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There could be no better introduction to a book on the Panama Canal than the enthusiastic words of Ambassador Bryce in a recent chapter on the Isthmus of Panama, where he says, in referring to the canal:

There is something in the magnitude and the methods of this enterprise which a poet might take as his theme. Never before on our planet have so much labour, so much scientific knowledge, and so much executive skill been concentrated on a work designed to bring the nations nearer to one another and serve the interests of all mankind.

In no previous age could an enterprise so vast as this have been carried through; that is to say, it would have required a time so long and an expenditure so prodigious that no rational government would have attempted it.

It is true we have elsewhere done work of comparable magnitude — the tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, the great railroads and terminals, the Erie Canal, the city subways and water-supply systems, the reclamation projects and great bridges — but these are all intimately interwoven with our daily life and progress. The canal is a project crystallized from the vast multitude of enterprises and is indisputably the greatest of them all.

With a subject so vast, one that has attained his toric interest, and ranks as an engineering work of such magnitude, it seems necessary to give a résumé of the early history, and to consider it in relation to events that may be well known in other connections.


One of the most interesting subjects connected with the Panama Canal is the history of the canal idea. To study its conception carries us back to the Middle Ages — to the conditions so well described by Fiske in his “Discovery of America,” when Genoa and Venice were the great commercial rivals and Spain was a rising power. Following Marco Polo's marvelous travels from 1269 to 1295, throughout Asia, and that of his adventurous successors, a great trade developed with the Orient, which proceeded unchecked via the Mediterranean and the ancient overland routes until the hostile Mohammedan Turk, recovering from two centuries of repression from the Crusades, overflowed his own dominions and entered the Balkan peninsula. In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the alliance between that city and Genoa was broken. This great commercial metropolis, through the persistent attacks of the Turks, was gradually deprived of her route to the Orient and thus of her commerce. The commerce of Genoa's great and only rival, Venice, had a similar fate.

Tremendous pressure developed for the finding of some new route to Cathay, as the other conditions for trade were most favorable. The world's ideas of geography at that time were of the crudest fashion. America was unknown. Africa had not been circumnavigated; its southern limits were enveloped in a haze of conjecture and ignorance. It was known that Asia did not extend indefinitely to the East and was not bounded by limitless swamps, as had been supposed. With the increasing hazards of the route to Cathay and the lands of spices, and the rising expectations of wealth and riches fed by the avaricious and adventurous spirit of the Middle Ages, the minds of men were forced to think of the possibility of other routes.

In the discovery by Dias, in 1486, and the confirmation by Vasco de Gama, in 1496, of the route to India by circumnavigating Africa, we are not now interested except to know that the presence on the first of these voyages of the brother of Christopher Columbus acted as a stimulus to the mind of the great explorer. He, as we know, put the unique idea of reaching Cathay by sailing westward to the test of four actual sea voyages. The results are familiar, but we must bear in mind that the discovery of the American continent was a mere incident and that what Columbus was really seeking was a passage to the Orient, and for this he continued his search on his three subsequent voyages. His ships ran their prows into the bays and inlets in the hope that they might find a strait and forge on to the desired lands. The full truth was never known to Columbus; he little realized, when his ships were at Porto Bello, that only forty miles overland were the waters — could he only reach them — which would carry him to his much-sought-for goal, and thence to Spain. Succeeding explorers continued these efforts, and every indentation of the eastern coast line of the Americas was explored by Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch ships, only to dim the hopes that the passage could ever be found.

It remained for Balboa, led on by tales of friendly Indians, to gain the knowledge of what lay beyond, after an overland journey not far distant from the site of the present canal. The discovery of the Pacific in 1513 only intensified the mariners' desires to penetrate with their ships.

The discovery in 1520, by Magellan, of the straits named after him, his entry into the Pacific, and the completion of the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 by a part of his expedition did not solve the problem and only emphasized the desirability of a conveniently located passage.

The actual results of the epoch-making discoveries overshadowed the original aims of the explorers. From being a primary aim, the search for the interoceanic passage, with the gradual ushering into the known world of the two continents, became secondary. The exploration and development of the newly found lands afforded a boundless outlet for the restless spirit of the times. The canal idea, having had its genesis in such great world events, was now to enter the next stage of its development.

It is remarkable that the desire for the passage has persisted throughout all these centuries. The increase in geographic knowledge, the correct understanding of the relation of the Americas to Europe and Asia, political history, the invention and building of railroads, and finally the phenomenal development of the American continent itself, have all brought out new phases of the problem and altered the point of view; but in all its phases it has remained one of the great ambitions of the human race.

The Americans did not have the honor of sending the first ship across the Isthmus. Balboa and his successor, Gil Gonzales de Avila, both carried ships across — Balboa after building them near the source of lumber supply on the Atlantic side and then dismantling and re-erecting them on the Pacific side, and de Avila after dismantling the ships that had carried him across the ocean. Their enterprise and energy are greatly to be admired. Untold difficulties beset the journeys through the jungle, and in Balboa's first crossing, one authority states the number of deaths amongst the Indian cargadores to have been five hundred, and another places the number at two thousand. The object in crossing the Isthmus was exploration on the Pacific side, especially investigations of the reputed gold in Peru. Subsequently there was much traffic with the Pacific coast, which was carried across the Isthmus and reshipped.

Charles V of Spain, who succeeded to the throne in 1516, encouraged the explorations of the South Sea, as the Pacific was then known, and urged his American governors, if possible, to discover a strait by systematic exploration. The expedition of Gil Gonzales de Avila along the Pacific shores had this object. He discovered Lake Nicaragua, which has played such an important part in the interoceanic canal question. No strait being found after years of search, Charles in 1534, by

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