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A History of the Panama Canal From Construction Days to the Present provides the highlights of Panama Canal history for the period. It encompasses the construction, operation and maintenance of the Panama Canal; it does not include political, economic, strategic, commercial or social aspects of the Canal. Hundreds of books and articles on these topics have been written and continue to be written, and interested readers are invited to consult their libraries and make use of the bibliography provided.

Some early canal plans

The dream of digging a water passage across the Isthmus of Panama uniting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates to the early 16th century, and can be traced to the 1513 Isthmian crossing of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. He discovered that only a narrow strip of land separated the two oceans.  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also Charles I of Spain, initiated a movement to build a passage across the Isthmus.

By decree issued in 1534, Charles ordered the Panama regional governor to survey a route to the Pacific following the Chagres River.  This was the first survey for a proposed ship canal through Panama, and it more or less followed the course of the current Panama Canal.  At the time the survey was completed, it was the governor’s opinion that it would be impossible for anyone to accomplish such a feat.

United States interest in a canal to join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the Central American Isthmus, not necessarily at Panama, awakened relatively late.  The discovery of gold in California in 1848 created a tremendous volume of transisthmian business, mostly overland using the Panama Railroad as it was completed and came into use, and interest in a canal was heightened.

Inauguration in 1869 of Ulysses S. Grant as the 18th U.S. president brought new impetus to U.S. canal policy.  Grant’s personal interest went back to July 1852, when, as an Army captain, he led the American Fourth Infantry across the Isthmus of Panama en route to garrison duty in California.  The military detachment of several hundred men, together with their dependents, became victims of a raging cholera epidemic in Panama that claimed the lives of 150 men, women and children.  Grant later wrote of the tragic incident, “The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description.”

In 1869, President Grant ordered survey expeditions to Central America.  The expeditions were organized by Navigation Bureau Chief Commodore Daniel Ammen and were under the command of the Secretary of the Navy.  Surveys were conducted in Tehuantepec, Mexico, by Captain Robert W. Shufeldt; in the Darien by Commander Thomas Oliver Selfridge; in Nicaragua by Commander Chester Hatfield, Commander Edward P. Lull and Chief Civil Engineer Aniceto G. Menocal; and in Panama along the railroad line by Lull and Menocal.  The fine quality of these surveys is still recognized today.  Interestingly, the route of the current Panama Canal is nearly identical to that proposed by this Panama survey.

An Interoceanic Canal Commission was appointed by President Grant to evaluate the findings resulting from these Navy expeditions that took place between 1870 and 1875.  A report was prepared by the Commission and, following due consideration, the Commission, in 1876, came out in favor of the Nicaragua route.

The U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission of 1899-1901, usually referred to as the second Walker Commission, after its president, Rear-Admiral John G. Walker, was, following failure of the French canal effort, ordered to again study all routes feasible to constructing a water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  The study was ordered by U.S. President William McKinley, who succeeded Grant in office.  This time, the Panama and Nicaragua routes were to receive special consideration. The Nicaragua route again came out as the favored choice, but not for long.

The land Panama

The Isthmus of Panama, only about 50 miles wide at its narrowest point, was characterized by mountains, impenetrable jungle, deep swamp, torrential rains, hot sun, debilitating humidity, pestilence and some of the most geologically complex land formations in the world.  Most of this was apparent to the explorers and surveyors who explored and measured the land.  What was not obvious was the geological makeup of the land, which is a constant challenge even today, one that is held at bay, but not yet conquered. Another thing that was apparent was that building a canal across Panama had already defied and defeated the technical expertise of one of the greatest nations on earth.

Low green mountains rising up behind coral shores look benign and inviting.  However, unlike most mountain ranges, instead of being formed by folding due to lateral pressure, these mountains were formed by the upward thrust of individual volcanic actions.  Independent formations of different types of hard rock are interspersed and layered between softer rocks and materials in a disorderly and unpredictable patchwork of strata and angles.  The Isthmus has also been subjected to several periods of submersion beneath the sea, thus adding cavities of marine materials to the geological mix.  This, in addition to there being six major faults and five major volcanic cores in just the short distance between Colon and Panama City adds to the area’s geological challenges.  Engineers of the time were unaware of this complex Isthmian geology, and perhaps fortunately so, for it might have frightened them off.

Figuring in to the surveyors’ difficulties was the tropical rain forest that covered the hilly terrain from base to summit, a density of vegetation nearly incomprehensible to the inexperienced or uninitiated.

Panama’s tropical climate, with a temperature averaging 80 degrees and an annual rainfall of 105 inches, creates ideal conditions for jungle growth similar to that of Brazil’s Amazon jungle.  Indeed, the Panama jungle was used as a training ground for U.S. troops sent to Vietnam, as well as for survival training for astronauts going to the moon.  This type of jungle must constantly be beaten back for, should vigilance waver, it will resume its ever-forward advance over hard-won clearing.

Flooding, especially of the Chagres River, was another very serious problem.  Because of the terrain’s precipitous slopes, the heavy rainfall gathers quickly into streamlets that flow quickly into the river, causing it to swell at a rapid rate, thus creating floods.  What happens is nicely described in the official words of The Climatology and Hydrology of the Panama Canal:

“Although nearly the entire country, from its headwaters to Alhajuela, is clothed with vegetation, much of which is dense, the slopes are so precipitous, and the rock lies so near to the surface, that severe tropical rain storms convert the precipitous banks of the Chagres into a series of small torrents and cascades, causing the river to rise suddenly and discharge almost inconceivable volumes of water.”

On July 19 and 20, 1903, for example, following two days of heavy rains, the Chagres River (normally some forty feet above sea level at Gamboa) rose to sixty feet above sea level, and its normal discharge rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second had increased to more than 31,000 cubic feet per second.

French engineers under de Lesseps had been unable to control the Chagres floods, and the American effort did not fully succeed either, until construction in the 1930s of the Madden (Alhajuela) Dam above Gamboa.  The French had to periodically endure the disheartening wiping away by flood of bridges and equipment and the redepositing into the hard-won excavation of tens of thousands of tons of earth, rock and debris.

Finally, both malaria and yellow fever were endemic to the Isthmus.  For several hundred years, outsiders came to this “Fever Coast,” especially seamen passing through, died from diseases purportedly caused by “miasmal mists” supposedly emanating from swamps and marshes.

“When the trade winds die out, and the hot sultry air of the isthmus ceases to move, a white mist will sometimes rise out of the swelling ocean and hover like a fog over land and sea.  The white mist is the precursor of fever and sickness, and those of the isthmus who know remain within doors, unwilling to meet the ghost of the ocean half way.  In the early days … the white mist that rose from the disturbed soil of the isthmus was far more disastrous in its killing effects than the mists of the ocean.  It rose from the soil like incense from a brazier.  It carried with it from its underground prison all the poison of putrefaction, and wherever it enclosed its victims, there fever and death followed …”

While it may seem ridiculous today, at the time there were no other, more credible, explanations.  In fact, when it was ultimately proven that the bites of insects, namely mosquitoes, carried the dread diseases — the Stegomyia fasciata for yellow fever and the Anopheles for malaria — the idea was looked upon as equally preposterous, and proponents of such concepts were soundly ridiculed.  Thus was the state of medical knowledge of the period.  Had it been the Americans instead of the French on the Isthmus at the time, they would have suffered similarly.

It can be seen that, in some ways, the French fate on the Isthmus had already been sealed.  It seems incredible to us now to realize the difficulties that had to be endured to proceed towards their goal.  Whatever their managerial shortcomings might have been, the valiant French can never be faulted for their courage and determination.

The French Canal Construction

The Geographical Society of Paris organized a committee in 1876 to seek international cooperation for studies to fill in gaps in the geographical knowledge of the Central American area for the purpose of building an interoceanic canal.  The committee, a limited company, La Société Civile Internationale du Canal Interocéanique de Darien, was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps.  Exploration of the Isthmus was assigned to French Navy Lieutenant Lucien N. B. Wyse, a grandson of Lucien Bonaparte.  Armand Réclus, also a naval lieutenant, was his chief assistant.

After exploring several routes in the Darien-Atrato regions, Wyse returned to Paris in April 1877.  De Lesseps, however, rejected all of these plans because they contained the construction of tunnels and locks.  On a second Isthmian exploratory visit beginning December 6, 1877, Wyse explored two routes in Panama, the San Blas route and a route from Limon Bay to Panama City, the current Canal route.  In selecting the latter, his plan was to construct a sea level canal.  The route would closely parallel the Panama Railroad and require a 7,720-meter-long tunnel through the Continental Divide at Culebra.

With this plan for a Panama canal, Wyse traveled to Bogota, where, in the name of the society, he negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government.  The treaty, signed on March 20, 1878, became known as the Wyse Concession.  It granted exclusive right to the Société Civile to build an interoceanic canal through Panama.  As a provision of the treaty, the waterway would revert to the Colombian government after 99 years without compensation.

A congress, the Congrès International d’Etudes du Canal Interocéanique (International Congress for Study of an Interoceanic Canal) was planned to take place in Paris on May 15, 1879, with invitations sent out by the Société de Géographie (Geographical Society) of Paris.  Critics claimed that a principal purpose of the congress was to give needed legitimacy to the Wyse Concession, legitimacy greatly needed, as recognized by de Lesseps, to bring in financial backing.  The purpose of the congress was not to approve a route or a plan, that decision had already been made by de Lesseps, but to give that decision and the already negotiated Wyse Concession a public introduction and ceremonial sendoff.  It also served to provide the appearance of impartial international scientific approval.

Fourteen proposals for sea level canals at Panama were presented before the congress, including the de Lesseps plan of Wyse and Réclus.  A subcommittee reduced the choices to two — Nicaragua and Panama.

As might be expected, engineers and others offered differing opinions concerning the various plans.  One such engineer was Baron Godin de Lépinay (Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lépinay, Baron de Brusly). The chief engineer for the French Department of Bridges and Highways, Lépinay was known for his intelligence, as well as his condescending attitude towards those with whom he did not agree.  He was the only one among the French delegation with any construction experience in the tropics, 1862 construction in Mexico of a railroad between Cordoba and Veracruz.  At the congress, he made a forceful presentation in favor of a lock canal.

