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Creating the Canal 1


Written by Rick Archer
October 2011

Lake Gatun rests at 85 feet above sea level.  The purpose of the locks at either end of the Canal is to lift a ship in stages up to the Lake at 85 feet or to lower a ship back down to sea level.

These locks were one of the greatest engineering works ever to be undertaken at the time.  Not until Hoover Dam did America undertake another project even remotely approaching the Panama Canal.


So how do these locks work? 

Back when you were a kid and you played in the bathtub with toy boats, you may remember your toy boats rose as the tub filled with water and dropped when the water drained.  The ships in the Canal may be very large ships, but they rise and fall exactly the same way.  The locks operate as giant bathtubs.

If you fill the chamber with water, the ship automatically begins to rise.  Or if you drain the chamber, the boat will slowly sink.  It is all done by gravity.  Gravity makes the water drain.   No water in the canal is ever pumped upwards. 

The important rule is that water seeks its own level.  When the water from one chamber is allowed to drain into a lower chamber, gravity guarantees the water will keep flowing until the water level in both chambers is equal.  Then the water stops flowing of its own accord. 

There are drainage pipes inside the concrete walls known as "culverts". When these culverts are opened, water will automatically drain out of the higher water level to the lower water level until the levels are EQUAL.  A ship will automatically rise or sink depending on which chamber it is in.  Once the water level is equal in the two adjacent chambers, the ship is free to float across to the next chamber. 

You may have noticed the ships barely fit inside the water chambers.  This is deliberate.  The more snugly the ship fits in the chamber, the less water is needed to fill the chamber.  Water is a valuable resource here.  Why waste it?

The limit to the size of a ship that can fit through the Panama Canal is called "Panamax".  In the past 100 years, many ships have been built that are simply too large to fit.  With this in mind, new locks are being built right now that will be able to accommodate many of the larger ships.

It looks like there is no room, but there is actually several feet of water on either side of the ship inside the chambers.  To keep the ships from scraping against the walls, tugging devices known as "mules" run on train tracks on both sides of the ship. 

These small trains have steel cables attached to the ship. The ship moves forward under its own power, but the mules guarantee the ship stays centered.

The lifting or lowering process is done in 3 stages on both ends of the canal.  85 feet is too much to do at one time.  The weight of the water would cause unimaginable pressure against the iron gates.  By using three stages to lower or raise a ship, the combined weight of the ship and the water is sufficiently reduced so there won't be too much pressure on the steel doors. 

This picture shows two sets of iron water gates.  The "double door" system is used so if a runaway ship smashes against one set of doors, the other set will still be able to control the waters from breaking loose.  So far it has never happened, but it is a good safety feature nevertheless.

Lowering a Ship

Lowering a ship is easier to understand than raising a ship.  In the picture, a cruise ship is headed out to the Bay of Limon.  Chamber 1 has just drained down to the level of Chamber 2.  Since the water levels between Chamber 1 and Chamber 2 are equal, the iron gates open to permit the ship to slide forward into Chamber 2. Once the ship is in Chamber 2, those same gates will close behind the ship.

Chamber 3 up ahead appears empty. Once the ship has moved completely into Chamber 2, the waters in Chamber 2 will drain down into Chamber 3.  The ship will sink in Chamber 2 until the waters become equal.  Then it will float into Chamber 3.  Chamber 3 will then sink to match the sea level to allow the ship to leave.

Pretty ingenious system.  But there is a weak point.  Yes, there actually is an Achilles Heel of sorts.  I'll let you think about it for a while, then explain the problem as well as the solution shortly. 

So how do you make a ship rise by draining water? 

I don't recall ever seeing my toy boats rise when Mom drained the bathtub.  So I was very curious to understand how ships are raised.  From what I gather, raising a ship is a four-step process.  I could describe it, but I think the pictures will do a better job.  


Water Concerns

The weakness in the system is water.  There are six locks total and each one is huge. Each canal lock measures 110 feet across and 1,050 feet in length, with solid steel gates six feet thick. 

Each passage through the canal requires 52 million gallons of freshwater to float the ship through locks.  This means nothing to someone not used to thinking in those terms, so let's do it this way.  An Olympic-sized swimming pool holds 253,125 gallons of water.  That means every trip of a ship through the Canal requires filling 200 massive swimming pools. 

Whether a ship rises or lowers at the Gatun Locks, either way the water used in the process is eventually going out to sea. The question is: does it rain enough to replace the water?

Back in the days before it was dammed, the Rio Chagres used to flow out to sea all day long. So it is hard to imagine much of a difference.  However, now water has to go out to the Pacific locks as well.  In other words, the demand on the water faucet known as the Chagres River has doubled.

Seeing the need to conserve water, in 1935 the U.S. built Madden Dam up in the mountains to create Alahuela Lake.  This reservoir traps the Chagres waters closer to its source.  This lake has become an essential element in making sure the canal has an adequate water supply.

The lake has a maximum level of 250 ft above sea level and can store one third of the canal's annual need.  For the time being, there's enough water. 

However, changing climate patterns  deforestation, and increased shipping demand at the Canal has everyone in Panama worried about the future.


How Long is the Panama Canal?

The exact length of the Panama Canal varies depending at which point you wish to use to start counting the mileage.  Many people just say 50 miles and leave it at that.  The time to cross the Canal is about 8-10 hours.

By comparison, the Houston Ship Channel is roughly the same length.  The big difference is the Houston Ship Channel merely had to dredge the bottom of Buffalo Bayou to create a sea level route deep enough for big ships to enter.  Rumor has it that the Panama Canal is a bit more complicated.

On the right you see the Miraflores Locks, Miraflores Lake, the Pedro Miguel Locks, and part of the Culebra Cut channel including the Centennial Bridge.  Those towers in the background are at the Continental Divide.

This picture shows the water at three distinct levels.  The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel that just boggles the imagination.  

Distance Chart

The following description assumes you are entering from the Atlantic side of the Canal.  Reverse it if you are entering from the Pacific.

  1. Limón Bay (Bahía Limón), a huge natural harbor on the Atlantic side, provides anchorage for ships awaiting passage.  It runs 5.4 miles from the outer breakwater to the Gatún Locks.  An extra 2 mile channel forms the approach to the locks from the Atlantic side.
    Total: 7.4 miles

  2. The Gatún Locks, a 3-stage flight of locks 1.2 miles long, serve to raise ships from sea level up to the level of Lake Gatún or lower ships coming from the Pacific direction.
    Total: 8.6 miles

  3. Lake Gatún, an artificial lake formed by the building of the nearby Gatun Dam, carries vessels 15 miles across the isthmus using pretty much the same channel originally created by the Rio Chagres.
    Total: 23.6 miles
  4. The Chagres River (Río Chagres), a natural waterway enhanced by the damming of Lake Gatún, runs east-west 5.3 miles between the Culebra Cut and Lake Gatun.
    Total: 28.9 miles
  5. The Culebra Cut (aka Gaillard Cut) slices 7.8 miles through the Continental Divide at an altitude of 85 feet and passes under the Centennial Bridge just before reaching the Pedro Miguel Lock.
    Total: 36.7 miles
  6. The single-stage Pedro Miguel Lock is 0.9 miles long.  It is the first part of the descent (or ascent) to the level of the Pacific Ocean.  This lock has a drop of 31 feet.  It takes a ship from 85 feet level down to the level of Miraflores Lake.
    Total: 45.6 miles
  7. The artificial Miraflores Lake is the next stage. Resting at an elevation of 54 feet above sea level, it is 1.1 miles long.
    Total: 46.7 miles
  8. The two-stage Miraflores Lock system, including the approach wall, is 1.1 miles long.  Each stage raises or lowers a ship 27 feet. So the combination adds up to a total lift or drop of 54 feet at mid-tide.
    Total: 47.8 miles
  9. From the Miraflores locks, ships travel at sea level 8.2 miles down a channel to the Gulf of Panama on the Pacific side, passing under the Bridge of the Americas in the process. 
    Total: 56 miles

The Panama Canal is called a "Lake and Lock" system.  It is essentially a river (Chagres) and a lake (Gatun) flanked by locks on either end.  Here is a detailed look at the various sections.

Colón (1) is a sea port on the Caribbean Sea coast of Panama. Colón overlooks the enormous Bay of Limon which serves as the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. 

At the back of the Bay of Limon lies the Gatun Locks (2) which link the Bay of Limon to Lake Gatun (3) 

Once the ships reach Lake Gatun, they float for 15 miles down a channel that was once the Rio Chagres before the lake was created.  Bohio (4) is considered the end of Lake Gatun and the start of Rio Chagres.

The upper part of the Chagres River (6) merges with the Canal at a town known as Gamboa (6). 

The Obispo (7) was once a short river that served as a tributary of the Rio Chagres.  The Obispo River was dredged out and used to connect Gamboa to the Culebra Cut (8), aka the "Big Ditch". 

