In the years following the Civil War, the land west of the Mississippi River was being settled and the Pacific Northwest explored. There remained, however, a large portion of Montana, Idaho, and Washington that contained enormous quantities of timber and minerals, but was not accessible by rail. By far the most grueling stretch was the Stevens Pass area in the Cascade Mountains.
Stevens, John F.
The United States became interested in a water route through the Panamanian isthmus in the mid-1850s, but it was the French who first attempted to build the Panama Canal. Led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt, the French began the project in 1876. Conditions were brutal: rampant yellow fever and malaria; massive landslides and flooding; sweltering heat; and construction equipment that was too light for the job.