Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/February 1888/Progress at Panama




ON the 6th of last March the United States steamer Galena reached Aspinwall after a cruise in the Windward and the Leeward Islands. Before her departure from Norfolk in January, I was directed by the Navy Department to visit the works of the canal upon our arrival at Aspinwall. M. Charles de Lesseps, accompanied by M, Romaire, his secretary, M. Cottu, administrator of the canal, and by other officials from the general office in Paris, with M. Jacquier, director-general of the works, were then occupying the handsome residence in the French quarter of Aspinwall, that is usually assigned to the president of the company during his visits to the Isthmus. They had arrived from France five days before the Galena from the Spanish Main, and were to inspect the canal and arrange with the contractors for the future progress of the works. On the 9th I called upon M. de Lesseps and the director-general, stated my instructions from the Navy Department, and requested permission to visit the canal and to obtain from the contractors full information concerning their respective fields of work. My reception by these gentlemen was most cordial, and was appreciated particularly as an extension of hospitality and civility to an officer of the United States Navy. M. de Lesseps assented readily to my request, assuring me that there was nothing to conceal, and that it was the wish of the company that our Government should know the exact condition of the works and their prospects of completion. He also invited me to accompany him as his guest during his tour of inspection. On reporting the result of my visit to Commander Colby M. Chester, commanding the Galena, I was permitted to accept the invitation so kindly extended.

M. de Lesseps had inspected the 17 kilometres of canal open to water, and on the 10th I proceeded with him by special train to Bohio-Soldado, reserving my visit to the sections of Colon and Gatun for a later date. The inspection thus begun lasted nearly three weeks. I saw every foot of the canal, including the dam at Gamboa and the deflections of the Chagres and the Rio Grande.

Its length from Colon to the Isle of Naos, near Panama, will be 74 kilometres; its width at the surface will be 40 metres, and at the bottom 22 metres; its depth will be 9 metres. The line of works is separated into five divisions, the first of which is 26·35 kilometres in length, and comprises the sections of Colon, Gatun, and Bohio-Soldado. It is under the control of the American Contracting and Dredging Company, which owns a capital of $2,000,000. Mr. H. B. Slaven is president of the company, and Mr. M. A. Slaven general manager on Isthmus. Messrs, Vignaud, Barbaud, Blanleuil & Co. have the second division, which includes the Tavernilla, San Pablo, Gorgona, and Matachin sections, and is 17·65 kilometres long. They have built several railways in France, and are experienced in the construction of internal canals. The third falls to the Société de Travaux Publics et Constructions, which has a capital of $600,000, and is known in France and Brazil for successful railway work; it consists of the sections of Obispo and Emperador, and is 9·6 kilometres long. The fourth, or section of Culebra, extends over 3·4 kilometres, and is controlled by the young and energetic firm of Artigue, Sonderegger & Co.; and Messrs. Baratoux, Letellier & Co. have agreed to open the last division to the waters of the Pacific within the next two years. It is 17 kilometres long, and extends from the Culebra to Panama. The company has also established three physical divisions, each with reference to the engineering problems involved. The first is 44 kilometres long, and extends from Colon to the Gamboa hills at Matachin, the difficulty lying in the vicinity of the Chagres. The second lies between Gamboa and the end of the Culebra; it contains the highest summits and the greatest quantity of rock, and it will be the line of deepest cuts. The third extends from the Culebra to the Pacific; here the earth will admit of dredging throughout, but the Rio Grande must be deflected from the line of the canal.

The first division begins at Colon with a terre-plein that was formerly the site of a marsh, containing 230,000 cubic metres of earth, and surrounded by a sea-wall; the terre-plein protects the entrance of the canal from the waves that would enter otherwise from the Bay of Lirnon. It is the site also of the village of Christoval-Colon, where the offices and quarters of the section employés are found.

As the Bay of Limon is exposed to the sea and to the gales of this region, the company is making a new harbor, which is styled the port of Colon. It lies south of the terre-plein, and, when complete, will be formed by Fox River and the expansion of the first 3 kilometres of the canal into a basin. The width of the entrance will be 800 metres; thence to the six-hundredth metre of length, the breadth of the basin will decrease to 500 metres, and will remain uniform as far as the second kilometre, whence it will narrow gradually to the third, where the normal surface width of 40 metres begins. A curved breakwater of 1,500 metres length will prolong the right bank into the bay, and will further protect the port from winds and waves. The new port will afford security to vessels and every facility of wharfage for handling cargo.

