Building the Foundations
At the start I devised a system of cost keeping in
order to get a standard of comparison that would enable me to gauge the results of the
various men and collections of men, the preference as to methods of handling work, and the
efficiency of different kinds of machinery. Therefore, all costs were reduced to a
cubic yard basis and costs were carefully kept of every detail of operation -- the cost of
explosives, cost of loosening and excavating material, cost of loading, cost of
transportation, cost of disposition, and the cost of all the various elements of
supervision and the maintenance of equipment, track and appliances, on the basis of the
This method, amplified, improved and extended, I understand has been carried on throughout the entire work.
This system enabled me to gauge the results of all the elements, both personal and material, connected with the work, and to determine the relative efficiency of the different kinds of French appliances with each other as well as with American machinery and appliances, which were later installed after their superior efficiency was determined.
After a few months of experimental work the data accumulated enabled me to decide on the superiority of the modern American steam shovel, the use of American flat and dump cars, the adoption of the American railroad method of unloading by machinery, also the employment of machinery for the spreading of banks, and so on.
Specifications for machinery were prepared on these lines and large orders placed therefor in the United States, but delivery was slow and but a small portion was delivered for some months after I left the work. The slowness in getting requisitions approved and material furnished, as the result of cumbersome governmental methods in vogue, seriously hampered the preparatory work.
These date also enabled me to determine the relative economy of hauling excavated material short distances up steep gradients to nearby dumping grounds as against the long haul with low gradients to distant dumping grounds, and also as to the relative value and economy of spreading over wide areas and dumping from low heights, as against concentrating the excavated material for high dump disposition.
Various other important factors in regard to economic efficiency were developed by this system of costs. Were the experimental work was carried on at a high unit-cost, the information obtained was valuable in showing what not to do and what appliances and methods were uneconomical as compared with others which were more economical.
Even in regard to such minor matters as the construction rail furnished by the French company, which came in very short lengths on the theory that these short lengths were easily handled in the construction of temporary tracks, our experience developed that the American practice of using rails thirty feet or more in length, on account of their grater flexibility and the ease with which they would take the necessary curvature in being temporarily shifted from one position to another, as against the short kinks made by the stiff rails used by the French, due to their short length, and the diminished derailments resulting therefrom, finally justified us in discarding the use of the short French rails.
The same thing applied to the various dump cars, locomotives, dredges and excavators that had been used by the French company.
These preliminary operations, while not large in quantity, enabled us to shape up the work in such a way as to render the operations afterward carried on ore economical and efficient. They also enabled me to gauge the rate at which excavation could be carried on by the different units of machinery and the various operating organizations,and were the basis of estimates which were later made as to the cost and time required to complete the work.
During this period the force at Culebra was gradually increased and organized and eventually became the basis of the expanded organization which was afterward used by my successors. All of this preliminary and experimental work had a much greater value than that expressed by either the quantities of material removed or the cost thereof.
In the meantime the work of providing quarters for men and building up and strengthening and getting a balance between the various departments of the work, was carried on. Also the work engaged in by various parties of engineers to determine the character of the stratification and the geological formation under the route of the canal, and to outline the watershed of the Chagres and tributary valleys, was very essential and important in order to arrive at final determinations that had to be made in connection with the plans.
When I first took charge of the work on the isthmus I had no other thought in mind than simply the carrying out of the plans as outlined by the original Walker Commission, upon the estimates of which the Spooner Bill was based, which provided the authority and the appropriations for the construction of the canal.
The essential feature of this plan was an intermediate lake confined above Bohio by a dam at that point, at which the red rock was supposed to be approximately 118 or 120 feet below sea level,the elevation of this lake to be about 90 feet above sea level, to be approached as in the plan finally adopted by three locks of approximately 30 feet lift on each side of the summit lake.
Extensive diamond drill borings at Bohio developed the fact that bed rock at Bohio was 169 feet below sea level instead of 118 or 120 feet as shown by the original borings made under the first Walker Commission, and that next to the red rock was a continuous bed of open sand and gravel through which there was a constant flow of sub-surface water.
In considering alternate plans for this work my attention was next directed to a paper published by Mr. Chares Ward, which proposed a dam at Gatun, the site finally adopted by the Isthmian Canal Commission. I, therefore, caused extensive borings to be taken at the site of this dam.
