Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/July 1887/The Panama Canal
|THE PANAMA CANAL.|
NOT a little skepticism, and even some hostility, have existed among us as to the Panama Canal; and, perhaps, any other nation in our situation would have entertained similar sentiments. It is worthy of note, however, that the nation was not lacking in tact when it refrained from showing any such feelings during the recent visit of M. de Lesseps. De Lesseps was the guest of the United States; and it is hardly civil to criticise one's guests. He was here not as a representative of the Panama Company, but as President of the Franco-American Union. Upon the death of the first president, Edouard Laboulaye, he had been elected to this position. This Union had collected the funds destined to carry out the design of Bartholdi, and it naturally devolved upon its head to make the presentation speech on the 28th of October, the day of the inauguration of the statue. The Panama Canal had no connection with the Statue of Liberty; but every one thought of De Lesseps as the constructor of one interoceanic canal and the projector of another. It was natural, therefore, that something should be said, after all, about the Panama enterprise. A banquet was offered to De Lesseps by Cyrus W. Field, October 27th, the day before the ceremony upon Bedlow's Island. On the 2d of November, one was tendered him in like manner in Philadelphia by George W. Childs. On the former occasion, Mr. Field, having referred to the Suez Canal and the obstacles met with in its construction, said with regard to De Lesseps and Panama: "As that work is now in progress, it may be presumptuous to speak of what is in the future. I can only say that I learned in Egypt that it will not do to say that anything is impossible to M. de Lesseps, and that he has with him the ardent hopes of all Americans that he may not taste of death till he has carried out his last and greatest work, which will link his name imperishably with this New World as it is already linked with the Old."
Sentiments of this sort, in sympathy with the undertaking rather than opposed to it, were expressed at the banquet in Philadelphia. De Lesseps, in the course of his visit, listened rather to what admirers or sympathizers had to say than to utterances of another description. But these compliments are not a reflection of the whole of public sentiment. Many Americans, having assumed in the beginning an antagonistic feeling toward the enterprise, are still disposed to keep that feeling and to support it by regarding largely if not chiefly the difficulties to be met. It may not be out of place to see how far this attitude is justified by the physical elements of the vast undertaking and the financial prospects of the Panama Company; we may also glance at facts, perhaps at the opinions of authorities, as to the desirability of some sort of interoceanic passage.
In 1883 Admiral Cooper, then in command of the United States naval forces at Panama, submitted to the Navy Department a report upon the condition of the enterprise; in this he says: "The whole undertaking is so gigantic that one can not believe that it will soon be finished; but I am impressed with the fact that the French are thoroughly in earnest, and that if they fail to finish the canal on account of want of funds the work done by them will be well done, and will be so extensive as to always give this route great advantages over any other." He also observes: "Opinions have been expressed that the work is being delayed by unnecessary attention to details and in making provision for possible emergencies; but this careful preparation for the great undertaking strengthens my belief that the canal will ultimately be finished more than anything else."
These opinions were expressed some four years ago, when hardly a beginning had been made in the matter of excavation, less than one million cubic metres having been removed. The amount removed up to the 1st of January of the present year was thirty millions, about a quarter of the whole. It is safe to say that since 1883 the chances of the completion of the work have improved. Yet it is not to be assumed that De Lesseps and the present company will be able to complete it. Only recently they failed to get the authorization of the French Government to raise 600,000,000 francs by means of a loan with lottery drawings attached. It was by just this method—a lottery loan—that the Suez Canal was finished, but the French legislators of 1886 hardly took the degree of interest in the Panama scheme which those of 1868 did in the Suez. Only eight votes were cast against the bill of 1868, and this enactment carried the work through to its completion. The result in the present case has been that De Lesseps was obliged to go upon the market and raise about one third—200,000,000 francs—the amount asked for, upon comparatively onerous terms. This sum, added to 75,000,000 francs, the last quarter of the stock capital, called in in September, will enable him to continue the work for one or two years. It remains to be seen whether, prior to the expenditure of these sums, a renewed application to the French Government will meet with better success. It should be remembered, after all, that the French Government favored the application of the company. It introduced a bill based in its essential features upon the bill of 1868. Opposition existed not in the ministry but in the Chamber, and it is possible, to say the least, that upon a subsequent occasion the ministry and Chamber may find themselves in accord.
