Fine large format map showing the proposed route of the Panama Canal, based upon the plans of the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama.
The first attempt to construct a canal through what was then Colombia's province of Panama began in January 1881. The project, designed as a sea-level canal (i.e., without locks), was under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, with substantial financing and support from Paris. The cost and difficulty of construction in the rain-soaked tropics through unstable mountains exceeded expectations, and the French effort eventually went bankrupt.
By 1889 the company was bankrupt. In the ensuing scandal, known as the Panama affair, various of those deemed responsible were prosecuted. Charles De Lesseps, son of Ferdinand De Lesseps, was found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, though this was later overturned.
A new concession was obtained from Colombia, and in 1894 the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama was created to finish the construction. To comply with the terms of the concession, work started immediately on the Culebra excavation-required under any possible plans-while a team of engineers began a comprehensive study of the project. They eventually settled on a plan for a two-level, lock-based canal.
The new effort never really gathered momentum, mainly because of U.S. speculation that a canal through Nicaragua would render a Panama canal useless. The largest number of men employed on the new project was 3,600, in 1896; this minimal workforce was employed primarily to comply with the terms of the concession and to maintain the existing excavation and equipment in saleable condition - the company had already started looking for a buyer, with a price tag of $109,000,000.