When we think of the word ‘civilization’, what very often springs to mind are the epic-scale building projects that we’ve seen in history that stand as symbols of engineering greatness. But, in this age of safety laws, worker health benefits, and standardized building codes, it’s easy to forget that in times past, the cost of building an immortal edifice went beyond the cost of materials. In many cases, the cost to human life was also pretty high.
So, what were some of the biggest examples of dangerous building projects from the days of the Ancient world up until more recent times of the 20th Century? Writer Alex Levin talks about a select few you may have heard of …
Massive construction projects using methods considerably riskier than modern techniques were the cause of thousands of deaths during their creation. Two of the most frequently cited deadliest construction projects are the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Death tolls for these ancient projects lie more firmly in the realm of conjecture than fact, though, as no known records exist detailing deaths during the construction of either of these long-term projects. Even construction ventures during the 20th century sometimes have flawed fatality data, especially those carried out by secretive authoritarian governments.
The Great Wall of China
Although the exact numbers are unknown, it is widely believed that the building of the Great Wall of China had the highest death toll of any project ever attempted. Estimates range from one death per linear foot to one per yard. With a total distance of nearly 4,000 miles, a low estimate yields 7 million dead. Started over 2,000 years ago and spanning three dynasties, the wall was created to protect China from invaders.
Early sections were constructed of packed dirt and other materials, whereas the final version, completed during the Ming Dynasty, has an inner core of packed earth with a durable brick exterior. Soldiers, conscripted peasants and criminals are believed to have built the Great Wall.
The Pyramids of Egypt in Giza
The Pyramids of Egypt are another ancient project thought to have a high death toll, although it may well be eclipsed by several 20th century endeavors. Construction methods are still not fully understood, and historians have changed their hypothesis about who exactly labored on the Pyramids. It now appears more likely that they were peasants, required to work for a single year, rather than expendable slaves.
The Panama Canal
Of projects completed in the 20th century, the construction of the Panama Canal was responsible for approximately 30,000 deaths. Started by the French in 1880, an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 died before the project went bankrupt in 1889. Yellow fever and malaria were the primary causes of the fatalities.
During the U.S. phase of construction, from 1904 though 1914, 5,609 deaths occurred. Advances in infectious disease control drastically reduced the number of fatalities during this final phase of construction. Although one of the deadliest construction projects in history, the canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific is considered to be among the most important projects in the world, drastically changing modern transport and commerce.
The White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal
Unlike the Panama Canal, the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal sees only light traffic, as it is too shallow to accommodate ocean-going vessels. Built using convict labor in Stalinist Russia, the canal was started in 1931 and completed in 1933. Of the 141 miles it covers, 30 miles are channels dug primarily by hand. The work was accomplished by political prisoners gleaned from Gulag corrective labor camps.
Although there are no accurate records of deaths, estimates put the numbers at 100,000, perhaps more, perhaps less. Deplorable working conditions along with brutal prison camp life were the primary factors leading to the high number of deaths. Unknown numbers were injured, disabled and sickened during the project.
Large-scale building has evolved
In an attempt to change the world around them for defensive, religious and economic purposes, mankind has challenged the known limits of engineering to build incredible structures and transportation routes. Many of these projects have come at a great cost, both in monetary terms and in the human lives of workers.
Luckily, the measurement of modern civilization has been repositioned in the 21st century to include worker safety, and even lessening the harm done to the site as buildings and structures are created.
So unlike in other eras of history, the 21st Century ideal is that it’s not the end result that deserves accolades – it’s the course taken to get there that really counts.
Alex Levin is a marketer and writer for JW Surety Bonds, a nationwide surety agency. JW Surety Bonds helps thousands of construction businesses understand surety bond regulations contractor bonding requirements.