It may, perhaps, be considered doubtful whether the present company is to complete the work, and whether the French are to maintain the financial control they at present possess. But it can not be denied that powerful incentives must influence the French Government and the French people toward the support of the company, and the keeping of the work in De Lesseps's hands. In no way can the weight of such considerations be shown better than by the following extract from the late report of Rousseau, the commissioner of the French Government. He inspected the work in February, 1886, and at the close of his report says:
"In fine, I consider the cutting of the Isthmus of Panama a possible work, and that at present it has been carried so far that it can not be abandoned. ...
"Such an abandonment," he goes on, "would be in fact a veritable disaster, not only for the stockholders, who are nearly all French, but as regards French influence all through America. ...
"It does not seem to admit of doubt that, if the affair failed in the hands of the French company, it would be immediately taken up by a foreign company to prevent the fruits being lost of the enormous sacrifices made and the results obtained. ...
"The Panama Company, because of the names and past of the men who direct it; the eminent advisers whom it possesses; the grand and in some sort humanitarian character of the work it pursues; because of the serious efforts which it has already made, and is still making successfully to complete the work, deserves in a special sense the regard of the Government."
Much has been said as to the unfavorable character of the report of Rousseau. Although not published in full, it is understood not to be in every respect what De Lesseps would have wished. Yet, judging from the passages quoted, it is plain that the author is in no sense indifferent to the fate of the undertaking. He recognizes the stake possessed in it, alike by the French people and the French Government.
It seems, therefore, probable that the French will make strenuous efforts to finish the canal; reports, on the other hand, have been current as to the calculations of English, German, and American capitalists, in view of a possible collapse. A year or two will probably determine the success or failure of the company. It has, however, a resource wholly within itself—the reduction of the cost by making the canal with locks instead of cutting it to the sea-level. This is the course recommended by the commissioner of the French Government, Rousseau. Upon such conditions the assistance of the Government might be more readily obtained than if the company should persist in endeavoring to carry out its original purpose. In case the lock solution should be adopted, it is to be kept in mind that such a canal at Panama possesses one unquestioned advantage over one at Nicaragua: the former can, while the latter can not, be converted into a sea-level canal.
It may be observed, besides, that the only plan for a canal at Panama ever submitted by the engineers of the United States, that of Lull and Menocal, in 1875, is a plan including locks. De Lesseps is not a man to neglect his own interests; he might be ready enough, no doubt, to take a hint, never mind from what source. Fas est ab hoste doceri. Should this design be adopted, so as to get the canal through, and should the undertaking prove remunerative, capital might be subsequently raised to deepen the work to the sea-level.
One common error in estimating the cost of the canal here deserves attention. The preparatory expenses of such an undertaking are large. A heavy outlay is required before much more than a beginning can be made in the matter of excavation. The Hon. John Bigelow, in his report upon the status of the enterprise, submitted to the New York Chamber of Commerce in April, 1886, gives a table of the expenses down to July, 1885. It is taken from De Lesseps's annual report of that date. In it the expenditure up to this point is put down at 368,000,000000,000 francs, while the amount set down under the heading, "clearing the surface of wood and stumps, installing machinery, and excavation," amounts to but 115,000,000 francs. This is less than a third of the whole. Mr. Bigelow observes that this "last item only, and that partially, represents work on the canal." He assumes that this 115,000,000 francs represents the cost of about one fifth of the excavation. Now, it has been customary for the critics of the undertaking to argue thus: If one fifth of the excavation costs 308,000,000 francs, it is easy to see that the whole will cost about 1,800,000,000 francs, a sum greatly in excess of the estimate of the Paris Congress. This estimate was 1,070,000,000 francs. But the above method of computation is obviously erroneous. Mr. Bigelow, referring to it, says: "It would be very misleading to infer the cost of the work remaining to be done from the apparent cost of what has been done. Fully two thirds of the expenses already incurred are in the form of plant." He points out in like manner that it would be "scarcely more fallacious" to infer that because one fifth of the excavation had been made for 115,000,000 francs, the money required to complete it would be only four times that amount. The work which remains is much more difficult than what has already been done. As the trench descends to lower and lower levels, it becomes more expensive to get rid of the material excavated.
