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A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!
The Big Ditch had so far been a colossal flop, and Teddy Roosevelt desperately needed an engineering genius who could take over the job and “make the dirt fly.” The answer was not the famous Goethals, but a man whom history has forgotten.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
The Panama Canal was the biggest, most costly thing Americans had ever attempted beyond their borders, as was plain to everyone in the summer of 1905, and particularly to the man most responsible for the project, Theodore Roosevelt. But as Roosevelt also knew full well by then, and as the American people were beginning to suspect, the Canal was so far a colossal flop. Earlier, when a group of Yale professors had challenged the legality of the American presence in Panama, Roosevelt had answered grandly, “Tell them I am going to make the dirtfly on the Isthmus.” That was supposed to have squashed all such talk and fixed public attention on ends instead of means. Henceforth the President would speak of building the Canal as though it were a mighty battle in which the national honor was at stake. It was just the way the ill-fated Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had talked twenty years earlier.
In Washington, however, Roosevelt’s seven-man Canal Commission seemed incapable of agreeing on anything, let alone how to direct history’s most massive engineering effort from a distance of two thousand miles. In Panama things were in a fearful muddle. There were no plans to go by, no proper equipment to work with. Nobody had any real say, and nobody seemed to give a damn about building a canal. Among some of the engineers there the situation was looked upon as a disgrace to the profession, and among influential Republicans back home it was viewed as a potential disaster of alarming proportions.
Ships arriving in New York were bringing home more men than they were taking down—hundreds that spring. The newspapers were filled with grim, discouraging accounts by young Americans back from “that sink hole.” Every white man in Panama was afflicted with running sores, it was said. Workers were sleeping six to a room and eating high-priced food that would sicken a dog. The place was crawling with vermin, and there was absolutely nothing to do—no music, no churches, no sports, no books. The boredom alone, according to one eyewitness, was “appalling.”
But worst by far were the stories of yellow fever and malaria. There had been an outbreak of yellow fever in April; now, supposedly, an epidemic was raging. The “dead train” to Mount Hope Cemetery was making daily trips. Accounts of health conditions were, it happens, largely distorted. There was, in truth, still comparatively little yellow fever considering the number of men on the Isthmus—134 cases and thirty-four deaths during the eighteen months of the so-called epidemic. But the impression was that the Americans were fast going the way of the French, who had lost thousands of lives trying to do the same thing in the same tropical wilderness.
When de Lesseps began his Panama venture, the finest civil engineers in France had enlisted in the work, believing it to be a noble cause for the glory of France. Now it was exceedingly difficult to get any young American to sign up.
And then suddenly, with no warning at all, the chief engineer of the Canal, a Chicago railroad man named John F. Wallace, resigned his job. He was getting twentyfive thousand dollars a year for his services in Panama, but he said he had had a better offer and gave no further explanation. Roosevelt was furious. And when Wallace came up to New York from Panama to meet with Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who had overall responsibility for the Canal, there was a stormy session in Taft’s room at the Manhattan Hotel. Taft ripped into Wallace for deserting his duty for “mere lucre.” Stunned by Taft’s outburst, Wallace”asked for time to talk things over, but Taft told him his resignation would be accepted immediately.
The news that Wallace had quit set off something very near panic in Panama, where nobody thought that his motive was monetary. Wallace lived in mortal terror of yellow fever, the story went. Incredible as it may seem, when he and his wife first arrived on the Isthmus, they had among their belongings two expensive coffins.
The meeting between Taft and Wallace took place on June 22, 1905, and the newspapers made much of it. A few days later the job of chief engineer was quietly offered to another railroad man from Chicago. Roosevelt had decided to put the Canal in the hands of somebody he had never met and knew little about—except for what the railroad magnate James J. Hill, a Democrat and no special admirer of Roosevelt, had to say for him.
His name was John Frank Stevens, and he had been described by Hill, in a conversation with Taft, as the best civil engineer in America. Hill had good reason to know. Stevens had played an outstanding role in the building of the Hill-owned Great Northern Railway Company. Stevens turned the offer down at first, but then he was called upon by an unofficial emissary—William Nelson Cromwell, New York corporation lawyer, lobbyist for the Panamanians, Republican mystery man, and behind-the-scenes arranger of shadowy deals. Cromwell told Stevens that a failure to build the Canal would be disastrous for the administration, and after an hour or more of what Stevens later described as “silver-tongued arguments” from Cromwell, Stevens consented, with conditions. (One of Stevens’ sons later said his mother also urged Stevens to say Yes, telling him that his whole career had been in preparation for this great engineering command.)