Ignorant Fact: World’s Deadliest Construction Projects: Part 1 of 3

Construction can be a risky business. Over the past 200 years, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives while working on construction projects, whether from accidents, equipment failure or unsafe working conditions. In recent years, deaths on major construction sites have decreased, as safety protocols, labor rights and equipment have improved.

1825 – Erie Canal: 1,000 deaths

Eire Canal

Called the 8th wonder of the world when it was completed in 1825, the Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River and was instrumental in opening the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers and trade. It took a total of 8 years and some 50,000 laborers working for 80 cents a day to complete the iconic 363 mile long passage. Of the 50,000 workers, 1,000 lost their lives, due to disease from the swampy terrain and careless use of gunpowder while blasting. Others drowned or were buried under tons of rubble from frequent canal collapses.

1869 – Transcontinental Railroad: 1,200 deaths

Transcontinental railroad

15,000 worked on this project which was started in 1863. White men were paid $35.00 a month plus room and board. Chinese were paid $25.00 a month, but paid for their own supplies. However the number of 1,200 was never verified. One newspaper article entitled “Bones in Transit” of June 30, 1870 in the Sacramento Reporter reported that “about 20,000 pounds of bones” dug up from shallow graves were taken by train for return to China, calculating that this amounted to 1,200 Chinese. Another article published on the same day in the Sacramento Union stated that only the bones of about 50 Chinese were on the train. Others believe that some Chinese must have also died in a smallpox outbreak among railroad workers, although there are no records if any of the dead were Chinese. In addition, there were reports of Chinese workers being killed in Nevada as the result of Indian raids.

1869 – Suez Canal: 120,000 deaths

Completed in 1869, the Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas allowing for water transport between Europe and Asia without having to circumvent Africa. The 101 mile long passage employed an impressive 1.5 million both forced and hired laborers from various countries, mainly Egypt, with as many as 120,000 dying during the 11 year excavation process. Today more than half of the inter-continental shipping of the entire world passes through this canal.

1883 – Brookyln Bridge: 30 deaths

Linking Manhattan and Brooklyn since its completion in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic structures found in the United States. Surprisingly, the over a mile long bridge only employed 600 workers who worked for $2 a day for about 13 years until its completion. Of these 600 laborers there were 30 fatalities, including the designer of the bridge, John A. Roebling, who had his foot crushed while taking compass readings and died a few weeks later of tetanus. The remaining casualties came from falls, falling debris, and cases of caisson disease, known as “the bends.” Even though the bridge is over 130 years old, today it still carries around 150,000 cars and pedestrians each day.

1889 – The Eiffel Tower: 1 death

The Eiffel tower construction

Constructed as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower is easily one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Employing a small force of 300 workers, the tower was completed in record time, requiring just over 26 months of total construction time. Of these 300 on-site laborers, there was only one fatality thanks to the extensive use of guard rails and safety screens. Today the Eiffel tower welcomes an impressive 7 million visitors each year.

1912 – The Titanic: 8 deaths

Known as both one of the most impressive feats of engineering in its day and one of the most famous catastrophes of the century, the Titanic took three years and around 3,000 workers to complete before its maiden voyage in 1912. Laborers earned a measly two British pounds per every 50 hour work week, driving in some 3 million rivets over the course of its construction. 8 workers lost their lives during construction in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which was actually less than the 15 deaths that were originally expected for a project of this magnitude.

1913 – Los Angeles Aqueduct: 43 deaths

Finished in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is responsible for Los Angeles County expanding into the major West Coast metropolis that it is today. The 233 mile long aqueduct took 4,000 laborers, working for $2 a day, to build and at its completion it became the longest aqueduct and largest single water project in the world. Conditions in the Owens Valley were hot, remote, and often dangerous, leading to the death of 43 workers over the course of its five year construction. However, after the aqueduct was finished, the population of Los Angeles was able to balloon from a mere 300,000 to the over 10 million inhabitants living in the region today.

1914 – Panama Canal: 30,609 deaths

Connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for maritime trade, the Panama Canal is one of the most notable engineering achievements of the modern world and also one of the most deadly. Managed by a number of different countries over its 32 year construction period, the 48 mile canal took about 75,000 laborers of various origins to complete. However, the region was dubbed the “Fever Coast,” with instances of everything from small pox and typhoid to yellow fever, causing an astounding 30,609 workers to die and hospitalizing thousands more. Coupled with poor working conditions, malnutrition, and frequent accidents, workers would watch as their fallen comrades were shipped away in droves by coffin every evening.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting part 2 of this 3 part series. Stay tuned .