebody shouted and there was a long approving cheer.

In Washington the French minister presented a note to Secretary Evarts saying the French government was in no way involved in the de Lesseps enterprise at Panama “and in no way proposed to interfere therein or to give it any support, either direct or indirect.”

• •

De Lesseps and party sailed on April 1, 1880. He had been praised and feted right up to the final day, when there was a farewell luncheon at the home of Cyrus Field, who had laid the Atlantic Cable. Moreover, he had found the time in New York to put together what he was to call his Comité Américain to handle the sale of Panama stock in the United States. Three New York firms had agreed to participate—J. & W. Seligman & Company, Drexel, Morgan & Company, and Winslow, Lanier & Company. And yet for all this, his popularity, his vigor, there were no takers. He had sold no stock. Not a single American capitalist of consequence had expressed the least serious interest in his Compagnie Universelle.

The real money, he responded to his followers, would come from France. “It is in France alone, where one is in the habit of working for the civilization of the world, that I shall . . . raise the capital necessary . . .” And within no less than two hours after his arrival in Paris he was sitting beneath a large Venetian chandelier in the upstairs salon of Madame Juliette Adam expounding on his travels to a gathering of old friends and admirers.

The next weeks were packed with lectures, dinners, interviews, and he thrived on the schedule no less than he had on all the thousands of miles at sea, the countless new faces, the rich food and strange hotels and endless talk. Friends told him he never looked better. A doctor in one after-dinner speech accused him of jeopardizing the medical profession, since obviously the visit to Panama had resulted in the discovery of the fountain of youth.

• •

So the odyssey of four, nearly five, months had ended in a resounding display of popular approval of exactly the kind he knew to be essential. By simply going to Panama, returning physically whole and hearty, he had worked a stunning transformation at home. His grave mistake was to underestimate his own success. His popular support now was far greater than he had any idea, and his misreading of that fact, ironically, was to prove nearly as fateful as his more obvious misreading of Panama itself.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

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