What could be the significance of the year 2014?
Considering the state of politics in a very troubled
administration and ham-strung Congress, this may be a “year
to remember.” Then, again, who will remember the year ten
years from now? This year is important, not because of the
present state of political dysfunction, but because of a
very heated debate that was coming to fruition one hundred
years ago: the completion of the Panama Canal.
Begun by a French entrepreneur, Ferdinand De Lessups, in
1880, the construction was abandoned ten years later with
thousands of lives lost to malaria, yellow fever and
accidents. De Lessups was broke and broken and the project
was sold to the United States under President McKinley, for
40 million dollars, a loss to the French of over $200
million. Construction was again begun in earnest with new
American engineering skill and management and newer and
better equipment. Then McKinley was assassinated and VP
Teddy Roosevelt stepped in with vigor and prosecuted the
project through most of the rest of construction.
The study of the conception, building and completion of
this “eighth wonder of the world,” still boggles the mind of
anyone who is interested in such a grand and “impossible”
scheme. Begun with a poor understanding of the gravity of
laboring years in the Panamanian jungle beset with
temperatures as high as 120 degrees, malaria and yellow
fever bearing mosquitoes, snakes, landslides, torrential
rains and constant accidents, was more than most of the
builders could accommodate. New workers were constantly
sought to fill the boots of those who died of diseases,
suffered accidents or just gave up. When the American chief
engineer suddenly resigned and left the job, George Goethals
was appointed to replace him and he was exactly what the
project needed: he understood the enormity of the “extras”
required in the special Panamanian jungle environment. He
ordered roads built, disease riddled water pools emptied,
sewers built, homes built for all the staff and their
families and even schools built to appeal more to those who
were desperately needed for this monumental project. He
also knew that the millions of tons of spoil blasted out of
the cut had to be removed from the cut and so built a much-
needed railroad with flat cars hauling day and night to be
dumped far enough away and used for other purposes.
The truth finally hit the chief engineer that the project,
conceived as a sea-level canal, was an impossibility. The
only way to build a canal across Panama was by building
locks, damming the Chagras River to form Gatun Lake, and
then to move ships up to the level of the lake, across the
lake and down again through locks to the other side of the
Isthmus. Goethals finished the last seven years of the
building that David Gaillard had spent three agonizing years
and, in that time, he had accomplished the dig up to and
including what is still called “the Gaillard Cut.” So,
finally, with a plan that seemed sure, the work was
continued and finished in August, 1914, thirty four years
after it was begun and one hundred years ago this year.
It’s not the end of the story, however.
Through one hundred years of increasing traffic, with larger
and larger ships needing passage to eliminate over eight
thousand miles travel around the tip of South America, the
canal needed to be upgraded, expanded and widened. Current
operation runs twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
Canal widening and dredging is currently in operation in
several places along its route and new locks are being
installed, much of which is destined to be completed by the
end of 2015, with continuing improvements by 2019. The
widening will accommodate the eight percent of the ships
that, currently, are too wide to transit the canal.
Just a few facts concerning the passage from the Atlantic
Ocean to the Pacific: 30 million gallons of water are
required for the passage of one ship; the most paid for one
ship was the Coral Princess: $214,000; the least paid was 36
cents; before the Chagras River was dammed, it would
regularly rise up to 49 feet overnight.
Such a heroic effort was perhaps only matched by the
building of the Great Wall of China. And it was a dream
first conceived by the explorer, Balboa, way back in 1513.
The forty three mile wide Isthmus met its match with Teddy
and American expertise.