Joining The Atlantic To The Pacific
As far as Teddy Roosevelt was concerned, George Washington Goethals was the ideal solution to a big problem. In an age of empire building and international commerce, the dream of joining the Atlantic to the Pacific inspired politicians across the world. But making that dream into a reality was a challenge that had defeated engineers for decades.
Goethals was 48 when Roosevelt asked him to take over the Panama canal project. He was an Army engineer, a quiet, competent veteran of construction projects across America. But his primary qualification in the eyes of the headstrong president was that he wouldn't be able to quit. Indeed, Goethals told a friend at the time: "It's a case of just plain straight duty. I am ordered down — there was no alternative."
The dutiful civil servant found himself in charge of the world's largest engineering endeavor ever. By the time it was completed in 1913, it had set scores of records — for everything from the amount of earth moved to the amount of concrete poured to the number of workers killed on a job site. It was a symbol of both American power and American spirit. "It put all the resources of American ingenuity and the industrial force of the 19th century to work in an incredibly remote location," says David Shayt, a curator at the National Museum of American History.
When Goethals arrived in Panama, he was well aware of the project's problematic past. The tropical heat and humidity of Panama had proved to be the downfall of a French attempt to conquer the isthmus two decades before. Indeed, the French effort was a catastrophe all around. Rampant corruption plagued the efforts to raise money in France; yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox, and other tropical diseases decimated the workers struggling to carve a sea-level canal out of the jungle. Yellow fever and malaria alone claimed thousands of lives in the decades before doctors understood that the diseases were carried by mosquitoes. "It's estimated that a whole generation of French engineers died before yellow fever was conquered," says Luis Alfaro, the Panama Canal's current chief engineer. "Learning to control yellow fever was a key element."
American planners were undaunted by the French failure. On the contrary: "We were encouraged," says Rhodes College historian Michael LaRosa. "We decided we could do it better." As a result of the French experience, the American effort tackled the yellow fever problem right off the bat. Medicine had made significant strides since the French were stymied by the dread disease, and the idea that mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever — though still controversial — at least gave American planners a tangible enemy.
The challenge they faced was in many ways the public-health equivalent of the massive engineering project to come — "the most costly, concentrated health campaign the world had yet seen," writes David McCullough in his history The Path Between the Seas. Hundreds of tons of chemicals and kerosene oil were applied to the cities and towns of the isthmus in a concerted fumigation campaign. Running water was made available in major settlements. Within a year and a half, yellow fever had been wiped out.
The victory over mosquitoes opened the door for work on the canal to begin in earnest. Tens of thousands of workers were imported from the Caribbean and the United States, and soon American engineers learned what a task they had in store. Few Americans had ever worked so close to the equator. In the Culebra Cut, the canal's major channel and most challenging spot, temperatures hovered between 100 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the heat of the day.
Engineers initially estimated that 54 million cubic yards of dirt would have to be moved to cut the channel. By the time of completion, that number was closer to 100 million cubic yards. Work went on around the clock. Blasting a canal through the rock of the Culebra Cut and elsewhere took 61 million pounds of dynamite and claimed thousands of lives. "We are having too many accidents with blasts," Goethals wrote in 1907. "One killed 9 men on Thursday . . . The foreman all blown to pieces." A worker had a more visceral view: "The flesh of men flew in the air like birds many days."
But heat, disease, and blasting accidents all paled next to the problem of landslides. They proved nearly impossible to stop and added years to the construction time. "They didn't know about the stability of slopes or how steep you could make slopes," says Virginia Tech engineering Prof. J. Michael Duncan. "They just had optimistic estimates based on wishful thinking." Yet Goethals remained unflappable. After one catastrophic collapse, he was called to the scene by panicked employees. "Hell, dig it out again," Goethals told them.
