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Figure 1: Cargo ships crossing the great Panama Canal
Figure 1: Cargo ships crossing the great Panama Canal
The end of the 19th century was a time of visionaries who conceived of projects that would change the history of humankind. Since the time Vasco N unez de Balboa crossed Panama and discovered a great ocean, planners had conceived of the idea of a water link between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Having successfully connected the Mediterranean with the Red Sea at Suez, in 1882 the French began work on a canal across the narrow Isthmus of Panama, which at that time was part of Colombia. After struggling for 9 years, the French were ultimately defeated by the formidable technical difficulties as well as the hostile climate and the scourge of yellow fever.

Theodore Roosevelt became president during this period and his administration decided to take up the canal project and carry it to completion. Using what would he referred to as ‘‘gun-boat’’ diplomacy, Roosevelt precipitated a revolution that led to the formation of the Republic of Panama. Having clarified the political situation with this stratagem, the famous ‘‘Teddy’’ then looked for the right man to actually construct the canal. That right man turned out to be John F. Stevens, a railroad engineer who had made his reputation building the Great Northern Railroad. Stevens proved to be the right man at the right time.
Figure 2: Map showing location and important points on Panama Canal
Figure 2: Map showing location and important points on Panama Canal
Figure 3: Marine distance between San Francisco and New York with and without Panama Canal
Figure 3: Marine distance between San Francisco and New York with and without Panama Canal
John F. Stevens, chief engineer of the Panama Canal. (National Archives,Washington, D.C.)
John F. Stevens, chief engineer of the Panama Canal.
(National Archives,Washington,
D.C.)
Stevens understood the organizational aspects of large projects. He immediately realized that the working conditions of the laborers had to be improved. He also understood that measures had to be taken to eradicate the fear of yellow fever. To address the first problem, he constructed large and functional camps for the workers in which good food was available. To deal with the problem of yellow fever he enlisted the help of an army doctor named William C. Gorgas. Prior to being assigned to Panama, Gorgas had worked with Dr. Walter Reed in wiping out yellow fever in Havana, Cuba. He had come to understand that the key to controlling and eliminating this disease was, as Reed had shown, the control of the mosquitoes that carried the dreaded infection and the elimination of their breeding places (see The Microbe Hunters by Paul DeKruif). Gorgas was successful in effectively controlling the threat of yellow fever, but his success would not have been possible without the total commitment and support of Stevens.

Having established an organizational framework for the project and provided a safe and reasonably comfortable environment for the workers, Stevens addressed the technical problems presented by the project. The French had initially conceived of a canal built at sea level and similar to the Suez Canal. That is, the initial technical concept was to build a canal at one elevation. Because of the high ground and low mountains of the interior portion of the isthmus, it became apparent that this approach would not work. To solve the problem of moving ships over the ‘‘hump’’ of the interior, it was decided that a set of water steps, or locks, would be needed to lift the ships transiting the canal up and over the high ground of Central Panama and down to the elevation of the opposite side. The immense size of a single lock gate is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Work in progress on the Great Gatun lock gates. (The Bettmann Archive)
Figure 4: Work in progress on the Great Gatun lock gates. (The Bettmann Archive)
The construction of this system of locks presented a formidable challenge. Particularly on the Atlantic side of the canal, the situation was complicated by the presence of the wild Chagres River, which flowed in torrents during the rainy season and dropped to a much lower elevation during the dry season. The decision was made to control the Chagres by constructing a great dam that would impound its water and allow for control of its flow. The dam would create a large lake that would become one of the levels in the set of steps used to move ships through the canal. The damming of the Chagres and the creation of Lake Gatun itself was a project of immense proportions, which required concrete and earthwork structures of unprecedented size.
The other major problem had to do with the excavation of a great cut through the highest area of the canal. The Culebra Cut, as this part of the canal was called, required the excavation of earthwork quantities that even by today’s standards stretch the imagination. Stevens viewed this part of the project as the construction of a gigantic railroad system that would operate continuously (24 hours a day) moving earth from the area of the cut to the Chagres dam construction site. The material removed from the cut would provide the fill for the dam. It was an ingenious idea.
To realize this system, Stevens built one of the greatest rail systems of the world at that time. Steam-driven excavators (shovel fronts) worked continuously loading railcars. The excavators worked on flexible rail spurs that could be repositioned by labor crews to maintain contact with the work face. In effect, the shovels worked on sidings that could be moved many times each day to facilitate access to the work face. The railcars passed continuously under these shovels on parallel rail lines.
Stevens’ qualities as a great engineer and leader were on a level with those of the Roebling’s. As an engineer, he understood that planning must be done to provide a climate and environment for success. Based on his railroading experience, he knew that a project of this magnitude could not be accomplished by committing resources in a piecemeal fashion.
He took the required time to organize and mass his forces. He also intuitively understood that the problem of disease had to be confronted and conquered. Some credit for Stevens’ success must go to President Roosevelt and his secretary of war,William Howard Taft. Taft gave Stevens a free hand to make decisions on the spot and, in effect, gave him total control of the project. Stevens was able to be decisive and was not held in check by a committee of bureaucrats located in Washington (i.e., the situation present before he took charge of the job).
Figure 5: How Panama Canal Works?
Figure 5: How Panama Canal Works?

Having set the course that would ultimately lead to successful completion of the canal. Stevens abruptly resigned. It is not clear why he decided not to carry the project through to completion. President Roosevelt reacted to his resignation by appointing a man who, as Roosevelt would say, ‘‘could not resign.’’ Roosevelt selected an army colonel and West Point graduate named George Washington Goethals to succeed Stevens. Goethals had the managerial and organizational skills needed to push the job to successful completion. Rightfully so, General Goethals received a great deal of credit for the construction of the Panama Canal. However, primary credit for pulling the job ‘‘out of the mud,’’ getting it on track, and developing the technical concept of the canal that ultimately led to success must be given to Stevens—a great engineer and a great construction manager.








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