The de Lépinay plan included building dams, one across the Chagres River near its mouth on the Atlantic and another on the Rio Grande near the Pacific.  The approximately 80-foot height of the artificial lake thus created would be accessed by locks.  The principal advantages of the plan would be the reduction in the amount of digging that would have to be done and the elimination of flood danger from the Chagres.  Estimated construction time was six years.  Since this plan required less digging, there would be, according to prevailing theories that tropical diseases were caused by some sort of toxic emanations coming from freshly dug earth being exposed to the air, less such problems.  The de Lépinay design contained all of the basic elements ultimately designed into the current Panama Canal.  The French company would use these concepts as a basis for the lock canal they would eventually adopt in 1887 following the failure of their sea level attempt.  Had this plan been originally approved, France might well have prevailed in their canal construction effort.  Had it been adopted at the beginning, in 1879, the Panama Canal might well have been completed by the French instead of by the United States.  As it was, however, the de Lépinay design received no serious attention.

The American delegation’s Nicaragua plan was introduced by Aniceto García Menocal.  Cuban by birth, Menocal was a civilian engineer assigned to the Grant surveys in Nicaragua and Panama by Admiral Ammen.  The well organized and persuasive presentation by the Americans very nearly upset de Lesseps’ carefully orchestrated plans.  But, again, this was not to be.

De Lesseps thought a week enough time to gain consensus and wrap up the details.  With things now threatening to get out of hand, he, on Friday, May 23, “threw off the mantle of indifference,” as one delegate wrote, and convened a general session.  Striding confidently in front of a large map, a relaxed de Lesseps addressed the congress for the first time.  He spoke spontaneously, in simple, direct language, and with great conviction, if not abundant knowledge, making everything sound right and reasonable.  The map, which he referred to with easy familiarity, clearly showed that the one best route was through Panama.  It was the route that had already been selected to develop Panama’s transcontinental railroad.  There was no question that a sea level canal was the correct type of canal to build and no question at all that Panama was the best and only place to build it.  Any problems – and, of course, there would be some – would resolve themselves, as they had at Suez.  His audience was enthralled.

Following the speech, everything fell into place for the de Lesseps camp, and the building of a sea level canal through Panama was the recommendation of the Technical Committee.   By no means, however, was everything peaceful and unanimous.  Before the vote was even taken nearly half the Committee, walked out.  Following the vote, with the full congress reconvened, the Committee report was read and the final, historical vote cast.  The Committee resolution read:

“The congress believes that the excavation of an interoceanic canal at sea-level, so desirable in the interests of commerce and navigation, is feasible; and that, in order to take advantage of the indispensable facilities for access and operation which a channel of this kind must offer above all, this canal should extend from the Gulf of Limon to the Bay of Panama.”4

The resolution passed with 74 in favor and 8 opposed.  The “no” votes included de Lépinay and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel.  Thirty-eight Committee members were absent and 16, including Ammen and Menocal, abstained.  The predominantly French “yea” votes did not include any of the five delegates from the French Society of Engineers.  Of the 74 voting in favor, only 19 were engineers and of those, only one, Pedro Sosa of Panama, had ever been in Central America.

Following organization on August 17, 1879, of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama, with de Lesseps as president, the Wyse Concession was acquired from the Société Civile.  A new survey was ordered and an International Technical Commission of well-known engineers went to Panama, accompanied by de Lesseps, to get a first-hand look at the Isthmus.

Making good on his promise to dig the first spade of earth for the Panama Canal on January 1, 1880, de Lesseps organized a special ceremony at which his young daughter, Ferdinand de Lesseps, would do the honors of turning the first sod.  The ceremonial act was to take place at the mouth of the Rio Grande, scheduled to become the Pacific entrance to the future canal.

On the designated day, but later than the designated time, the steam tender Taboguilla took de Lesseps and a party of distinguished guests three miles to the site on the Rio Grande where the ceremony would take place, following appropriate feasting and festivities on board.  However, since late guests had delayed the Taboguilla, the Pacific Ocean tide had receded such that the vessel could not land at the designated site.   The undaunted de Lesseps was, of course, ready with a solution.  He had brought a special shovel and pickaxe with him from France especially for the occasion.  Now, declaring that the act was only symbolic anyway, he arranged for his daughter Ferdinande to strike the ceremonial pickaxe blow in a dirt-filled champagne box.  The empty champagne box is, perhaps, a clue to the gaiety and applause that followed the official act.

De Lesseps then decided that another ceremony should inaugurate the section of the canal that would have the deepest excavation, the cut through the Continental Divide at Culebra.  A ceremony was arranged, and on January 10, 1880, appropriate officials and guests gathered at Cerro Culebra (later known as Gold Hill) for the ceremony, which included witnessing the blast from an explosive charge set to break up a basalt formation just below the summit.  After blessings by the local bishop, young Ferdinande again performed the honors, pushing the button of the electric detonator that set off the charge that hurled a highly satisfactory amount of rock and dirt into the air.

As de Lesseps was a trained diplomat and not an engineer, a fact that he should perhaps have more often remembered during canal design decisions, his son Charles took on the task of supervising the daily work.  De Lesseps himself handled the important work of promoting and raising money for the project from private subscription.  Not having the least scientific or technical bent, de Lesseps relied upon a rather naive faith in the serendipitous nature of emerging technology.  Thus he worried little about the problems facing this gigantic undertaking, feeling sure that the right people with the right ideas and the right machines would somehow miraculously appear at the right time and take care of them. His boundless confidence and enthusiasm for the project and his consummate faith in the miracles of technology attracted stockholders.

In the meantime, the International Technical Commission set about the difficult task of exploring and charting the canal route.  Between Colon and Panama City, the canal line was divided into sections, each section in charge of a team of engineers.  Survey findings were compiled into a final report by the commission headquarters in Panama City.

The International Technical Commission was required to verify all previous surveys, including those done by Wyse and Réclus and the U.S. studies of Lull and Menocal.  The ultimate goal was to determine the final line of the canal leading to the preparation of design specifications and working plans.  Another goal was to convince investors that de Lesseps was not just the promoter for a hastily conceived, half understood, imperfectly planned project that, most likely reflected unreliable cost estimates.

However, the few weeks’ time allowed for this survey work was far too short for an investigation of such importance.  Owing to this fact, the content of the technical commission’s report, submitted on February 14, 1880, was scientifically and professionally thin. In fact, it comprised little more than a rubber stamp for the project as conceived by de Lesseps.  In approving a sea level canal, the commission reported no significant construction difficulty in cutting the deep channel through the Continental Divide at Culebra Cut and estimated that construction would take approximately eight years.  The recommendations also included a protective breakwater at Limon Bay and a possible Pacific-side tidal lock.

To do the work, de Lesseps contracted Couvreux and Hersent, with whom he had worked at Suez.  Looking at the work in retrospect, it can be seen as falling into four phases.  During the first phase, from March 12, 1881, to the end of 1882, the entire project was under Couvreux and Hersent.  During the second phase, 1883 through 1885, following the withdrawal of Couvreux and Hersent, the work was accomplished by a number of small contractors under supervision of the company itself.  The third phase, between 1886 and 1887, saw the work done by a few large contractors.  Finally, in the fourth phase, beginning in 1888, the sea level project was finally, though temporarily, abandoned for a lock canal with the idea that, after the lock canal was functional, the channel could be deepened gradually to make a sea level canal.  But it was already too late, and the work gradually ground to a halt.  Armand Réclus, the Agent Général or chief superintendent of the Compagnie Universelle, led the first French construction group of about 40 engineers and officials.  They landed at Colon on January 29, 1881, aboard the Lafayette.  An optimistic Réclus expected preparatory tasks to take about a year, but Panama’s sparse population did not lend itself to labor recruitment, nor did its thick jungles lend themselves to quick movement through the countryside to accomplish the work.  Gaston Blanchet, Couvreux and Hersent’s director, accompanied Réclus to the Isthmus.  As Blanchet was known to be the company’s driving force, it was a terrible blow when, just 10 months into the project, he died, apparently of malaria.

Work went forward, however.  Surveys were completed and the canal line more accurately determined.  Construction was begun on service buildings and housing for laborers.  The delivery of machinery was expected soon.  Some was manufactured in Europe and some in the United States.  All manner of equipment was needed, from launches, excavators, dump cars and cranes to telegraph and telephone equipment.

De Lesseps was aware that the railroad was important to the work, and control of this vital element was gained by the French in August 1881.  But it cost them dearly, more than $25,000,000 — about a third of Compagnie Universelle resources.  Strangely, however, the railroad was never organized to serve anywhere near its full potential, especially in moving material from the site of excavation to deposit areas.

As the work force increased, so did illness and death.  The first yellow fever death among the 1,039 employees occurred June 1881 soon after beginning of the wet season.  A young engineer named Etienne died on July 25, supposedly of “brain fever.”  A few days later, on July 28, Henri Bionne died.  Holding degrees in medicine and law, as well as an international finance authority, he was a significant player in the Paris operation.   In his book, “The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough wrote:  “The cause of death would be attributed in Paris to ‘complications in the region of the kidneys.’  But on the Isthmus, the story would be told for as long as the French remained.  He had arrived from France to make a personal inspection for de Lesseps, and several of the engineers had arranged a dinner in his honor at the employees’ dining hall at the camp at Gamboa.  It was a festive evening apparently.  Bionne, the last to arrive, had come into the hall just as everyone was being seated.  One of the guests, a Norwegian woman, was exclaiming with great agitation that there were only thirteen at the table.  ‘Be assured, madame, in such a case it is the last to arrive who pays for all,’ Bionne said gaily.  ‘He drank to our success on the isthmus,’ one engineer recalled; ‘we drank to his good luck…’  Two weeks later, on his way home to France, Bionne died of what the ship’s doctor designated only as fever, not yellow fever.  The body was buried at sea.”

By October, equipment and materials were arriving and accumulating in Colon faster than a work force could be hired to use them.  By December 1881, the French had set up headquarters in Panama City at the Grand Hotel on Cathedral Plaza.

A banquet and ball in Panama City marked the official beginning of Culebra Cut excavation on January 20, 1882.  However, little actual digging was accomplished because of lack of organization in the field.  Engineers continued doing survey and preliminary work, work necessary to the project considering the skimpy studies originally done, and sending reports to Paris.

On the Isthmus, the Compagnie Universelle established medical services presided over ty the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul.  The first 200-bed hospital was established in Colon in March 1882.  On the Pacific side, construction for L’Hôpital Central de Panama, the forerunner of Ancon Hospital, was begun on Ancon Hill.  It was dedicated six months later, on September 17, 1882.  With the information on the mosquito connection in the transmission of yellow fever and malaria not yet discovered, the French and the good sisters unwittingly committed a number of errors that were to cost dearly in human life and suffering.  The hospital grounds were set out with many varieties of vegetables and flowers.  To protect them from leaf-eating ants, waterways were constructed around flowerbeds.  Inside the hospital itself, water pans were placed under bedposts to keep of insects.  Both insect-fighting methods provided excellent and convenient breeding sites for the Stegomyia fasciata and Anopheles mosquitoes, carriers of yellow fever and malaria.  Many patients who came to the hospital for other reasons often fell ill with these diseases after their arrival.  It got to the point where people avoided the hospital whenever possible.

