The Panama Canal Review - July 4, 1952

The Panama Canal as an enterprise of the United States last Saturday passed its Golden Anniversary. The date - June 28, 1902 - is now little remembered by the general public. It was on that date when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Spooner Act into law. Succeeding years and momentous events have crowded the launching of the Canal enterprise into obscurity. The famous Spooner Act authorized the President to buy the rights and properties of the New French Canal Company and "to cause to be constructed" an Isthmian canal of sufficient capacity and depth to provide "convenient passage for vessels of the largest tonnage and greatest draft now in use, and such as may be reasonably anticipated."

The passage of the Spooner Act by Congress had come after many years of investigation on isthmian canal routes and plans. It also came after a long and acrimonious debate in Congress over the route to be selected. The important aspect was the change in the original Bill in Congress, which already passed the House, from the recommendation for the Nicaraguan route to the word "isthmian" route. This actually opened the way for the construction of the Panama Canal, which had been blocked by the first Bill.

The Spooner Act was actually an amendment to the original legislation. It was introduced in the Senate by Senator John C. Spooner of Wisconsin after the Walker Commission had submitted a supplementary report on its first recommendations favoring the Nicaraguan route. This supplemental report was made after the French Canal Company had notified the Walker Commission that it would sell its rights and properties on the Panama Canal route for $40,000,000, the estimate of its value set by the Walker Commission. After this supplemental report was submitted Senator Spooner introduced an amendment to the original legislation which virtually made it into a new Bill.

Debate on the Spooner amendment opened in the Senate June 4 and came to a vote June 19 after much stormy debate. It passed the Senate by a vote of 67 to 6. The legislation was then referred to a joint committee of the House and Senate and after the House members of that committee yielded the Spooner Act was passed by the House on June 25 by a vote of 260 to 8 votes. The Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt 3 days later.

According to Gerstle Mack in his book "The Land Divided," the real leader in Congress for the Panama route was not Senator Spooner but Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio. He credited Senator Hanna with passage of the measure because of Hanna's superb oratory, his political experience, and his adroitness as a parliamentarian.

A feature of the Spooner Act was the provision for the construction of the Canal to be done under the direction of a Commission of seven members, at least four of whom were to be engineers, of which one had to be an Army officer and another a Navy officer.

Acting upon his authority granted in the legislation President Roosevelt the following February appointed what became known as the first Isthmian Commission with Rear Adm. John G. Walker as Chairman. Other members were Maj. Gen. George W. Davis, who was to become the first Governor of the Canal Zone, William Barclay Parsons, Benjamin M. Harrod, Frank J. Hecker, William H. Burr, and Carl E. Grunsky.

Most of these members had served on the original Walker Canal Commission, appointed in 1899 by President McKinley to investigate and recommend an isthmian canal route. It was the report of this commission which later resulted in the basic legislation for the construction of the Panama Canal which became known as the Spooner Act.

The first meeting of the first Isthmian Canal Commission was held March 22, 1904, in Washington. Accompanied by Col. William Crawford Gorgas the Commission arrived in Colon April 5, 1904, for their first visit to the Isthmus. The members inspected the proposed project and first established headquarters in Colon in addition to the Pacific headquarters in Panama City already transferred from the French Canal Company. The Commission spent two weeks on the Isthmus before returning to Washington to settle down to the major task of organizing the tremendous work, purchasing equipment, and employing personnel.

Presented by CZBrats
December 24, 1998
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