Corinth Canal construction – archive pictures

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The emperor Nero was the first to actually attempt to construct the canal, personally breaking the ground with a pickaxe and removing the first basket-load of soil in AD 67, but the project was abandoned when he died shortly afterwards. The Roman workforce, consisting of 6,000 Jewish prisoners of war, started digging 40–50 m (130–160 ft) wide trenches from both sides, while a third group at the ridge drilled deep shafts for probing the quality of the rock (which were reused in 1881 for the same purpose). According to Suetonius, the canal was dug to a distance of four stades (approximately 700 metres (2,300 ft), in other words about a tenth of the total distance across the isthmus). A memorial of the attempt in the form of a relief of Hercules was left by Nero’s workers and can still be seen in the canal cutting today. Other than this, as the modern canal follows the same course as Nero’s, no remains have survived.

The Greek philosopher and Roman senator Herodes Atticus is also known to have considered digging a canal in the 2nd century AD, but did not manage to get a project under way. The Venetians also considered it in 1687 after their conquest of the Peloponnese but likewise did not initiate a project.

The idea of a Corinth Canal was revived after Greece gained formal independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The Greek statesman Ioannis Kapodistrias asked a French engineer to assess the feasibility of the project but had to abandon it when its cost was assessed at some 40 million gold francs—far too expensive for the newly independent country. Fresh impetus was given by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the following year, the government of Prime Minister Thrasyvoulos Zaimis passed a law authorising the construction of a Corinth Canal. French entrepreneurs were put in charge but, following the bankruptcy of the French company that dug the Panama Canal, French banks refused to lend money and the company went bankrupt too. A fresh concession was granted to the Société Internationale du Canal Maritime de Corinthe in 1881, which was commissioned to construct the canal and operate it for the next 99 years. Construction was formally inaugurated on 23 April 1882 in the presence of King George I of Greece.

The company’s initial capital was some 30,000,000 francs, but after eight years of work it ran out of money and a bid to issue 60,000 bonds of 500 francs each flopped when less than half of the bonds were sold. The company’s head, the Hungarian István Türr, went bankrupt, as did the company itself and a bank that had agreed to raise additional funds for the project. Construction resumed in 1890 when the project was transferred to a Greek company, and was finally completed on 25 July 1893 after eleven years’ work.

(source: wikipedia, pictures from Sotiris Konstantakis personal archive)

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