Another criticism of a somewhat vague and yet serious character is brought against the undertaking. It is said that lavish expenditures, a reckless disregard of prudence and economy, have characterized the work. Upon this point also Mr. Bigelow's testimony is not without weight. He says: "No doubt some of the money has been injudiciously expended, but what great work, whether of a private or public character, has escaped this reproach? Taking the waste through these channels at the largest presumable figures, the inconsiderate expenses of the average individual all over the world would probably represent a larger percentage of his aggregate expenditure."
Before leaving Mr. Bigelow's exposition of errors, into which unless upon our guard we might perhaps be led, it may be observed that his report, prepared after a personal inspection of the work, is one of the most judicial documents published upon the subject; and those desirous of forming an impartial estimate would do well to acquaint themselves with it. To indicate the importance attached by Mr. Bigelow to the completion of the work we may cite the passage which follows. He observes that the French, especially people of moderate means, possess for several reasons extraordinary faith in De Lesseps; partly because they know that De Lesseps does not "job" with the securities of the undertaking; partly because of the financial success of the Suez Canal; and partly because the completion of the Panama Canal under De Lesseps's auspices "would rank among the half-dozen largest contributions ever made to the permanent glory of France."
These references to Mr. Bigelow's report may be supplemented by an extract or so from the latest report made to our Government on the subject, the "Special Intelligence Report" of Lieutenant W. W. Kimball, United States Navy, who inspected the works about the same time as Mr. Bigelow, early in 1886. Lieutenant Kimball says: "That with a sufficient expenditure of money, time, brains, energy, and human life, the canal can be finished, is self-evident, but it would be idle for me to attempt to estimate the necessary quantity of all or any of them. Too many of the prime data for calculation are unknown quantities."
If such a statement on the part of Lieutenant Kimball makes us cautious in accepting the present, or at least recent, estimate of the company as to ultimate cost, 1,200,000,000 francs, it may make us equally cautious in accepting the pessimistic, larger estimates which appear from time to time.
As regards the plans Lieutenant Kimball says, "As might be expected of the work of the eminent engineers who have made the plans, the design is almost above criticism."
With reference to the proposed dam at Gamboa, by which the freshets of the Chagres River are to be controlled, a work as to whose impracticability or insufficiency much has been said, the writer observes, "The engineering difficulties are to me not at all patent."
This exhaustive report is not without strictures upon the course of the company in certain cases. Lieutenant Kimball, in particular, is disposed to think, while holding that the plans for the control of the Chagres River are practicable enough, that their execution has been unadvisedly delayed; floods have at certain points carried into the excavation fresh deposits which will require to be re-excavated.
In concluding these considerations, it may be remarked that it is less than ever safe to try to fix at present the cost of the undertaking. The company is considering the advisability of executing it upon a less extensive and costly scale in certain respects. Possibly, though the company has for the present decided against it, the lock plan may be adopted, and, until such practical questions are finally settled it is impossible to estimate the expense.
Some may still ask, Is a canal or a ship-railway worth building, after all? Even Admiral Ammen intimated doubts as late as 1879, after the decision of the Paris Congress, as to whether the time had come to cut the Isthmus. It may not be hard to satisfy ourselves on this point. In a report submitted to the Navy Department in 1860 by Admiral C. H. Davis, an estimate is given of the tonnage which would have used a canal had one been in existence, as well as of the loss inflicted upon commerce because of its lack. The former estimate is 3,094,070 tons, which agrees pretty well with the estimate of the Paris Congress for the year 1879, if we assume the rate of annual increase from 1866 to 1879 which the Congress adopted. Admiral Davis's estimate of the loss annually experienced by commerce was $49,530,208. These estimates, made over twenty years ago, would be evidently too low for 1887. But even should we assume that in the course of the past twenty years no increase of traffic had occurred, a result sufficiently surprising would be arrived at. The loss to commerce in four years would amount to $200,000,000, about the cost of the Panama Canal according to the estimate of the Paris Congress. This simple calculation shows the importance of the work. Mr. Bigelow, in his report, already quoted, says, with reference to the Panama Canal, "Were all nations to contribute toward its construction in any equitable proportion to the advantages they would derive from it, the stock would be as difficult to obtain as the golden apples of Atalanta."