The ship reaches the end of its journey 85 feet above sea level at a place known as the Pedro Miguel Locks (9).  These locks connect the Culebra Cut to Miraflores Lake. 

The Pedro Miguel Locks lower the ship 31 feet down to Lake Miraflores.  One mile later they reach the Miraflores Locks (10). 

At this point, the ships are now lowered again through the Miraflores Locks to sea level.  The ship passes under the Bridge of the Americas (12) at Panama City (13).


History of Events Leading to the Creation of the Panama Canal

No tale of the Panama Canal can possibly be complete without a study of the factors which led to the building of the Panama Canal. 

There had been a strong desire to have a canal run through the Central American isthmus since the early 16th century when the Spanish dominated the region. The Spanish long sought to build a canal to achieve an easier route to access their colonies on the Pacific side.  The Spanish government had plans in place, but no action was ever taken.

Interest intensified to build a canal when gold was discovered in California in 1848. American settlers, looking for land and gold, wanted a quicker route than the arduous and often dangerous trek across continental U.S.

The American government was also interested, but for a military reason.  The Canal would be important for security reasons.  The military did not like having its navy divided from one ocean to the other.  

Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine is a U.S. policy that warned any further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression.

The doctrine was introduced by President James Monroe on December 2, 1823, when he was enraged at the actions of various European countries taking place in the Caribbean and Latin America. 

The Monroe Doctrine asserted that the Americas were not to be further colonized by European countries.  In turn, the United States promised it would neither interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries.

The Doctrine was issued at a time when many Latin American countries were on the verge of becoming independent from the Spanish Empire. The United States, reflecting concerns raised by Great Britain, ultimately hoped to avoid having any European power take over Spain's colonies.  The British worked hand in hand with the United States in upholding the doctrine.  This was the start of the special relationship between England and the USA that remains today.

The Monroe Doctrine became a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States.  It basically told everyone that the USA was now in control of the waters on this side of the Atlantic whether Europe liked it or not.

The Monroe Doctrine remains one of our country's longest-standing tenets.  It has been invoked by several U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and John F. Kennedy (Cuban Missile Crisis).  One recent use of the doctrine was in 1983.  Ronald Reagan used it to justify sending marines to a small Caribbean island nation known as Grenada to put down a communist overthrow of the government. 

Monroe surely had no way to envision that his Doctrine would persist with only minor variations for the next two centuries. Its primary objective was to free the newly independent colonies of Latin America from European intervention and control (thus ensuring US national security). However, the doctrine has continued to have impact for 200 years because it makes a lot of sense. 

Truth be told, America did not have the muscle to completely enforce the doctrine at the time.  However, in Great Britain the U.S. had a "Big Brother" that did have the necessary muscle.  Known as "The Special Friendship", the political destinies of England and America became nearly parallel throughout the 19th Century.  Every European power knew full well that to mess with America meant to take on the British as well.  Nobody dared.

1898 was a turning point.  The 1898 Spanish-American War fought down in Cuba resulted in a devastating defeat on the part of Spain. This war not only marked the end of any Spanish presence in the Caribbean Sea, it showed the world that America had become a superpower in its own right.  America began to emerge from the shadow of its big brother and stand on its own two feet.

The man who deserves the most credit for America's emergence at the forefront of the World's stage was President Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt's time in office was remarkable in many ways. He would come to be regarded as one of our country's greatest presidents. 

Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt's ensuing buildup of the Navy in 1901, the U.S. began to treat the Caribbean Sea as its very own personal recreation pond.  Now that America had become a superpower, the Europeans got the message: Not in my back yard.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, who became president of the United States in 1901.  For someone nicknamed "The Teddy Bear", President Teddy Roosevelt was undeniably aggressive.  His famous motto was to "speak softly, but carry a big stick".

Roosevelt got his start fighting police corruption in New York City during 1880s.  He parlayed his good work there to a position in the Cabinet as Secretary of the Navy.  His stay was short-lived. When the 1898 Spanish-American War broke out, Roosevelt resigned his post to form the Rough Riders.  He headed down to Cuba to join the fighting. He would win fame for his bravery down there.

Next Roosevelt won a close election as governor of New York, but he didn't stay long in that position.  Instead he soon accepted the position of Vice-President in the 1900 McKinley administration.  He didn't stay long in that position either.  When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt stepped in as President. 

Thanks to all that fast-tracking, at 42 years, Roosevelt was our youngest president to date.  Roosevelt was the right man at the right time.  He was a vigorous man eager to assert American influence across the planet. 

The Monroe Doctrine had told Europe to mind its own business, but The Roosevelt Corollary went one step further. 

Thanks to its success at effectively kicking Spain out of the Americas in the 1898 conflict, the United States had begun to truly flex its muscles for the first time.  Now the country had just the right guy to flex those muscles a lot more.

Roosevelt quickly made it clear that America would intervene in any messy political situation involving Latin America if it was in U.S. interests to do so.

Political events involving Cuba, Panama and Venezuela led Roosevelt to assert the right of the United States to intervene in Latin America affairs in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation”. 

The U.S. made it clear it would be looking over the shoulder of all its neighbors from now on.   The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was invoked to justify military intervention in Latin America to stop the spread of European influence. 

The Roosevelt Corollary was widely opposed by his critics.  They argued that the Monroe Doctrine was originally meant to stop European influence in the Americas, not to interfere with the actions of neighboring nations.

Roosevelt could have cared less.  His Corollary asserted the obvious fact that since the U.S. had domination in the Americas, it would not passively sit around during conflicts.  Henceforth, the United States would play the role of "hemispheric policeman".

If anyone doubted Roosevelt was serious about his willingness to use the military to intervene in Latin American politics, the coming situation involving Panama quickly dispelled those thoughts.


Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan was a Naval officer who won fame as a Naval historian and as the leading Naval strategist of his day.  Mahan was called "the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century."

His concept of "sea power" was based on the idea that countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact. His ideas still permeate the U.S. Navy Doctrine.

Mahan was appointed President of the Naval War College in 1886.  One year later Mahan first met Theodore Roosevelt, who came to the college as a visiting lecturer.  The two men became fast friends.  Three years later, Mahan published his famous naval doctrine, "The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783".  Theodore Roosevelt read the newly published book in a single weekend.

Roosevelt never forgot what he learned from the book.  Roosevelt completely agreed the United States would need to protect its sea lanes around the world to become a great nation.

Thanks to the ideas of Mahan, Roosevelt became obsessed with naval power.  Sea power was necessary to facilitate trade and peaceful commerce, so the country with the greatest sea power would be able to wield great influence on the world stage.  Therefore, long coastlines, good harbors, and power over places like the Suez and the soon-to-be Panama Canal was essential.


Roosevelt and the Spanish American War

By the turn of the century, the Spanish had long outstayed their welcome in the Caribbean.  The people of Cuba were desperate for independence. 

All the U.S. needed to intervene was an excuse.  Following the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in the Havana harbor, the U.S. had exactly the excuse it needed.  In fact, the sinking of the Maine was so mysterious that legend suggests the USA blew the ship up itself.  But that is another story.

To the cries of "Remember the Maine!", Spain and the U.S. began a major conflict in 1898 which took place down in Cuba. 

The USS Oregon, a battleship stationed in San Francisco, was dispatched to take the Maine's place, but the voyage around Cape Horn took 67 days. 

Although the USS Oregon finally arrived just in time to join in the Battle of Santiago Bay, the voyage would have taken just three weeks via Panama.

This delay had been very upsetting to the US Navy.  What would happen if the U.S. was involved in another major war that required the rapid use of naval power trapped in the wrong ocean?  The frustration gave rise to the idea that a U.S.-controlled canal across Central America was of vital strategic interest to the U.S.

Interestingly, this theory was quite prescient.  The anticipated military significance of the canal was finally proven in World War II.  After Pearl Harbor, the Panama Canal proved crucial when the United States used the canal to help revitalize their devastated Pacific Fleet.  The immense strategic value of the Panama Canal allowed the U.S. to "reload" in the Pacific a lot faster than the Japanese had expected.

Back in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt had played a major role in the Spanish-American War.  There he gained fame for his charge up San Juan Hill along with his Rough Riders. 

Unwilling to sit back and command from the rear, Roosevelt was right in thick of the fight.  He actually led the charge himself despite facing heavy gunfire that cost many lives that day.  Roosevelt was later given the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership.

Although he was an Army guy during the fighting in Cuba, Roosevelt had found time to pay close attention to the frustrations of the Navy following the destruction of the battleship USS Maine. 

Interest in Panama Grows

A firm believer in Captain Mahan's theory of sea power, the moment Roosevelt became President in 1901, he immediately took steps to revitalize the U.S. Navy.  

