Construction of the canal began on January 1, 1881, though digging at Culebra did not begin until January 22, 1881. A huge labor force was assembled; in 1888, this numbered about 40,000 men, nine-tenths of these being afro-Caribbean workers from the West Indies. French engineers were well paid and the prestige of the project attracted the best of France’s engineering schools, but the huge death toll from disease made it difficult to retain them – they either left after short service, or died. The total death toll between 1881 and 1889 was estimated at over 22,000, of which as many of 5000 were French citizens.
Even as early as 1885, it had become clear to many that a sea-level canal was impractical, and that an elevated canal with locks was the best answer; however, de Lesseps was stubborn, and it was not until October 1887 that the lock canal plan was adopted.
By this time, however, the mounting financial, engineering and mortality problems, coupled with frequent floods and mudslides, were making it clear that the project was in serious trouble. Work was pushed forward under the new plan until May 15, 1889, when the company became bankrupt and work was finally suspended. After eight years, the work was about two-fifths completed, and some $234,795,000 had been spent.
The collapse of the company was a major scandal in France, and the role of two Jewish speculators in the affair enabled Edouard Drumont, an anti-semite, to exploit the matter. 104 legislators were found to have been involved in the corruption and Jean Jaurès was commissioned by the French parliament to conduct an inquiry into the matter, completed in 1893.
New French Canal Company
It soon became clear that the only way to salvage anything for the stockholders was to continue the project. A new concession was obtained from Colombia, and in 1894 the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama was created to finish the construction. To comply with the terms of the concession, work started immediately on the Culebra excavation—required under any possible plans—while a team of engineers began a comprehensive study of the project. They eventually settled on a plan for a two-level, lock-based canal.
The new effort never really gathered momentum, mainly because of U.S. speculation that a canal through Nicaragua would render a Panama canal useless. The largest number of men employed on the new project was 3,600, in 1896; this minimal workforce was employed primarily to comply with the terms of the concession and to maintain the existing excavation and equipment in saleable condition – the company had already started looking for a buyer, with a price tag of $109,000,000.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Isthmian Canal Commission was established in 1899 to examine the possibilities of a Central American canal and to recommend a route. In November 1901, the commission reported that a U.S. canal should be built through Nicaragua unless the French were willing to sell out at $40,000,000. This recommendation became a law on June 28, 1902, and the New Panama Canal Company was practically forced to sell for that amount or get nothing.
The French achievement
Although the French effort was to a large extent doomed to failure from the beginning – due to the unsolved disease issue, and insufficient appreciation of the engineering difficulties – its work was, nevertheless, not entirely wasted. Between the old and new companies, the French in total excavated 59,747,638 m3 (78,146,960 cu yd) of material, of which 14,255,890 m3 (18,646,000 cu yd) was taken from the Culebra Cut. The old company dredged a channel from Panama Bay to the port at Balboa; and the channel dredged on the Atlantic side, known as the French canal, was found to be useful for bringing in sand and stone for the locks and spillway concrete at Gatún.
The detailed surveys and studies, particularly those carried out by the new canal company, were of great help to the later American effort; and considerable machinery, including railroad equipment and vehicles, were of great help in the early years of the American project.
The French effort lowered the summit of the Culebra Cut along the canal route 5 meters (17 ft), from 64 meters (210 ft) above sea level to 59 metres (193 ft), over a relatively narrow width. In all, it was estimated that 22,713,396 m3 (29,708,000 cu yd) of excavation were of direct use to the Americans, valued at $25,389,240, along with equipment and surveys valued at $17,410,586.