140 Years After Construction Began, Panama Canal Remembers 25,000 Lives Lost

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Robison Wells

The Panama Canal, which has connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans since 1913, stands as one of the deadliest construction sites ever. An estimated 25,000 workers died; countless more experienced injuries. Now, 140 years after construction began in 1881, Panama remembers those accidents and the problems that caused them.

Thinking that construction of the Panama Canal’s 51 miles would be relatively easy after building the 120-mile Suez Canal, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps soon learned that the jungles brought more peril than Egypt’s deserts. One French senior engineer complained: “There is too much water, the rocks are exceedingly hard, the soil is very hilly, and the climate is deadly. The country is literally poisoned.”

Workplace accidents occurred often, but disease terrorized the French more than construction mishaps. During the wet seasons of 1882 and 1883, a Canadian doctor estimated that between 30 and 40 workers died of dysentery, yellow fever, and malaria. In the end, the French abandoned the project in 1888 with 20,000 dead.

When the Americans took up the project, doctors had largely eradicated yellow fever. Accidents overtook disease as the leading cause of death and injury. The Culebra Cut took its place as the most dangerous construction site, a 45-foot deep, 300-foot wide, 8-mile stretch through the mountains. Nicknamed “Hell’s Gorge.” Workers used 60-million pounds of dynamite on the Culebra Cut. Unfortunately, Panama’s wet climate destabilized dynamite, causing premature ignitions.

Flooding and collapses occurred often. One administrator reported: “The work of months or even years might be blotted out by an avalanche of earth.”

Quinine, administered to workers to prevent malaria, created an unlikely safety flaw; the drug induced partial deafness. Without the ability to hear machines moving toward them, many suffered injuries or death from locomotive and equipment accidents.

Antonio Sanchez, a laborer, wrote that working the Culebra Cut “was like going to a battlefield.” Field hospital workers performed the same amputations, fractures, punctures, and wounds as found in a war zone.

The commonality of amputations caused prosthetic companies to vie for construction contracts. One manufacturer, A.A. Marks, advertised that their waterproof arms and legs were “most suited to the climate and conditions of the locality” and the “only kind manufactured that would meet the demands” of injured workers who returned to the job on the Panama Canal.

Despite working longer than the French—the Americans worked nine years; the French, seven—the American death toll sat at one-quarter of French fatalities. Still, with 5,855 canal workers dead before opening in 1913, approximately 500 workers died per mile.

One hundred forty years after the start of the Panama Canal’s first attempt, the country now commemorates approximately 25,000 dead.

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