The canal is open to water as far as the seventeenth kilometre from Colon, except at the Mindi hills, where a cut of 1,080 metres remains to be completed. Its width for the first 500 yards is 225 metres; throughout the remainder of the basin it varies from 175 to 80 metres, and finally narrows to the normal at the third kilometre. The delay in opening the Mindi cut is due to the wish to complete the excavation of rocks, and thus render submarine blasting unnecessary. Of the eleven dredges at work in this division, four are European, and vary from 60 to 180 horse-power; the remaining seven are American, of 240 horse-power, their maximum capacity of excavation being 6,000 cubic metres per day. But repairs to machinery, rains, stoppage during the extreme heat of the day and at night, and other delays that can not be remedied, have reduced the daily yield to 3,000 cubic metres.

The level of the remaining bed of the first division is from 4 to 10 metres above the sea. Part of a hill near Bohio remains at the elevations of 20 and 28 metres.

The Chagres is both the upper and the lower limit of the second division, and crosses it seventeen times in its length of 17 kilometres. The average level is 12 metres above the sea, except in a single hill of 25 metres height and in a sudden rise to the same elevation at the end of the division. The excavators are moved on railway tracks by an engine of 8 to 10 horse-power, and empty their buckets into cars on adjacent rails. Every facility for dredging is presented by the Chagres River, the depth of which is such that dredges can be put at each crossing.

Just within the third division is the Gamboa hill, where occurred the great explosion of 1886 in honor of M. Ferdinand de Lesseps. The charge was 8,250 pounds of dynamite and powder, and blew out 30,000 cubic metres of material. Farther on is the Corrosita, still 45 metres above the sea. But the most remarkable feature of the division is the great barrage at Gamboa. Its central line will cross the Chagres between the Cerro Obispo and the Cerro Santa Cruz. Its length at the base will be 300 metres, its height 35 metres, and, with a reveted slope of four to one, it will contain 10,000,000 cubic metres of rock and clay. No excavation is needed for the foundation; a bridge is now building across the valley, and from it trains will discharge into the valley below their loads of rock and earth excavated from the Corrosita and neighboring sections. The pressure of water in the basin will seal the dam by forcing the clay into the interstices of the rock mass, and by deposits brought down by the river. The capacity of the basin will be one billion cubic metres, or double the accumulation of waters during the worst rainy season. Nature has furnished the other walls of this reservoir in the ridges on each side of the Chagres, and in the natural ascent of the valley toward Cruces. The outlet of the basin will be a derivation of the Chagres around the hills of Barucco and Carga-Plata to the bend north of the forty-fourth kilometre; the outflow will depend upon the height of the water in the basin, but it will never be such that, when coupled even with the drainage of the remaining water-shed of the Upper Chagres, floods can occur in the lower course of the river.

In the last days of November the water usually rises to eight metres above the ordinary level. In the valley of the Chagres the annual rainfall is 3 metres. The average discharge of the river during the wet season is 134 cubic metres per second, and 666 during the floods. In the exceptional rise of 1879 it reached 1,930 cubic metres, but it must be remembered that such discharges seldom last more than forty-eight hours; for, as Lieutenant Kimball states in his valuable report just published, "The floods are of short duration, showing that they result from large local rainfall, and not from extensive watershed." When the barrage and derivations are completed, I believe that the problem of the Chagres will be solved.

Another interesting feature of this division is the two aqueducts that will be built near Emperador to carry the waters from the mountain valleys on the northern and eastern side across the canal into the Obispo River. Their elevation will be the present levels of these sites, and vessels will pass under them. The bed of the cuttings at the end of the division have now a level of 55 metres.

