The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs

The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs

by Ulrich Keller

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In 1889 the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique declared bankruptcy. The French firm's optimistic and ill-planned attempt to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had resulted in the death of 22,000 workers (most from yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria); the complete loss of one and a half billion francs for the company's


In 1889 the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique declared bankruptcy. The French firm's optimistic and ill-planned attempt to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had resulted in the death of 22,000 workers (most from yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria); the complete loss of one and a half billion francs for the company's 800,000 shareholders; and the bitter failure of Chief Engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps — the man responsible for the Suez Canal. On August 15, 1914, the S.S. Ancon took nine hours and forty minutes to traverse the lock-and-lake waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. What occurred in the quarter century between 1889 and 1914 is a larger-than-life true story of adventure, revolution, ordeal, and accomplishment: the building of the Panama Canal — perhaps the greatest engineering marvel of the early twentieth century.In 164 magnificent historic photographs and a well-researched text, noted photohistorian Ulrich Keller tells the compelling story of this hitherto unparalleled technological achievement. Selected from an archive of over 10,000 images amassed by Ernest Hallen (Official Photographer of the Isthmian Canal Commission), these historic prints document the Canal's construction and its way of life: 450 miles of railroad; housing for 60,000 based on a caste system; the exotic settings; tremendous hardships and health risks; leisure activities; the Canal Zone's internal government, administration and policing; dredging operations, including spectacular movements of earth and water; unheard-of engineering feats and disastrous failures; and finally, victory!
Photographers, historians, engineers, and tudents of industry and technology will immediately recognize this volume as an important primary source of industrial archaeology. Photography enthusiasts and lovers of true adventure will delight in the vibrant, you-are-there sensation imparted by the photos and Ulrich Keller's exceptionally informed text and meticulous captions. The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs takes the reader back to a different era, and one of the proudest episodes in what the author calls "the 'heroic' age of industry."

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Copyright © 1983 Ulnch Keller
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ISBN: 978-0-486-31925-4


Ever since 1513, when Balboa discovered the Pacific behind the narrow land bridge connecting the continents of North and South America, men dreamed of building a canal to join the two oceans. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V entertained the idea quite seriously, and ordered a land survey in the Panama region to explore the feasibility of an artificial waterway. But it was determined that the difficulties of the project far exceeded the technical resources of the time. Moreover, the piercing of the Isthmus appeared to many contemporaries as such a bold, if not blasphemous, proposition that a Jesuit scholar felt compelled to utter the warning:

I believe there is no humaine power able to beate and breake downe those strong and impenetrable Mountains, which God hath placed betwixt the two Seas, and hath made them most hard Rockes, to withstand the furie of two Seas. And although it were possible to men, yet in my opinion they should fear punishment from heaven, in seeking to correct the workes, which the Creator by his great providence hath ordained and disposed in the framing of this universall world.

Considerations of this nature put the canal question to rest for two hundred years. Only in the nineteenth century, the age of scientific and industrial progress, did the spirit of enterprise begin to outweigh the fear of God and the menace of physical obstacles. Beginning with Alexander von Humboldt, various explorers toured the Isthmus, searching for an ideal canal location and making a variety of proposals.

The man who finally chose Panama as the most appropriate site and tackled the enormous financial and technical problems involved in an enterprise of such magnitude seemed to be predestined for the job. Ferdinand de Lesseps had done the impossible before—he had completed the celebrated Suez Canal in 1869—and he declared that the mountains of Panama represented a less formidable foe than the Egyptian desert. He even insisted on the practicability of a sea-level canal as opposed to a more modest lock canal.

Thanks to his reputation (and to enormous bribes paid to bankers, politicians and newspapers), Lesseps was able to raise an initial capital of 300 million francs ($60 million). In January 1881, an advance party of French engineers arrived on the Isthmus, followed by an ever-increasing stream of workers and machinery. By May 1884, the labor force had swollen to a total of 19,000 men. But progress was much slower than expected. As it turned out, Lesseps' assessment of the geographical conditions and the technical as well as financial means necessary to overcome them had been grossly inadequate. The mountain range at Culebra required a much greater volume of excavation than the original plans called for, the technical plant was too light for the task at hand, a bewildering and unmanageable diversity of machinery had been brought in and the employment of over two hundred individual contractors created additional confusion, not to mention skyrocketing costs.

But the most severe and eventually crippling problem was caused by the ravages of yellow fever, typhoid fever and malaria. Enormous sums were spent on hospital facilities which were praised as the finest of their time but provided little relief since the causes of the diseases and effective cures remained elusive. As a result, about 22,000 workers died on the job, making it increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers for canal construction. It must be emphasized, though, that contemporary observers were unanimous in their admiration for those Frenchmen who did go to Panama and stuck to their deadly jobs with a courage comparable to that of soldiers in battle.