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States had gained control not only of Cuba, but the Philippines and the island of Guam.  By coincidence, the annexation of Hawaii had just taken place in 1898 as well.  Mahan's ideas of national security had strongly recommended bringing Hawaii into the fold.  Now that America's empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific, the old idea of a canal connecting the two oceans took on new urgency.  Recalling the lessons learned down in Cuba, Panama was foremost in Roosevelt's thoughts.

Mahan had predicted that "the Canal will become a strategic center of the most vital importance."

Teddy agreed. "The canal," Roosevelt said, "was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President. When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it myself.  That canal had to be built hell or high water."

"No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent, "Roosevelt said, "is as of such consequence to the American people."

However, before any work could begin on the Panama Canal, Roosevelt would first have to pick up the pieces from the French.

Ferdinand de Lesseps

Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps was an entrepreneur extraordinaire. A citizen of France, de Lesseps was the man responsible for the construction of the Suez Canal which was completed in 1869. De Lesseps was not an engineer or an architect, but he was a dreamer and schemer of the first magnitude.  According to his admirers, de Lesseps had nerve, imagination, dynamic energy, persistence, plus a talent for propaganda and maybe even a capacity for deception.

With his outgoing social manner and his dream firmly in place, the moment de Lesseps completed the Suez Canal project, he began looking for his next great accomplishment.

De Lesseps had fascinating ideas that kept the public enthralled.  He envisioned railways from Paris to Moscow to Peking.  He talked about creating an inland sea in the Sahara Desert by breaking through a ridge on Tunisia's Gulf of Gabes and flooding a depression the size of Spain.

De Lesseps was one of the few men on earth actually capable of getting these gigantic undertakings off the ground.  He was able to obtain and handle money like no other man in his time.  Due to his immense charm and his Suez success, people in high places were willing to hear him out on his Panama concept.  He was now one of the most famous men in the world.

With completion of the Suez Canal, de Lesseps changed the world and captured its imagination. 

By coincidence, the completion of the Suez Canal concurred with another famous event - the completion of the first US transcontinental railroad.  These two events made the entire world a much smaller place.  Another famous dreamer in his own right - Jules Verne - took note and wrote his famous "Around the World in 80 Days".  This saga described a journey that used both the Suez Canal and the U.S. railroad developments in the plot.  It was a great book that captured the spirit of these exciting times.

In 1875 de Lesseps decided to take on the project of building a canal between the Pacific and the Atlantic in Central America.  He was definitely the right man for this massive project.  De Lesseps was viewed around the world as an all-conquering hero. His work on the Suez Canal gave him the international acclaim necessary to garner financial support for this new undertaking.  Everyone agreed if anyone could do it, that would be Ferdinand de Lesseps.

In May of 1879, de Lesseps hosted a meeting with delegations of 22 countries around the world.  In this meeting, there was much discussion over the tactics on how to build the canal. This delegation brought suggestions to the floor on the type and location.

The first issue was a debate over whether the canal should be built in Panama or Nicaragua.

When Panama was chosen, the next argument was whether it should be a sea level canal or a lake and lock canal. De Lesseps declared that it would have to be a sea level canal.

A lot of people quietly believed de Lesseps was making a big mistake.  The problem of a sea level canal was seen right away in terms of the landscape that the canal was to be built on.

The Chagres River was seen as the single biggest obstacle to the success of the project. Any canal at Panama - a lock canal or a sea-level canal - would have to cross the river at least once.  

Surely the canal would have to pass the bend of the Chagres River at Gamboa.  The river was 42 feet above sea level at this point.  If a sea-level canal were cut through, the river would fall to the canal from 42 feet above.  It would definitely make for a spectacular waterfall, that's for sure.

In the rainy season the river could be instantly transformed into a torrent, rising ten feet in an hour. The cost of controlling so monstrous a force - if it could be done at all - was beyond reckoning. 

De Lesseps was undeterred.  One of his greatest skills during the building of the Suez Canal had been his ability to ignore the critics and naysayers.  The French had the greatest engineers in the world.  De Lesseps was certain that when the time came, his engineers would figure out a way to bring this tropical river into line with his project.  Bristling with supreme confidence, De Lesseps immediately started fundraising and propagandizing the campaign.  Investment money came pouring in.  The project was a go.

Construction began in Panama in 1880.  Almost from the start, everyone could see this was infinitely more challenging than the Suez in every aspect except for the distance.  Furthermore, any lesson that the Suez had provided was useless.  The French had assumed building one great canal would make the second one easier, but they were wrong. 

This wasn't sand they were digging through, it was rock! 

Just to get started, the French had to go into a thickly matted jungle that had poisonous reptiles, jaguars and pumas, as well as tons of insects. In the summer of 1881, the French discovered to their dismay they had an enormous unanticipated problem to deal with - yellow fever and malaria.  

As the number of laborers increased, so did the death rate. By the end of 1883, 1,300 laborers had died throughout the year.  Fear and anger surged through the ranks.  This damn Canal was a death trap!!

The rate of sickness seemed to only get worse. At the peak of the problem laborers were dying 200 per month. The worst year for the French regime in Panama was 1885, where up to forty people per day died at times.  All told, the French lost an astounding 22,000 men in the process.  There have been many well-known wars where the casualty rate came nowhere close to that kind of mayhem.  Getting sick was tantamount to a death sentence. Half the people who got sick died.

Be it lowly diggers or the important college-educated engineers, no one was safe.  Vast numbers of employees ranging from laborers to top directors of the French company were sickened and killed.  The specter of death hung over the project.  What was killing these people?   At the time, no one had any idea what was causing the problem or how to combat it.  The amount of fear and dread was unbelievable.  Everyone felt defenseless.  Would today be the day?

The French got away with this death rate because they kept it a secret.  They recruited most of their labor force from French-speaking islands in the Eastern Caribbean.  They made sure news of this problem did not reach those islands.  They make it very difficult for people to leave.

No matter how hard French officials tried to suppress the news, something this serious could not stay hidden forever.  Once the general public discovered the truth, no one else would risk their life and sign up to work.  The French had no choice but to quit.

The death toll was not the only number increasing at a rapid rate.  So too was the financial cost.  De Lesseps’ efforts to raise the proper money were without comparison in his time. He was truly talented at raising money for his projects and inspired many of his countrymen. Unfortunately, the conditions kept getting more arduous in Panama and de Lesseps had to keep justifying to the French government to give him more money. While his efforts were valiant, in February 1889, the shareholders of the original company assigned a liquidator and the French effort was brought to an end.

De Lesseps could only whisper, “It is impossible! It is shameful!”  

In the end, de Lesseps' constant optimism proved his ultimate undoing.  As he had done at the Suez Canal, he refused to listen to people who disagreed with him.  For example, the construction of the Old Panama Railroad 20 years earlier had cost upwards of 6,000 lives due to disease.  De Lesseps knew about this tragedy, but paid no attention to it.  That sobering fact should have dampened de Lesseps' enthusiasm, but he just ignored it.  Just because all those men died in 1860, why should they die in 1880?

As yet another example of his insouciance, de Lesseps only Panama once before starting the project.  His visit had taken place during the relatively mild dry season.  While he was there, he saw nothing that bothered him very much.  People who knew Panama intimately tried to warn him, but de Lesseps dismissed them.  He simply wasn't the kind of person who wanted to hear negativity. 

Unfortunately, his over-confidence led him into a trap.  Once construction began, his crew discovered the real Panama - mile upon mile of impassable jungle, day upon day of torrential rain, insects, snakes, swamps, hellish heat, smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever.

Perhaps his greatest mistake was ignoring the Chagres River.  The Chagres snaked across the proposed canal route a total of fourteen times.  Ignoring the warnings of engineers who deemed the task impossible, de Lesseps had decided he would dam and divert the river, which he had only seen first-hand at low ebb during the dry season.  Now suddenly in the rainy season, the engineers paled as the Chagres rose to a monstrous, churning torrent that swept away anything that stood in its way. This angry, swollen river was distinctly inhospitable to taming.

For ten long years, nothing went right.  De Lesseps would die 5 years after the project collapsed.  The countless deaths, the unending harassment of his creditors, the jeering criticism of his enemies and the knowledge that he had failed in the greatest effort of his life made his final days sheer torture.  Some people suggested he died because he wanted to.

So much for the man who pursued his dreams.  He was a tragic figure, a broken man.  Like the story of Icarus, the birdman who flew too close to sun, de Lesseps' fate is a grim reminder that while some visionaries succeed, many others die when they shoot for the moon. 

In the end, de Lesseps was caricatured as the man who started as a canal digger, but became a grave digger instead.  How is that for an epitaph?


Gunboat Diplomacy

Thanks to the French collapse, the United States saw a golden opportunity.  However, the Americans were not naive.  They could see there were enormous hurdles to be crossed.  After studying all angles of the issue, Roosevelt was persuaded by Mahan's theory of naval power that the advantages were worth the risks. 

