The Panama Canal was, and probably still is, the biggest construction project in the history of the world.  Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives were sacrificed in order to create a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  The building of Panama Canal is an amazing story that involves interesting elements like the invention of the term “gunboat diplomacy,” Teddy Roosevelt, and a financial meltdown in France.

The Failed First Attempt

A very charismatic engineer from France by the name of Ferdinand de Lesseps designed the Suez Canal. He realized there were other opportunities to connect large bodies of water, and felt that the true power of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific should belong to the French.

Ferdinand started a publicly traded company in France to fund the Panama Canal.  The company raised a lot of money through several initiatives, but didn’t have a good grasp of the overall project, and in the end they went bankrupt.  A lot of French people lost their life savings.

So there it sat, a partially dug ditch in Panama (which was part of Columbia at that point), until the US also realized the importance of connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic. Roosevelt supported the idea of Panama being independent and sent some gunboats to support their fight against Columbia.

Once Panama was independent, the United States negotiated with the French to get access to the canal property and the work already in place.  Then they threw a whole lot more money into the task.

Would it Have Been Built if They Had Risk Assessment Back Then?

Any reasonable modern-day risk assessment on that project would have effectively ended the project before it even started.  After all, the cost of lives and money was extraordinary.

On the other hand, there were also geopolitical considerations.  If Germany or Russia had built a canal, then they would have had control of a waterway that would have put the United States at grave risk.

Why Was the Second Attempt Successful When the First One Failed?

The U.S. hired an incredible manager, George W. Goethals, to lead the project, but in the end the Panama Canal was only built after insane amounts of money were spent and lives lost.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Maybe some projects are worth getting done at any price.

  • Amit Kumar

    This was negative economically, politically and …. but it was positive, it was a great opportunity and opportunity never comes cheap… Judgement and implementation is important

  • David Parkhurst

    This article highlights the importance of analyzing both negative risks and positive risks. Too often we get so caught up in the negative aspects of risk that we run the real risk of missing the “boat”.