I found two sub-surface gorges at this point, which had evidently been scoured out during past ages, one of which extended some 250 feet below sea level and the other 200 feet below. The contents of these gorges were sand, gravel, clay and quicksand, and all sorts of detritus, at various depths, in which there seemed to be a free movement of water.
The plan of Mr. Ward, provided a proper foundation could have been found for the Gatun dam, presented some very attractive features. One was that his elevation of sixty feet above sea level seemed to me to provide the most economical level and the best division between the expense of construction of locks and dams and the excavation of the summit cut.
Finding that the bed rock gradually sloped from an unknown depth at Colon to at least 250 feet below sea level at Gatun and 168 feet at Bohio, and to approximately sea level at Gamboa, I finally came to the conclusion that I could not consistently recommend to the commission any plan which would involve the construction of either locks or dams or other structures, foundations for which could not be carried down to bed rock, or which would permit a flow of water below the foundations of the structures, which might create difficulties that at some future time would be disastrous to the enterprise.
Based on this conclusion, which I considered fundamental, I gradually came to a state of mind in which I was inclined to recommend that no plan be adopted that could not be eventually transformed into a sea-level canal, provided the future demands of traffic and future conditions should justify it, but as I realized the complications that such a recommendation would make and the controversies that would ultimately grow out of it, I refrained from transmitting my views to the commission until February, 1905, when three members of the commission, consisting of Governor Davis, Mr. Wm. Barclay Parsons, and Professor Wm. H. Burr, were appointed a committee to take the matter up with me on the isthmus and obtain from me a definite report and recommendations.
At this time my views were crystallizing upon the construction of a dam at Gamboa, where the foundations could be carried to solid rock in a practical manner and at reasonable cost, and the creation of a lock canal having an elevation of approximately sixty feet above sea level, fed by a lake to be confined by the dam above Gamboa.
However, realizing that several years of work could be carried on in the excavation of the cut at Culebra and in other preparatory work, and that no time would be lost by reserving a decision as to the final type of Canal, I was averse to making any positive recommendations to the commission until our surveys, examinations and experimental work had been carried on to such a point as to enable sufficient data to be obtained so that a wise decision could be finally reached.
On account of the large amount of excavation necessary to be performed at Culebra which would be common to any and all plans, I did not consider that this line of policy would in any way retard or delay the completion of the canal under any plan that might thereafter be adopted.
The committee of the commission above referred to returned to Washington, and based more on the facts gathered by it while on the isthmus through my instrumentality than on the views or recommendations expressed in the preliminary reports and estimates which I made to the committee, recommended the construction of a sea-level canal.
Within a few weeks after the commission made their
recommendation to the President through the Secretary of War, the members thereof, with
the exception of Major Benjamin M. Harrod, were removed and a new commission created, with
Mr. Theodore P. Shonts as chairman, and of which I was made a member. Mr. Charles E.
Magoon was also appointed on this commission and was made governor of the Canal Zone, and
Chairman Shonts, Governor Magoon, and myself constituted the executive committee, to which
was delegated the full powers of the commission.
On account of the reorganization necessitated by the appointment of a new commission, I was temporarily recalled to the States, and while in Washington was called into conference by General Peter C. Hains and General Oswald H. Ernst, new members of the commission, who endeavored to draw out my ideas in regard to the final plan and tried to impress upon me the necessity of not recommending any plan that would require any change in the Spooner Act, which was the basic authority under which the work was being carried on and which contemplated a lock canal and the use of an intermediate artificial lake.
It might be well here to refer to some earlier history, in order to explain how the plan of an intermediate lake came to be originally considered in connection with the project.
It will be remembered that when the first Walker Commission was formed it was for the purpose of considering the most feasible of the various canal routes across the isthmus, and that the two principal competitive routes at that time were the Nicaragua route, which was backed by what was known as the Maritime Canal Company, and the Panama route, which the French Company controlling it desired to dispose of to the United States Government.
The controlling feature of the Nicaragua route consisted of a natural lake about ninety or ninety-five feet above sea level, which necessarily had to be approached by two sea-level sections with a series of locks on both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes.
It was suggested to the Walker Commission that in order to make a proper comparison between the Panama and Nicaragua routes and to place the two enterprises upon the same basis, some plan should be adopted that would enable the estimates to be made with some degree of parallelism.