The moment Roosevelt took office in 1901, he ordered his staff to begin negotiations with the French for the rights to the Panama Canal project.  The French were more than happy to comply.  It would be nice to recoup some of their immense financial losses. Roosevelt agreed to pay $40 million for the rights... and was immediately criticized by the press who suggested he could have gotten a better deal.

The United States government voted to begin work on the Panama Canal in 1903.  However, since Panama was a territory of Colombia, first the U.S. needed to obtain the same permission from the Colombians that had previously been given to the French. 

The government of Colombia noticed how much money the French had received and decided to play hard to get.  Colombia decided to vote against the project.  

Roosevelt was incensed. This was basically blackmail.  Roosevelt had offered $10 million - quite a sum of money in that day - for a fifty-mile strip of unused, uninhabited jungle across the isthmus only to see Colombia refuse. The Colombian government wanted significantly more money. 

Roosevelt had no intention of paying any ransom money.  He realized he had a better option, but it would force him to engage in a bit of political skullduggery to get the project going again. 

"We were dealing with a government of irresponsible bandits," Roosevelt stormed. "I was prepared to occupy the Isthmus anyhow and proceed to dig the canal whether Colombia liked it or not.  But I deemed it likely that there would be a revolution in Panama soon."

Teddy already knew there was a powerful independence movement taking place inside Panama.  The people who actually lived in Panama knew the canal was clearly in their best interests.  They deeply resented the interference of Colombia.  And why should Colombia get all that money?  The people in Panama would never see a cent of it.

Just as important, the chief engineer of the French company holding the rights desperately wanted the sale to go through.  Roosevelt smiled.  Why not help the local people a little?   So the United States sent word they would support a revolt in Panama.  Encouraged, the French engineer organized a local revolt.  

Roosevelt immediately sent the battleship Nashville and a detachment of marines to Panama to support the new government. The US Navy just happened to show up in a bay outside of Colombia a day before the revolt.

The revolt started and ended in two days.  Colombian troops were immediately dispatched to quell the opposition, but found their sea lanes blocked by American warships.  The dense jungle separating Colombia and Panama made a land approach impossible, so there was no chance of reinforcement by land. 

And what about the Colombian soldiers stationed in Panama?  Colombian soldiers in Colón were bribed $50 each to lay down their arms.  Faced with the choice of dying or getting significant money to ignore a fight over a place they could care less about, their desire to resist quickly faded.  The Revolution took place without any loss of life.  Just like that, the new Republic of Panama was born. 

Not surprisingly, the new government was much more cooperative. The rebels gladly accepted Roosevelt's $10 million offer and gave the United States complete control of a ten-mile wide canal zone.  A lease was quickly signed and construction followed shortly after.  Using the abandoned French machinery, the United States began working on a lock-based canal a year later in 1904.


Political Opposition at Home

Given the crushing failure of the French, the success of the American effort was in no way guaranteed.  There was an alarming amount of disagreement on whether this project made any sense.  Roosevelt faced a lot of heat back at home.

Looking back in time from our 100-year perspective, it isn't easy for us to understand that there was tremendous political opposition to the building of "The Big Ditch" as it was called.  However, we have the advantage of history. 

From the point of view of Roosevelt's critics, he was taking an enormous risk.  Thanks to the French problems, failure seemed a real possibility. 

Back when the feasibility of the Canal project was being debated, the enormous cost and the awareness of all the problems the French had faced caused many important people to dismiss the project as a preposterous waste of money and time. 

The critics were mad about all sorts of things.  First they were mad that the U.S. had given the French too much money for rusting equipment. 

Next, the political opposition of the Colombian government played right into their hands.  Roosevelt's political enemies deeply criticized Roosevelt's use of bullying tactics to solve the problem. 

The major risk of life due to the mysterious disease was yet another added negative.  As news of the enormity of the French loss of life slowly became more widely known, there was a lot of fear involved. 

To Roosevelt's opponents in 1904, they assumed Roosevelt was biting off more than he could chew.  If a great man like de Lesseps with a proven track record couldn't do it, what made Roosevelt think he could?  Everyone knew Roosevelt was brave, but charging up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders wouldn't help in this case unless those Riders had shovels.

Too bad Roosevelt was merely a President.  Unlike the Pharaoh who could simply order men to build the Pyramids or face death, Roosevelt had to answer to all these people.  Fortunately, President Roosevelt refused to cave in.  He gamely took on all comers and argued them down.

Roosevelt later reminisced, "There was much accusation about my having acted in an 'unconstitutional' manner. I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then let the Congress debate me.  They can debate all they want.  While the debate goes on, the canal does too. They are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal."

His political critics weren't his only problem.  Although Roosevelt maintained a strong public face on the Canal project, secretly he was starting to have his doubts as well.  Thoughts of the French failure weighed heavily on Roosevelt. 

Roosevelt realized how fragile his margin of support was.  The project had gotten off to a terrible start.  Roosevelt knew that the Americans' first year in Panama had closely mirrored the French disaster.  Same problems, same lack of solutions.  Now people were starting to die down there.  The clock was ticking.  Roosevelt grimly wondered if he was facing failure on a giant magnitude.

The first chief engineer on the job, John Wallace, was ineffective.  He neglected to organize the effort or to develop an action plan. The food was putrid, the living conditions abysmal.  Nor did Roosevelt's opponents make it easy for Wallace to succeed.  Political red tape created by Roosevelt's enemies put a stranglehold on appropriations.  The mountains of red tape drove Wallace out of his mind with frustration.  

Then the disease began.  Uh oh.  The Americans weren't trapped like the poor miserable Caribbean who had been stuck there.  3 out of 4 Americans booked passage home at the first chanceDuring 1904 the Americans had poured $128,000,000 into the swamps of Panama and had practically nothing to show for it.  Roosevelt was discouraged.  Things didn't look too good down there.

As problems mounted in Panama, Roosevelt knew he was taking a serious gamble. Only the extreme distance kept this negative news from breaking in the papers.  Roosevelt worried that he was running out of time.  One serious disaster and the voices of dissent would become nearly unbearable.   Considering all the opposition he faced, politics was obviously not for the faint of heart.

Roosevelt didn't trust his engineer Wallace.  He recalled the man to the White House and demanded his resignation.  Wallace was thrilled to give it to him.  Wallace had some parting words.  "No one can save this project."  Chilling words indeed.  


John Frank Stevens

Well aware of the problems Wallace had run into, a sense of déjà vu haunted Roosevelt. He knew the French engineers were in all probability just as good as the American engineers.  How could the Americans succeed where competent men from another country had failed so miserably?  And what about this infernal sea level versus lock system debate?  Roosevelt was down to his last chance.

The man who saved the day was John Frank Stevens, Chief Engineer from 1905 to 1907.  Stevens was the man who convinced Roosevelt the idea to build the "locks" was the right move.

The decision of which canal system to use was highly controversial.  No one could be sure which system would work because something on this scale had never been attempted before.  There was no consensus; the experts were split right down the middle.  Some said the sea level approach was best and others said the locks system was best. 

The first American to ever investigate the idea in depth was Commander Thomas Selfridge.  In 1870 he took two expeditions through Panama's Darien GapSelfridge was certain on how the canal should be built, saying it must be "through-cut" at sea level.  Ferdinand de Lesseps was convinced sea level was the way to go.  John Wallace, the first American Chief Engineer on the project, had also been convinced that sea level was the way to go.  Furthermore, the U.S. commission assigned to study the question pointed out the sea level approach had worked in the Suez.  They all agreed with Wallace.  Build the canal at sea level!!

Betting the Farm on a Radical Idea

It takes a lot of guts to contradict intelligent, educated men who are convinced they know what's right.  Was John Frank Stevens qualified to make a decision of this magnitude?  What was his background?  What papers had he written?  What exactly was his training? 

Stevens had no canal training at all.  Zero.  Nada.  He wasn't an architect.  He wasn't an engineer.  Heck, he wasn't even a college graduate.  Even more ridiculous, he had never been near water in his life, much less dug a canal. 

On paper, John Frank Stevens could not have been less qualified.

Stevens was a railroad man... a very good one at that.  That skill would come in handy when moving the dirt around, which is what got him the interview with Roosevelt in the first place. 

But what did building railroads have in common with building canals?  Probably not much, but it didn't matter.  Stevens was a practical man, self-taught.  He had twenty years of experience at building railroads and managing large projects.  Stevens figured whatever he didn't know, he could learn.

Stevens understood the main decision facing the engineers was whether to build a sea level or high-level, lake-and-lock canal.  The stakes were enormous.  No one could afford to get it wrong. There was no room for error.

The French had chosen Panama over Nicaragua primarily because they believed it could support a sea-level canal, the system they were more comfortable with.

As the picture from "How Stuff Works" shows, the French were ready to carve through whatever was in their way for 50 miles. 

The French were unwilling to take a high-stakes gamble on locks. No one could be sure the "lock technology" of the day was advanced enough to work with huge ships.  This wasn't exactly the Erie Canal they were proposing to build.

