Nichols collected several documents related to work on the Panama Canal
before the Americans took over the project from the French. One of these
is an album of photographs of the equipment, work sites, buildings, and
people involved in the French effort. The man in charge of the French project,
Ferdinand de Lesseps, is shown in this detail from a group portrait.
Ferdinand de Lesseps had successfully completed the Suez Canal in 1869
and was considered the perfect choice to lead the enormous technical
enterprise of building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Lesseps
insisted on the construction of a sea-level canal, instead of one that
utilized a series of locks. But the mountains of Panama proved more
formidable than the desert of Egypt, and the French canal project ended in
a financial disaster that could not overcome the technical challenges. A
new French canal company, formed after the Compagnie Universelle de
Canal Interoceanique declared bankruptcy in 1889, eventually sold all
of its Panamanian assets to the United States in 1904.