Combined into one confusing knot, the medical, technical and financial problems became insurmountable for Lesseps, whose Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique declared bankruptcy in 1889. One and a half billion francs had been expended and 70 million cubic yards had been excavated, but in the end 800,000 shareholders, mostly from the low-and middle-income range, lost every franc of their investment. It was the biggest financial fiasco of the nineteenth century. Revelations about the astronomical bribes and kickbacks involved added a great deal of legitimate bitterness to the ensuing public debate.

In 1894, a new French canal company was founded with a very modest capital stock of 65 million francs. The company resumed construction on a small scale, primarily trying to maintain the building concession that had been granted to Lesseps by the Colombian government, in whose territory the route of the canal was situated. It was obvious, though, that the French were in no position to complete the project. A bigger economic power was needed to launch a fresh attempt where the French had run aground.

The only major question to be resolved was the set of conditions under which the building concession would change hands. In this respect, the American government was in an enviable position. Clearly, the French canal company desired nothing more than to sell its Panamanian assets and to pull out of a hopeless situation. By the same token, it appeared likely that the Colombian government would be accommodating because a very real possibility existed that the Americans would choose an alternative canal site in Nicaragua. In fact, the feasibility of a Nicaraguan waterway had been studied in detail and an American stock company had made an abortive attempt to begin construction there, losing $6 million in the process. More than that, in January 1902, the House of Representatives had authorized President Theodore Roosevelt to build a Nicaraguan canal at a cost of $180 million, of which $10 million were available for immediate expenditure. Later that year, both houses passed a bill appropriating $136 million for the acquisition and continuation of the Panamanian canal project, but Roosevelt was free to revert to the alternative site should he be unable to obtain favorable conditions from the French and Colombians.

In the following months, a quick agreement was reached with the French canal company, but Colombia was dissatisfied with the less-than-generous American proposal, which offered a down payment of $10 million combined with an annual "rental fee" of $250,000 for a six-mile-wide strip of land across the Isthmus. After unsuccessful Colombian attempts to raise the price of the concession, the American offer was turned down in August 1903.

One might expect that this was a good reason for the Roosevelt administration to revive the Nicaraguan option, but the man who loved to speak softly while carrying a big stick saw still another possibility. There were a number of politicians and businessmen in the city of Panama who could only gain by setting up an independent Panamanian state and who were indeed willing to stage a "revolution"—provided the Americans offered tacit support. Roosevelt made sure of one. Several American ships were stationed near the Isthmus "in the event of any disorder there," troops were landed to "protect life and property," and the officials of the American-controlled Isthmian Railroad received instructions on whom to transport and whom not to transport. Due to these inconspicuous arrangements, the Republic of Panama successfully seceded from Colombia on November 4, 1903. Of course, Roosevelt never admitted that it had been a phony revolution, but 18 years later Colombia received an indemnity of $25 million from the Harding administration, a conciliatory gesture implying that the events of 1903 had taken a somewhat improper course.

Naturally, the new government of Panama was an even weaker negotiating partner than Colombia. Only two weeks after the "revolution" a treaty was signed which granted the United States greater advantages for the same price than had been provided in the earlier, rejected document. Among other things, the width of the canal corridor was increased from six to ten miles and the American authority in this area was upgraded to de facto sovereignty.

With all political problems cleared one way or another, the second, American canal adventure was ready to be launched. An Isthmian Canal Commission assumed authority over Canal Zone affairs and Chief Engineer J. F. Wallace was put in charge of construction. On May 4, 1904, the French property on the Isthmus was formally transferred to the Americans and by September of the same year a labor force of 1800 men had gone to work on the canal. Everything seemed to be on the right track; Roosevelt expected to see "the dirt fly," but he was disappointed. Predictably, difficulties arose in the command structure because the Isthmian Canal Commission in Washington was unfamiliar with the practical exigencies of Panama. Moreover, the man on the spot, Chief Engineer Wallace, was an indecisive man who never found an effective approach to the many challenges of his job. To make things worse, the health issue became virulent again as yellow fever and malaria cases increased considerably in the spring of 1905. Dr. Gorgas, the chief sanitary officer, quickly countered this danger by an energetic campaign against Aedes and Anopheles mosquitoes which had been identified as carriers of the diseases. As a result, yellow fever was completely wiped out and malaria greatly reduced, but the short flurry of fatal infections had been very detrimental to the workers' morale. Poorly led and beset by medical problems, the American canal offensive began to sputter and stall before it had been fully launched.

President Roosevelt acted swiftly. Dr. Gorgas received all the money he needed for his mosquito warfare, and in July 1905 Wallace was replaced as Chief Engineer by John F. Stevens, whose authority was strengthened at the expense of the unproductive Isthmian Canal Commission. Immediately things began to fall into place. Stevens (Fig. A) was a tough, blunt pioneer type with a reputation for "always being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing without asking questions about it." He greatly improved the command structure and the general performance of the canal army by establishing what he called "the only policy that leads to efficient administration: to give the official ample authority and hold him strictly responsible for results. Such a policy encourages initiative, which is a most valuable asset to an engineer."