Yes, the "lake and lock" approach was perfect for the small ships that operated on rivers and lakes.  But these were giant, heavy ocean liners they were dealing with, not some wooden tub on a lazy river.  Would locks work with the enormous freighter ships of the ocean?  There was no solid evidence they would.  Using locks with modern ships was unproven technology.

In some ways, the French were victims of their own success. The French did not like taking chances.  Thanks to their world-renowned accomplishment at the Suez Canal, the French could not seem to let go of the sea level approach.  The sea level canal might involve a lot of work, but it seemed like a sure thing.

Just dig dig dig till the whole thing was done.  Let the Pacific waters kiss the Atlantic waters in perfect harmony in the middle of the canal at sea level.  Voilà!  The French Connection!


Rick's Note:  I drew these two pictures based on my understanding of what I read. What I am about to say is a bit harsh, so I wish it to be known that these are my words alone.  I wasn't there, so let's be clear I am drawing conclusions based solely on what I have read and nothing else.  As they say, take my words with a grain of salt.

CULEBRA CUT   The French plan was to build at sea level.  The eventual U.S. plan was far more complicated.  The top of the Continental Divide at Culebra was 336 feet high.  Unless I am missing something, that meant the French planned to cut through 336 feet of solid rock down to sea level.  The American plan would call for a cut of 120 feet.  Even with the head start given the Americans at Culebra by the French, it still took the U.S. about 8 years to finish their 120 foot cut.  How long would 336 feet have taken? 

What were the French thinking?

50 MILES OF SOLID ROCK   The isthmus was 50 miles wide.  Unless I am missing something, that meant the French intended to excavate the entire 30 mile bed of the Chagres River plus 10 miles at the Culebra Cut (plus 5 more miles at both ends).

First of all, how were they going to get the Chagres River to behave while they dredged through its channel all the way to the Atlantic?  Or were they going to dig another massive river bed right next to it? 

The French had dug through 100 miles at Suez, but a third of the distance was lake and the rest was mostly sand.  Here at Panama, the French dug and dug and dug for ten long years.  During this time, they partially cleared about 11 miles of the eventual 50. At the rate they were going, their plan would take at least another 20 years.  50 miles of digging through solid rock?       

What were the French thinking?

CHAGRES RIVER   Furthermore, the French still didn't have an answer for the troublesome Chagres River. Once the French engineers finally saw the Chagres up close, they did a double-take. This river was a tropical beast when it rained. At 42 feet height above sea level, it threatened to send massive amounts of water bearing down at a right angle exactly at Gamboa, the spot where the "sea level" canal would meet the Chagres.   

How exactly were they supposed to bring a 42 foot high monster down to sea level?  The ever-confident de Lesseps expected his engineers would build a dam.  Unfortunately, the spot de Lesseps had chosen for his dam was virtually impossible since the river was so wide at that point and there was no convenient canyon nearby to help build the dam.  The sea-level plan seemed no match for the mighty Chagres River. 

What were the French thinking? 

Given that it seems so obvious to a modern reader what the correct solution was, it is hard to accept that the French were so determined to use their sea level concept.  The only possible explanation that makes any sense to me is that the concept of using "locks" was far too radical for that time.  To be that stubborn, the French must have thought using locks to build the canal made about as much as sense as telling an ancient that the world was round, not flat.

Humans like to pride themselves in their curiosity, but we all have blind spots about things that make us feel foolish later down the line when the truth is revealed.  That is why education is so important.  One of the first things people learn in education is the more we know, the more aware we become of what we don't know.  In the case of the French, this blind spot about the correct plan to use led to one of the most colossal engineering failures in the history of man. 

Baron Adolphe Godin de Lépinay

In 1879 promoter extraordinaire Ferdinand de Lesseps convened a conference in Paris.  The conference had the stated purpose of inviting engineers from around the world to make proposals on how and where to build the canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific.  However, later reports suggested that the secret purpose of the conference was simply to create an aura of legitimacy to help raise money. By providing the appearance of impartial international scientific approval, de Lesseps would be able to claim that no stone had been left unturned in approaching this project this the right way. 

Unbeknownst to many, De Lessups already had his mind made up before the conference ever began. He favored a sea level canal plan using the shortest distance possible in Panama.  He was drawn to his preferred location by the existence of the Panama Railway.  Not only was the jungle already clear along this route, the train would help immeasurably in transporting equipment, men, and earth.

Fourteen proposals for sea level canals were presented before the Congress.   To de Lessep's surprise, the American delegation had an excellent plan to build a canal in Nicaragua. The well organized and persuasive presentation by the Americans very nearly upset de Lesseps' carefully orchestrated plans.  A subcommittee reduced the route choices to two -- Nicaragua and Panama.

De Lesseps was forced to quietly ask various members of the large French contingent at the Paris meeting to help vote down the Nicaragua proposal.

Then, to his surprise, de Lesseps had another curve to deal with.  Even more surprising, the note of dissent came from someone within his own faction.  A man had the nerve to suggest a lake and lock canal system.  De Lesseps nearly had a heart attack.  It wasn't just him either.  The entire conference was aghast.  What kind of insane idea was this?

Baron Adolphe Godin de Lépinay was a brilliant and highly experienced engineer.  He was the only person among the French delegation who actually had any construction experience in the tropics.  In 1862, de Lépinay had overseen construction in Mexico of a railroad between Cordoba and Veracruz.  This was one man who actually knew what he was talking about.  At the congress, de Lépinay made a forceful presentation in favor of a lock canal.

De Lépinay started his presentation by saying he agreed with the Panama route over the Nicaragua route.  De Lépinay then added he had conducted a careful first-hand study of the terrain.  In his opinion, the presence of the Chagres River doomed any sea level plan to failure.  Then he dropped his bombshell - why not raise the river?  Build a dam upstream, create a lake, and raise the river.

The audience gasped.  This was utter stupidity!  Men were so upset that they interrupted his presentation with strong protests.  De Lépinay was completely taken aback by the sharpness of the men's voices.  Not surprisingly, their behavior rubbed de Lépinay the wrong way.  De Lépinay was known for his intelligence, but he also possessed a condescending attitude towards those with who did not agree with him.  De Lépinay scolded the men for their rudeness and demanded to be heard completely.  Then he made the mistake of rebuking the protesters. "You men need to sit down and be quiet.  You have no idea what you are even talking about."

That only served to anger the crowd more.  De Lesseps saw an opening.  He spoke up and dismissed this unusual idea as preposterous.  Upon hearing this, de Lépinay was indignant.  He reminded de Lesseps he had spent several months inspecting the location and preparing his arguments.  He resented being treated as a dilettante.

De Lesseps knew he had the crowd on his side, so he just laughed.  De Lépinay was flabbergasted as being dismissed so easily.  He couldn't believe de Lesseps was so flippant.  He protested vigorously for de Lesseps to allow him to be heard out one more time, but it was no use.  De Lessep's mind had already been made up.  They would do it his way.  Shoved aside by de Lesseps, de Lépinay's design received no serious attention.

This was quite a confrontation.  Here we had two powerful personalities who shared a similar fatal flaw - arrogance.  For all his brilliance, Baron de Lépinay was not someone who suffered fools easily.  His sense of superiority eroded his patience.  Offended by the insulting tone of men who should have had better manners and more open minds, he refused to wait until the furor died down.  Instead, he was far too angry to defend his controversial ideas in a calm manner.  He brusquely stomped off.   

It probably seems preposterous to a modern reader that de Lépinay's plan was given such short shrift.  However, the concept of using locks to accomplish this goal was apparently way too far ahead of its time to the engineers of 1879.  De Lépinay meet the same kind of resistance to his idea that Galileo met for suggesting the sun was the center of the our solar system.  It was just too radical for the time and unfortunately de Lépinay did not possess the temperament to hang in there and defend his ideas.  That's too bad.  If someone been willing to listen, it is quite likely that the French would have ultimately succeeded in their effort.

De Lesseps' arrogance would cost him even more.  His mistake was assuming he knew more than he did.  He acted just like a Hollywood mogul who thinks that fronting the money for a film somehow makes him qualified to contradict the director's vision.

De Lesseps was a trained diplomat, not an engineer.  This was an important fact that perhaps he should have remembered more often during canal design decisions.

De Lesseps was excellent at handling 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.  He figured it was safe to start an enormous project without having all the questions answered ahead of time because surely they would find a solution when the time came.

Thus he worried little about the problems facing this gigantic undertaking.  De Lesseps felt 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 any unforeseen problems.  Sure enough, his boundless confidence and enthusiasm for the project and his consummate faith in the miracles of technology attracted stockholders, but in the end de Lesseps surely realized that he should have listened to the warnings before it was too late.

It is impossible to accomplish great things without confidence.  But how does someone know they are over-confident?  How does someone know when they are listening to the wrong person?  How does someone know when they have a blind spot?  How does someone know when they are in over their head? 

