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Panama Canal Construction - 1903-1914

French attempts to build a canal through Panama (province of Colombia) had advanced further than is commonly understood. Led by Ferdinand de Lesseps-the builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt-the French began excavating in 1880. Malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases conspired against the de Lesseps campaign and after 9 years and a loss of approximately 20,000 lives, the French attempt went bankrupt. A vast amount of work was done before the project failed. About one-third of the work done was of value to the American undertaking.

Claims that the Panama Canal was built "ahead of schedule, below budget, and with no corruption" cannot be true. Completion of the canal in 1914 was two years behind schedule, which must surely have increased costs. The monumental project was completed in ten years at a cost of about $387 million. Between 1903 and 1999 the United States invested about $3 billion in the Canal enterprise, approximately two-thirds of which had been recovered by century's end.

The building of the Panama Canal involved three main problems -- engineering, sanitation, and organization. Its successful completion was due principally to the engineering and administrative skills of such men as John F. Stevens and Col. George W. Goethals, and to the solution of extensive health problems by Col. William C. Gorgas.

The engineering problems involved digging through the Continental Divide; constructing the largest earth dam ever built up to that time; designing and building the most massive canal locks ever envisioned; constructing the largest gates ever swung; and solving environmental problems of enormous proportions.

The American construction effort, which began in 1904, used the most modern technology in unique and innovative ways to make construction of the canal possible. While mosquito hunters roamed the isthmus, U.S. engineers worked to develop a feasible canal design. The French plan for a sea-level canal was fraught with problems, the most significant of which was the one billion cubic yards of excavation required to reach sea-level at the Continental Divide. The French route also included fourteen crossings of the Chagres River. During storms, this muddy channel swelled to a raging torrent, drowning excavation sites and destroying machinery.

The US design overcame both the flooding and excavation problems. During construction, a temporary earthen dike across the upstream section of the Chagres River controlled flood flows into the work area. A larger, permanent dam at the mouth of the Chagres produced Gatun Lake, with a surface elevation of approximately 85 feet; using this impounded water, enormous locks lift vessels up to the level of the lake. This design, which significantly reduced the amount of excavation required along the entire length of the canal, is uniquely suited to Panama, which receives 180 inches of rainfall annually, enough to keep Gatun Lake filled as water flows out through the locks. The Second Isthmian Canal Commission was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, March 8, 1904. By Presidential order, May 9, 1904, under authority of the Panama Canal Act of 1902 (32 Stat. 481), June 28, 1902, and the Panama Canal Act of 1904 (33 Stat. 429), April 28, 1904, the Secretary of War was made supervisor of canal construction and second Isthmian Canal Commission vested with all Canal Zone government power. It was abolished, effective April 1, 1914, by EO 1885, January 27, 1914, pursuant to the Panama Canal Act of 1912 (37 Stat. 560), May 24, 1912, with governmental functions assumed by permanent organization designated as The Panama Canal.

Major Black and Army engineer Lieutenant Mark Brooke were in Panama as representatives of the ICC to study and report on the New Panama Canal Company in anticipation that Colombia would agree to the Hay-Herran Treaty. Both engineer officers remained in Panama into l904, with Black as acting chief engineer and Brooke signing for transfer of the New Panama Canal Company property to the United States on 4 May 1904. The ICC included Colonel Hains and Lieutenant Colonel Ernst.

The first ICC chief engineer was John F. Wallace, who was a railroad engineer and general manager of the Illinois Railroad when he took the job to build the canal. He arrived in Panama to take over from acting chief engineer Major Black in July 1904, but he resigned a year later. He was fearful of the yellow fever threat and attracted by a better-paying job in the United States. Railroad engineer John Stevens - an executive with the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad - replaced Wallace and arrived in Panama in July 1905. He remained longer than Wallace and was successful in building a solid infrastructure that included worker and family quarters.