The original elevation of the Culebra in the plane of the axis of the canal was 108 metres; the cuttings have reduced it to 78 metres. The width of the cut at the summit is 300 metres, the slope of the sides being forty-five degrees. But a serious question at this point lies in the accumulation of material by wash, land-slides, and fissures. Last year 78,000 cubic metres of earth fell into the canal. The hill on the right side of the cut is formed of dolerite and sand, and no wash or slip can occur from it. But on the left side I found strata of clay covered with a mixture of alluvium, sand, and conglomerate. During the wet season this deposit becomes saturated, and the increased weight, coupled with the dip of the strata, causes it to slip over the smooth surface of the clay into the canal. The clay in turn contracts during the dry season, fissures result, and hence another source of land-slides; and the natural wash of torrential rains is a third cause of deposit in the bed of the cut.

But a far more serious problem apparently is the annual movement of this side toward the axis of the canal. It varies from 12 to 18 inches, and the contractors acknowledge that its remedy may require heavy expenditure for increased slope, if nothing more. As yet, however, this can not be regarded as an actual danger. The removal of so much material from the Culebra must affect the position of the center of gravity of the mass, and it may be that this movement results from a settling to the new conditions. This is the more hopeful view, and a reasonable one, but there is greater cause to fear that this is a movement of the whole hill-side, and not an earth-slide from the higher portions of the bank. The clay of Culebra is of the same bed as the "greasy" or slipping clay of the adjoining section of Paraiso. Referring to the latter. Lieutenant Kimball says its movement "in some places carries one bank almost intact across the cut with the top surface unbroken, and with the vegetation undisturbed." Again, "The effect of the move of the soil was very curious; at one point the bottom of the deflection cut had risen 3 metres where the greasy clay had forced itself underneath, and at another I saw a surveying picket which had moved out of line 21/2 metres, where there was no break in the top soil." To my mind, the deep cut of the Culebra is the great problem of the enterprise; already its side threatens to bar the way.

Leaving this puzzle to the contractors, and looking toward Panama, the first third of the last division descends gradually to 4 metres level at Pedro Miguel; the middle portion forms a plane from 5 to 8 feet above the sea, and over the last 6 kilometres flow the waters of the Pacific to an average depth of 5 metres, and reaching the maximum as Naos is approached.

At Colon the highest tides do not exceed 58 centimetres, or 23 inches, while at Panama high tides reach 4 metres, or 13 feet, and spring tides even G metres, or 20 feet. That vessels may pass at all stages of tide, the depth of the canal from Naos to the present crossing of the Rio Grande beyond Corozal—9·4 kilometres—will be 9 metres at lowest ebb.

The company has consulted the French Academy of Sciences concerning the probable effect of this difference of tide-level on the canal, and has been told that a lock or tidal gate will not be needed. The director-general does not oppose this view, but thinks that an answer to this question at present must be based on theory—that, as excavations progress, the effect must be watched; and that upon the knowledge obtained the decision must rest. Plans for a tidal gate have been prepared, and, if needed, it will be placed at the Boca, near Panama.

The line of the canal is crossed twenty-eight times by the Chagres between Gamboa and Colon, and thirteen times by the Rio Grande between Culebra and Panama. To avoid the dangers of current and overflow that would exist if these streams entered the canal, deflections are excavated to carry them to the sea in beds on each side of the canal. The deflections of the Upper Chagres will drain the Gamboa basin and the water-shed north of the canal, and will discharge their waters into the Boca Grande, east of Colon; those of the Lower Chagres will transport to the present mouth of the Chagres, the tributaries now entering the river on its left bank, the most important of which are the Obispo, the Arena, and the Trinidad. The Rio Grande will be deflected entirely to the right of the canal, and will enter the sea at La Boca. The total length of the deflections will be 64 kilometres. Some of them will be 40 metres wide and 3 deep; others, 30 metres wide and 5 deep. Erosion will increase these dimensions. Lying in valleys where feasible, the soil is alluvial, and easily excavated. It has occasionally happened that a subterranean stream has undermined the banks, and caused a break. The engineers claim that so far the repairs are effective, and I see no cause to disagree with them.