Great accomplishments carry great risk.  It is easy for us to look back at de Lesseps with the hindsight of 100 years and dismiss him as a close-minded fool. Personally, I think we should cut the guy some slack.  Sea level worked at Suez; why wouldn't it work at Panama?  

Learning Things the Hard Way

In the final days of the project, it became increasingly obvious to the French that the sea level plan would not work after all.   Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, was approached about building canal locks.  However it was too late in the game.  It was over before the changes could be made.

After the French effort collapsed in 1890, the French engineers quietly got together and compared notes.  They discussed what they had learned.  Baron de Lépinay participated in those discussions.  He felt vindicated that he had been right the entire time. 

The death of Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1894 made it easier for the engineers to finally whisper a blasphemy in public - maybe they had gotten it wrong the first time.  That had to be a humbling experience.

In 1897, de Lépinay made his proposal again.  If it was so difficult to lower a 42-foot high river down to sea level, why not raise the waters up to 42 feet... or, better yet, even higher!?   Why not 85 feet?

De Lépinay agreed with de Lesseps that the Chagres needed to be dammed.  However his idea was to put the dam much further down the river at the end of the low-lying Chagres Valley.

This would create an artificial lake that would be connected to the cut through the Continental Divide.  This way no one would have to dam the Chagres at the Gamboa T-connection, but rather simply let the waters merge at whatever level 42 feet or higher.

Although early U.S. developers rejected this plan (including John Wallace, the first U.S. Panama engineer), when John Frank Stevens studied it, he liked it. 

De Lépinay had pointed out that locks are the best way to carry a waterway over uneven terrain by raising and lowering the water level in a series of step-like chambers.  A canal without locks simply carves through the terrain -- maintaining the same water level from start to finish.  The French plan called for making the Culebra Cut all the way down to sea level.  That was solid rock!  Although the French eventually realized it's extremely difficult a cut through solid rock, they abandoned the plan too late to save the effort from failure.  De Lepinay suggested it wasn't too late to learn from this failure.  His plan only required the Culebra Cut to come down to 42 feet above sea level.  That would save countless years of difficult digging.

John Franks Stevens studied the problem and came to his own conclusion.  He completely disagreed with the original French sea-level approach to building the Canal.  Yes, on paper, it would undoubtedly work to dig down and deepen the canal until the waters of the Pacific and the Caribbean would become level, but it simply wasn't practical.  Stevens sensed the sea level plan would only be accomplished at a cost no one would be willing to pay.  It is probably impossible to conceive exactly how much work this extra digging would be, but hindsight estimates say the incredible amount of excavation necessary would have expanded the project two, maybe three, maybe even four times beyond the effort that was ultimately expended by the U.S. laborers. 

The main reason everyone favored the sea level plan was the uncertainty surrounding the lock proposal.  The sea level system had a well-proven track record.  The Suez Canal was an ongoing miracle that worked efficiently and required little upkeep.

Stevens' system of "locks" would be complicated and "new". The locks meant less work, but would they function correctly?  That was the big question.  No one wanted to take the risk.  If the lock system failed, they would be branded for life as the idiot who suggested these contraptions.

Stevens discussed it with several of America's leading "lock engineers".  They all assured him the locks would work.  Stevens made up his mind... he would only take the job if he could design a locks and lake system. 

Stevens carefully explained to Theodore Roosevelt the feasibility of an above sea-level canal built with dams and locks.  Stevens explained how he would dam the Chagres and create an artificial lake. 

Roosevelt was not only persuaded, he was impressed.  Stevens was quietly brilliant.  He gave Stevens permission to do it his way.  Stevens was hired just three days after Wallace had been fired.

When word of Wallace's dismissal and the change of plan reached the press, not surprisingly, Stevens' decision to reverse Wallace came up against a tremendous amount of opposition.  "It'll never work!"  "Stick to the tried and true!"

The critics sounded just like the naysayers from Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead", a book which celebrated individual vision over an establishment preoccupied with worship of tradition.  'You should build it the usual way because the usual way is usually right!'

You have to admire the man.  Against all the predictions of doom and disaster from the experts, Stevens stuck to his guns. They were going to do it his way.  Of course, de Lesseps had said the same thing.  Stevens was well aware a lot was riding on him being right.

Stevens to the Rescue

Amidst all the controversy, John Frank Stevens arrived in Panama in 1905 as the second Chief Engineer.  Stevens was immediately taken aback by the terrible morale and living conditions.  On the spot, Stevens decided the project needed to take care of the people first and foremost.  He would get to the engineering effort second. 

With confidence and morale desperately low among the workers, one of Stevens' first actions was to introduce a food car.  Then he created a social hall for entertainment.  Next he began improvements in housing.

The kind of hard work that needed done, Steven reasoned, could only be done by a well-housed, well-fed labor force that was free of disease.  Stevens began work not by not digging, but by cleaning.  The digging could wait.

"The digging," Stevens said, "was the least thing of all."  That would become one of his favorite slogans.

Stevens wasted no time tackling the disease problem.  Stevens was the first high-ranking official who ever took the threat of the yellow fever-carrying mosquitoes seriously.

Stevens made a point to sit down with Dr. Gorgas, chief medical official. Six years earlier Dr. William Gorgas had been part of the effort to eradicate yellow fever in Havana, Cuba. His time there made him keenly aware of the dangers the mosquitoes presented.

Gorgas had been an understudy of Dr. Walter Reed.  Reed and Gorgas were serving with the U.S. Army in Cuba after the conclusion of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

When Americans began getting sick in Cuba, Reed studied the work of Cuban physician Carlos Finlay. Cuba had long suffered with the same malaria and yellow fever problems as Panama. 

In 1881 Dr. Finlay had finally solved the mystery of how these diseases spread.  He identified the mosquito as the disease spreading agent.  During his stay in Cuba, Dr. Walter Reed was able to confirm Finlay's investigative work and passed his findings onto Dr. Gorgas. 

That had been Cuba.  Now Gorgas was saddled with the task of protecting the American workers in Panama. 

Surprised that someone was finally willing to listen to him, Gorgas quickly recommended the workers be immunized against yellow fever.  Good move.  The last case of yellow fever was reported in November 1905, shortly after Stevens' arrival.  It was that simple, but no one had ever bothered to care before.  What Stevens lacked in formal education, he made up for with decency and a natural ability to go straight to the heart of problems.

Stevens also asked Gorgas about the malaria problem.  Gorgas explained to Stevens that it was impossible to immunize against malaria.  However, that didn't mean they were helpless.  Getting rid of the mosquitoes was the trick.  Gorgas recommended several sanitation efforts.  Stevens listened to Gorgas's suggestions and heeded his advice.

Stevens made sure to build proper housing with screens for canal workers.  He oversaw investment in extensive sanitation and mosquito-abatement programs that minimized the spread of the deadly mosquito-spread diseases.  Workers drained swamps, swept drainage ditches, paved the muddy roads and installed plumbing. They sprayed pesticides by the ton.

The measures did not make the malaria go away.  After all, there was a vast jungle just outside the living quarters.  However, they did reduce the mosquito threat dramatically.  Over the course of ten years, 5,600 men would die from malaria, but that rate was nothing compared to the French experience.  Even better, more men recovered from malaria than died from it.  Most of the fear disappeared.   Working together, Gorgas and Stevens had accomplished a miracle.

Stevens didn't stop there.  He continued to improve the quality of life for the men.  Entire towns rose from the jungle, complete with clean housing, schools, churches, commissaries, and social halls.

With sanitation efforts complete, adequate housing built, and his workers' welfare on the mend, Stevens was ready for the next step.

Stevens was a railroad guy, so his next move was to rebuild the Panama Railway completely to his liking.  For one thing, parts of the old railway would have to be submerged when the Chagres Valley was flooded to create Lake Gatun.  The time to build the new railway was now.  The Railway would allow the engineers to whisk the equipment rapidly to any part of the canal that needed it.  That enabled them to get by with less equipment.  Stevens used the savings to purchase modern earth-moving and excavating equipment.  Just as important, Stevens developed a rail-based system for disposing of the soil from the excavations.

With the railway completed, Stevens began work on a scale never before witnessed.  Gigantic Bucyrus steam shovels scooped tons of earth from the Big Ditch.  Soon railroad cars ran continuously on a double track, dumping the tailings to form the Chagres Dam that would one day create the Big Bathtub, aka Lake Gatun.  Things worked like clockwork under Stevens.  Dig, put the dirt on the train, take it to the dam, come back for more.

The men respected Stevens immensely.  His concern for their welfare impressed them greatly.  His humbleness and lack of airs impressed them as well.  Lacking the advanced degrees of many of his colleagues, Stevens shunned any special treatment as an officer.  Stevens could have cared less about comfort.  The attractive living quarters used by his predecessor remained empty as Stevens bunked nearer to the workers. 