Out of this grew the conception of a creation of an artificial lake at Panama, at approximately the same level as the natural lake at Nicaragua, in order to place the two enterprises on an equivalent basis, the same unit prices being used for excavation and for the construction of locks and dams and dredging.
A comparative estimate of the two enterprises developed the fact that the Panama route could be constructed for approximately $50,000,000 less than the Nicaragua route.
When the fact was considered that the Panama route was shorter and was paralleled by an existing railroad line, the comparative ease of constructing a canal at Panama as against Nicaragua was self-evident.
Therefore the Walker Commission finally recommended the Panama route, on the condition that the French Company would sell their property and rights to the United States for not to exceed $40,000,000, which would put the cost of the two enterprises on a somewhat similar basis.
After the interview above referred to with Generals Ernst and Hains I was impressed with the idea that the administration for various reasons did not desire to have a plan adopted that departed radically from the original plan upon which the estimates were based and upon which congress had granted the authority for the construction of the canal, as a reference of this matter to Congress might have re-opened the entire controversy in regard to the canal and might have instigated the advocates of the Maritime canal route to active opposition, as well as the element in Congress opposed to any canal whatever, and also might have resulted in an investigation as to matters relating to the purchase of the Panama Canal from the French company by the United States Government, and as to the facts connected with the revolution which resulted in the separation of Panama from Colombia.
At least the above theory explained in my own mind the preference of the administration to put through some plan that would not require any additional congressional legislation rather than have the question again opened.
It should be remembered in this connection that when the original Spooner bill was passed the President of the United States had the discretion as to which of the two locations should be selected, and the endorsement by Congress of the selection of the Panama route was based upon the United States government being able to secure an absolutely clean title to the French rights and property, and the negotiation of a proper treaty with Colombia or the country through which the canal line passed.
About this time I was informed that the President had decided to refer the whole matter of the final plan to a commission of international engineers, on the theory that the European engineers had more knowledge and more experience in canal construction, and on the assumption that inasmuch as the United States Government was constructing the canal for the benefit of the world's commerce, it was but just and proper that the views of the best talent in the world should be secured before a final decision was reached.
This commission did not convene until after my connection with the enterprise had ceased, but during the progress of their investigation and labors I was requested by the commission to present my views to it, which I did in the form of a series of notes which I had previously prepared on various matters connected with the plan, and after which I was subjected to a lengthy cross examination by the various members of the joint commission, all of which can be found embodied in the appendix to the report of that commission, which was published under the authority of Congress and is a matter of public record.
It may be noted here that the majority of this commission, composed of all the foreign engineers and three of the American engineers, recommended the adoption of the sea-level plan, and that a minority composed exclusively of American engineers, reported in favor of the intermediate lake plan, which was also recommended by the then existing canal commission and was finally approved by the President of the United States, and in accordance with this plan the work has since been carried out.
A little later, in February, 1906, I was called before a committee of the United States Senate, when I again had an opportunity to express my views and submit to a cross examination thereon, in connection with other engineers who were familiar with the project, some of whom held views in accord with my own and others contrary thereto.
As long as I thought there was any opportunity of having the sea-level canal plan considered I was its advocate. However, after the administration had concluded to adopt the present plan and the decision was finally made, I considered it my duty as a loyal citizen to avoid further agitation of the subject. I simply note the above in order to place my original views on record with some of my reasons therefor.
During my residence on the isthmus we were much embarrassed by repeated outbreaks of yellow fever. Although the sanitary department introduced a thorough and efficient system of quarantine and used every possible effort to eliminate the fever, they were hampered by a lack of proper support from Washington until the fact was finally borne in upon the authorities there that improved sanitation and the elimination of yellow fever was a paramount necessity before the work could be successfully prosecuted.
When the authorities finally realized the seriousness of this situation and proper support was given to Colonel Gorgas and the officials in charge of the canal, the conditions were speedily remedied.
Personally I was never discouraged by the yellow fever situation, as I had had more or less experience with it in the South during my connection with the Illinois Central Railroad.
During February I had a light attack of fever which my family and the natives of Panama considered to be yellow fever, and thereafter I considered myself immune; but during my administration we lost quite a number of important employees, including Mr. Johnson, the supervising architect, the effect of which was very depressing on the organization as a whole.
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from: The History of
the Panama Canal
Ira E. Bennett, 1915
March 24, 1999