BUILD ME A CANAL
by Dick Holt


I can just see Teddy Roosevelt standing at a large wall map of Central America and in his usual gruff manner speaking to a group of engineers, military people, and others who would have a hand in it, saying, "I want you to build me a Canal right here (pointing to the narrow isthmus of Panama) and make it so that ocean going ships for the next one hundred years can transit through it." The year was 1902 when on June 28, President Roosevelt signed the bill authorizing the building of the Panama Canal. Most of you know the story of the events leading up to Panama becoming independent from Columbia in 1903 and the hand that the United States played in this event, but let me take you back to the tremendous engineering and management problem facing those that would undertake this monumental task of building the Panama Canal.

Can you imagine yourself, now after having lived in the former Canal Zone and in Panama, standing on the deck of a ship in Colon Bay in 1904, no breakwater, no city, no formal docks or port, no labor force, and of course no water or other niceties of life, and a land full of dangerous animals and diseases. There was a transcontinental railroad built by a group of ambitious North American railroad people, through the mountains of the continental divide, through jungles so thick you can hardly cut your way through them, and to collect in this barren land all the people and machinery to do the job. You already know the French have tried and failed. Can you do it? Can you dig a canal that will handle sea-going ships year-around through this imnpossible land?

It is out of the question to build a sea-level canal like the French envisioned. You have to somehow go over or through the mountains by raising the ships up to some level. There is no natural lake at the level you must achieve, so you have to build one. There is plenty of water, in fact too much water, but along with the water comes the problem of torrential rains that also bring lots of mud. How do we get rid of the mud? Can we design a gravity flow system that doesn't need a lot of pumps to operate? Where are we going to get the labor force that will be requiered to do this job? How about the equipment, housing, food, water, medical assistance, and a myriad of other critical questions? These were the problems and issues facing our forebears that started from scratch and in a matter of some twelve years had an operating canal, The Panama Canal.

Many times in our thinking, we of the later generations forget the immense task and the monumental problems our parents or grandparents or great great grandparents had in putting the Panama Canal together. Names like John Wallace, John Stevens, George Goethals, William Gorgas, Walter Reed and many others are not in our every day thinking. Yet all these leaders had a major hand in the construction. Gorgas, working in Cuba, found that mosquitos were the carriers of malaria and yellow fever that had killed as many as 25,000 during the French attempt. Stevens, the second to be the Chief Engineer, saw clearly the need for building a huge lake using the resources of the Chagres River to allow for transit of the ships at the highest level of the Canal. And Goethals with his military bearing and Army Corps of Engineers background brought the knowledge and wisdom and leadership necessary to harness the massive manpower and equipment needed to finish this project.

In subsequent writings, I will cover such items as the operational aspects of the Canal, the personal/human side of many of our involvements through family members and other interesting tidbits that should be of interest to all of us involved in the past of this beautiful place to have lived part of our lives.


Presented by CZBrats
Last update: January 8, 1998

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