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French Panama Canal Failure (1881-1889)

Under the charismatic leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French attempted to construct a sea-level canal in Panama.  DeLesseps, who had been successful in building the Suez canal against all odds, assured everyone that building a canal in Panama would be easier to make than the Suez Canal.  However, after $287 million in expenditures and more than 20,000 deaths, the French attempt failed. The debacle was blamed on poor administration and corruption, but the main causes more likely were yellow fever and malaria.

Count Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894). The Daily Graphic, February 26, 1880.

Jules Dingler, Director General of the French Company, arrived in Panama with his wife, son, daughter and her fiancé in 1883. He ordered a mansion built for his family and their imported horses, at an estimated cost of $100,000. Within a few months, his daughter died of yellow fever, followed by his son, his daughter’s fiancé and, finally, his wife. Broken in mind and spirit, Dingler shot his stallions and returned to France without ever having occupied his lavish home, known thereafter as la follie a Dingler (Dingler’s folly).

Jules A. Dingler, Director-General & Staff

Director General of Works and Chief Engineer Jules A. Dingler (sitting to the left with an umbrella) with a group of french engineers. Within a month after their arrival in Panama in 1886, thirteen of thirty enginners died, presumably of yellow fever. The Latin American Library, Tulane University.

Dingler’s folly, showing the mansion and stables built for his family and horses at a cost of $100,000. Bishop, Joseph B. The Panama Gateway. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.

Last modified: Mar 05, 2020