This hard-working, no-nonsense man had come to Panama at a time when the project seemed doomed to the same failure that had haunted the French.  Stevens had turned the entire project around and gotten it on track.

In November, 1906, Roosevelt himself visited the canal.  Roosevelt was amazed by the difference. He posed proudly at the controls of a giant Bucyrus shovel.  He left Panama with a smile on his face.  Thanks to Stevens, now it seemed that the project could not fail. 

A Punch to the Gut

Then came the blow.  Out of nowhere Chief Engineer Stevens abruptly resigned.  It was February 12, 1907.

A pall came over the camp.  Just like that, their highly-respected leader was gone.  Stevens gave no explanation.  He simply said it was time to go.  Stevens meant what he said.  He left the next day.  Everyone was dumbfounded.  No one had a clue what Stevens was upset about or what his reason was for leaving.  A huge cloud of depression fell over the men.  They had the wind knocked out of them.

When he got the bad news, Roosevelt was fit to be tied.  He had gone way out on a limb hiring a man with zero experience at building canals.   He had taken a lot of heat for allowing Stevens to try his risky lock-based Canal.  The critics had a field day with that one.

Roosevelt took more political heat when he justified Stevens' decision to concentrate on the infrastructure.  'Build first, dig later' might make sense to the insiders, but the American public was clamoring for results.

Now just as the focus of the work had finally turned to construction of the canal itself, his hand-picked man had just thrown in the towel.  The work had come to a disheartening slowdown until Stevens could be replaced. 

It was a shame to lose Stevens because he was such an effective administrator.  The true reasons for his resignation were never revealed.  Burn-out, of course, was the most likely explanation.  Another theory was that since the time had come to work on the locks,  Stevens may have bowed out to let a man with more experience in lock-building take over.  Still, most professionals allow time for the new man to come aboard and get acclimated.  The abruptness of Stevens departure hinted at exhaustion... or maybe something worse. 

Now people began to wonder.  All sorts of paranoid theories were suggested.  Was he sick?  Did Stevens suddenly realize the lock-based system had no chance of working?  Was he leaving to avoid shame of some sort? 

Whatever the reason, it didn't matter.  Stevens was gone.  The loss affected Roosevelt terribly.  Roosevelt had let his guard down.  And why not?  It seemed like the project was out of danger.  But now just when the project seemed to be in the clear, it was in serious trouble again. 

Roosevelt frowned.  He wondered if there really was a curse over this canal project as some people suggested.  Maybe he didn't need another engineer.  Maybe what he needed was a witch doctor.

Stevens' departure could not have come at a worse time.  The American public was fed up with the apparent lack of progress.  They didn't understand why Stevens had been on the job for almost three years without doing any digging at all.  Roosevelt's opponents took the mysterious resignation as a sign that Stevens had decided the canal project was doomed to failure.  Maybe Stevens had discovered the locks system wouldn't work.  Maybe the machinery wasn't up to the task of all the necessary digging.  Something had to be wrong!!

There had to be a reason why all the work had come to a grinding halt.  Something fishy was going on in Panama.  Roosevelt faced a rising crescendo of public dissent over this apparent boondoggle.  Roosevelt frowned.  Something had to be done.

He turned to an old friend, Joseph Bishop.  Bishop was no witch doctor, but he was a newspaperman.  Roosevelt sighed.  Close enough.

Joseph Bishop

President Roosevelt wasn't sure just why Stevens had resigned, but he wasn't about to admit defeat.  Roosevelt calmed himself with the realization that Stevens had left the project in pretty good shape.  Maybe the job was just too big for one man.  Surely someone else could step in.

Roosevelt saw this crisis less as an engineering problem and more as a public relations problem.  The most important thing was to calm down the American citizens and his political rivals.   He understood that Stevens' "do the infrastructure first" approach would not produce instant results, but he also could see why the American people had grown so impatient.  Roosevelt was certain he could find someone else to do the digging, but what could he do to reverse the burgeoning groundswell of negative public opinion?

Joseph Bishop was a newspaper man who had apprenticed under the legendary Horace Greeley ("Go West, young man").  Roosevelt and Bishop first crossed paths in 1885 when Roosevelt was cleaning up corruption in New York City as the Police Commissioner.  Faced with many enemies, Roosevelt welcomed the unsolicited editorial support he received from Bishop at the Evening Post.  The two men began a correspondence that would number more than 600 letters over 25 years. 

As their friendship developed, Roosevelt declared to Bishop, “What I value in you is that you give me the advice you think I need rather than the advice you think I’d like to have.”

Stevens' resignation had created a crisis for the Panama Project.  Roosevelt turned to Joseph Bishop for help.  Officially Bishop was appointed as Roosevelt's "Panama overseer".  However, Bishop's unspoken role was to serve primarily a public relations job.  It would be up to Bishop to "sell" the project to the American people. 

Bishop immediately became a lightning rod for criticism.  Apparently Roosevelt gave him a very good salary which led to charges of cronyism.  Bishop’s promised $10,000 annual salary was relentlessly criticized by Roosevelt’s opponents in Congress, mostly because it was twice what each of them made. Opposition newspapers joined in the criticism.

When they weren't needling Bishop about his salary, the critics peppered him at every turn to explain why Stevens had quit and why work on the Canal was off to such a slow start.  There was so much animosity directed at Bishop during the slow buildup that finally in 1907 he decided to get out of town for his own sanity.  Bishop left Washington and moved to Panama to see first-hand what the situation was. 

Bishop expected to go there for a quick look-see and come home, but Bishop soon realized just how much he was needed in Panama. Bishop would remain on the isthmus for the next seven years.  During that time Bishop served clandestinely as Theodore Roosevelt’s “eyes and ears”. 

Not long after Bishop arrived, he reported back to Roosevelt on the “astonishing progress” that the Army Corps of Engineers were making excavating the “big ditch” and building dams and locks.  Roosevelt was immensely relieved.  Maybe there was some hope after all.

George Washington Goethals

Colonel George Washington Goethals was the man chosen replaced the brilliant John Frank Stevens in 1907.  Stevens had rescued the project from defeat only to run out of steam. 

Fortunately the project would not skip a beat.  Goethals was very talented in his own right.  Goethals had graduated second in his class from West Point.  Rather than enter the military wing of the academy, Goethals preferred to join the Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1891 Goethals was placed in charge of the completion of the Muscle Shoals Canal along the Tennessee River near Florence, Alabama. This was his first independent command.  His responsibilities included the design and construction of the Riverton Lock at Colbert Shoals. 

Goethals's recommendation of a single lock with an unprecedented lift of 26 feet was initially opposed by his superiors in Washington.  He was forced to persuade the conservative army engineers of the merits of his design. The successful construction of the lock not only set a world record for lock height at the time, it would help him land the Panama job 15 years later.

The success of the Riverton Lock inspired the eventual adoption of high-lift locks elsewhere and played a key role in Goethals' selection as Stevens' replacement.   His experience would be needed since the proposed Pedro Miguel Lock at Panama was 31 feet.  Goethals was appointed to be Stevens' replacement by William Taft, Roosevelt's Secretary of War and right-hand man.

Goethals took over from Stevens in 1907.  It didn't take Goethals long to guess why his predecessor had burned out.  Goethals immediately faced a veritable mountain of problems.  Goethals could barely get anything done because he was overwhelmed by the worst morale he had ever encountered.  It seemed like he spent his entire day listening to complaints.  Goethals was an engineer, not a guidance counselor.  He was a demanding, rigidly organized person who hated these interruptions.  Goethals fretted that valuable details were being overlooked because he was so distracted with personnel issues.

When Joseph Bishop arrived out of the blue from Washington a couple months later, Goethals was suspicious.  He assumed Bishop had been sent as Roosevelt's spy to evaluate his competence.  Goethals morbidly assumed he was about to be canned. 

Goethals was correct about one thing.  Bishop was indeed there to report back to Roosevelt.  However, to Goethals' surprise, he discovered from an inside source that Bishop had actually been very high in his initial praise of Goethals' work.  Goethals was relieved.  At least someone believed in him.

Grateful for the support, Goethals began to trust Bishop.  They struck up a friendship.  Bishop was no engineer, but told Goethals he was willing to help in any way he could.  That is when Goethals had an inspiration.  He had just the job for the newspaper man.

Goethals said he was being distracted an inordinate amount of time by all the labor complaints.  Interruptions were forcing Goethals to constantly put on hold what was important to go put out fires instead.  This left him unable to attend to the details of the excavation process.

He asked Bishop to assume charge of handling all the complaints from the workers.  Bishop became Goethals’s trusted aide, serving as his first line of defense against the workers and supervisors with their endless complaints and grievances.

