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1879 Paris Canal Congress

An expedition was sent in 1877 by the French International Society for the Study of the Exploration of the American Isthmus to the region of the Gulf of San Miguel, on the Pacific coast, to make explorations in the direction of Cape Tiburen, on the Atlantic coast, and was supplemented by another one the year following. On both occasions Lieut. Wyse, who had charge of the operations, visited Bogota, to obtain a concession. Neither of these surveying parties ever reached the Atlantic coast, but plans were drawn for a sea-level canal, involving a tunnel of indefinite length.

On 15 May 1879 the Paris Canal Congress was convened to form the Panama Canal Company. The Paris Canal Congress was presented with a plan, drawn by Lieuts. Wyse and Reclus, for a sea-level canal predicated on a dozen cross-sections of levels on the Panama Railroad, and, of course, the profile of the railroad, which was obtainable from the railroad company. Some observers thought it was strange, ["almost beyond conception"], that M. de Lesseps should have given these plans. The concession of the Panama Railroad estopped any concession by the Colombian Government for a transit west of the Bay of San Miguel on the Pacific, and Cape Tiburon on the Atlantic coast. At the Congress, Sir John Hawkshaw, the British civil engineer noted for his work on the Charing Cross and Cannon Street railways, exposed the hopelessness of an attempt to make a sea-level canal. The surprise and sorrow of those who had made plans for a sea-level canal can hardly be conceived. The fact stared them in the face that such plans were impracticable. He noted that there would be a cataract of the Chagres River at Matachin of forty-two feet, which in periods of floods would be seventy-eight feet high, of a body of water thirty six feet deep, with a width of fifteen hundred feet.

"If the canal is to be without locks its normal surface level would be that of the sea, and its bottom level, say, eight metres lower. This being the case, the canal would receive and must provide for the whole drainage of the district traversed. Therefore it would be necessary to ascertain the volume of water that would drain into the canal before it would be possible even to determine the sectional area of the canal. If the canal have a still less surface fall than the river, as it would have, it must have a larger sectional area to discharge the same volume of water. The average section of the river in a flood at Mamei was ascertained by Mr. Reclus to be 1,310 square metres. This would require the canal, if it were eight metres deep, to be 160 metres wide. The waters of the Chagres would have a tendency to flow towards the Pacific, that is, through the tunnel, as the distance is less and the fall greater than to the Atlantic. It seems to me that the dimensions of the tunnel, if it has to serve for both the river and the canal, would be too small. Mr. Menocals estimate of the volume of the Chagres in time of flood would much more than fill the tunnel; and in any case the whole section of the tunnel is only half that of the river in time of flood as given by Mr. Reclus. During the construction of a canal at the sea level, difficulties would arise in providing for drainage, which would affect both time of execution and cost to an extent that could hardly be ascertained in advance."

There were two parties of speculators in the field at the Congress, the one represented by M. Blanchet, who had an unconfirmed grant from the Nicaraguan Government, and Lient. Wyse, who had a grant from the Colombian Government, embracing, with a reservation, the right to construct a ship canal over any part of her territory, the reservation applying to the already conceded monopoly of the Panama Railroad Company over the Isthmus proper. Lieut. Wyse had the powerful support of M. de Lesseps, and could have any desired majority on a vote as to the respective merits of the Nicaragua and Panama canal routes. The advocates of the Nicaragua route were disposed to regard Mr. Menocal and Rear-admiral Daniel Ammen, USN as their partisans.

The American view was that it was a matter of vast importance that it should be an American and not a European canal, which would control the US coasting trade, and cut US military lines.

On 29 May 1879 the Ship-canal Congress adopted, by a vote of 98 to 8, the Panama and Limon Bay route in preference to the Nicaragua route. One of the American representatives - Mr. Appleton - voted for the scheme, but Rear-Admiral Ammen, of the United States Navy, abstained from voting and Commander Selfridge, United States Navy, was absent. It was initially reported that the Wyse plan, endoresed by the Congress, would require between 12 and 20 locks, and would be built at a cost of $140,000,000 [versus the $180,000,000 estimated for the Nicaragua route]. Later it emerged that the Wyse plan was for a sea-level canal, at a cost of $250,000,000.

The Articles of Agreement of the International Society for cutting an interoceanic canal through the Isthmus of Darien were signed on 19 August 1879. This mutual society was formed by the subscribers to "cause to be made by chosen engineers the general outline and estimates for an interoceanic canal, without locks or tunnels, across the Isthmus of Darien, following first and foremost the track indicated by M. Gogorza."

In August 1879, books for subscriptions to the stock were opened with great eclat in Europe and in the United States. Soon after they were closed it was announced that, as the amount subscribed was insufficient the subscribers were at liberty to withdraw the money paid in. The Canal Bulletin did not give the number of shares of stock subscribed, but an estimate published at the time stated it roughly at two per cent. M. de Lesseps, however, was by no means at his wits end. He determined to go to Panama to see for himself. He would then be able to inform the public just what the canal would cost, and, to insure this, took several engineers with him as well as two contractors, Couvreux and Herseult, who had done work on the Suez Canal. Soon after his arrival at Panama he expressed his great satisfaction with the physical conditions, although a disastrous flood of the Chagres River was just subsiding.

He also reported that the climate was delightful and healthful, and, perhaps to accentuate this idea, he took one of his daughters with him. Why he needed to say this was clear. As early as 1849 "Chagres had the name, (and it undoubtedly deserved it,) of being the most unhealthy place in Christendom." [SOURCE] Whether he believed it is less clear.

The success of the Suez Canal and the fortunes made by the investors in that stock quite crazed the credulous rentiers, when they read the illusory personal presentations of M. de Lesseps, and saw his flaming advertisements everywhere. There was not a newspaper at that time, and for years thereafter, that did not give rosy accounts of the sea-level canal. Notwithstanding the statement of a substantial agreement as to cost of construction with Couvreux and Hersenlt, they appear thereafter only in the role of contractors.



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