We have thus far supposed that the tonnage which would pay dues to a canal, as well as the loss which the lack of a canal occasions, has not increased for the past twenty years. It is true that Admiral Davis's computation of this increase would lead us to exaggerated conclusions. According to this estimate, the tonnage which would use a canal would double every ten years. The estimated loss
experienced by commerce being for 1866, $50,000,000, would be for 1876, $100,000,000; and for 1886, $200,000,000. According to this computation, the annual loss to commerce at present is equivalent to the cost of the Panama Canal as estimated by the Paris Congress. Every year, if we may assume the above data, money enough is wasted because we do not have a canal to build one! Such a calculation is, however, in excess of the truth. The computation of Levasseur, the one adopted by the Paris Congress, that sixteen years would be required to double the tonnage, is more moderate and much more reliable. According to this, if the loss in 1866 may be set down at $50,000,000, the loss in 1882 would be $100,000,000. It is quite possible that the truth lies between the estimates of Levasseur and Davis. Over a page of Mr. Bigelow's report is devoted to the estimates of a commercial journal of Paris, The "Revue-Gazette," and these exceed the estimates of Levasseur. Authorities differ but even estimates not among the highest show that some interoceanic route for ships is one of the greatest commercial needs of our times.
It seems almost superfluous to ask for the indorsement of names to an enterprise of such great utility; but, as the testimony of experts has weight with many minds, a few authorities of unquestioned competence may be cited. Among such may be reckoned Admiral Ammen. Appointed by General Grant one of a commission of three to report upon the interoceanic question, he was subsequently sent by our Government to represent it at the Congress of Paris. In his volume upon the interoceanic question, he observes that the result to be attained is "the grandest that man is capable of achieving for the amelioration of the commerce of the world."
Not less significant is the opinion of the late W. W. Evans, an American engineer of distinction. Of Mr. Evans, Admiral Ammen remarks, in a recent publication, that his name is known all over the world. Mr. Evans wrote in 1879 that this canal matter was "the most important matter in the line of progress now before the world." Such a statement may perhaps lead us to ask, Does not the ascription to the canal of such a preponderant influence connect itself with questions of international law? Admiral Davis, in his report, already cited, quotes from a writer, whose name he does not give, this statement, viz., that the cutting of the Isthmus would prove "the mightiest event probably in favor of the peaceful intercourse of nations which the physical circumstances of the globe present." Assuming that it is desirable that the peaceful intercourse of nations be promoted, another question naturally presents itself: Would it be promoted or not by the establishment and recognition in the cases of Suez and Panama of the neutrality of these works? This is not an occasion to discuss such a point. It may be enough to indicate the significance which attaches to it.
Among other authorities may be named Admiral Davis, Professor Nourse, United States Navy, who prepared for the department in 1883 a report upon the Suez and Panama Canals, Lieutenant Maury, General Grant, and Senator Windom. In the Senate, February 28, 1881, the latter observed, after referring to the significance of the work and the demand for its execution, that it was a wonder it had not been sooner undertaken. Pitt, Jefferson, and Humboldt, are men of a former generation who interested themselves in the problem.
As the work is at present in French hands, some reference to French authorities might not be out of place. The curious may consult to advantage an address delivered by Renan, April 23, 1885, when De Lesseps was received by the French Academy. Renan, after assuming that the possible inhabitants of the planets may have better telescopes than ours, alleges that they might judge of our civilization by the state of our isthmuses. "A planet," he continues, "is not ripe for progress till all its inhabited parts are brought into intimate relations, each with each, so as to constitute a living organism, so that no part may be able to enjoy, or suffer, or act, without feeling and reaction in all the rest."
