In 1866 Admiral Charles Henry Davis was commissioned to assess the relative feasibility of different routes for a canal linking the Caribbean and Pacific through Central America. The timing was opportune: the De Lessep’s Suez Canal was nearing completion, as was the US Transcontinental Railroad. A Panama Railroad across the isthmus had already been built in 1855, and thanks to the California Gold Rush, proved a commercial success. However, in a presentiment of future calamity, thousands of workers died in the railroad’s construction, mainly from disease; its hard-headed financiers even raised money by selling the workers’ cadavers for medical research. Davis reviewed a total of 19 options for the canal, ranging from Mexico to Columbia. He eliminated alternatives systematically through a combination of cost and technical difficulties, before alighting upon an approximation of the eventual route. An Anglo-American project would bring the canal to fruition (1903–14).
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