Chapter XXIII
The Coming of Goethals


After two engineers from civil life had demonstrated that the system of canal organization was a failure, President Roosevelt decided that the only to carry forward the great project was to put at the head of the organization a man who would be compelled, under the rigor of military law, to remain at his post of duty.  The army officer selected for this task was George Washington Goethals, then a major in the Engineer Corps.

In 1905, Major Goethals had gone to the isthmus with Mr. Taft, as a member of the general staff, to consider the question of the fortification of the canal.  Later when the board of consulting engineers made its report upon the type of canal, Secretary Taft asked the aid of Major Goethals in drafting the report to the President recommending a lock canal.  In this way he was brought under the favorable notice of Mr. Taft.   Later, General Alexander Mackenzie, then chief of engineers of the United States Army, was called to the White House by the President, where they held a conference concerning the selection of a successor to Mr. Stevens.  After this conference, in which Secretary Taft also took part, Major Goethals was called to the White House and told that the army would build the canal, and that he had been selected as the man to direct its operations.  President Roosevelt requested him to keep his appointment secret, and to prepare to take the first ship for the isthmus, which sailed three days thereafter.   But Mr. Roosevelt could not keep the secret, and the next day the world knew that Major George W. Goethals had been selected for this post.

Major Goethals was asked by the President to suggest the names of his chief assistants.   His first request was that Lieutenant Colonel Harry F. Hodges be made one of his associates.  He stated that Colonel Hodges' record as the designer of the Soo Locks preeminently fitted him for this position.  When President Roosevelt discussed the appointment of Colonel Hodges with General Mackenzie, that officer opposed the suggestion, saying that Hodges was his chief assistant in the river and harbor improvement work of the country and that he could not afford to lose him at that juncture.  So the appointment was not made.

On the third Isthmian Canal Commission was Major D.D. Gaillard and Major William L. Sibert of the United States Engineer corps, both of whom had been engaged for years in river and harbor improvement work; Civil Engineer H. H. Rousseau, who had entered the navy through the civil service and had proved himself to be the ablest civil engineer in the naval establishment; Colonel Wm. C. Gorgas, who had been the chief sanitary officer under the preceding two commissions; former Senator J.C.S. Blackburn of Kentucky, who was to be the head of the department of civil administration and Jackson H. Smith, who had proved his ability in the recruiting of the labor forces on the Isthmus.

When Colonel Goethals arrived at Colon there was a feeling in many quarters that his appointment would mark the rise of a strictly military regime.  He soon disabused the minds of the canal army on the subject, declaring in a speech that he proposed to be the commander of the army, while the heads of the various departments would be the colonels, the foremen the captains, and the laborers the privates.  He added that the organization would be no more military than in the past, except in the precision of its work, and that no man who did his duty, whatever his rank or his station, need have any fear of the incoming administration.  "I am no longer a commander in the United States Army," said he.  "I am commanding the Army of Panama; the enemy is Culebra Cut and the locks and the dams."

In discussing on one occasion the need of a continuous policy for the permanent organization on the isthmus, Colonel Goethals remarked that there always was a disposition upon the part of a new administration to undo what had been done by previous administrations, if for no other reason than a desire to make a showing.  He believed that there ought to be a continuous policy, which would be made possible by the appointment of a vice governor who would be the chief assistant of the governor, and who would become governor in turn.  In that way he believed abrupt changes of policy, usually harmful, could be averted.  When we survey his administration at Panama we find that he put into effect the ideas he has since advocated in connection with the permanent organization of the canal.  While some men have professed to see in him a tendency to take unto himself all credit for the success of the work at Panama, we may read in his very first report his readiness to commend whatever was good that had been done by those who preceded him, and to make the most out of the things which had been done by them.  In that report he quotes from the previous administration on the isthmus as follows:  "During the year the first stage of canal work, that of preparation, has virtually been passed and the commission finds itself in position to enter upon the second state, that of the actual construction of a lock canal."  Commenting upon this statement Col. Goethals says:  "This statement is peculiarly applicable to the Culebra division, on which work had been concentrated, for, irrespective of the type of canal to be constructed the excavation in this section of the territory had to be done.   Moreover, for the time being it was the most important part of the work."   That the preparation was efficiently made, and the organization effective, is best attested by the results accomplished and the relatively small decrease of the output during the wet months.

Although Colonel Goethals thus early in his career was ready to praise the effective work of his predecessors, at the same time he was not afraid to make such changes as good business judgment dictated.  He found, for instance, that general supervision of the entire ten miles of Culebra Cut by one man was not productive of the best results in fixing responsibility for possible delay.  He therefore subdivided the cut into five construction districts, each under the charge of a superintendent of construction, who was held responsible for the work in his district.   Better results and less friction promptly followed.

One of the first things to which Colonel Goethals committed himself after arriving on the isthmus was that of checking up every bit of available data gathered for the determination of the type of canal.  there had been assertions that the foundations on which the locks were to rest were not solid enough.  In order to determine this question beyond the peradventure of a doubt he had five test pits sunk to solid rock in which he could study the actual conditions that would be encountered.  If there ever was a project investigated from bed rock up, the project of building a lock canal at Panama was investigated by Colonel Goethals; and not engineer who visited the canal during his administration failed to come away with a tribute upon his tongue for the scrupulous attention to detail that had characterized the investigations of Colonel Goethals.

When the new chief engineer began to get his bearings after arriving on the isthmus, he promptly decided that his first great duty was to "make the dirt fly."  The people at home had grown weary of the era of preparation -- they could not understand how necessary to the success of the work these days of preparation were.  Their incessant demand now was that the canal army make the dirt fly.  Colonel Goethals was alive to the importance of meeting that demand, for he realized that after all public sentiment was the force behind the canal.  Every colonel, every captain, and every private in the canal army was asked to get down to work and make the showing which the people of the United States demanded.  The result of this call to the shovels was most gratifying.   By August of 1907 a rainy season record of 1,000,000 cubic yards a month was established, and President Roosevelt sent to Colonel Goethals and his army a resounding cablegram congratulating them in behalf of the American people for their notable performance.  Thus inspired they redoubled their efforts, and in a little while they were removing 2,000,000 cubic yards a month.  Still further up the heights of achievement the valiant leader guided his men, and soon 3,000,000 cubic yards a month was the record.  Colonel Goethals then determined that this record should be maintained.   the army was equal to the demands made upon it, removing 73,000,000 cubic yards of material in two years.  Never in the history of engineering had such a high state of efficiency been reached, and never in the history of construction work had half as much material been removed in that length of time.

The demand of the people that the dirt be made to fly had now been met, and Colonel Goethals was ready to turn to the problem of reducing the cost of making it fly.  His resolute purpose to to the work as cheaply as conditions would permit resulted in the hammering down of unit costs in a way that is well worthy of being told in a separate chapter.

Colonel Goethals was always cautious in prediction and generous in fulfillment.  In 1908 he stated that the high-water mark in the excavation of Culebra Cut probably had been reached.  "You see," said he, "as we go down deeper the ditch becomes narrower and there is less elbow room for our steam shovels and our dirt trains.   there will be a gradual slow-down, and thus the latter half of the work will move forward much  more slowly than the first half."  In 1908, Colonel Goethals said that he was afraid that he would not be able to finish the canal in five years from that date.  But for the slides which could not have been foreseen, he would have been able to present to the United States a completed Culebra Cut in four years, or even less.


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from: History of the Panama Canal
by Ira E. Bennett, 1915


Presented by CZBrats
February 21, 1999
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