The following table shows the total excavation in both canal and derivations. The figures are those of the Canal Company, expressed in cubic metres:

Colon 2,500,000 1,900,000 600,000 600,000 420,000 180,000
Gatun 6,300,000 5,300,000 1,000,000 3,000,000 2,600,000 400,000
Bohio 5,500,000 2,100,000 3,400,000 1,100,000 450,000 650,000
Tavernilla 6,000,000 500,000 5,500,000 1,200,000 100,000 1,100,000
San Pablo 4,000,000 1,200,000 2,800,000 900,000 90,000 810,000
Gorgona 4,500,000 1,600,000 2,900,000 850,000 260,000 590,000
Matachin 3,250,000 1,200,000 2,050,000 400,000 150,000 250,000
Obispo 10,050,000 3,100,000 6,900,000 900,000 90,000 810,000
Emperador 19,000,000 4,300,000 14,700,000 500,000 . . . . . . . . . 500,000
Culebra 23,000,000 2,100,000 20,900,000 None. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Paraiso 7,000,000 1,800,000 5,200,000 240,000 180,000 60,000
Corozal 1,600,000 400,000 1,200,000 150,000 100,000 50,000
La Boca 2,500,000 1,900,000 600,000 100,000 80,000 20,000
Total 95,150,000 27,400,000 67,750,000 9,940,000 4,520,000 5,420,000

According to these statistics the total cube of canal and deflections was 105,090,000 cubic metres; the amount excavated is 31,920,000 cubic metres, leaving 73,170,000 to be removed. In other words, thirty per cent of the work is finished, and seventy per cent remains. The deflections are nearly half finished. The principal machine-shops are at Colon, Matachin, and Panama, These, with the hospitals and quarters for officials and laborers, if placed side by side, would cover an area of eighty-one acres. They are frame-buildings, picturesquely situated, with sills resting on masonry supports, and roofs of corrugated iron. They are clean, well-ventilated, and admirably suited to the climate of the Isthmus. The "cantines" are kept by Chinamen, who board the laborers at reasonable rates. The native huts are unhealthy; the vegetable matter of a thatched roof decays and becomes a harbor for insects. The present quarters are decidedly in the line of economy both as regards health and future expense and needs. I visited the Isthmus in 1881, when the country was a thickly-matted jungle, the only signs of habitation being a few huts at railway-stations. To-day thousands of acres are cleared, and such is the installation of the company that the canal seems to lie in a prosperous and populous district. In fact, the passenger from Matachin to Culebra is reminded rather of a single settlement than of several railway-stations.

At the time of my visit 10,640 workmen were employed by the contractors; with the 926 employés of the company, the total force was 11,566 men. The laborers are chiefly negroes from Jamaica or other islands, with a few from our Southern States, who have gone to Colon in coasting-vessels, and have been attracted by the wages of $1.50 per day in Colombian coin. About 300 Kroomen and as many Chinese recently brought over, have shown themselves good workmen. Time contracts are unknown; Government officials in the islands discourage negro emigration to the Isthmus; and changes are arising constantly from sickness, dissipation, return to homes, or fear of revolution. Many leave through fear of climate, lack of guaranteed hospital attendance, and the exorbitant rates of the Isthmus.

On Saturday the laborers are paid. Sunday is spent in dissipation or pleasure, Monday in recuperation, and it is not till Tuesday that a full force is at work; hence the number of working-days in a month seldom exceeds twenty or twenty-two. Twenty thousand laborers are wanted; and as the West Indies do not supply them, the company is trying to solve the difficult question of labor in the populations of Western Africa and Southern China.

The main hospitals are at Colon and Panama, but physicians are assigned also to each section of the works. There is, too, a sanitarium on Taboga, an island fourteen miles from Panama. The entire medical staff consists of thirty physicians and fifty apothecaries. It must be increased and other hospitals provided, if additions be made to the force of laborers. The hospital service has been much criticised, and it has been asserted that contractors discharge the sick, who die for lack of medical attendance. During my stay of six weeks on the Isthmus I saw nothing to confirm such statement. The hospital records show a death-rate of seven per cent to January, 1887; but this does not include those who, on account of illness or disease contracted here, have left and died elsewhere.

In the original act of concession, Colombia agreed to surrender to the Canal Company a border 200 metres wide on each side of the canal, and 500,000 hectares (1,235,571 acres) of public lands as the work progresses. The first grant of 150,000 hectares, made when the Colombian Government conceded that one third of the total work necessary for the construction of the canal had been done, is situated near the Chiriqui Lagoon and along the Tuira River. Besides this, the company has bought 34,653 acres between Colon and Panama. On the 9th of October, 1886, the first grant was increased to 250,000 hectares, the Government conceding that one half of the necessary work had been finished. The company owns, therefore, 652,438 acres of land, besides the border of 200 metres on each side of the canal.

