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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
Stevens knew exactly what was needed in the way of machinery and wasted no time experimenting. By the time he was ready to begin digging, he had assembled a construction “plant” such as had never been seen before all in one place—hundreds of railroad cars, thousands of hand tools of every kind, huge compressors, rock drills, as many as eighty steam shovels, and more than a hundred locomotives. And once he set it all in motion, he would go striding about the Cut, ordering this change or that and burning up cigars, as someone said, like Grant at The Wilderness.
The men called him Big Smoke. He talked of bringing in Chinese labor, which bothered a number of people, and he wanted to do away with the eight-hour day. He was working about fourteen hours a day himself and saw no reason why the rest shouldn’t too. But everyone agreed that he was the right man for the job. His popularity grew steadily. His earth-moving system worked superbly. When he encouraged rivalry among the steam-shovel crews, it worked better still. After the Army took over, Colonel Goethals would say that no Army engineer of the time could have laid it out, and he would keep the same system in operation, pretty much as it was, until the Canal was finished.
Stevens began excavation in Culebra Cut in early 1906, six months after arriving in Panama and about the time Congress was getting around to debating the question of which sort of canal he ought to be building—a sea-level canal or a lock type. (Stevens had already drawn up plans for both.) It was rather late in the game to belabor the matter, and the chief engineer had long since made up his own mind on the subject. Still, it would be June before Congress would vote on it. The final decision voted by the legislators turned out to be the right one, but only by a narrow margin. Again, Stevens played a decisive role.
When he first came to Panama, Stevens had thought he would be building a sea-level canal. He had a mental picture, he said, of a “wide expanse of blue, rippling water and great ships plowing their way through it like the Straits of Magellan, minus the current.” Roosevelt had about the same idea, it seemed. All the same he had appointed a board of distinguished engineers from several countries to consider the problem, and in November, 1905, the board voted 8 to 5 for a sea-level plan. The Navy concurred, John Wallace returned briefly to Washington to contribute his support, and it looked as though a sea-level canal was what almost everyone wanted.
Certainly a sea-level canal had great popular appeal. To the public it appeared that the “Big Ditch” needed only to be dug down deeper to get a canal free of locks, and that whatever extra time and money the job took now would be well spent in the long run. But it was not that simple.
There is, for example, a maximum tidal range on the Pacific side of about twenty feet, but only about twenty inches on the Atlantic side. So even a sea-level canal would require a system of locks to handle the resulting tidal currents. (One sea-level plan called for twin tidal locks a thousand feet long by a hundred feet wide.) In addition, an incredible volume of earth would have to be removed for a sea-level ship channel. In the view of some engineers, including Stevens, the job was beyond what their equipment was up to, and the actual cost would be beyond what the politicians would be willing to pay. The French, it was said, had made that very mistake. De Lesseps had insisted on digging down to sea level even after everyone else had seen it was madness. Their equipment was woefully inadequate, the French engineers had discovered, and by the time de Lesseps (who was not an engineer) gave in and agreed to build a lock canal, it was too late. The French canal company was bankrupt, ridden with corruption, and the whole brave, tragic enterprise collapsed. Stevens’ equipment was clearly superior to what the French had, but it was not that much superior—or so argued those who looked on a sea-level canal as decidedly unrealistic.
But the most formidable problem of all was the torrential Chagres River, “the lion in the path” as one authority called it. How it might safely be tamed was a question the sea-level enthusiasts had not resolved. Stevens had had no idea of the volume and violence of the river until he saw it with his own eyes. And in his talks with the other engineers who had been on the Isthmus for some time, he found not a single sea-level man among them—chiefly because of the Chagres. Why Wallace favored the sea-level plan is a puzzle.
But for the others who did (none of whom had had any real experience on the Isthmus), the issue was largely one of building something that would serve the purpose for a long time to come. It was argued that the increasing size of ships would make a lock canal obsolete one day. A sealevel canal would then have to be built to replace it (one of the new canal proposals now being discussed is indeed a sea-level canal), so why not do the job properly in the first place? Besides, as one leading sea-level spokesman pointed out, in all the other great engineering enterprises of the world “there is scarcely a case where the projectors have overshot the mark.” Nobody ever seemed to overestimate the needs of the future. It also seemed to the sea-level people that their canal would be less vulnerable to breakdown or to destruction by enemy attack.