One hundred years ago, the United States completed what was then the most expensive, complex but ultimately successful government program in human history. It was a project where everything went wrong.
The French had tried to build the Panama canal a few years earlier, but despite putting the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, on the job, they left in total failure. The American project’s first chief engineer quit after the first year. His replacement left as well. Only with the third did the project start moving. Yellow fever killed thousands of workers and caused others to flee in fright. The engineering challenges were immense and they often seemed insurmountable. Media reports about the project were largely negative.
But through sheer perseverance, the age-old fantasy of connecting the world’s two great oceans became a reality. The practical result was to cut travel time for goods and cargo between the east and the west by an order of magnitude, igniting an explosion of trade.
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