The Dreamers: Part 2 of 10
The years dragged on as Pedro hauled supplies back and forth across the isthmus, supporting the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique’s monumental battle to conquer nature. The work proved far more arduous than anyone anticipated.
Harsh realities gradually dissolved the aura of excitement and optimism that had greeted the French canal effort. The jungle environment seemed an unconquerable foe, inflicting misery upon the project and its workers from all sides.
Disease ravaged the labor camps as malaria, yellow fever and dysentery felled hundreds of men like petals in a killing frost. Poor conditions and endless downpours left workers soaked and shivering as infections spread. The death toll mounted weekly.
Shortages of food and medicine compounded the suffering, as the supply chain struggled across Panama’s untamed landscape. Worker strikes erupted in protest but were crushed under the boots of the Compagnie’s enforcers. Desertions spiked as men grasped for any escape from the nightmare.
The brutal heat left men dizzy and parched as they blasted rock, dug muddy trenches, and drove mule teams endlessly up and down the canal route. Accidents maimed and killed in rockslides, explosive mishaps, and all manner of gruesome construction disasters. The vultures constantly circled overhead, awaiting each new feast.
But it was the Culebra Cut that emerged as the core adversary. The continental divide towered over them, shrugging off the endless assaults by pick, shovel, and dynamite. After six years of grueling excavation, only one third of the great cut had been completed. At the current rate, twenty years would be needed just to finish this section that was supposed to take two.
Each step was paid for in blood, sweat and agony. Pedro watched the morale of the men deteriorate along with their health. Desertions increased. There was muttering that Chief Engineer de Lesseps was a madman, delusional in the impossibly high standards he set. Some men even sabotaged equipment in protest.
Dysentery left Pedro himself gaunt and feverish, as he struggled to keep working. He found his faith wavering. The monsters of the land seemed insurmountable, the completion date a mirage.
But one evening around a fire built to cook a meager dinner, Pedro conversed with an old Jamaican man named Dafoe who spoke of hope.
Dafoe told Pedro that they must stay strong and keep fighting. If not them, then others would one day finish the canal, standing on their sacrifice. Great deeds often took generations to accomplish and required passing the torch. Their effort would not be in vain.
The old man said he could already glimpse the future canal in his mind’s eye, living beyond them all. Pedro was heartened, seeing the flames reflected in Dafoe’s bright, defiant eyes. He slept better that night than he had in months.
However, the days ahead brought only worsening news. Despite almost a decade of toil, the project was barely halfway completed. Costs had soared far above estimates as technical challenges multiplied. The death toll neared 20,000.
Chief Engineer de Lesseps, watching his reputation crumble, obscurely gave orders to float the excavated dirt out into the sea rather than continue dumping it along the route. This infuriated the crews who knew it would severely undermine the canal walls.
Then a horrific accident destroyed an enormous steam shovel machine named Bertha that had been specially built for the most challenging Culebra Cut excavation. Its loss seemed an ill omen.
A few months later, Pedro stood numbly in the driving rain as an engineer announced the company’s liquidation. After 9 years of dashed hopes and unimaginable sacrifice, the project was bankrupt, the money gone. Construction was halting immediately, leaving the aborted canal a wretched scar of failure through Panama.
Pedro trudged back to the ruins of the camp where he had dreamed of building a canal as a wide-eyed boy. He recalled old Dafoe’s words by the fireside. Perhaps some future generation would one day complete their vision. But as Pedro packed his belongings, it felt only like defeat.
Men cursed and wept. Others simply sat staring, unable to comprehend or move. Then slowly, silently, the bedraggled army of workers began dispersing back into the jungles and villages, leaving the cursed isthmus to the howler monkeys.
Pedro lingered a while, wandering the work sites he knew so well, now still and ghostly with abandoned equipment rusting. He said goodbye to each place before finally departing.
Stepping onto a boat back home, Pedro took one long last look at the gouged landscape of the failed canal. Then the jungle seemed to swallow the site from view, erasing all signs of their titanic endeavor.
“We tried,” Pedro whispered. He set his jaw and turned to face the open sea. The dream still lived inside him, smoldering quietly like an ember awaiting new life. Panama’s great trial, he sensed, was not yet over…