Have they canned you on the run?
Tell the Colonel;
Tell the tale of what they've done
To the Colonel.
Take your sorrows and your woes
--Panama Roughneck Ballads, 1912
Preface: Major General George W. Goethals was diagnosed with cancer in November, 1927.
General Goethals died at five minutes to noon on Saturday, January 21, 1928. He was unaware of those who watched at his bedside, for he had remained unconscious for the preceding forty hours.
To the public, who had heard nothing of his illness and but little of his activities during the last few days of his life, his death came with a shock of surprise. "In any other land but ours," observed the editor of the Boston Transcript, "Goethals would have received the highest titular honors and emoluments. With us, he had to retire from the public service and take up private work in order to earn a competence at all suited to his abilities. And when he retired, the country which had profited so enormously by his labors proceeded straightway to forget him. Or at least so it seems -- but on the pages of history his name will be forever emblazoned."
President Coolidge wrote to Mrs. Goethals: "The death of your distinguished husband has caused widespread sorrow, not alone among his host of friends, but upon the part of his countrymen in general.
"I wish to extend their sympathy as well as my own in this moment of grief to you and the members of your family.
"General Goethals will be remembered all over the world for his great achievement in the construction of the Panama Canal, as Chief Engineer, and in placing its operation and the administration of the Canal Zone on an extraordinary basis of efficiency which had made it so successful. But his skill and genius were no less marked in other works; particularly were they invaluable to the government during the World War, when, coming back from a well-earned retirement, he displayed great ability in various activities.
"His name, known throughout the world, will remain forever on the roster with those who are doing big things for our country."
Mr. Dwight F. Davis, Secretary of War, said: "In the army, he was honored and respected both for his technical qualifications and his leadership."
Major-General Summerall, Chief of Staff, after summarizing Goethals' achievements, concluded: "In peace, his energy and skill were applied toward the advancement of our national prosperity and the promotion of the welfare of our people; in war to the assurance of our rights and liberties. The army feels a distinct personal loss in the passing of one whom it looked upon with admiration for accomplishment, reverence for character, and love for association."
"There was something about General Goethals that you find hard to describe," said Major-General Jadwin, Chief of Engineers. "He was just about the hardest worker I have ever known. He carried to successful conclusion the greatest of tasks without much apparent effort. He was not a society man; just a man who loved family, friends, and his work. And with all this he was about the greatest executive the Corps has known.
"In the passing of General George W. Goethals the State of New York, as well as the nation, has lost a notable public servant," declared Governor Alfred E. Smith. "He brought to his duties as Chief Consulting Engineer of the Port of New York Authority that same expert wisdom which made him the genius of the Panama Canal.
"At great personal sacrifice, he responded to my request to be become Fuel Administrator of the State at a time when we were suffering a serious fuel emergency because of the coal strike. Here again, with his great executive talent, his power of decision and direction, he gave the State a useful and successful service.
"He has left behind him a permanent memory of a great personality and a splendid record of achievement."
The Pan American Union, the Commissioners of the Port of New York Authority and of the many other districts where had served as consulting engineer; the Chamber of Commerce, the India H9ouse, the English Institution of civil Engineers, the royal Society of Engineers of Holland and other organizations in which he had held honorary membership, sent messages of sympathy and praise. Individual letters were so numerous that only one will be quoted:
"I was proud to know him," wrote Mr. William Lawrence Saunders, president of the Ingersoll-Rand Company, "for he was distinguished as few men are, winning his laurels through his own work and ability. As an executive and administrator I know of no one his equal. He knew how to handle men and to get the best results out of them. The Panama Canal is his monument.
"It becomes my sorrowful duty," proclaimed the Governor of the Panama Canal, "to announce the death in New York of Major-General George Washington Goethals, distinguished builder of the Panama anal, upon whom we have all looked with such reverence and affection. Those who have been privileged to know intimately this great man suffer in his passing a lasting, personal loss. Those who have not had such close contact with him will grieve over the death of a man whose sterling qualities served to inspire their efforts during the building of the Canal and its early years of operation.
The life of General Goethals will serve forever as a brilliant beacon to light the youth of America on the path of true patriotism and manliness. God rest his soul in peace. He leaves to his family the priceless heritage of a noble, useful, and unselfish life passed in the service of his country and his fellow mean. The hearts of all go out to Mrs. Goethals and his two sons, in deep sympathy."
"The death of former chief," cabled the employees of the Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad Company, "has deeply affected us all and bereft an army of Canal workers of their beloved friend, 'The Colonel.' Your husband's sterling qualities will remain a happy memory while we live and his work here will endure always as a monument to one of the world's greatest engineers. We extend to you and your sons our sincerest sympathy in this great sorrow."
From Leningrad, a Russian who had been a student engineer on the Isthmus in 1911; from Bahia, an American who came out of the Brazilian jungle to learn the belated news of Goethals' death from far and near, the Canal men, past and present, expressed their sorrow. As the Metal Trades Council of the Canal Zone said in their formal resolution of sympathy, they remembered him for "those higher qualities of justice, democracy, and sympathetic interest in the welfare of those employees who under his supervision were employed in the construction of the Panama Canal."
But of all the Canal men, none had better cause to mourn for the Colonel than the black workers on the Silver Roll: "The news of his passing to the great bey9ond to join the truly great who went before were received by the West Indians the Negroes of the Antilles who furnished the greatest percentage of brawn and no little brain in building the Canal with reverence. It is reported that he was buried on Tuesday last alongside other distinguished North Americans. The spirit of those West Indian employees of the Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad Company who worked under his direction composed, we are sure, an unseen unit in the ranks of the mourners in the cortege which wended its way to West Point to pay him the tribute he so well earned from them during his lifetime.
"In sincerity we pay our humble tribute to the man whose efficiency built the Panama Canal, a job which he accomplished mainly because he possessed too noble a character to be perverted by anyone misrepresenting designedly the rights of the humblest employee of the great work which he was chosen to direct.
"In common with the gold or white force we have been touched by this sad circumstance, for we also loved and respected him. For if they love him because, aside from his other good qualities, he was a man of justice, then we ought certainly to love him more! It was that justice in him, backed by an iron will, and the philosopher's understanding, that will keep that old white-haired figure clear and prominent before9our minds as long as life shall last."
The man of justice, the protector of the humble, the iron-willed ruler with a philosopher's understanding here is the familiar figure of popular hero-worship: the good king who reigned in the good old times. This hero-worship cannot be dismissed as the mere sentimental delusion of romantic retrospection for it flourished in his lifetime.
"His ability to judge and handle men was perhaps his most valuable asset and a factor of supreme imp9ortance in the successful completion of the Canal. Although a hard taskmaster, he was invariably and inflexibly just and patient where he could discover good intentions. Toward the close of his long administration, the admiration accorded to him by the subordinates assumed the proportions of a cult."
Taken from: Goethals, Genius of the Panama Canal by Joseph Bucklin Bishop and Farnham Bishop, Harper Brothers, 1930.
Addendum: Major-General George Washington Goethals graduated from West Point in June, 1880. His funeral was held at the Old Chapel at West Point. He is buried at West Point, NY.
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Last update: June 19, 1998