Stevens not only knew how to handle the labor force, he also had no doubt where to concentrate it. In the 1890s, he had built the Great Northern Railroad across the Rocky Mountains. This railroad experience proved to be an ideal prerequisite for the excavation of the Panama Canal which, after all, "was simply a problem of transportation," as Stevens concluded correctly. In keeping with this conclusion he made every effort to "devise such a system of trackage, as would permit the maximum number of immense steam-shovels to be operated with the least possible interference with each other." Apart from that, Stevens built up a machine park, a supply system and housing facilities for a labor force which was eventually to reach a size of over 60,000 people (families included). Put differently: in contrast to Wallace, Stevens understood very well that a complex infrastructure had to be established before excavation and construction work could begin in earnest. Consequently he concentrated all his resources on these preparatory activities, postponing the deployment of a full-fledged construction army and the "flying of the dirt" to a later stage.

After a year and a half, the necessary groundwork was completed, the long-delayed decision in favor of a lock canal (rather than a sea-level passage) had been taken and a transition to actual construction work could be made—just in time for a grand event that emphasized the high rank given to the canal enterprise among national priorities: President Roosevelt paid a three-day visit to the Canal Zone, bringing with him a large contingent of newspaper men eager to report on the first foreign trip ever made by a President of the United States while in office. There was no real necessity for this spectacular excursion, but, apart from satisfying Roosevelt's great natural curiosity, it enhanced the general popularity of the Panamanian venture, facilitated future appropriations in Congress and also raised the morale of the labor force to a new high. How much, indeed, the President was striving for this latter effect can be gathered from a kind of pep talk he delivered to American engineers at Colon on November 17, 1906:

As I have seen you at work, seen what you have done and are doing, noted the spirit with which you are approaching the task yet to be done, I have felt just exactly as I should feel if I saw the picked men of my country engaged in some great war. I am weighing my words when I say that you here who do your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise will stand exactly as the soldiers of a few, and only a few, of the most famous armies of all the nations stand in history. This is one of the great works of the world; it is a greater work than you yourselves at the moment realize.... I go back a better American, a prouder American, because of what I have seen the pick of American manhood doing here on the Isthmus.

It was a speech likely to please the men on the job and to cheer them on to even harder work. Chief Engineer Stevens, however, was too much of a pragmatist and rugged individualist to be impressed by Roosevelt's patriotic equation of labor force with army. On the contrary, such rhetoric seems to have contributed to his sudden decision to relinquish his position. As he bluntly stated in his letter of resignation to the President: "The 'honor' which is continually being held up as an incentive for being connected with this work, appeals to me but slightly. To me the canal is only a big ditch, and its great utility when completed, has never been so apparent to me, as it seems to be to others."

Roosevelt, of course, was furious, ascribed Stevens' lack of job commitment to "insomnia" and "tropical surroundings" and had a successor appointed within days. This time it was a man who would follow orders—Col. George W. Goethals of the U. S. Army. Goethals added a political dimension to the office of Chief Engineer that had previously been absent. He presided over military exercises on the Isthmus, he delivered patriotic speeches, he entertained congressmen on Panamanian inspection trips, he lobbied in Washington and he even wrote a book in support of his legislative proposals. Basically, he conceived of the Panama Canal as a military installation, urged the construction of strong fortifications and wanted to station an army of 25,000 men on the Isthmus, but most of these ideas found few supporters in Congress.

While Col. Goethals' reign was more glamorous than Stevens', it was no less efficient and productive. Adopting a form of government then appropriately labeled as "benevolent despotism," he made sure that everybody lived comfortably within a strictly enforced hierarchy of salaries and fringe benefits that left no room for trade unions, and reduced non-Americans and non-whites to second- and third-class employees. At the same time, Goethals was an adherent of "scientific management" and minute cost-keeping—absolute necessities in a publicly financed enterprise where every cent had to be accounted for at the end of the year.

The undertaking probably most typical of Goethals' leadership was the creation of a weekly newspaper, the Canal Record, in which every expenditure and all work progress were faithfully documented. The publication of these regular reports was doubly useful. While they fostered a spirit of competition in the work force (every steam-shovel crew wanted to post the biggest weekly output), they also kept the American public informed about and supportive of the canal project, which by and by turned out to be much more expensive than had been anticipated in 1903. The higher costs were caused in part by the installation of the locks with their massive concrete walls, sophisticated steel machinery and elaborate safety measures which nobody had foreseen at the outset. Equally unexpected was the fact that the piercing of the mountain range at Culebra was greatly complicated by huge slides which added considerably to the total volume of excavation. The problem grew so severe that at times the successful completion of the canal seemed to be in jeopardy, but patient digging prevailed eventually, the width of the canal trench being tripled in the process.


Excerpted from THE BUILDING OF THE PANAMA CANAL in Historic Photographs by ULRICH KELLER. Copyright © 1983 Ulnch Keller. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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