Unsung Heros of Canal History Include
Machines As Well As Men
by Yira A. Flores
The Panama Canal Spillway
August 12, 1994

The many heros of the Panama Canal construction effort include those who conceived of and gave the approval to begin the work; the engineers, architects, doctors and other professionals who supervised it; and the thousands of workers who came to the Isthmus from distant lands to provide the necessary labor. The muscle needed for the job, however, was beyond the realm of mere flesh and blood, and part of the credit belongs to the colossal machines that enabled the workers to complete the task – especially the 101 steam shovels that were used to excavate the Canal channel.

When the United States took over construction of the waterway in 1904, the excavators that had been left by the French were found to be too frail for the endeavor, so new equipment was shipped in from the United States as rapidly as possible. The first steam shovels to be purchased weighted 95 tons, the largest procurable at the time and the first one was put to work on November 11, 1904. By June 16, 1905, all the French excavators had been taken out of service.

None of the equipment used in the U.S. construction effort captivated the attention and respect of those involved in the undertaking as much as the steam shovels. To engineers and laborers, the shovels became much more than mere machines. They acquired personality and gender (usually feminine – even though they were perfectly capable of removing thousands of cubic yards of rock and earth every workday).

The steam shovels were considered mechanical marvels, generating awe among many who saw their 20-feet steel arms scoop up boulders weighing several tons after a simple flick of a lever was made by a man seated comfortably in a control chair. Easy and thrilling as it might have seemed, however, the job of the shovel operators was exceedingly stressful, especially because they had to be careful not to empty the fully loaded scoops onto the heads of the many laborers who were also working in the area.

Every yard of material dug by the steam shovels was recorded, and the Canal Record published weekly on their progress. An excavation record was set in March 1909 when 68 shovels, the largest number ever used at one time in Culebra (now Gaillard) Cut removed more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of material – ten times the volume achieved by the French in their best month. In March 1910, a record was set by a single shovel when it excavated 70,000 cubic yards of material during a 26 day period.

Almost 98 million cubic yards of material were removed during the U.S. construction from Culebra Cut alone, so even allowing for replacements, the average shovel there dug out some 1,000,000 cubic yards, despite the worst kind of punishment year after year.

On August 27, 1913, the Canal Record reported that all the steam shovel operations in the cut would be permanently suspended on September 15 to allow the waters of the Chagres River to fill the channel there. The last steam shovel stopped working in the cut on September 10, but the shovels continued excavations at other points along the Canal route.

By July 1914, the month before the inauguration of the waterway, steam shovels had removed almost 250 million cubic yards of material, overcoming landslides, floods, and many other difficulties. No machines had ever been put through such a test, and their outstanding performance was definitely a tribute to the people who designed and built them.

Taken from the June 1998 Canal Record

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Last Update: October 16, 1998
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