Finally, with all excavating arrangements made, Couvreux and Hersent decided to withdraw from the project and wrote to de Lesseps requesting cancellation of their contract on December 31, 1882.

For a time, confusion reigned, until appointment of Jules Dingler as the new Director General.  An engineer of outstanding ability, reputation and experience, Dingler was unphased by the yellow fever threat, and, accompanied by his family, arrived in Colon on March 1, 1883, along with Charles de Lesseps.

Dingler concentrated on restoring order to the work and the organization; however, in doing so, he incurred no small amount of dislike.  At this time a new system, the system of small contracts, was initiated and nearly thirty were granted.  For these contracts, the Compagnie Universelle rented out the necessary equipment at low rates.  It wasn’t particularly efficient, requiring a great deal of paperwork and involving numerous lawsuits in Colombian courts, but the work was getting done, making use of the available labor force.

Dry excavation work was progressing in Culebra Cut and was expected to be finished by May 1885.  However, there was growing concern about bank stability and the danger of slides.  At the Atlantic and Pacific entrances, dredges worked their way inland.  Machinery came from many quarters — France, the United States and Belgium.  Equipment was constantly being modified and used in experimental combinations, but mostly it was too light and too small.  A growing accumulation of discarded, inoperative equipment along the canal line testified to earlier mistakes.

With some 10,000 men employed, work was going well in September of 1883.  The maximum force employed by the French at any one time was reached in 1884, with more than 19,000.  The labor supply came from the West Indies, chiefly Jamaica.

But just as things appeared to be going well, tragedy struck the Dingler family.  His daughter, Louise, died of yellow fever in January 1884.  A month later Dingler’s twenty-year-old son, Jules, died of the same disease.  As if that weren’t enough, the daughter’s young fiance, who had come with the family from France, contracted the disease and died also.

Dingler persevered, keeping up the pace of the work.  He went back with his wife to France on business in June.  They returned to the Isthmus in October, bringing with them a young, capable and energetic engineer named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a man destined to play a pivotal role in the history of Panama and of the Panama Canal.  Bunau-Varilla was assigned as division engineer in the key work of Culebra and Pacific slope construction, involving both dry excavation and dredging.  Work at Culebra at this time needed a shot in the arm.

Then, terrible as it seems, tragedy struck again.  Dingler’s wife died of yellow fever, just about a year after her daughter and son.  A devastated Dingler stayed on the job until June, when he returned to France, never to return to the Isthmus that had taken from him so many of his loved ones.

Maurice Hutin then served as Director General for one month until forced to return to France for health reasons.  The new acting Director General was 26-year-old Bunau-Varilla.  Worker morale improved under Bunau-Varilla, and excavation increased along the line.  Still, there was woefully inadequate equipment and work organization.  Decauville handcars were doing most of the work at Culebra, on the Pacific side.  Each of five excavators working on the Atlantic side could remove 300 cubic meters each day, but lack of spoil trains defeated their work.

There continued to be not enough of the right type of equipment; it was still too small and too light.  And, there was a large turnover of labor.  The spoil disposal system was inefficiently organized and managed, dump areas were too close to the excavation and slid back onto the channel whenever the rains came.  Drainage ditches built parallel to the Canal helped, but not a lot.  The deeper the excavation, the worse the slides.  Making the slopes less steep by carving them back was another method of alleviating the slides, but this added to the total amount of digging required.  And, while the soil slid with ease into the channel, the sticky clay consistency adhered with tenacity to shovels and often had to be scraped off.  French bucket-chain excavators got caught and stopped by stones and rock.

In a move toward greater efficiency, Bunau-Varilla went back to the old scheme of large contractors, but instead of just one, hired several.  Hand labor was cut considerably.

One contractor had let so many subcontracts in the western hill at the saddle that it became known as Contractors Hill.  As late as July 1885, only about one-tenth of the estimated total had been excavated.  Ultimately, the unresolved problem of the slides would doom the sea level canal plan to failure.

All the while, the toll in human lives was mounting, peaking in 1885.  Yellow fever, which used to come in two- or three-year cycles, was now constant.  Malaria, of course, continued to take even more lives than yellow fever.  Because the sick avoided the hospitals whenever possible because of its reputation for propagating disease, much of the death toll was never recorded.

A new Director General, Leon Boyer, arrived in January 1886, relieving Bunau-Varilla.  Soon thereafter, Bunau-Varilla, himself, contracted yellow fever, but did not die. However, greatly weakened, he went back to France to recuperate.

Boyer communicated to his superiors his conviction that, within current time and cost limits, it would be impossible to construct a sea level canal.  To soften the report, he recommended the design proposed by Bunau-Varilla of a temporary lake and lock canal that could later, after it was built and functioning, be gradually deepened to sea level.

But, by May, he too was gone, another victim of yellow fever.  The job of provisional director went to his assistant, Nouailhac-Pioch, until another Director General, a man by the name of Jacquier, the sixth since 1883, was appointed in July 1886, a position he held until the crash of 1888.

Such was the work in 1886, that the area of heaviest excavation, the stretch between Matachin and Culebra, appeared to be one continuous project.  The French organization on the Isthmus had, although top-heavy with management, improved, and equipment was plentiful.  Housing was clean and adequate, although not screened against flies and mosquitoes.

In spite of improvements, a lack of progress at Culebra was beginning to concern Parisian officials.  Charles de Lesseps proposed to Bunau-Varilla the organization of a company to take on the work at Culebra, which he did in July 1886. The company was called “Artigue, Sonderegger et Cie.” after the two engineers who were the company’s technical members.  Bunau-Varilla decided to take over the actual field supervision of the work himself.  As American engineers would do later, he moved into quarters at Culebra  Cut so he could watch the progress of the work. About six months later, the French work at Culebra Cut had reached peak activity.  Twenty-six French excavators were digging and carrying the spoil to the dump site; still the Panama Railroad had not been harnessed to the effort of hauling spoil.

It was becoming increasingly clear to nearly everyone except Ferdinand de Lesseps that, under the circumstances, a sea level canal was out of the question and that only a high level lock canal had any hope of succeeding at this point.  Under pressure from all sides, he stubbornly stuck to his guns, but finally agreed to consider making a change.  Even then he delayed the inevitable for another nine months with the study of alternate plans.

In October 1887, the Superior Advisory Committee, released its report.  The eminent French engineers established the possibility of building a high-level lock canal through the Isthmus of Panama.  The plan would allow vessel transits while, at the same time, permitting dredging of a channel to sea level sometime in the future. It was never intended to be a permanent solution.  De Lesseps finally, reluctantly, agreed.   Bunau-Varilla’s idea was to create a series of pools in which floating dredges could be placed; the pools would then be connected by a series of 10 locks.  The highest level of such a canal would be 170 feet.  Work on the lock canal started on January 15, 1888.  Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, would construct the canal locks.  The waterway would have a bottom width of 61 feet.

In Gaillard Cut, where the average level had been lowered only 3 feet in 1886, was lowered 10 feet in 1887 and 20 feet in 1888, ultimately bringing the level to 235 feet at the time work was stopped.

Under Artigue, Sonderegger et Cie., work was going very well indeed.  Some areas of the canal were nearly complete, the Panama Railroad was being rerouted away from the Cut, the first lock was nearly ready to begin installation and preliminary work on a dam had been started.

But suddenly there was no more money.  A public subscription asked for by de Lesseps had failed.  Shareholders, at their last meeting in January 1889, decided to dissolve the Compagnie Universelle, placing it under legal receivership under the direction of Joseph Brunet.  An ignominious end to such a great effort.  Some aspects of the work struggled on for a few months, but by May 15, 1889, all activity on the Isthmus ceased.  Liquidation was not completed until 1894.

In France, popular pressure on the government regarding what was called the “Panama Affair” led to prosecution of company officials, including Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, who were both indicted for fraud and maladministration.  Advanced age and ill health excused the senior de Lesseps from appearing in court, but both were found guilty and given 5-year prison sentences.  However, the penalty was never imposed, as the statute of limitations had run out.

Charles, in a second trial for corruption, was indicted and found guilty of bribery.  Months he had already spent in jail during the trials were deducted from his one-year sentence.  Then, becoming seriously ill, he served the remainder of his sentence in hospital.

By this time, Ferdinand de Lesseps’ mental state was mercifully such that he knew little of what was going on, and he remained sequestered at home within the family circle.  He died at age 89 on December 7, 1894.  Charles lived until 1923, long enough to see the Panama Canal completed, his father’s name restored to honor and his own reputation substantially cleared.

Many reasons can be stated for the French failure, but it seems clear that the principal reason was de Lesseps’ stubbornness in insisting on and sticking to the sea level plan.  But others were at fault also for not opposing him, arguing with him and encouraging him to change his mind.  His own charisma turned out to be his enemy.  People believed in him beyond reason.

The devotion to duty of the French in the face of the odds faced on the Isthmus is truly extraordinary, even when we remember what a different world it was then and the life span expectations entertained by most people, even those in favorable circumstances.

With the original Wyse Concession to expire in 1893, Wyse set out again for Bogota, where, he negotiated a 10-year extension.  The “new” Panama Canal Company, the Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama was organized effective October 20, 1894.

With insufficient working capital, only some $12,000,000, to proceed with any significant work, the Compagnie Nouvelle entertained the hope of attracting investors who would help them to complete an Isthmian canal as a French enterprise.  Initially, they had no intention of selling their rights; they wanted to make a success of the operation and perhaps be able to repay the losses of the original shareholders.

Sailing from France on December 9, 1894, the first group arrived in Panama to again pick up on excavation in Culebra Cut.  There, every shovelful of dirt would count, no matter what type of Canal was ultimately decided upon, lock or sea level.  By 1897, the work force would have expanded from an initial 700 to more than 4,000.

The Comité Technique, a high level technical committee, was formed by the Compagnie Nouvelle to review the studies and work — that already finished and that still ongoing — and come up with the best plan for completing the canal.  The committee arrived on the Isthmus in February 1896 and went immediately, quietly and efficiently about their work of devising the best possible canal plan, which they presented on November 16, 1898.

