De Lesseps’s Attempts at a Sea-Level Canal 1887

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Map Code: Ax01319

As the man synonymous with the successful construction of the Suez Canal, Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps was considered uniquely qualified to oversee the Panama Canal. Actually, de Lesseps qualifications were less than stellar: he was not trained as an engineer, and his success at Suez owed much to his charm, formidable marketing skills and close connections with the local Ottoman government as an ex-diplomat in Egypt. Suez was built through a flat isthmus in a desert. Panama, with significant elevation shifts through dense, fever-ridden jungle, posed an entirely different order of challenge, to which de Lesseps seemed blind. He sold and won backing for a sea-level canal. Construction began in 1881, and rapidly became a nightmare; tunnelling produced incessant landslides, equipment corroded and failed in the intense humidity, and yellow fever and malaria decimated the workforce. It was not until 1887, that he belatedly conceded his error, and hired Gustave Eiffel to construct locks.

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