Chief Engineer John Stevens, a veteran of railroad construction in the Rocky Mountains, recognized that the challenge of the canal was simultaneously one of excavation and transportation. Rock had to be moved from the mountains, where it blocked the canal, to the river delta, where it formed the core of the new Gatun Dam. His railroad excavation system functioned like a conveyor belt with the trains carrying the dirt from the steam shovels directly to the dump sites. The mainstay of the construction effort was the 95-ton, track-mounted, Bucyrus steam shovel. Six million pounds of dynamite per year blasted the hundreds of feet of basalt that blocked the route. At the peak of the construction effort, 25,000 men removed a million cubic yards of material every day. This massive excavation capability was balanced with dumping capacity, using a complex rail system of one-sided flatcars that hauled away 200 trainloads of excavated material daily. As the digging progressed, enormous track shifters moved the rail lines to the main areas of excavation.

Stevens was ready to dig in 1906, but the type of canal - sea-level or lock - remained a question. Wallace had recommended a sea-level canal, but Stevens favored a lock canal. A 13-member board of consulting engineers recommended, by an 8-5 margin, a sea-level canal, but the ICC accepted the minority report for a lock canal written by retired Army engineer Brigadier General Henry L. Abbot. The plan President Roosevelt signed into law in June 1906 called for a canal with three locks on the Atlantic side, three on the Pacific side, and a lake in the middle created by damming the Chagres River at Gatun.

Stevens never got very far with this plan because he resigned in February 1907. His strength was as a railroad construction engineer, and by 1907 the conveyor-belt-type railroad system was in place. What awaited Stevens was hydraulic engineering: the design of dams and locks and the large-scale use of concrete. That was not his strength, but it certainly was the strength of Army engineers in the U .S. Army Corps of Engineers. Thus, it was to the Corps that President Roosevelt looked to get someone who could not quit.

On 18 February, Roosevelt summoned Army engineer Major George W. Goethals to the White House for an interview and, on 26 February, he announced that Goethals was going to Panama as chairman of the ICC and chief engineer to complete construction of the Panama Canal . As a member of the Army General Staff, Major Goethals had accompanied Secretary of War William Howard Taft to the Canal Zone in 1905 to recommend sites for coast defense fortifications.

In 1907 Goethals was 47 years old and had almost 30 years experience as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Upon graduation from West Point in 1880, he entered the Corps and began a career of river-and-harbor and lock-anddam construction work on the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, canal work at Muscle Shoals, and coast defense construction work in New England.

If any one person can be credited for this achievement it is George W. Goethals, the project's chief engineer, 1907-15. The first two chief engineers, both civilians, resigned after short tenures. President Theodore Roosevelt announced that the next chief would be an Army officer, who, if he walked off the job, would find himself facing a court martial. The man selected was Major George W. Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission Goethals visited the Canal Zone in 1905. He so impressed Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft that they chose him for the chief engineer's position after the resignation of the second chief, John F. Stevens. Stevens had been much loved by those who had been laboring on the Canal. They worried that Goethals (soon to be Lieutenant Colonel and later Colonel) would impose a military regime. He dispelled these fears by appearing only in civilian clothing and inviting all workers to talk freely with him regarding any grievances. Goethals reported only to the president and secretary of war, who placed few limits on his powers.

Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in March 1907, Goethals took with him to Panama as members of the ICC two other Army engineers, Majors David Gaillard and William Sibert. Both were members of the West Point class of 1884. Gaillard was serving on the General Staff with Goethals and had experience in river-and-harbor work, while Sibert had a river-and-canal work background. Goethals placed Army engineer Major Harry F. Hodges in charge of the ICC office in Washington, DC, where he could use Corps personnel throughout the United States to help select and inspect equipment to be sent to the Canal Zone. Goethals initially organized the canal work by type, putting Gaillard in charge of excavation and dredging and assigning Sibert to lock-and-dam construction.