If Goethals was the brain and steady hand behind the canal, Roosevelt was its heart. The flamboyant president saw the canal as a physical expression of America's imperial destiny, and he turned it into a personal and national obsession. For example, when Colombia — which owned the canal zone — refused to sign a treaty allowing work to begin, Roosevelt took matters into his own hands. He engineered an American-sponsored "revolution" in Panama, posting American gunboats off the coast and landing American soldiers to cut off the railroad and prevent Colombian troops from arriving.
The former Rough Rider's boldness inspired other Americans. As the project picked up steam, engineers and artisans from across America headed to the strange land to work on the canal. "With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible," one steam shovel engineer told his wife. When work on the canal was completed in 1913, the final bill was a staggering $352 million — more than five times what the government had paid for the Louisiana Territory, California, Florida, and Alaska put together.
It was worth the cost. The canal remains a crucial link between the Pacific and the Atlantic and has come to define international commerce. But despite its global significance, the canal played an equal role in shaping the American character. "It was nation-changing," says Shayt. It was "the union of two American lakes."
Voters overwhelmingly approved the largest modernization plan in the 92-year history of the Panama Canal, backing a $5.25 billion expansion that will allow the world's largest ships to squeeze through the shortcut between the seas. In a referendum marked by low turnout Oct. 22, Panamanians approved an overhaul that will build a third set of locks on the canal's Atlantic and Pacific sides to handle modern container ships, cruise liners and tankers that are too large for the waterway's current 108-ft.-wide dimensions. Construction is set to begin in 2007 and will take up to eight years to complete.
The Panama Canal Authority, the autonomous government agency that runs the waterway, says the project will double capacity of canal already on pace to generate about $1.4 billion in revenue this year. Expansion will be paid for by increasing tolls to produce annual revenue of over $6 billion by 2025. "We are going to serve the world better and that means we are going to serve Panama better," canal administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta, with little voice left from celebrating, told The Associated Press. "Everyone's a winner. The shipping industry, the Panamanians and all of the countries that will benefit from international shipping commerce."
A large chunk of canal revenues go to education and other Panamanian social programs. Still, critics contend that as drawn up, the expansion plan benefits the canal's customers more than Panamanians, and worry that costs could balloon for this debt-ridden country. President Martin Torrijos, whose government has been among the expansion plan's top supporters, said "today we have laid the groundwork to build a better country together. Just six years after we recuperated the canal ... we have decided without foreign influence what we want to do with the canal and its future," he said. The United States built the waterway and controlled it until Dec. 31, 1999. A bit more than 78 percent of Panamanians voted in favor of the expansion, with 94 percent of polling stations counted by the country's electoral tribunal. Only about 22 percent opposed the plan, though abstention among the country''s more than 2.1 million voters was almost 57 percent.
The results were so lopsided that Electoral Tribunal President Eduardo Valdes called Torrijos to say that the referendum had been unofficially approved less than three hours after polls closed. The canal employs 8,000 workers and the expansion is expected to generate as many as 40,000 construction jobs. Unemployment is 9.5 percent, and 40 percent of the country lives in poverty. "Ahead is the time we can overcome the shame of a country that has 40 percent of its children living in poverty, a country that developed in an unequal way," Torrijos said.
But critics fear that the expansion could cost nearly double what Torrijos' government has let on and stoke corruption and uncontrolled debt. "The expansion is necessary, but we all have to watch closely, make sure there isn't embezzlement and corruption," said Igor Meneses, a 34-year-old advertising executive who was waiting to vote in an older section of Panama City. "With that kind of money there's a lot to steal."
The United States arranged for Panamanian independence from Colombia to build the canal, and ran it from 1914 to 1999. Torrijos' father, strongman Omar Torrijos, signed a treaty with President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to cede control of the waterway back to Panama, a decision that also was approved by Panamanians in a referendum. Some aspects of the waterway remain little changed from when it opened nearly a century ago. Electric locomotives coax larger ships through with just a few feet to spare on each side - an awesome sight along the freshwater channel lined with palm and banana trees.
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