Many aspects of the plan were similar in principle to the canal that was finally built by the Americans in 1914.  It was a lock canal with two high level lakes to lift ships up and over the Continental Divide.  Double locks would be 738 feet long and about 30 feet deep; one chamber of each pair would be 82 feet wide, the other 59.  There would be eight sets of locks, two at Bohio Soldado and two at Obispo on the Atlantic side; one at Paraiso, two at Pedro Miguel, and one at Miraflores on the Pacific.  Artificial lakes would be formed by damming the Chagres River at Bohio and Alhajuela, providing both flood control and electric power.

If directors of the Compagnie Nouvelle still entertained the idea that the canal could somehow be completed, they were soon faced with the reality of the situation; during and following the bitter scandal of the old company, the public had lost all faith in the project.  There would be, therefore, no funds forthcoming from a bond issue, and none was tried, nor did the French government have any support for the project.

With half its original capital gone by 1898, the company had few choices — abandon the project or sell it.  Company directors decided to proffer a deal to the most likely taker, the United States of America.  It was no secret that the United States was interested in an Isthmian canal.  With the technical commission report and a tentative rights transfer proposal in hand, company officials headed for the United States, where they were received by President William McKinley on December 2, 1899.  The deal was five years in the making, but was eventually signed.

Some say that a large part of the eventual success on the part of the United States in building a canal at Panama came from avoiding the mistakes of the French.  The lessons learned from the French experience were certainly helpful, but the American success was considerably more than that.

The American Canal Construction

Panama was enveloped in its own “miasmal mist” of failure following the French Canal adventure.  The second Walker Commission, the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission of 1899-1902, ordered by President McKinley, favored a Nicaragua route, as did both popular and official U.S. support.  Panama seemed clothed in defeat, while Nicaragua was regarded as a clean slate for an all-American canal project.

Following President McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt became president.  For him, there was no romance about the project, none of this nonsense about following a dream.  The canal was practical, vital and indispensable to the U.S. destiny as a global power with supremacy over both its coastal oceans.  Roosevelt was a proponent of a doctrine proposed by U.S. naval officer and scholar Thayer Mahan, who explained his theory in the 1890 book “Influence of Sea Power upon History.”  The theory was that supremacy at sea was an integral part of commercial and military prowess.  For Roosevelt, this made a U.S.-controlled canal an absolute necessity.

A timely incident clearly demonstrated this truth to Roosevelt and the world.  A naval base had been established in Cuba as a result of the Spanish-American War.  The battleship Maine, which was stationed there, was blown up on February 15, 1898, with 260 lives lost.  At the time, another battleship, the Oregon had been stationed in San Francisco.  To save the day, the Oregon was ordered to proceed at once to the Atlantic, a 12,000-mile course around the Horn.  Sixty-seven days later, but fortunately, still in time, the vessel arrived off Florida to join in the Battle of Santiago Bay.  The experience clearly showed the military significance of an Isthmian canal.

As mentioned before, popular sentiment and the second Walker Commission were in favor of a Canal in Nicaragua, and the actions along those lines were being  hastened through the U.S. House.  At about this same time, the Compagnie Nouvelle held a stockholders meeting in Paris, and, fearing to get left out in the cold with their proposed deal with the Americans, ascribed a new value to their Panama assets of $40,000,000.  This just happened to be the value put upon them by the Americans.  Admiral Walker was quoted saying, “It put things on a very different footing.”  The House, however, passed the Hepburn Bill favoring Nicaragua – two votes short of unanimous.

Through this, the White House had maintained silence; however, following the House vote, Roosevelt summoned the members of the Walker Commission for a closed-door meeting. There he let it be known that he wanted the French offer accepted and that the Commission was to provide a supplementary report unanimously favoring the Panama route.  The Commission prepared the supplementary report reversing its original decision and coming out unanimously for Panama.

President Roosevelt submitted the supplementary report to Congress in January 1902.  Wisconsin Senator John Coit Spooner introduced an amendment to the Hepburn Bill authorizing the president to acquire the French company’s assets and concessions for a maximum price of $40,000,000.  The bill stated that if arrangements could not be agreed upon between the United States and Colombia within “a reasonable time,” the President would be authorized to seek an agreement for the alternate route through Nicaragua.

Senator John Tyler Morgan, a long-time Nicaragua supporter, championed that route.  On the other hand was the “Panama Lobby,” led by William Nelson Cromwell and, yes, he was back again, Philippe Bunau-Varilla.  As Bunau-Varilla personally held shares in the French company, his interest in seeing them bought out was clearly not unselfish.  Nor were Cromwell’s motives.  A lawyer who at the same time was a shareholder, a company director and represented the Panama Railroad Company, he hoped to make big money out of the deal and, as a matter of fact, did, with a fee of $800,000 for services rendered.

Senator Mark Hanna was also in favor of the Panama route for technical reasons, reasons already provided in engineering reports.  The Panama waterway would be shorter, straighter, take less time to transit, would require fewer locks, had better harbors, already had a railroad and would cost less to run.

Hanna’s speech and support before the Senate were impressive, but not enough so to change the number of votes required.  But it was Bunau-Varilla who turned the tide.  To each senator he mailed a letter enclosing a one-centavo stamp showing a Nicaraguan landscape.  In the background, the famous Momotombo volcano was depicted in full eruption.  The stamp clearly pointed out the differences between the two countries — one with active volcanoes, the other comparatively stable.  On June 19, 1902, the Senate vote favored a Panama canal route by just eight votes.

That it was the technical, engineering viewpoint that prevailed was significant.  The most vociferous and articulate of the engineers favoring Panama was George Shattuck Morison.  Morison is credited with changing many important minds about the canal route, including Walker, Hanna and even President Roosevelt, to whom he wrote a letter on December 10, 1901, detailing the technical reasons and his own person convictions for building the Canal through Panama.  Roosevelt would later credit “engineers” for helping make up his mind.

With the route decided, it was now time to begin negotiations with Colombia for a concession to build a canal through the Colombian province of Panama.  The resulting Hay-Herran Treaty, developed by Colombian charge d’affaires Dr. Tomas Herran and U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, was rejected by Colombia.  Roosevelt, reportedly furious, was not inclined to continue negotiations.

Impatient to build the canal, Roosevelt supported Panama’s independence movement.  And he was willing to put forth a show of military force, dispatching warships to both sides of the Isthmus – the Atlanta, Maine, Mayflower and Prairie at Colon and the Boston, Marblehead, Concord and Wyoming at Panama City – thus effectively blocking the sea approaches.  Troops not only protected the railroad, but were also sent into the interior to block access from those areas.  A land approach by a Colombian force of 2,000 was defeated by the Darien jungle and forced to turn back.

Roosevelt would later boast that “…I took the isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”   Without the U.S. military presence it is doubtful that the Panama independence movement would have succeeded.

Panama declared independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903.  The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was negotiated by the new republic’s “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” Philippe Bunau-Varilla with John Hay.  The new treaty was sent to Panama for ratification. The treaty granted to the United States as if sovereign a canal concession in perpetuity to a canal zone 10 miles wide, 5 miles on either side of the Canal prism line. Whether they liked it or not, the founders of Panama had little choice but to accede, as to refuse would have withdrawn all U.S. support from the fledgling republic and further dealings with Colombia. It was this arrangement, however, that gave the United States the control it needed in this vastly underdeveloped country to get the monumental job of canal construction done.

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was ratified in Panama on December 2, 1903, and in the United States on February 23, 1904.  Roosevelt’s audacious move had succeeded for the United States, but not without political repercussions in U.S./Latin American relations for years to come. Upon the treaty’s ratification in the United States on February 23, 1904, Panama received a payment of $10 million. Three days later, Bunau-Varilla resigned and returned to France.

The beginning of the U.S. canal construction effort dates from May 4, 1904, when, in a brief ceremony, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer Lieutenant Mark Brooke received the keys to the storehouses and Ancon Hospital.  Chief Sanitary Officer Dr .William Crawford Gorgas and his staff were among the first to arrive and set up operations.

Medical researchers at around this time were becoming more receptive to the idea of a relationship between mosquitoes and malaria and yellow fever.  Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay, as early as 1881, had become convinced that yellow fever was transmitted by a specific mosquito vector, the Stegomyia fasciata (later to be named the Aedes aegypti).  The only problem was that he couldn’t prove what appeared to most at the time to be a totally far-fetched theory.  However, others would take their lead from Finlay.  Dr. Henry Rose Carter doing research in Mississippi discovered “extrinsic incubation,” the fact that a specific period of time was involved in the person to person transmittal of the disease.  However, the great yellow fever discoveries in Cuba in 1900 were the work of Dr. Walter Reed, who happened at the time to be Gorgas’ commanding officer, who proved that Stegomyia fasciata was the carrier, debunking all previous theories, including the belief that “fomites,” the term used for the soiled clothes or bedding of yellow fever victims, could spread the disease.  Gorgas, himself a yellow fever survivor and thus immune to the disease, was a particularly valuable member of the medical team.  Still skeptical, however, he suggested to Reed that, to prove the theory once and for all, Havana needed to be rid of the Stegomyia fasciata and the results observed.  Gorgas, with Reed’s approval, began the work in February of 1901.  Results showed a dramatic reduction in yellow fever cases – from 1,400 known cases in 1900, to only 37 cases in 1901; none of them after October.  The eradication procedures didn’t just kill off the Stegomyia fasciata, but reduced the Anopheles population as well, thus decreasing malaria cases by more than half.  These same techniques were what Gorgas brought with him to Panama in 1904.

The breeding habits of the Stegomyia, which leads them to flourish in and around human habitations, made them much easier to kill than the malaria-carrying Anopheles, which are found everywhere – jungles as well as back yards, making them very difficult to control.  Besides, as Gorgas continually stressed,  malaria was far more dangerous than yellow fever, accounting for the largest loss of life during the French years.

For Gorgas, it was urgent to get a jump on mosquito eradication before new, non-immune workers arrived and became infected.  Unfortunately, Gorgas’s superiors in the first Isthmian Canal Commission didn’t take seriously the new scientific discoveries and thus did not support Gorgas’s efforts.  Even after a 1903 scientific congress in Paris reviewed Reeds yellow fever work and proclaimed it “scientifically determined fact,” Commission officials continued to believe Gorgas’s efforts to be a waste of time and money.