By this, however, neither the Government nor the company concede that one half of the necessary excavation has been made; but that the present excavation, plus the quarters for officials and workmen, the hospitals, and the plant of machinery, represents one half of the total work required to finish the canal. Undoubtedly, quarters and machinery are important factors of the total work, but they do not represent twenty per cent of it; the Government would be sufficiently liberal in conceding to-day that one third of the total work has been done.

In 1870 the traffic of the Suez Canal was represented by 486 ships of 435,911 tons, yielding a revenue of 5,159,327 francs; in 1885 it was 3,624 vessels, of 8,985,411 tons, and paying 62,207,439 francs. M, Levasseur, Member of the Institute, taking the statistics of 1876 as a basis, estimates that if the canal were open in 1889, the tonnage of vessels passing through it would be 7,250,000. M. Marteau, editor of the "Journal du Havre," places it at 9,000,000 tons. Both gentlemen disregard the markets of the Mediterranean and of India, and send the entire commerce of Western Europe through the Panama Canal during the first year of its existence. Presuming a tariff of fifteen francs per ton, the receipts from either estimate would not remunerate at the outset a capital exceeding $240,000,000, when expenses of administration and repair are deducted. On the 1st of last March the total sum realized from the company's loans was 6179,771,190. As a new loan has since been raised, this sum must be wholly expended. It is evident that the final cost will exceed the sum warranted by the estimates.

No exact estimate of the time and money required to finish the canal can be made, as much of the data needed is unknown. M. Charles de Lesseps said to me: "In two years the canal will be finished from Colon to kilometre forty-four, and from La Boca to Paraiso. As to the Culebra, I leave you to form your own conclusions. It is a great and difficult work."

It is evident that the rate of excavation in a work of such magnitude must be small until the plant is complete; it is equally true that more work can be done in a given time with a complete installation than with one of less size. Hence it is false reasoning to conclude that if 32,000,000 cubic metres are excavated in five years, it will require twelve years to extract the remaining 73,000,000. That such reasoning is absurd is shown by the cube of last year, which was 11,727,000 cubic metres. At this rate it would require about seven years to complete the canal. It is not probable that this rate will be exceeded materially for a year or more.

Keeping in mind the sum already expended, and the purposes to which it was applied, it is unreasonable to presume that the final cost of the canal will be less than 2,000,000,000 francs, or about 8375,000,000. These figures are now acknowledged by the company; but owing to the great sacrifice at which the loans are obtained, the liabilities of the company will be nearly double this amount.

Any views concerning the completion of the canal by the present company must be conjectural; but if the present loan be expended with economy, the results will enhance the prospects of success.

At Colon there were many residents and foreigners not interested in the canal. The most bitter opponents of the enterprise were Americans and Englishmen, or former employés of the company who had been discharged or had a similar grievance. But from all sources there was a free admission that the company has both brains and energy.


PSM V32 D471 Reversed color image of the Panama canal route.jpg

that the canal presents no insuperable obstacles, and that its completion is a question of time and money.

Addenda.—In a report dated September 1st, Señor Armero, agent of the Colombian Government, estimates the whole sum required to finish the canal at 3,012,495,400 francs, equal to $602,639,080. This fabulous sum he believes will be raised because so many millions are already sunk in the work, and half a million holders of stocks and bonds are interested, and the honor of France is at stake. But at the rate of progress so far attained the work can not be completed, nor can even the temporary canal, with locks, etc., now proposed by M. de Lesseps, be opened to traffic in 1889 or even in 1892, the year in which the concession terminates.

The proposed plan of M. de Lesseps is to excavate the 60 kilometres of lower elevations by present methods, and to form a lake of the 14 kilometres of central mass, to be reached on both the Pacific and the Atlantic sides by locks. By this means he proposes to finish the temporary canal by 1890 at a cost of 1,500,000,000 francs. The temporary canal completed, dredges will continue their work in the lake and gradually deepen the channel till a sea-level canal shall be formed from ocean to ocean.