Bishop solved the morale problem in a very unique way.  His greatest achievement in Panama would be to create "The Canal Record", a weekly newspaper he edited for the thousands of workers in Panama.  Bishop used his newspaper in an ingenious way.  He shined the spotlight on a different man each week. His praise of the lowliest workers helped to lift spirits.  Another feature was to report the cubic yards dug by each division.  Bishop saw this as dry stuff indeed, but amazingly the rival work divisions took the statistics seriously. They compared their work to the other divisions and outdid themselves to improve their standing.  Bishop had accidently helped to develop a sense of competition. 

Once Bishop saw what was happening, he took it one step further.  He had each division form its own baseball team and started a baseball league.  Why not have a little fun for a change?  Let the Big Ditch team play the Big Bathtub team.  The baseball games created a spirit of healthy competition that lifted worker morale and productivity even further. 

Pretty soon the men began to develop a can-do attitude.  A type of team unity began to form.  Many of the individuals began to see themselves as a cog in a great project.  Despite the threat of disease, the danger of injury and the tedious hard work, the constant complaining miraculously began to diminish.  People started to get along and cooperate for a change. 

This was a turning point.  Bishop had the sense to report this “good news” back to the media in the States.  His positive reports helped to build vital public support on newspaper editorial pages back home.  The Senators and Representatives saw the tide turning and had the sense to get on the bandwagon while they still could.  Soon the United States Congress began to rubber stamp the massive annual appropriations required to keep the canal project moving forward.

It took 10 years and over $380 million to complete - the most expensive project since the Pyramids - but amazingly Goethals finished the Panama Canal a full two years ahead of time.  Naturally Goethals was given a great deal of much-deserved credit, but Roosevelt knew the inside story.  He was well aware that his friend Joseph Bishop deserved just as much credit for the turnaround as Goethals, the talented engineer.  Together these two men were quite a team.

The Panama Canal would become intricately linked with Roosevelt's legacy and make him famous.  Roosevelt, of course, was one of the great self-promoters of all time.  He didn't mind at all the praise that was bestowed on him once the world discovered what a miracle the Panama Canal was. 

But Roosevelt was also grateful.  Roosevelt would later reflect that maybe his friend Bishop deserved a lot more credit than he had been given.  Joseph Bishop was the unsung hero of the Panama Canal project.


The Panama Canal Opens

The Panama Canal took ten years, $382 million and several miracles to complete. Where the French Connection had failed, the Americans had succeeded. 

It is fair to say the Panama Canal was built against all odds. The project succeeded despite much doubt as to which design to use,  despite constant changes in leadership, despite fierce political opposition, and despite the ever-present danger of disease. 

No matter what went wrong, work did go on.  Despite lethal landslides, leaders failing and leaders quitting, men dying and arduous working conditions, workers with dynamite and clumsy steam shovels cut their way through solid rock to allow water to cross a continent.  

It was coined the "Greatest Shortcut in the World".  The U.S. had built a railroad, three sets of concrete locks, a massive dam and a huge artificial lake that would allow over 13,000 ships per year to shorten their voyages by 8,000 miles. 

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, under the slogan "A Land Divided, a World United".  Ten years after the Americans assumed control, the freighter Ancon entered the new channel.  Hundreds of construction workers hopped aboard for the historic ride. A shiny towing locomotive pulled the Ancon into the first lock. Bands played and crowds cheered as the ship slipped from the Pacific into the Canal.

The newspapers relegated Panama to their back pages and the world scarcely noticed.  The ceremony was unusually anti-climatic because German troops were driving across Belgium toward Paris. The greatest engineering project in the history of the world had been dwarfed by the frightening onset of World War I.

Among the men absent from the Panama Canal's opening ceremonies were Woodrow Wilson, President; John Stevens, the Americans' second Chief Engineer; William Gorgas, the man who vanquished yellow fever on the Isthmus; as well as David Gaillard of Culebra Cut fame.

Even Theodore Roosevelt, the man most responsible for bringing the canal project to fruition, was missing.

And where was Roosevelt?  Typical of Roosevelt, he was busy on a dangerous jungle expedition down in South America.  He was there to map some of the waters deep inside the continent. 

There were no French dignitaries at the opening of the Panama Canal.  Ferdinand de Lesseps had died twenty years ago, taking his disgrace to his grave. I see de Lesseps as the tragic hero of this story.

A man of great vision and charm, he was cursed with a fatal flaw - he didn't like to listen to people who disagreed with him.

And yet Roosevelt received his fair share of criticism, negativity, and contradictory advice as well.  In politics, you have to develop a thick skin or you perish.

Sometimes there is no clear path or direction to take.  Roosevelt seemed to be better at listening to people who didn't agree with him than de Lesseps.

Curiously, Roosevelt is credited with one of the most famous quotes concerning "criticism" ever recorded.  Known as "The Man in the Arena", the following words were spoken by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910.

"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."

We can only wonder if those words would have been of any solace to Monsieur de Lesseps, the man who dared greatly at Panama, but failed miserably.  Somehow I doubt it. 

It is easy to criticize the French, but knowing Roosevelt, he was probably grateful to the French.  Who knows if the Americans would have succeeded had the French not tried first?  The old saying is you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.  Or who crossed the mine field first by their dead bodies.  One of the most famous French scientists in history, Madame Curie, won two Nobel Prizes while studying radiation.  What is not well known is that this brave and gifted woman died of radiation poisoning as the result of her research. 

It is the human condition that we explore and take chances.  That is how humans advance as a species.  Therefore we need dreamers and visionaries such as Ferdinand de Lesseps to get giant projects off the ground that few people had the ability to pursue.  Yes, de Lesseps failed, but would the Panama Canal have been built without his first initiative?

The Americans benefitted greatly from the ill-fated French attempt.  Not only did the French dig out 11 miles of the eventual 50, the Americans were warned of all the dangers.  The thorough approach to disease control on the part of Dr. Gorgas was the direct result of seeing the horror of yellow fever and malaria ahead of time.

I think the Americans should appreciate that although the French tried and failed, they gave the USA a much better chance in so doing.  The Americans climbed on the shoulders of the French and leapt forward to ultimate success.

Therefore I say we should toast the French for their valiant effort.  Vive la France!  Merci beaucoup, Monsieur de Lesseps.   May you rest in peace... you certainly tried as hard as you possibly could.  You may have failed, but at least you failed while daring greatly.

Let me add one more thing - I cannot help but wonder if Roosevelt had de Lesseps in mind when he wrote that speech.  Considering the speech was given in Paris while the Canal was still under construction, it almost feels like Roosevelt is trying to console the man who died trying to connect the Continents.


Credit for the Panama Canal

Without a doubt, Theodore Roosevelt deserves the most credit.  Through sheer willpower, he got the project going again in 1902.  Through determination, he kept the critics at bay even when the project got off to a terrible start.  He had the sense to fire John Wallace - who had impeccable credentials, but was a loser.  He had the sense to hire John Frank Stevens - who had few credentials, but talent in abundance. 

In addition, Roosevelt had the wisdom to ask an old friend - Joseph Bishop, the unsung hero of our story - to help with the public relations. 

Another man who deserves a lot of credit was barely mentioned in our story.  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. Taft was responsible for finding John Stevens and, when Stevens resigned, recommending G. W. Goethals.

George Washington Goethals is the man who spent the final seven years completing the project.  Colonel Goethals received unstinted praise from visiting engineers and from the technical press of the world.  For the rest of his life, Goethals work, both technical and administrative, won him an unending series of professional tributes.   In a world full of criticism, Goethals seems to have had no critics.  He did a fantastic job.

And yet while the meticulous engineer George Washington Goethals probably deserved more credit than anyone for the masterfully completed canal, he himself publicly turned away acclaim.

"The real builder of the Panama Canal," Chief Engineer Goethals said, "was Theodore Roosevelt."

Goethals also had very kind words for someone else.

The biggest hero of all might be John Frank Stevens, the unorthodox mystery man who rescued the project from near-certain collapse in 1905. 

Stevens was quite the enigma.  Stevens lived for 36 more years after quitting in 1907. In that time, he constantly received accolades for his contributions to engineering.  Invariably, he was asked time and again why he left the job in such an abrupt manner.  It was obvious that he was brilliant in so many ways.  Why did he quit?  What were his reasons?

But Stevens never said a word!!  He refused to talk about it.  Not even a hint.  In some ways, theories about his departure had people just as curious and just as baffled as the riddle of who shot JFK confounds us today. 

Despite all the numerous honors Stevens received, nothing ever compared to his send-off from the in-progress Panama Canal in 1907. One historian noted: "As Stevens got on the train to leave, it was as if the people were honoring a man who had already built the Panama Canal."

Our final word goes to G. W. Goethals, the man who took Stevens' place.  In a letter to his son, Colonel Goethals wrote,

"Mr. Stevens has perfected such an organization ... that there is nothing left for us to do but just have the organization continue in the good work it has done and is doing ... Mr. Stevens has done an amount of work for which he will never get any credit, or, if he gets any, will not get enough."

Rick Archer
October 2011

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