The Isthmian Canal Commission’s first chief Engineer, John F. Wallace, numbered among the nonbelievers.  However, John F. Stevens, Wallace’s successor in 1905, provided Gorgas full support and funding.  Gorgas would later write, “The moral effect of so high an official taking such a stand at this period…was very great, and it is hard to estimate how much sanitation on the Isthmus owes to this gentleman for its subsequent success.”  Stevens’s actions appear even more admirable, as he would later state, “Like probably many others I had gained some little idea of the mosquito theory, but, like most laymen, I had little faith in its effectiveness, or even dreamed of its tremendous importance.”

The work to combat yellow fever included screening windows and doors, house-by-house fumigation of Panama City and Colon and weekly oiling of cisterns and cesspools.  A most important advance was providing running water to Panama City, Colon and other townsites to do away with the need for the domestic water containers that served as perfect breeding sites for the yellow fever vector mosquito

As a result of Gorgas’s crusade, yellow fever was completely and permanently wiped out on the Isthmus, with the last case reported in Panama City on November 11, 1905.

Malaria, unlike yellow fever, does not confer immunity.  With the disease endemic on the Isthmus, there were repeated opportunities to lay its victims low by debilitation or death.  It actually was the cause of more deaths during the French and U.S. construction periods than was yellow fever.  During the first year of the American effort, 1905, nearly all of the American force, including Gorgas, had contracted malaria after only a month on the Isthmus.  Gorgas was to say, “If we can control malaria, I feel very little anxiety about other diseases.  If we do not control malaria our mortality is going to be heavy.”  A comparison between eradicating the two kinds of mosquitoes likened getting rid of the yellow fever carrier to “making war on the family cat,” while a campaign against the malaria-carrying mosquito was “like fighting all the beasts of the jungle.”

Reducing and eradicating the swarms of malarial mosquitoes was a huge task.  Research, however, revealed valuable information.  Knowing that the Anopheles mosquito cannot fly far without lighting on some sort of vegetation, 200-yard-wide areas were cleared around where people lived and worked.  Sanitation teams drained more than 100 square miles of swamp, built nearly a thousand miles of earthen ditching, some 300 miles of concrete ditch, 200 miles of rock-filled trench, almost 200 miles of tile drain, cut hundreds of acres of wild vegetation, sprayed standing water with thousands of gallons of oil, hatched and released thousands of minnows to eat the Anopheles larvae and bred spiders, ants, lizards to feed on adult insects.  To keep vegetation such as grass and algae from preventing the free spread of the larvae-smothering oil, some 200 barrels of poison (a mixture of carbolic acid, resin and caustic soda) were applied monthly around the edges of water pools and streams.  While these efforts covered only a small fraction of the Zone area, they efficiently reduced malaria incidence in populated areas.   Two hundred and eleven employees died of malaria during fiscal year 1906-1907, declining significantly from a peak of 7.45 per 1,000 in 1906 to .30 per 1,000 in 1913. This achievement greatly increased American chances of canal-building success.  A 1941 report stated that, during the past 20 years, there were only 7 deaths from malaria among employees.

Native villages and towns in the Canal Zone, in accordance with Articles VI and XV of the 1903 treaty, were required to move.  Legal owners thus required to vacate were compensated for their property.  Many inhabitants were required to relocate with the filling of Gatun Lake.  Many of these sites dated from early days of Chagres River navigation, when the route was a much used commercial route across the Isthmus. Such settlements included Ahorca Lagarto, Barbacoas, Caimito, Matachin, Bailamonos, Santa Cruz, Cruz de Juan Gallego and Cruces.  Following Canal completion, still other townsites were no longer needed and were abandoned.  These towns, some built on the sites of existing French era towns, such as Emperador, called “Empire” by the Americans and the location of  steam shovel repair shops and the Central Division engineering office in charge of Culebra Cut excavation.  On the other hand, Culebra, the American headquarters, was newly built.  Many of these were never intended to be permanent.

Many problems had to be confronted immediately and solved by John F. Stevens, chief engineer between July 1, 1905 and April 1, 1907.  As Panama was, to say the least, insufficiently developed or equipped to support the additional population created by the growing Canal labor force, a great deal of planning went into providing proper housing and an adequate food supply.  Virtually everything that was needed for Canal construction, from equipment and building supplies to a labor force and food, would have to be brought to the Isthmus and distributed efficiently along the line of the canal.   The Panama Railroad, which Stevens saw at once to be the lifeline of Canal construction, was completely overhauled.  The lightweight, inadequate and mismatched equipment of the French was replaced with the best and toughest available, for this railroad would not only distribute workers, materials and supplies, but also would haul away the dirt and rock excavated from the channel.  Stevens was to say, “This is no reflection on the French, but I cannot conceive how they did the work they did with the plant they had.”  Heavier track, engines, freight cars, dump cars and refrigerator cars were ordered, and bridges signals and sidings were upgraded and improved.  Also required and recruited from the United States was a phalanx of trained engineers, switchmen, operators, mechanics, yard masters, train masters, dispatchers, superintendents and conductors to first put together the railroad, as all components were shipped “knocked down,” and then operate it.

All other kinds of equipment were rehabilitated or replaced as well.  Communications were improved with new telegraph and telephone systems.

The size of the labor force was tripled in six months under Stevens and whole communities, including housing, mess halls, hospitals, hotels, schools churches, cold storage, clubhouses and laundries were built to accommodate them.   Streets were paved in Colon and Panama City and water and sewage systems installed.  At one time, nearly half of the 24 thousand-man work force was employed at constructing buildings.

Stevens also developed the ingenious system of Canal excavation and disposal of rock and soil, called “spoil.”  He devised a complex but very workable and efficient system of railroad tracks at different levels within the Cut.  Spoil train schedules were coordinated to the level where the excavation work was being done.  Spoil train capacity kept pace with the excavation work, keeping both trains and steam shovels efficiently employed at all times.

Col. George Washington Goethals, who succeeded Stevens as chief engineer during the construction period and under whose leadership the Canal was completed, would say:  “Stevens devised, designed, and made provision for practically every contingency connected with the construction and subsequent operation of the stupendous project… It is therefore to him, much more than to me, that justly belongs the honor of being the actual ‘Genius of the Panama Canal…'”

It was Stevens who convinced Roosevelt of the wisdom and necessity of building a lock rather than a sea level canal, and Stevens who lobbied the U.S. Congress and others on Capital Hill, just as had Frenchman Godin de Lépinay lobbied before the Congres International in Paris in 1879.  The difference was that Stevens succeeded.  Stevens, with firsthand knowledge of seeing the Chagres during flood, talked, insisted and explained the situation, using statistics and maps, repeating again and again that “the one great problem in the construction of any canal down there is the control of the Chagres River,” during intense questioning before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.  He also helped draft the major Senate address by Philander Knox on June 19, 1906, on the subject of the Canal, the lock plan and Gatun Dam in particular.  Two days after the Knox speech, the Senate voted for a lock canal 36 to 31; on June 27, the House followed suit.  Just a narrow margin of votes stood between United States’ lock canal success and a sea level canal attempt that, in all likelihood, would have failed.  Stevens would call the sea level plan “an entirely untenable proposition, an impracticable futility.”  Proposed as only 150 feet wide for nearly half its length, it was seen by Stevens as “a narrow, tortuous ditch” fraught with the possibility of endless landslides.  Goethals reportedly once remarked that there was not money enough in the world to construct a sea level canal across Panama.  Time and construction costs aside, Stevens would still prefer a lock canal:

“It will provide a safer and quicker passage for ships… It will provide, beyond question, the best solution to the vital problem of how safely to care for the floodwater of the Chagres… Its cost of operation, maintenance and fixed charges will be much less than any sea-level canal.”

Stevens estimated completion time for a lock canal to be eight years, by January 1914; he estimated that a sea level canal couldn’t be completed in less than eighteen years, or around 1924.

With all immediate problems solved and the work going well, Stevens suddenly and inexplicably resigned, effective April 1, 1907.  Amid much speculation about the reason, Stevens said nothing publicly except to say that it was “personal.”  As a professional experienced in railroad engineering, the canal work, for Stevens, was a straightforward administrative and design proposition.  He once noted “…the problem is one of magnitude and not miracles.”  Roosevelt never had any reservations about Stevens’ technical executive ability, but Stevens’ obvious insensitivity to the fact that the canal was an undertaking of the United States government did not sit well with him.

Now that the canal project was off the ground and going well, Roosevelt’s feeling about it underwent an apparent change.  While at first he viewed it as a political, commercial and military necessity, he could now afford to allow himself to be inspired by the “romance” of the situation engendered by its dramatic challenges of its structural design and the many assorted difficulties overcome.  Roosevelt now spoke of building the canal as a mighty battle involving both the national honor and that of the work force.  The first president to leave the continental United States while in office, he made a trip to Panama in November 1906 to see for himself how things were going.  At the end of his last day there, he made an impromptu speech to several hundred Americans, including John Stevens.  Excerpts from those remarks reveal his thinking at the time.

“…whoever you are, if you are doing your duty, the balance of the country is placed under obligation to you, just as it is to a soldier in a great war.  The man who does his duty, no matter in what position he may be placed, is the man for the job.  But to do your duty you must do a little more than just earn your salary.  As I have looked at you and seen you work, seen what you have done and are doing, I have felt just exactly as I would feel to see the big men of our country carrying on a great war.”

“…you here who are doing your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise, are standing exactly as a soldier of the few great wars of the world’s history.  This is one of the great works of the world.  It is a greater work than you yourselves at the moment realize.”

“In the Grand Army the spirit what appeals to me is the spirit of fellowship, of comradeship.  If a man was a lieutenant general of the army or if he was the last recruit, the youngest recruit whose age would permit him to serve in the ranks, it makes no difference.  If he did his duty well, he is a comrade, and recognized in every Grand Army post.  And so it should be with you, whether you be chief engineer, superintendent, foreman, steam shovel man, machinist, clerk – this spirit of comradeship should prevail.”

Judging from these remarks, it is easy to see how Roosevelt might have felt that Stevens, by his resignation, had betrayed the fundamental precepts of such a great and noble enterprise by viewing it as just a job and not putting into it the commitment of heart and spirit that Roosevelt felt it deserved.   While he apparently felt no ill will towards Stevens, he failed to mention Stevens in the canal section of his autobiography.  He also determined that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, and appointed as Stevens’ replacement an Army man, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who would be required to stay on the job as long as his president and commander in chief wanted him there. The next chief engineer was Lieutenant Colonel (later promoted to Colonel in December 1909 and to Major General on March 4, 1914) George Washington Goethals.