After several months of observation, Goethals was ready to make some changes. In late 1907, he moved the two Sosa Hill locks on the Pacific side inland to Miraflores because of the threat of naval bombardment. He brought Hodges to Panama as assistant engineer in charge of lock design and replaced him in Washington with Army engineer Major Frank C. Boggs. He widened the bottom width of the Culebra Cut, a channel through the Culebra Mountain in the Continental Divide, from 200 to 300 feet; and, on the recommendation of the Navy, increased the lock widths from 100 to 110 feet.

Goethals reorganized construction responsibility on a geographic basis. Major Sibert got the Atlantic Division from the ocean through the Gatun Locks to the Gatun Dam, and Major Gaillard got the Central Division of Gatun Lake and the Culebra Cut. Sydney Williamson, a Corps civilian engineer who had worked with Goethals in Tennessee and New England, got the Pacific Division from the Pedro Miguel Lock through the Miraflores Locks to the ocean. Goethals divided each division into districts, with a superintendent of construction in charge, and he organized his headquarters into sections responsible for design, buildings and equipment, and survey and personnel. Similar to the Corps system, design and general planning came from the headquarters while the details were left to the divisions.

Traveling in a railroad car known as the "Yellow Peril," Goethals regularly oversaw the work at the various construction sites. These included two dams, six sets of locks, two artificial lakes, regulating works, entrance channels, breakwaters, telephone and telegraph systems, a hydroelectric station, a rebuilt railroad, and the excavation of the challenging Culebra Cut.

Construction of the Gatun Dam began in 1907. The 1.5-mile earthen dam, with a concrete spillway in the middle, crossed the Chagres River to create a 164-square-mile lake as part of the canal. Lock construction began in 1909, with Army engineer Major James P. Jervey supervising masonry work of the triple locks. In 1912 Army engineer Lieutenant Frederick Mears completed relocation of the Panama railroad required by the creation of Gatun Lake. The canal was near completion in 1913, when steam shovels working from both ends of the Culebra Cut met in May and Gatun Lake began to fill in June. In September a trial lockage at the Gatun Locks resulted in the tug Gatun rising from the lowest chamber to the lake in 1 hour and 51 minutes. The canal would have opened in 1913 but for slides in the Culebra Cut.

For nearly ten years, the focus of the excavation effort was Gaillard Cut, where the canal passes through nine miles of craggy hills. Slopes in the cut are very unstable, and work was hampered by constant slides that buried machinery, increased the volume of excavation, and extended construction by almost two years. These slides and the limitations they impose on the width of the channel are major constraints of the Canal. While the width of the original 300-foot channel has been doubled, the cut remains too narrow for large ships to pass one another.

With the canal ready to open, an April 1914 executive order abolished the ICC and established the Panama Canal with George W. Goethals as the first governor of the Canal Zone. Although the start of the war in Europe overshadowed it, the canal officially opened on 15 August 1914 when the liner Ancon passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific side. While most of the Army engineers who had worked on the canal were there in 1914, one was missing. Lieutenant Colonel David DuBose Gaillard left Panama in 1913 to seek medical attention in the United States. He died in Baltimore on 5 December 1913 of a brain tumor, and in April 1915 President Woodrow Wilson renamed Culebra Cut as Gaillard Cut in his honor.

There were rewards and honors for all for completing the canal, highlighted by the March 1915 promotions of George W. Goethals and Harry F. Hodges to major general and William Sibert to brigadier general. The completion of the Canal in 1914 made Goethals an American hero and international celebrity. After serving as the Canal Zone's first governor, he retired in 1916 as a major general. He returned to active duty during World War I, at which time he became acting quartermaster general and head of the War Department's Division of Purchase, Storage, and Traffic, in which capacities the hard-driving Goethals performed logistical miracles. Returning to civilian life he served as consulting engineer for a number of important operations, including the Port Authority of New York.

America celebrated the opening of the canal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The event marked both the triumph of the waterway's engineering and the emergence of modern San Francisco newly rebuilt after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. The fair attracted more than 18 million people during its eleven-month run.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:54:49 ZULU