Nor is it to be said that this reference to the cutting of isthmuses as a touch-stone of civilization is an empty compliment, one which might fitly, perhaps, find its place in a eulogistic address. The testimonies adduced as to the division of the American Continent are explicit enough. It is safe to say that if the completion of any enterprise in course of execution to-day is loudly called for by the interests, even the necessities of all states, it is the enterprise at Panama. The French may not be able to complete it if by them it is to be completed as soon as their wishes and certain possible political calculations have designated. They may not celebrate its inauguration, and at the same time celebrate the centennial of the Bastile and the era of the Revolution. Let us hope, at all events, that the inauguration is not to be long deferred.
The proper spirit in which this great enterprise ought to be regarded is perhaps set forth in the following lines from a German source. The Gazette of the Administration of the Railroads of Germany, published in Berlin, expressed itself in a recent number thus:
"In conclusion, we should not fail to express a hope that the courageous builders of the canal will succeed in overcoming all obstacles, so that a great work, which will be the pride of the engineering art of to-day, and even of the nineteenth century, may be successfully finished by those who thus far have borne the entire labor and the entire weight. If the present company should fail, certainly a second would be formed which would inherit the advantages and experiences of the first, without having paid for these at its own risk and by its own work. The undertaking is chiefly in French hands, and we Germans have but little interest to favor the extension of French glory and success; but the divergencies which exist between nations should disappear in face of the great spirit of enterprise, which animates the director of the canal, M. de Lesseps, and in face of the private capital invested, which, though it be invested to promote private interests, has a general interest as well."
Of such views it is safe to say that they are at least deserving of consideration. They are much to the credit of the writer, whose breadth of view and liberality of judgment alone enabled him to pen them.
According to this dispatch, Lieutenant Rogers states in his report that the company did as much work during the past year as it had done in all the preceding years—which seems to be an exaggeration. While he doubts somewhat that the present company will be able to complete the undertaking, he thinks the ultimate completion of it is certain, and he considers it better to finish the Panama Canal than to spend money on the Nicaragua project.
- This estimate, twenty-five per cent, implies the completion of the work as a sea-level canal. As much as this, however, we ought not to assume. Should the work be completed as a lock-canal the requisite excavation would be much less.
With regard to the total excavation, estimated by the company at 120,000,000 cubic metres, authorities are not agreed. Lieutenant Kimball, United States Navy, from whose late report to our Government one or two extracts are to be taken, speaks doubtfully upon this point, but seems to think it likely that the excavation will reach 135,000,000, or perhaps more. He observes that the slopes adopted by the company are two to three in soft earth (two of vertical dimension to three of horizontal) and two to one in rock; these he thinks not sufficiently gradual, and hence his larger estimate.
With regard to the amount excavated, January 1, 1887, 30,000,000 cubic metres, it may be added that, according to two authorities favorable to the enterprise, Hon. John Bigelow and M. de Molinari, who inspected the works last year with De Lesseps, a somewhat lower figure may be assigned. They give as the amount excavated at the time of their inspection in February, 1886, 14,000,000 cubic metres instead of 19,000,000, the figure of the company. De Molinari, however, remarks that these 14,000,000 cubic metres do not include the whole excavation. This he puts at 17,000,000, only 2,000,000 below the company's reckoning. He explains that the 3,000,000 excluded refer to accessories—the excavation of roads over which to carry the extracted material, etc. Such parts of the excavation, he seems to have thought not comprised in the estimate of 120,000,000 cubic metres. His carefully-prepared letters, published in the "Débats," and which relate both to the Panama enterprise and to the economic condition of several of the West Indies, have recently appeared in book-form. The author, well known as a writer upon political economy, dedicates his work to De Lesseps.