In addition to serving as chief engineer, Goethals also was named chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission and president of the Panama Railroad Company and its subsidiary steamship line, giving him much more power and responsibility than wielded by previous chief engineers.  He was responsible only to the Secretary of War and the President.  Such power couldn’t have been entrusted to anyone who could have handled it better than did Goethals, who seemed never to let it go to his head.

Aloof and straight laced in manner and appearance and certainly not an easy mixer or winner of popularity, Goethals was highly respected for his honesty and fairness and was considered a superb administrator by his admirers, of whom there were ample number.  He quickly put to rest the fears of those who thought they would be working under a military regime, saying, “I am no longer a commander in the United States Army.  I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama, and that the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the Canal, and any man here on the work who does his duty will never have any cause to complain of militarism.”  Goethals never once wore a military uniform on the Isthmus.

Goethals was well qualified for his post, having graduated second in his class at West Point and having had previous experience with locks and dams.  Most of his immediate professional subordinates were also military men, including Lieutenant Colonel Harry F. Hodges, Major William L. Sibert, Major David DuBose Gaillard and Rear Admiral Harry Harwood Rousseau.  Hodges was in charge of the design and erection of the lock gates.  Sibert was head of the Atlantic Division, which comprised Gatun Dam and Locks.  Gaillard was in charge of the Central Division, which included all of Gatun Lake and the Culebra Cut.  Gaillard died of a brain tumor shortly before the Canal was completed.  In posthumous recognition of his service, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order on April 17, 1915, officially changing the name of Culebra Cut to Gaillard Cut.  Sydney B.Williamson, in charge of the Pacific Division from the southern end of Culebra Cut to deep water in the Pacific, was the only civilian engineer on this high-level team.  He was responsible for the construction of Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks with their auxiliary dams.  The only naval member of the commission, Rousseau was in charge of the design and construction of all terminals, wharves, coaling stations, dry docks, machine shops, warehouses and other auxiliary structures.

Major design changes were made as work progressed.  For example, the bottom width of the canal channel in Culebra Cut was widened from 200 to 300 feet.  At the request of the U.S. Navy, locks chambers were enlarged from 95 to 110 feet to accommodate vessels then on the drawing board.  A chain of small Pacific-side islands (Flamenco, Perico, Naos and Culebra) was joined to create a three-mile-long breakwater across tidal flats to prevent silt from clogging the channel entrance.  The discovery of poor foundation materials at the Sosa Hill site caused the two-step set of Pacific-side locks to be relocated farther north to Miraflores; the locations of other locks remained unchanged.

Recruitment of a labor force was a big problem at the beginning of canal construction.  With Panama’s relatively sparse population there was no surplus labor anywhere in the republic.  It was recognized early on that all classes of labor would have to be recruited from outside and that most of the higher grades of skilled labor would have to be recruited from the United States.  The average number of Americans working for the Canal during the construction period was a little over 5,000.

The islands of the Caribbean were the logical place to seek a labor force as the French had done some years before.  However, when the French canal effort failed, many West Indian laborers, about 20,000 of them, were left stranded in Panama, to be repatriated at their governments’ expense.  This experience left both governments and laborers themselves loath to participate in the American effort.  Authorities on the Island of Barbados finally authorized large-scale recruitment leading to a total recruitment of 19,900 laborers, reportedly approximately 10 percent of the population and between 30 and 40 percent of the adult males.  When restrictions were withdrawn in 1907, some 7,500 men were recruited from the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.  Actually the largest recruitment of contracted workers occurred in 1907, when nearly 15,000 men were brought to the Isthmus.  When news got out of the high wages and good living conditions on the Isthmus, there was no longer a need to recruit, and all agents were withdrawn in 1909.

It is often, erroneously, stated that Jamaican labor built the Panama Canal.  Actually, Jamaica, the largest, nearest and most populous of the British West Indies, would have been a logical place to recruit unskilled labor.  However, throughout the construction period, island authorities consistently refused to allow recruiting, placing a tax of one pound sterling on anyone wishing to leave to work in Panama.  For unskilled laborers who made a maximum of about 30 cents a day, to pay the tax and the passage was prohibitive.  The large Jamaican immigration to the Isthmus consisted mostly of artisans, not laborers.

Contractors were not used during the American canal construction period except for special projects such as lock gate construction that required especially experienced workers.  The McClintic-Marshall Company, which built the lock gates, at one time had more than 5,000 men at work on the gates.  Taking this force into consideration, the maximum effective force was reached on March 26, 1913, with a total number of men actually on the job was 44,733, not including the sick, those on leave and other absentees.  Taking these into consideration would add an additional 20 percent to the total number on the rolls for any given period.

Work Force

The following chart shows the maximum force employed during each year of construction work

Click to enlarge

Providing food for more than 40,000 employees and their families in a country with little food production capability and few stores was a tremendous task at the beginning.  With the goal in mind of maintaining a healthy and contented work force, the Isthmian Canal Commission imported food on the Panama Railroad steamers.  They also started farms to grow fruits and vegetables, even plants and flowers, as well as farms to produce milk and eggs.

It was a difficult task in the beginning, but every effort was made to ensure adequate living standards, in accordance with standards of the time, for canal workers. Ice and cold storage warehouses were constructed, and a bakery and ice cream plant were set up.  The Panama Railroad had refrigerated cars to provide distribution to settlements along the line of the canal.

Hotels or restaurants were established for the American bachelors.  A number of mess halls were built for the European laborers where meals were furnished at 40 cents per day.  Kitchens were built for the West Indian laborers.  Rations were furnished and cooked in these kitchens for 30 cents per day.

Culebra Cut

Culebra Cut was the “special wonder” of the canal.  Here, men and machines labored to conquer the 8.75-mile stretch extending through the Continental Divide from Gamboa on the Chagres River at the north to Pedro Miguel on the south.  The lowest point in the saddle between Gold Hill on the east and Contractors Hill on the west was at elevation 333.5 feet above sea level.

Holes were drilled, filled with explosives and detonated to loosen the rock and rock-hard clay.  Steam shovels then excavated the spoil, placing it on railroad cars to be hauled to dump sites.   Excavation equipment, in addition to the railroad itself, included steam shovels, unloaders, spreaders and track-shifters.  Of this equipment, only the steam shovel had been known to the French, and then in a much less powerful form.  The Lidgerwood unloader, manufactured by the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company of New York City, was another indispensable piece of equipment.  Wooden flatcars with a rated canal capacity of 19 cubic yards hauled most of the spoil, pulled in long trains by full-sized, American built locomotives.  Built with only one side, they had steel aprons bridging the spaces between cars.  Dirt was piled high against one side.   At the dump site, the unloader, a three-ton plow, was hitched to the last car by a long cable to a huge winch-like device mounted on a flatcar at the head of the train.  Taking its power from the locomotive, the winch pulled the plow rapidly forward, unloading the whole twenty-car train in a single, 10-minute sweep.  One of these machines once set an 8-hour record by unloading 18 trains, about 3 ½ miles of cars containing about 7,560 cubic yards of material.  Engineers estimated that 20 of these unloaders operated by 120 laborers did the work of 5,666 men unloading by hand.

The dirt-spreader was another American innovation.  A car operated by compressed air, it had steel “wings” on each side that could be raised and lowered.  When lowered, they sloped 11.5 feet backward from the rails.  Moving forward, the dirt-spreader spread and leveled the material left along the track by the unloader.  Like the unloader, the spreader did the work of some 5,000 to 6,000 men working by hand

Another machine, the track-shifter, was invented by American William G. Bierd, general manager of the Panama Railroad from September 1905 to October 1907.  The huge crane-like machine would hoist a whole section of track – rails and ties – and swing it in either direction, to relocate it as much as 9 feet at a time.  With the tracks at the dumps needing constant shifting to keep pace with the arriving loads of spoil, the track-shifter was extremely useful.  It took less than a dozen men operating on the shifter one day to move a mile of track, a task requiring not less than 600 men.

A large number of 17-cubic-yard capacity, 4-sided Western and Oliver dump cars (27 cars comprising a train) was also used.  As it was hard to unload the dirt from these cars because the heavy clay would stick to the steel sides, they were used almost exclusively for hauling rock from the Cut to Gatun Dam.  Their 4-sided design made them impossible for use with the unloader.  More than a hundred million cubic yards of spoil had to be hauled away from the excavation site and dumped.  Part of this spoil was used to join a series of four small islands in Panama Bay (Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco) to create a breakwater.  This breakwater is topped by a roadway, making it a causeway that extends three and a quarter miles out into the Pacific.  The stretch between the mainland and Naos Island was a very troublesome dumping area because of a soft bottom into which tons of rock would settle and virtually disappear.  Track and trestle used to haul the spoil to the dumping area would disappear overnight into the ocean and have to be replaced.  In the end, to reach Naos Island took ten times the estimated spoil.

Spoil was also used to claim nearly 500 acres of Pacific Ocean to create the Balboa townsite and the Fort Amador military reservation.  Millions of cubic yards of material also had to be hauled out to big waste dumps in the jungle.  In the largest of these, Tabernilla, 17,000,000 cubic yards of material were deposited.  Balboa was the biggest dumpsite.  Other big dumps were Gatun Dam, and Miraflores..

Gatun Dam, on the Atlantic, was, at the time of its construction, the largest earthen dam in the world and Gatun Lake the largest manmade body of water in the world.  Today, Gatun Lake doesn’t even make the top thirty list of such lakes.  Two other dams were built on the Pacific side – the Miraflores Spillway and, in the 1930s, Madden Dam farther up the Chagres River.  With the building of Gatun Dam, the Chagres River valley between Gamboa and Gatun became Gatun Lake, with the Chagres flowing into it at Gamboa.  The building of Gaillard Cut then extended the lake across the Continental Divide to Pedro Miguel Locks.

Earth slides in Culebra Cut were a constant concern for construction engineers.  The first under the American effort occurred at Cucaracha on October 4, 1907 when some 500,000 cubic yards of material moved into the Cut following several days of unusually heavy rain.  For ten days the slide moved an average of 14 feet every 24 hours.  Cucaracha remains today a slide surveillance area.

A “normal” or “gravity” slide like Cucaracha, the largest of its kind at the Canal, occurs where a layer of porous material rests upon a sloping surface of harder material such as rock.  Rainwater saturating the overlying porous material forms a slippery zone against the harder material below, causing the entire top layer, which can vary in thickness from 10 and 40 feet, to slide.

