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Pont Cysyllte: 1795-1805

In 1795 Thomas Telford applies cast-iron technology in a bold new context. In 1793 he has been appointed engineer and architect to the Shropshire Union canal, which is to link the Mersey with the Severn. Near Llangollen the proposed route crosses the Dee valley, which is more than 300 yards wide and drops down about 120 feet to the river level below.

The number of locks needed to get a barge down and up again would represent a costly delay for the bargees. Yet an aqueduct of this height and length is a daunting project. The valley is much wider and deeper than the one spanned by Brindley in his heavily buttressed aqueduct at Barton. But Telford accepts the challenge.


Telford constructs at Pont Cysyllte what is in effect an enormous cast-iron gutter. Cast to the correct curves and then welded together, Telford's plates combine to form a channel which is nearly 12 feet wide, with a path alongside for the carthorse. The metal is much lighter than the thick layer of pounded clay and sand used by Brindley to contain the water of the Bridgewater canal. So Telford's aqueduct can be a slender structure of nineteen tall stone arches.

Pont Cysyyllte is ready for the first barge to make the journey across the valley in 1805. Walter Scott describes it as 'the most impressive work of art' which he has ever seen.


The Suez Canal: 1859-1869

A glance at the map suggests the possibility of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. On the direct route south to Suez half the work is already done by nature, in the form of Lake Timsah and the two Bitter Lakes.

With the increasing importance of India to the European powers in the late 18th century (as the main scene of rivalry between France and Britain) there is a strong military and economic motive to undertake the great task. During the French occupation of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon himself spends several days surveying the region with a party of officers and scientists.


During the early part of the 19th century several plans for a canal are drawn up without success. The breakthrough comes with the accession to the Egyptian throne of Said in 1854. He is a friend of a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who has long had the ambition of achieving a Suez canal. By November 1854 Lesseps has been granted a concession to undertake the project. Eighteen months later he is ready to float the Suez Canal Company.

Half the money is subscribed in France, where Napoleon III has been very supportive of the scheme. None comes from Britain. Indeed the British government does all it can to prevent a development which looks alarmingly like providing the French with a back door to India.


Said Pasha himself rescues the scheme by subscribing 60 million francs. On 25 April 1859 Lesseps swings the first pickaxe at the northern end of the route, the site of a new harbour to be named Port Said. He is the first in a labour force soon numbering tens of thousands, who between them excavate over the next ten years 97 million cubic yards (more than two cubic miles) of earth and rock.

For the opening ceremony, in November 1869, thousands of distinguished guests assemble from all over Europe and the Middle East. The procession of ships through the canal is led by the French imperial yacht with the empress Eugénie on board. The journey time to and from India is slashed. East and west are linked as never before.


Plans for a canal: 1879-1903

In Paris in 1879 there is a high-level gathering of 135 delegates to consider the important topic of a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. The president of the International Congress for Consideration of an Interoceanic Canal is the 74-year-old Ferdinand de Lesseps, hero of the successful completion of the Suez canal just ten years earlier.

De Lesseps is entrusted with the new undertaking, to be achieved through Panama rather than Nicaragua. Unfortunately the ageing engineer, rejecting expert advice, decides on the almost impossible task of a sea-level canal. The intention is to cut through the continental divide which runs the length of the isthmus.


This error, combined with financial incompetence and the ravages of equatorial disease, forces the French Panama Canal company into liquidation in 1889. The scandal escalates when members of the French government are suspected of taking bribes from the company. De Lesseps is tried in 1893 and is sentenced to five years in prison (he has served none of his sentence by the time the verdict is quashed a few months later).

The collapse of this French effort leaves the field to the Americans, who have been considering a rival venture through Nicaragua. Urgency is added to the issue in 1898 when a much needed US battleship, the Oregon, takes two months to steam from the Pacific to the Atlantic round South America.


In 1902 a deal is agreed for the US to purchase the uncompleted work of the French company in Panama, putting this route way ahead of the competition in Nicaragua. During the later months of this same year an agreement is negotiated between the Colombian chargé d'affaires in Washington and the US government for the creation and maintenance of a canal zone. It is generally held that the treaty grants favourable terms to Colombia.

The agreement is ratified in Washington in 1903 as the Hay-Herrán treaty. But three months later it is rejected by the Colombian government - in a reckless act which leads directly to the independence of Panama.


Provincial leaders in Panama fear that this setback may cause the US to select the rival canal route through Nicaragua. An envoy is sent to Washington with details of a planned Panamian revolution. No direct help is promised, but the US warship Nashville steams towards the region. She appears off the coast near Colón on 2 November 1903.

The expected uprising occurs on the very next day, followed by the proclamation of the independent republic of Panama. The Nashville plays no active part, but her presence deters Colombian troops from moving west along the isthmus in time to suppress the revolution. The new republic is immediately recognized by the United States.


Building the Panama Canal: 1903-1914

One of the first acts of the Panamanian government is the signing of a treaty with Washington for the creation of the proposed canal. In the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of November 1903 the USA is given in perpetuity exclusive control of a zone (about ten miles wide) through the centre of Panama, in return for $10 million and an annual rent.

With this agreed, there is nothing to delay the construction of the canal except the practicalities of one of the world's most ambitious engineering projects. Debate continues on the relative merits of a sea-level canal or a high-level one (with locks from both Atlantic and Pacific raising ships to a dammed Gatun Lake as the long central section of the waterway).


The latter and more practical scheme eventually prevails, under the influence of the chief engineer appointed to the scheme, John F. Stevens (from 1907 he is succeeded in the role by George W. Goethals).

The canal opens to shipping on 15 August 1914. Far away in Europe, just two weeks earlier, the First World War has broken out - confronting the new canal with the first challenge to its proclaimed neutrality. This status has been safely maintained ever since (though if the USA itself is at war the situation becomes academic - an enemy ship, if allowed safely through the canal, will be fair game soon after leaving it).


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