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Seven Wonders of the Industrial World Episode 5: The Panama Canal

Mark Everest; Kanopy (Firm)
Format
Video; Streaming Video; Online
Summary
When French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, returned triumphantly to Paris after completing the Suez Canal in 1869, he was hailed as a national hero.Thousands raced to invest in his next, even bolder scheme – to build a great canal across Panama. His dream would cut a swathe across the South American continent and unite the vast oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific. Fortunes seemed assured as shipping would no longer have to face the terrors of Cape Horn to sail from one side of America to another. In 1879, the Paris Geographical Society set up a committee to investigate how best to turn the plan into reality. De Lesseps favoured a sea-level canal which would slice through the mountains to unite the oceans. In a furious debate, his rival, Baron de Lepinay, claimed this was impossible and proposed a gigantic lake and lock canal system. Ignorant of the dangers the committee backed the eminent De Lesseps. On 1 January 1880, De Lesseps set out confidently to Panama with his daughter to dig the first spade of earth at the mouth of the Rio Grande. But times and tides conspired against them and they failed even to find the correct site – an omen of what was to come. As a symbol of French national pride, thousands trekked to Panama to find themselves facing impenetrable jungle, deep swamps, poisonous snakes, torrential rains and deadly mudslides. De Lesseps put his son, Charles in charge of daily operations but they were soon to face two more formidable enemies – malaria and yellow fever. Men literally walked off ships to their deaths and thousands succumbed to the horrific conditions of ‘fever coast’. Nuns unwittingly made things worse by providing breeding sites for mosquitoes in the gardens of their hospital. With 20,000 dead by the late 1880’s, the ‘Panama Affair’ was rocked by financial scandal and brought down the French government. Shares collapsed, investors lost their money and Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps were both tried for bribery.The dream of the Panama Canal evaporated. Ruined and disgraced, Ferdinand died, in shame and quite insane, in 1894. Four years later, as America headed to war with Spain, its Navy’s first and only real battleship, US Oregon, took 67 days to get from San Francisco via Cape Horn to the Caribbean. By the time it finally reached its destination, the war was practically over. Roosevelt needed little convincing.The idea of the Panama Canal was reborn. Roosevelt pioneered a new plan and forced the countries of South America to agree terms after a stand-off with a fleet of warships. He personally appointed the experienced engineer, John Stevens, to direct the scheme. Stevens saw it as certain death (every killer disease known to man was endemic in the region) but against his better judgement he agreed to the President’s wish. His first step was to clear the area of malaria and yellow fever. Scientists had finally established that these diseases were carried by mosquito.Through his Chief Medical Officer, William Gorgas, Stevens launched one of the largest all out assaults on nature – fumigating houses, draining pools, digging ditches – until by 1905, he had completely eliminated yellow fever. In a historic U-turn, Stevens also reverted to the original scheme proposed by De Lepinay of using a gigantic lake and locks system. His plan would see the creation of the largest artificial lake in the world, the first constructional use of a relatively new material called concrete and the excavation of the impassable Culebra Cut, or Hell’s Gorge – as it became known. But just when it seemed he might win, he suddenly resigned and the military had to take over. By 1914 that the canal was finally opened – the greatest engineering feat the world had seen. And in France, De Lesseps son, Charles, at last saw his father’s name restored to honour and his own reputation cleared.
Director
Mark Everest
Performers
Narrated by Robert Lindsay.
Release Date
2003
Language
English
Notes
Off-air recording of the program broadcast: July 11, 2004.
Series
Seven Wonders of the World
Series Statement
Seven wonders of the world ; Ep. 5
Credits
Written and directed by Mark Everest; series producer, Debbie Cadbury.
Published
[San Francisco, California, USA] : Kanopy Streaming, 2014.
Recording Info
Originally produced by BBCActive in 2003.
Publisher no.
1050116 Kanopy
Related Resources
Cover Image
Description
1 online resource (1 video file, 49 min., 53 sec.) : digital, stereo, sound, color.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Technical Details
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    a| When French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, returned triumphantly to Paris after completing the Suez Canal in 1869, he was hailed as a national hero.Thousands raced to invest in his next, even bolder scheme – to build a great canal across Panama. His dream would cut a swathe across the South American continent and unite the vast oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific. Fortunes seemed assured as shipping would no longer have to face the terrors of Cape Horn to sail from one side of America to another. In 1879, the Paris Geographical Society set up a committee to investigate how best to turn the plan into reality. De Lesseps favoured a sea-level canal which would slice through the mountains to unite the oceans. In a furious debate, his rival, Baron de Lepinay, claimed this was impossible and proposed a gigantic lake and lock canal system. Ignorant of the dangers the committee backed the eminent De Lesseps. On 1 January 1880, De Lesseps set out confidently to Panama with his daughter to dig the first spade of earth at the mouth of the Rio Grande. But times and tides conspired against them and they failed even to find the correct site – an omen of what was to come. As a symbol of French national pride, thousands trekked to Panama to find themselves facing impenetrable jungle, deep swamps, poisonous snakes, torrential rains and deadly mudslides. De Lesseps put his son, Charles in charge of daily operations but they were soon to face two more formidable enemies – malaria and yellow fever. Men literally walked off ships to their deaths and thousands succumbed to the horrific conditions of ‘fever coast’. Nuns unwittingly made things worse by providing breeding sites for mosquitoes in the gardens of their hospital. With 20,000 dead by the late 1880’s, the ‘Panama Affair’ was rocked by financial scandal and brought down the French government. Shares collapsed, investors lost their money and Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps were both tried for bribery.The dream of the Panama Canal evaporated. Ruined and disgraced, Ferdinand died, in shame and quite insane, in 1894. Four years later, as America headed to war with Spain, its Navy’s first and only real battleship, US Oregon, took 67 days to get from San Francisco via Cape Horn to the Caribbean. By the time it finally reached its destination, the war was practically over. Roosevelt needed little convincing.The idea of the Panama Canal was reborn. Roosevelt pioneered a new plan and forced the countries of South America to agree terms after a stand-off with a fleet of warships. He personally appointed the experienced engineer, John Stevens, to direct the scheme. Stevens saw it as certain death (every killer disease known to man was endemic in the region) but against his better judgement he agreed to the President’s wish. His first step was to clear the area of malaria and yellow fever. Scientists had finally established that these diseases were carried by mosquito.Through his Chief Medical Officer, William Gorgas, Stevens launched one of the largest all out assaults on nature – fumigating houses, draining pools, digging ditches – until by 1905, he had completely eliminated yellow fever. In a historic U-turn, Stevens also reverted to the original scheme proposed by De Lepinay of using a gigantic lake and locks system. His plan would see the creation of the largest artificial lake in the world, the first constructional use of a relatively new material called concrete and the excavation of the impassable Culebra Cut, or Hell’s Gorge – as it became known. But just when it seemed he might win, he suddenly resigned and the military had to take over. By 1914 that the canal was finally opened – the greatest engineering feat the world had seen. And in France, De Lesseps son, Charles, at last saw his father’s name restored to honour and his own reputation cleared.
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