Geologists classify another type of slide as “structural break” or “deformation” slides.  In  these,  factors such as unstable geological rock formations, slope steepness and height and the effects of blasting combine to form a slide.  At the Canal, excavation removed lateral support from the high banks created in the deepest portions of Culebra Cut.  Unable to sustain the weight above it, the slopes sheared and settled forcing the underlying layer of poor-quality rock and soft material to be crushed and forced laterally into the prism of the Canal, heaving up the Canal bottom.

The most formidable slides of this character occur during the dry season, and are in no way due to ground saturation by rainfall.

The two most serious structural break slides during the American construction period occurred on the east bank north of Gold Hill and on the west bank in front of Culebra village.   The west bank slide covered a 75-acre area requiring the removal of some 10,000,000 cubic yards of material, and a number of village buildings had to be removed or demolished.  The 50-acre  Gold Hill slide on the east bank required removal of some 7,000,000 cubic yards of material.

Canal engineers were completely unprepared for and confounded by this unexpected slide activity.  In 1906, the minority report of the International Board of Consulting Engineers placed total Culebra Cut excavation for a lock canal at 53,800,000 cubic yards; the minority report estimated the amount necessary for a 40-foot-deep sea level canal at 110,000,000 cubic yards.  In 1908 the canal commission revised the Cut excavation estimate to about 78,000,000 cubic yards; in 1910 to 84,000,000; in 1911 to 89,000,000; in 1912 to nearly 94,000,000; and in 1913 to about 100,000,000.   The increased Cut excavation required was du partially to an increased bottom width from 200 to 300 feet, an increase of about 13,000 cubic yards, but the slides were the main reason.

The one-year record high for construction-era excavation was set in 1908, with more than 37,000,000 cubic yards of spoil taken from the Cut.  This was also the year in which Lieutenant Frederick Mears began directing the relocation of the Panama Railroad line to higher ground ahead of inundation of the existing tracks by the filling of Gatun Lake.  Building the 40 miles of new track was completed May 25, 1912, at a cost of nearly $9,000,000.

Locks Design

The original lock canal plan called for one three-step set of locks at Gatun, one step at Pedro Miguel and a two-step set at Sosa Hill.  In late 1907, it was decided to move the Sosa Hill locks further inland to Miraflores, mostly because the new site provided a more stable construction foundation, but also because it afforded greater protection against sea bombardment.

The locks took their names from geographic names already in common use before the Canal was built.  All lock chambers have the same 110 by 1,000 feet dimensions, and they are built in pairs.  That is, two lanes of chambers run side by side to accommodate two lanes of traffic, either in opposite directions at the same time or in the same direction, depending on transit needs.  Gatun Locks consists of three steps or pairs of chambers, there is one step at Pedro Miguel and two at Miraflores, making six pairs, 12 chambers in all.  The locks have been called the structural triumph of the Panama Canal and are a unique aspect of the waterway.  At the time of their construction, their overall mass, dimensions and innovative design surpassed any similar existing structures, and they are still considered to be an engineering wonder of the world.

It took four years to build all of the locks from the first concrete being laid at Gatun on August 24, 1909.  Until the late 1800s, concrete, a combination of sand, gravel and cement, had been little used in building, and then mostly for floors and basements.  There was still a great deal to be learned and numerous  decisions to be made in the science of concrete which requires specific, controlled measurements of water/cement/sand ratios and aggregate size, as well as careful timing of a streamlined delivery system from source to site. The concrete work in Panama was an unprecedented challenge that would not be equaled in total volume until construction of Boulder Dam in the 1930s.

In spite of the newness of the science, the results were extraordinary.  After more than 80 years of service, the concrete of the Panama Canal locks and spillways is in near perfect condition, which to present-day engineers is among the most exceptional aspects of the entire Canal.

Canal organization ships, the Ancon and the Cristobal, brought all of the cement to build the locks, dams and spillways from New York.  On the Atlantic side, gravel and sand came by water from areas east of Colon, the gravel from a large crushing plant in Portobelo and the sand  from Nombre de Dios.  For the Pacific side, rock was quarried and crushed at Ancon Hill; the sand came from Punta Chame in Panama Bay.

Three men, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Hodges, Edward Schildhauer and Henry Goldmark, were largely responsible for the engineering design of the locks.  The work took years of advanced planning.  Hodges was an Army officer and an invaluable assistant to Goethals, had overall responsibility for the design and construction of the lock gates, arguably the most difficult technical responsibility of the entire project.  Goethals was to state that the Canal could not have been built without Hodges.  Schildhauer was an electrical engineer and Goldmark was in charge of lock gate design.

The key factor in the whole Canal enterprise, of course, was, and is, water.  Water lifts ships 85 feet above sea level to the surface of Gatun Lake, floats them across the Continental Divide and lowers them again to sea level in the opposite ocean.  Water also serves to generate electrical power for the Canal to run the electric motors that open and close the gates and valves and the electric locks locomotives.

No pumps are used at the Panama Canal, the water does its work by force of gravity alone.  Water is admitted or released through giant tunnels, or culverts, eighteen feet in diameter, running lengthwise within the center and side walls of the locks.  Branching off at right angles to these culverts, smaller culverts run laterally under the floor of each lock chamber, 20 to each chamber.  Each cross culvert has five openings for a total of 100 holes in each chamber for the water to enter or drain, depending on which valves are opened or closed.  This large number of holes distributes the water evenly over the full floor area to control turbulence

To fill a lock, the main valves at the lower end of the chamber are closed, while those at the upper end are opened.  The water pours from the lake through the large culverts into the cross culverts and up through the holes in the chamber floor.  To release the water from the lock, the valves at the upper end are closed, while those at the lower end are opened.

The lock gates, or miter gates as they are known because they close in a wide V, are the Canal’s most dramatic moving parts.  The gates swing like double doors.  The hollow, watertight construction of their lower halves makes them buoyant in the water, greatly reducing the working load on their hinges.  All gate leaves are 64 feet wide by 7 feet thick.  However, they vary in height from 47 to 82 feet, depending on their position.  For example, the Miraflores Locks lower chamber gates are the highest because of the extreme variation in the Pacific tides.

The design and manufacture of all of the lock gates was one of the Canal’s great engineering challenges and one of its greatest triumphs.  The simple, yet powerful gate operating mechanism was designed by Edward Schildhauer.  In its design he had no established model to go by.  Yet every aspect of this critical mechanism had to be precision engineered and manufactured to work flawlessly and dependably.  The gates had to swing easily, yet withstand enormous pressures.  To operate, the lock gates leaves are connected by steel arms, called “struts,” to huge bull wheels constructed within the lock walls.  Each 20-foot-diameter, horizontal-lying bull wheel is geared to an electric motor.  When in operation, wheel and strut work like the driving wheel and connecting rod on a railroad locomotive to open and close the gates.

At Miraflores Locks, each lock chamber, except for the lower locks, has a set of intermediate gates.  The purpose of these is to conserve water by reducing the size of the chamber, if the ship in transit is not one of the Panamax giants and be accommodated by a 600-foot chamber.

As the lock gates themselves are a form of dam and above sea level, precautions were taken to protect them from damage that could allow the lake water to escape and flow out to sea.  One measure was to have double gates ahead of the vessel, an operating gate and a guard gate, at points where damage to a gate could join the two levels, that is, at the upper and lower ends of the upper lock in each flight and at both ends of the Pedro Miguel single-step lock.

Also, iron fender chains were installed to stretch across the chambers between the lock walls to protect the guard gates.  Only after the ship was in proper position and under towing locomotive control was the chain lowered.  The idea was that if a ship went out of control and struck the chain, an automatic release would let the chain out slowly until the ship came to a stop, thus limiting possible damage.  The expense of their upkeep against the extreme unlikelihood of their use caused the Board of Directors to approve fender chain removal in July 1976, except at the upper ends of Gatun and Pedro Miguel locks; these remaining chains were removed in October 1980.

Yet another devise stood as safeguard should a ship break through a guard gate.   That was what was called an emergency dam installed on the side walls at the entrance of each upper lock between the fender chain and the guard gates.  It a big steel apparatus mounted to swing across the lock entrance in about two minutes in case of emergency.  A series of wicket girders would descend forming runways down which huge steel plates would be dropped until the channel was sealed off.  Never put to use, the emergency dams were removed in the mid 1950s.

Electricity was the power that ran Canal construction-era cableways, cranes, rock crushers and cement mixers.  An all-electric canal was an innovation in the first decade of the 20th century.  Locks operations required some 1,500 electric motors, as all controls were electrical.  The General Electric Company produced about half the electrical equipment needed during construction and virtually all of the permanent motors, relays, switches, wiring and generating equipment.  They also built the original locks towing locomotives and all of the lighting.

The electric towing locomotive system was designed to provide complete control over the movement of vessels transiting the locks.  Designed by Schildhauer, the locomotives work on track built atop the lock walls operating at a speed of about 2 miles per hour. An important design factor was that they have to travel the 45-degree incline between the lock chambers.  The locomotives were built in Schenectady, New York, at a unit cost of $13,000.

Schildhauer also designed the basic concept of the locks control system, though its development was a joint effort with General Electric.  All locks operation is accomplished from a control house built on the center wall of the upper lock chamber.  Here, from an unobstructed view of the entire locks flight and a cleverly designed control board, a single person can run every operation in the passage of a ship, except towing locomotive movement.

A control board is a waist-high working representation of the locks in miniature.  Everything that happens in the locks happens on the control board at precisely the same time.  The switches to work the lock gates and the other system mechanisms are located beside the representation of that devise on the control board.  To lift a huge oceangoing ship in a lock chamber, the operator has only to turn a small chrome handle.

Another ingenious part of the system are elaborate racks of interlocking bars installed unseen below the control board to make the switches mechanically interlock.  Each handle must be turned in proper sequence or it will not turn.  This eliminates the possibility of doing anything out of order or forgetting a step.

Only in an electrically run system could the locks have been controlled from a central point.  An individual motor in the system can be located as much as half a mile away from the control board.  This same system has been in use virtually unchanged for more than eight decades, and it still works perfectly.

The Pacific-side locks were finished first, the single flight at Pedro Miguel second in 1911 and Miraflores in May of 1913.  Exceptionally high morale permeated the entire work force at this time.  On May 20, 1913, shovels No. 222 and No. 230, which had been slowly narrowing the gap in Culebra Cut, met “on the bottom of the Canal.”  At 40 feet above sea level, the Cut had reached its full construction-era depth.  Guard gates at Gatun performed flawlessly the second week of June 1913, and on June 27, the last of the Gatun Dam spillway gates was closed, allowing the lake to now rise to full height.  Dry excavation ended three months later.  When a January 1913 slide at Cucaracha spilled 2,000,000 cubic yards of earth into the Cut, it was decided to flood the Cut and finish the clearing by dredge.  The last steam shovel lifted the last rock in the cut on the morning of September 10, 1913, to be hauled out on the last dirt train by locomotive No. 260.

