The views along the line of the interoceanic ship-canal between Colon and Panama which are printed in the issue of this Weekly give its readers a fair idea of what has been done with the $175,000,000 already spent in this gigantic enterprise. What remains to be done with the $35,000,000 working capital now in the treasury of the canal company, and with the proceeds of the loan of $70,000,000 just authorized by the French Chamber of Deputies-- and which it seems likely the government will finally sanction-- may be readily inferred from the pictures made at Bas Obispo and the Culebra.
Until recently most Americans who had not visited the Isthmus of Panama believed the De Lesseps canal to be a hypothetical ditch crossing an impracticable country-- on paper-- and connecting, not the two oceans, but De Lesseps and the "stockings" of the French peasantry. Only a year or two have elapsed since the veteran financier of France declared to the Crown-Prince of Germany-- now the dying Emperor-- that he expected to find his capital "in the woolen stockings of France, in which the peasants, workmen, and small tradesmen store their savings, a few sous every Saturday." Within a month or two those stockings have yielded him fifty million francs. With this and the new lottery loan experienced engineers declare the canal can actually be finished, by the Eiffel lock system, before 1893. If this idea be anything like correct, there must be on the isthmus something more than a paper ditch. And the pictures accompanying this article unquestionably show this to be the case.
But they also show the enormous quantity of work yet remaining. About eighteen miles of the canal from Colon southwestward are now open to navigation for vessels of twelve feet draught. This result was only reached on February 22d of this year, when the Mindi Cut, shown in the picture, was completed by the great dredge, also depicted. The course of the canal from coast to coast is just seventy-four kilometres, or about forty-five and a half miles, in length. The section opened by the completion of the Mindi Cut is only a little more than the first contract division, which is twenty-four kilometres, or about sixteen miles, long, extending from Colon to Bohio Soldado. There are five other contract divisions of the work, on which operations are now being pushed, but none of which is in anything like the advanced state of approximate perfection produced by New York money and American tact and enterprise on the first division. To H. B. Slaven, President of the American Dredging and Construction Company, to the genius of the man who invented the patent dredges-- three views of which are given herewith-- and to the money of Mr. Slaven's associates, Eugene Kelly, Charles M. Fry, and Morton, Bliss, & Co., this result is due. French enterprise and skill and French money, of which there seems to be plenty available just now, may be able to finish the other five sections by the lock system within five years. Mr. Slaven says this will be done.
If Ferdinand De Lesseps, who is now eighty-three years old-- not a great age for great men on the Continent-- should live in health to be eighty-eight, there is little doubt that he will succeed, by the aid of M. Eiffel, the builder of the famous Eiffel Iron Tower in Paris, in locking vessels across the isthmus. The action of the French Deputies a week or two ago seems to assure sufficiency of funds. The late Emperor William of Germany was active until he was ninety-two; Von Moltke is eighty-eight now. The four hundred thousand Frenchmen who have subscribed $200,000,000 for his stock are not expecting too much of M. De Lesseps when they insist that he shall live and work for them five years longer. They know he is a wonderful man, descended from a wonderful family. His grandfather walked across Siberia before the Revolution, after landing in Corea from the ill-fated vessel in which La Perouse made his famous voyage around the world. Nothing is known of the fate of the others. The son of that De Lesseps, and father of the present one, helped during the Consulate to negotiate the cession of Louisiana by Spain to France; so the family is not now identified with an American enterprise for the first time.
It is plain that the two great original mistakes of this remarkable undertaking have been, first, the under-estimate of the period required for its completion, and, second, the ridiculously inadequate estimate of the amount of money necessary. There have been many and expensive errors of administration, such as are not unlikely in a private enterprise on such an extensive scale. But there are compensating considerations, of which American machinery, skill, and daring have not been the least.
The American Dredging Company receives $500,000 a month for its contract work. It has now at work seven of the great machines shown in the illustrations. Five of them were built in New York, and cost, delivered at Colon, $160,000 apiece. The picture of the Mindi Cut shows what is called a Scotch dredge at work breaking through the last rocky barrier to free canal communication between Colon and points twelve miles up the canal. Much of the rock in sight had already been shattered by dynamite. It was intensely irritating to De Lesseps to be stopped four miles out from Colon by this hilly chain of almost solid rock.
Passing the Mindi Cut, one sails past the native village of Gatun to where the "City of Paris," the biggest and most ingenious of the Slaven dredges, is at work. It is probably the largest dredge in the world, and digs through earth and rock or mud and water with equal facility. It excavates and carries a safe distance away on the banks twelve thousand cubic metres of earth a day, and is as nearly automatic as a machine can well be. The tower on the deck, as shown in the illustration, is seventy feet high. To that height the soft material is hoisted from the channel of the canal in immense iron buckets, each holding a cubic metre, moving on an endless chain. From the top of the tower this material is then conveyed to a distance of one hundred and fifty feet on either side by the big pipes shown in the drawing. At that distance there is no danger of its flowing back into the canal bed. The operating staff of the "City of Paris" consists of twenty boys and men. The view near Tabernilla shows the similar endless chain of buckets by which dry excavating is done, the removed material being shot off to a wonderful distance on the right.
An excellent idea of the vast operations necessary on every division of the canal except the first may be gained from the view of the high point at Bas Obispo, looking toward the Culebra, or mountain divide. The dry bed of the canal partially excavated is shown in the foreground. The white-walled quarters of the employés and laborers employed at this important point are seen in the distance. Intersecting and running parallel with the axis of the canal seven distinct lines of tramway are to be seen, the highest running along the upper edge of the bluff on the left, and all showing by their successive depression the herculean task it must have been to cut down a great hill into a spacious valley.
The most interesting, perhaps, of these views along the canal is that outlining in the background the profile of the Culebra, or backbone of the isthmus. What was once a solid continuous chain of rock is shown to have been cut away into a stupendous artificial gap, up to which run the canal bed and parallel system of tramways found necessary to carry away the demolished hills.
This view is on the fourth contract division of the canal, which contains the heaviest work. It is only about four kilometers in length. The highest point of this Culebra, or ridge, which must be dug and cut away is more than three hundred feet above the canal bed, and the whole division averages much more than two hundred feet above that level. The manager for the contractors for this division, M. Bunauvarilla, was formerly a Director-General of the Panama Canal Company. The canal directors seem to have a great way of resigning and getting hold of fat contracts. He says he will have his work done by 1891.
Count De Lesseps is expected shortly on the isthmus. He was there in 1882, and again in 1885, just before his last visit to New York. He said then the canal would be finished in 1888 or 1889. Afterward he put the date for its completion in 1890 at latest. Disappointed, perhaps, as he has been in these predictions-- more so than the world, which didn't much believe them-- he has done a great deal in the interval. He says now he has all the money he wants, and recalls the success of his Suez Canal and the fact that it took fifteen years to finish it.
--John Paul Bocock.
Harper's Weekly, June 9, 1888.