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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
On July 14, at Oyster Bay, Roosevelt and Stevens shook hands for the first time. The day, appropriately enough, was terribly hot and humid. Stevens had been invited to lunch, along with Theodore P. Shonts (still another railroad man, but a business executive rather than an engineer), whom Roosevelt had named chairman of his brand-new, streamlined Canal Commission.
According to Stevens’ recollection, Roosevelt admitted outright that things were in a “devil of a mess” at Panama. Stevens told Roosevelt that he was taking the job against his real wishes; that he was a man of few words, and those could be blunt on occasion. His conditions were these: he wanted a free hand, no trouble from bureaucrats or politicians, and an understanding that he would stay with the work until he was sure of its success or he had proved it a failure. Roosevelt, Stevens said later, agreed immediately and told Stevens to skip channels and report directly to him.
In another week or so Stevens was on his way to the Canal Zone, that “graveyard of reputations,” as Secretary of State Root called it. In the next year and a half Stevens would accomplish far more than his superiors in Washington could possibly have expected of him. The choice of Stevens was, as a matter of fact, among the wisest moves Theodore Roosevelt ever made, as Roosevelt himself said at the time. More than any other single man, except for Roosevelt, Stevens was to make the decisions that would bring the Panama Canal to completion.
In the Roosevelt Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History there is a mural by William Andrew Mackay, which gives Stevens his rightful place of importance in the story of the Canal. It is, in this respect, a rarity. On the left, in the background, behind two canal workers, stands George Washington Goethals, the very able Army engineer who would replace Stevens. On the right, behind two more canal workers, is William C. Gorgas, the Army doctor in charge of sanitation at Panama and the one principal in the building of the Canal who was on the Isthmus from start to finish. In the center, presented full figure, side by side, are Roosevelt, holding a sheet of plans, and Stevens, who appears to be explaining to Roosevelt how the Canal will be built.
When the Canal was finished, Goethals would call it Stevens’ monument. The world could not give Stevens too much credit, Goethals would write. But in the time since, the world has given Stevens scarcely any credit at all. He has been strangely overlooked by history. His name now means little to any but a handful of civil engineers, some scholars of western exploration, a few elderly railroad men, and two or three Canal historians. The average student of American history has never heard of Stevens. Today the only engineer popularly identified with the Canal is the Army man, Goethals. That this is so, however, seems due largely to the particular make-up of John F. Stevens as well as that of the man who put him in charge at the Canal Theodore Roosevelt. The impulsive T.R. was at once taken with Stevens, who described himself later as “a kind of politic ‘roughneck,’ who did not possess too deep a veneration for the vagaries of constituted authority.” This was just what the situation in Panama demanded. But later, when Stevens left the job, Roosevelt—just as impulsively, it would appear—denied him his true place in the Canal’s history.
Stevens was fifty-two in 1905, powerfully built and strikingly handsome, with a somewhat swarthy complexion and a thick black mustache. He had been raised on a farm near West Gardiner, Maine. Like many other engineers of his time he never received any formal training, although virtually all his career would be spent building railroads. He first did some surveying in Maine and then went west in 1873. He worked as a rodman in Minneapolis, a section hand in Texas—driving spikes at a dollar ten cents a day—and eventually as an assistant engineer laying out lines for a half dozen western railroads, including the Canadian Pacific. In 1876 he married Harriet O’Brien of Dallas, Texas. They had five children, two of whom died in infancy.
In 1889 Stevens went to work for James J. Hill, the celebrated “Empire Builder” of the Northwest, and by the time the Canal job came along he was a vice president of the Rock Island Railroad in Chicago. During his years in the West, and particularly those with Hill, Stevens had educated himself as thoroughly as any man in the profession. He had earned a reputation as a worker and about the ablest engineer in the business. Moreover, he had been treed by wolves, chased by Indians, struck down by Mexican fevers, marooned by blizzards, given up for lost on more than one occasion; had developed a robust physique that seemed impervious to climate; and had become something of a legend in Montana, where, in the dead of winter in 1889, he had found the “lost” Marias Pass through the Rockies.
Stevens’ discovery of the pass saved Hill more than a hundred miles and gave the Great Northern the lowest grade of any railroad over the divide. Later, in the Cascades, Stevens found another important pass that, against his wishes, was named for him. By the time he moved on in 1903, Stevens had built bridges, tunnels, and more than a thousand miles of track for Hill (quite probably as much track as any man in the world), and the Great Northern was recognized as the best-engineered railroad in the country.