Today, an Un-Panama Canal. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Next time you're near a map,
look at the quirky geography of Central America.
You'll notice that not one but two narrow necks of
land separate the Atlantic from the Pacific. The
Isthmus of Panama is fifty miles wide. Mexico's
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, between the Gulf of Mexico
and the Pacific, is 134 miles wide. By the way, the
direction from the Atlantic across Panama is not
westward, but southeast. From the Gulf
across the Mexico strip is due south.
Mexico's Tehuantepec Isthmus is dry, while Panama
is wet and muddy. Still, when it first came to
moving freight from one ocean to the other, all
eyes turned toward Panama. It looks so small on any
map, and climate is not evident on maps.
It may come as a surprise that, as early as 1855,
the U.S. had already built a railroad
across Panama. That railway only hinted at the
murderous cost of building a canal. Six thousand
railroad workers died of cholera. Nearly five times
that number of canal workers would ultimately die,
primarily of yellow fever.
Writer Joseph Vollmar offers a remarkable note on
our struggle to get ships across the continent. In
1879, Paris held a congress on linking the oceans.
It would be the incubator for Ferdinand de Lesseps'
abortive attempt to build a Panama Canal in the
1880s. The U.S. finally finished the canal 35 years
after the Paris meeting.
When the American engineer James Eads heard about
the Paris congress, he reacted. Eads was no
stranger to engineering on an epic scale. After the
Civil War, he'd built the St. Louis Bridge across
the Mississippi, with the longest steel arches ever
made. During the War he'd built many of the Union's
big ironclad gunboats. He was to America what de
Lesseps was to France.
He knew how hard it would be to build a system of
locks across Panama. Instead, he proposed a
rail system for moving ships overland,
across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. He planned to
slide a 350-foot flat bed under ships in a 450-foot
dry dock. Three double locomotives abreast would
pull the ships onto dry land and across Mexico on
three parallel sets of railroad track. Adjustable
rams on the flat bed would form a cradle, unique to
each ship's hull.
Eades went to Congress with his plan. In 1887 he
learned that the Senate had approved his idea. He
died a few months later, without ever knowing that
the House of Representatives subsequently blocked
it. Eads had argued that the cost of his plan would
be only half the cost of either building or
maintaining a canal; most ocean trips would be two
thousand miles shorter; and on rail, ships would
cross land twice as rapidly as in a canal.
America and France ultimately paid a terrible price
for the canal, in both money and human life. The
history of engineering is filled with tantalizing
what-ifs. But few are so filled with possibility as
the image of Eads' ships moving with stately grace,
by rail, across Mexico.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. E. Vollmar, Jr., The Most Gigantic Railroad.
Invention and Technology, Vol. 18, No. 4.,
Spring 2003, pg. 64.