The seagoing tug Gatun, an Atlantic entrance working tug used for hauling barges, had the honor on September 26, 1913, of making the first trial lockage of Gatun Locks.  The lockage went perfectly, although all valves were controlled manually since the central control board was still not ready.

As if to further test the system, an earthquake struck on September 30, knocking seismograph  needles off the scale at Ancon.  Although there were landslides in the interior and cracked walls in some Panama City buildings, Gorgas reported to Washington that “There has been no damage whatever to any part of the Canal.”

Six big pipes in the earthen dike at Gamboa flooded Culebra Cut that same week.  Then, on October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington and relayed by telegraph from Washington to New York to Galveston to Panama the signal that blew the center of the dike to complete the flooding of the Cut and join it to Gatun Lake.

Dredges, tugs, barges and crane boats that had been laboring in the sea level approaches of the Canal and in the two terminal bays, much of it left behind by the French, was now brought in to clear the Cut.  Barges dumped the spoil in designated areas of Gatun Lake, all in the manner that Philippe Bunau-Varilla had long ago said it should be done.  Floodlights installed in the Cut allowed around the clock work.  The old French ladder dredge Marmot made the “pioneer cut” through the Cucaracha slide on December 10, 1913, to open the channel for the first time.

End of the Construction

The first complete Panama Canal passage by a self-propelled, oceangoing vessel took place on January 7, 1914.  The Alexandre La Valley, an old French crane boat that had previously been brought from the Atlantic side now came through the Pacific locks.

With the end of construction nearing, the Canal team began to disassemble and go on to other things.  Thousands of workers were laid off, townsites were abandoned and moved with hundreds of buildings disassembled or demolished.  Gorgas resigned from the Canal commission to help fight pneumonia among workers in the South African gold mines, following which he was made surgeon general of the Army.  Effective April 1, 1914, the Isthmian Canal Commission ceased to exist and a new administrative entity, the Canal Zone Governor, was officially established.  Colonel Goethals became the first Governor of the Panama Canal, unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Plans were made for a grand celebration to appropriately mark the official opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914.  A fleet of international warships was to assemble off Hampton Roads on New Year’s Day 1915, then sail to San Francisco through the Panama Canal, arriving in time for the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s-fair type celebration.  But no such grand opening occurred.   Although the Panama Pacific Exposition went on as planned, World War I forced cancellation of planned festivities at the Canal.  The grand opening was a modest affair with the Canal cement boat Ancon, piloted by Captain John A. Constantine, the Canal’s first pilot, making the first official transit.  There were no international dignitaries in attendance.  Observing the transit from shore, Goethals followed its progress by railroad.

The Panama Canal cost Americans around $375,000,000, including the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 paid to the French company.  It was the single most expensive construction project in United States history to that time.  Fortifications cost extra, about $12,000,000.

Amazingly, unlike any other such project on record, the American canal had cost less in dollars than estimated, with the final figure some $23,000,000 below the 1907 estimate, in spite of landslides and a design change to a wider canal.

Even more amazing is that this huge, complex and unprecedented project was carried out without any of the scandal or corruption that often plagues such efforts, nor has any hint of scandal ever come to light in subsequent years.

There was, of course, also a cost in lives.  According to hospital records, 5,609 lives were lost from disease and accidents during the American construction era.  Adding the deaths during the French era would likely bring the total deaths to some 25,000 based on an estimate by Gorgas.  However, the true number will never be known, since the French only recorded the deaths that occurred in hospital.

By July 1, 1914, a total of 238,845,587 cubic yards had been excavated during the American construction era.  Together with some 30,000,000 cubic yards excavated by the French, this gives a total of around 268,000,000 cubic yards, or more than four times the volume originally estimated for de Lesseps’ sea level canal.

Roosevelt is widely given credit for building the Panama Canal, and he likely never disputed the claim.  However, of the three presidents whose terms coincided with Canal construction – Roosevelt, Howard  Taft and Woodrow Wilson – it was Taft who provided the most active, hands-on participation over the longest period.  Taft visited Panama five times as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and made two more trips while President.   He also hired John Stevens and, when Stevens resigned, recommended Goethals.  When Taft replaced Roosevelt in the White House in 1909, canal construction was only at the halfway mark.  Goethals, however, was to write, “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.”

The following words of Theodore Roosevelt are engraved in a plaque on display in the Rotunda of the Administration Building, and more than anything else convey his personal philosophy and the spirit of his thinking about the achievement at Panama:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

David McCullough in his book “The Path Between the Seas,” wrote:  “The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice.  The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished.  Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together.  It is a work of civilization.”


Avery, Ralph E.  Americas’s triumph at Panama : panorama and story of the construction and operation …  Chicago, L.W. Walter Co., 1913.  384p.

Bennett, Ira E.  History of the Panama Canal : its construction and builders. Washington, Historical Publishing Co., 1915. 543p.

Bishop, Joseph Bucklin.  The Panama Gateway.    N.Y., Scribner’s, 1913.  459p.

Bunau-Varilla, Philippe.  Panama : the creation, destruction, and resurrection. London, Constable, 1913.  568p.

Cameron, Ian.  The Impossible Dream; the Building of the Panama Canal.   N.Y., William Morrow, 1972.  284p.

Du Val, Miles Percy.  And the Mountains Will Move; the Story of the Building of the Panama Canal.    by Miles P. Du Val, Jr.  Westport, CT, Greenwood pr.,  1975, c1947.  374p.

Gorgas, William C.  Sanitation in Panama.  New York, Appleton & Co., 1915. 298p.

Keller, Ulrich.  The building of the Panama Canal in historical photographs.   New York, Dover Publications, 1983.  111p.

Kimball, W. W.  Special intelligence report on the progress of the work on the Panama Canal during year 1885.  Washington, GPO, 1886. 38p.

Lee, William Storrs.  The Strength to Move a Mountain.    N.Y., Putnam, c1958.  318p.

Mahan, A. T.  The Influence of sea power upon history 1660-1783.  Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1925. 556p.

McCullough, David.  The Path Between the Seas:  the Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.    N.Y., Simon and Schuster, 1977.   698p.

Mack, Gerstle.  The Land Divided; a History of the Panama Canal and Other Isthmian Canal Projects.    N.Y., Octogon Books, 1974,   c1944.  650p.    Also available in Spanish.

Minter, John Easter.  The Chagres:  River of Westward Passage.   N.Y., Rinehart, 1948.  418p.

Panama Canal.    Twenty-fifth Anniversary; August 15, 1914 – August 15, 1939.  Mount Hope, C.Z., Panama Canal press, 1939.   111p.

Panama Canal Company.  The Panama Canal:  Fiftieth Anniversary; the Story of a Great Conquest.  Balboa Heights, C.Z., The company, 1964.  122p.    Also available in Spanish.

Reclus, Armand.  Panama et Darien : voyages d’exploration.  Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1884. 422p.

Roger, Charles C.  Intelligence report of the Panama Canal. Washington, GPO, 1889. 57p.

Saville, Caleb Mills.  Hydrology of the Panama Canal.  Washington, ASCE, 1913.  115p.

Selected Panama Canal Photographs 1904-1939. by Red Hallen.  Balboa Heights, Panama, Panama Canal Company, 1967.  23 vol.

Small, Charles S.  Rails to the Diggings:  Construction Railroads of the Panama Canal.  Railroad Monographs, c1981.  223p.

United States. Congress.  Report of the Isthmian Canal Commission 1899-1901. Washington, GPO, 1904.  688p.

United States Navy.  Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertains the practicability of a ship canal … by Oliver Selfridge.  Washington, GPO, 1874. 268p.

United Stated Navy.  Reports of explorations and surveys for the location of a ship canal between the Atlantic and pacific oceans through Nicaragua.  Washington, GPO, 1874. 143p.

United States Navy.  Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertains the practicability of a ship canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, by the way of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  by Robert Shufeldt.  Washington, GPO, 1872.  151p.

United States Navy.  Reports of explorations and surveys for the location of interoceanic ship canal through the Isthmus of Panama … by Edward Lull.  Washington, GPO, 1879.  124p.

Wood, Robert E.  Monument for the world.  Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1963, 45p.

Wyse, Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte. Le Canal de Panama.  Paris, Hachette, 1886. 141p.

Selected reading list

Abbot, W.J.  Panama and the Canal in picture and prose.  London, 1913.

Bishop, Joseph Bucklin.  The Panama Gateway.    N.Y., Scribner’s,

Cameron, Ian.  The Impossible Dream; the Building of the Panama Canal. N.Y., William Morrow, 1972.  284p.

Du Val, Miles Percy.  And the Mountains Will Move; the Story of the Building of the Panama Canal, by Miles P. Du Val, Jr.    Westport, CT, Greenwood pr.,  1975,  374p.

Haskin, Frederic J.  The Panama Canal.    Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday,  1914.  386p.

Lee, William Storrs.  The Strength to Move a Mountain.    N.Y., Putnam, c1958.  318p.

Major, John.  Prize Posession – The United States and The Panama Canal 1903-1979.   Cambridge University Press, 1993. 432p.

McCullough, David.  The Path Between the Seas:  the Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.    N.Y., Simon and Schuster, 1977. 698p.

Mack, Gerstle.  The Land Divided; a History of the Panama Canal and Other Isthmian Canal Projects.    N.Y., Octagon Books, 1974, c1944.  650p.    Also available in Spanish.

Minter, John Easter.  The Chagres:  River of Westward Passage.   N.Y., Rinehart, 1948.  418p.

Panama Canal.  Twenty-fifth Anniversary; August 15, 1914 – 1972    August 15, 1939.    Mount Hope, C.Z., Panama Canal press, 1939.

Panama Canal Commission Annual Report.  Balboa, Panama, Panama Canal Commission, 1974-1997.

Panama Canal Company.  The Panama Canal:  Fiftieth Anniversary; the Story of a Great Conquest.    Balboa Heights, C.Z.,  The company, 1964.  122p.    Also avaiable in Spanish.

Sibert, William L. and Stevens, John F.  The Construction of the Panama Canal.  N.Y., Appleton, 1915.  338p.

P.C.   Small, Charles S.  Rails to the diggings.  Greenwich, Conn., Railroad Monograph, 1981,  223p.