Finally, it may be remarked that the entire excavation for 1886 reached 11,727,000 cubic metres, an average of almost 1,000,000 per month. The excavation for the first three months of the present year is as follows:January
1,051,000 cubic metres.February 1,286,000 "March 1,100,000 "
The decrease in the excavation for March is for the most part only apparent; for, as the work is reckoned from the 25th of each month to the 25th of the next, March thus gets twenty-eight days while February gets thirty-one. It is safe to conclude that the excavation for 1887 will equal, and probably exceed, that for 1886. At the lowest estimate the amount removed up to July 1st may be set down at 36,000,000 to 37,000,000 cubic metres; an amount which may be the more readily assumed since the work usually progresses more rapidly during the first six months of the year, the dry season, than during the wet season which succeeds. The excavation for February, 1,286,000, is seventeen per cent higher than that for any other month since the work began.
The following table, taken with the exception of the figure for 1886 from De Lesseps's last annual report, gives the average monthly excavation each year:1882
16,245 cubic metres.1883 215,300 "1884 617,054 "1885 658,708 "1886 977,250 "
Possibly 1887 is to show a considerable increase over 1886, as 1886 did over 1885. We should remember that, owing chiefly to the improvements effected in the machinery used at Suez, more excavation was effected during the last three years than during the previous seven. If we could allow ourselves to make such a calculation for Panama, the work might be finished in 1890. Mr. Bigelow is of opinion that upon this contingency, the progress of invention, De Lesseps counts at the present day; and, in fact, the work at Panama has already been accelerated in this manner.
- It is true that the amount of the loan asked for in 1886, 600,000,000 francs—the calculation of the company being that 600,000,000 added to the 600,000,000 already spent or still disposable would complete the work—much exceeds the loan obtained for Suez, 100,000,000 francs. But we may remember that the commerce and wealth of the world have vastly increased available capital; and, moreover, the astonishing financial success of the Suez Canal ought to serve as a powerful stimulus. According to the estimate of the Paris Congress, Panama was to cost double what Suez did. But the commerce of the world will have more than doubled, reckoning from 1869, before the work at Panama is completed.
- This is not a point to be pressed. Wyse and Reclus prepared two plans for a ship-canal at Panama, one a sea-level plan and one with locks. The former was adopted by the Paris Congress. It was plain, however, that should this method of execution prove too expensive, the company might fall back upon the other alternative.
- It is not to be inferred that even so large a sum as 1,800,000,000 would preclude all chance of reasonable profits. A statement upon this point was made at the Geographical Congress of Hamburg, held in April, 1885. One session was devoted to a lecture upon the Panama Canal, given by a Dutch engineer, Van Nehus. He said: "According to the learned report of the. French economist, Levasseur, the probable annual tonnage of the canal would be 7,250,000, and this at the rate of fifteen francs per ton, after deducting 3,000,000 francs for maintenance, would afford an income of 105,750,000 francs. This would give a satisfactory interest, even for a stock capital of 2,000,000,000 francs."
- "The Popular Science Monthly" for April, 1880, in an editorial discussion of the canal question, makes the following observation. The editor, referring to the fact that the foreign holders of American securities have been not unfrequently, by skillful manipulators defrauded of their just dues, says that De Lesseps "defies the world to show that a centime of the funds contributed to the Suez Canal was misappropriated or stolen."
Of the contrast which, according to the opinion of some, exists between the financial management of Suez and that of Panama no sufficient evidence seems to exist.
- The writer is indebted to Lieutenant Kimball for permission to make use of the proofs of his report.
- Since the above was written, a dispatch from Washington states that an inspection of the canal was made in March by another officer of our navy, Lieutenant C. C. Rogers.
- "The American Interoceanic Ship-Canal Question," by Admiral Ammen, p. 66.
- These computations, as well as an estimate of the supposed rate of tonnage increase, were originally made by Frederick M. Kelley and published in a pamphlet in 1859. They are incorporated by Admiral Davis into his report.
- "The American Interoceanic Ship-Canal Question," by Admiral Ammen, p. 67.
- "Journal of the American Geographical Society for 1879," p. 144.
- "Bulletin du Canal Interocéanique," December 1, 1886.