Monday, April 11, 2011

A man, a plan, a canal. Panama

In early June I will traverse the Panama Canal aboard the JOIDES Resolution, the world's premier -- and history making -- scientific research vessel. I will be accompanied by my geologist daughter, Maureen, to whom I owe this wonderful opportunity.

I have had a longstanding dream to see the canal, ever since I read David McCullough's magisterial The Path Between the Seas in 1978. Now, in anticipation of the voyage, I've read the book again.

It is one of the wonders of geography that two great continents are connected by so slender a thread, the isthmus at Panama, a mere 45 miles wide, less than half the length of the canal at Suez. When the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps succeeded at Suez in 1869, international pressure to breach the Panama isthmus became irresistible.

But Panama was another kettle of fish from flat, barren, sandy Suez. A steaming jungle rife with malaria and yellow fever. A mountainous ridge separating the seas. And, most daunting of all, the Chagres River, twisting and turning along the obvious route of the canal, prone to torrential flooding in the wet season.

De Lesseps wanted a sea level canal without locks, as at Suez, but with no practical plan how to deal with the river or the ridge. Others proposed a massive viaduct to spring the river, or a tunnel to penetrate the ridge. At an international conference in Paris in 1879, de Lesseps carried the day by virtue of his personality and success at Suez -- and thus began an ill-fated French attempt at a sea-level canal that cost tens of thousands of lives and caused the financial ruin of countless investors.

At the Paris conference an engineer named Baron Godin de Lepinay proposed a radical idea: Instead of bridging or diverting the Chagres River, use it to advantage. Dam the Chagres near its exit to the Caribbean Sea, creating an artificial lake spanning more than half the isthmus. Another smaller lake would be created by damming the Rio Grande on the Pacific side of the ridge. The lakes would be reached by locks. The Chagres would be tamed. The rivers and the lakes would provide the water for the locks. The digging required for the canal would be drastically reduced. In the wide lakes ships could pass one another at ease. The infelicitous jungle would be submerged.

He was ignored.

It was, of course, the solution that ultimately succeeded.