- Historic Sites
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
After considering the issue firsthand for a while, Stevens became the most powerful and persuasive voice of all for a lock and high-level lake canal. As he saw it, the Isthmus should be bridged by a man-made lake (the largest artificial body of water on earth at the time) with locks at either end stepping down to sea level. The Chagres would supply the lake and the lake would control the Chagres, thereby making a virtue of the Canal’s greatest natural obstacle.
It was essentially the same plan as one presented by a brilliant but forgotten French engineer named Adolphe Godin de Lépinay nearly thirty years before, in 1879. Had the French followed the plan, they quite likely would have succeeded. As it was, the plan was still the surest solution beyond question, as Stevens argued with great fervor in his written correspondence with Washington and when he was called back there to testify before a Senate committee.
Stevens made an impressive witness. He explained the increased danger of slides in the construction of a sealevel canal because of the enormous depth of the cut required. Furthermore, he explained, the sea-level canal being talked about would be only 150 feet wide for nearly half its length—a very narrow channel indeed and one that could be blocked for months by a serious slide or collision. When two ships passed in such a channel, one would have to stop and make fast to mooring posts, as at Suez. This procedure, slow and hazardous by day and impossible by night, would drastically reduce the volume of traffic such a canal could handle. A lock canal, on the other hand, would be less expensive to build, less expensive to operate and maintain, and provide faster, safer passage across the Isthmus.
Skillfully, Stevens outlined his plan for an immense earth dam across the Chagres at Gatun, near the Caribbean end of the Canal, which was the key to his whole lock-and-lake scheme. When his description left some of his listeners a little uneasy (the Johnstown flood of 1889 had been caused by the failure of a faulty earth dam), he assured the committee that the earth dam he had designed was quite sound and that such suggested reinforcements as a masonry core would be a superfluous expense.
“Yes, if it is absolutely safe,” one senator replied. “Here I suggest that that is a very positive opinion or conviction you have.”
“Well, I am a positive man,” Stevens answered, and the committee seemed satisfied.
Stevens by this time had also persuaded Roosevelt, originally a sea-level advocate, to formally recommend to Congress that a lock canal be built. It was what the chief engineer wanted, he wrote, and the chief engineer had “a peculiar personal interest in judging aright.” Roosevelt by now had taken a great liking to Stevens, called him “a backwoods boy,” and admired Stevens’ taste for Melville, Poe, and Huckleberry Finn .
Through May and June, Stevens lobbied openly on Capitol Hill. He kept to facts and wrote most of what would be the crucial speech during the Senate debate, which was delivered by the bantam-sized Philander Knox of Pennsylvania—Roosevelt’s former trust-busting Attorney General and, interestingly, one of the former owners of the ill-fated dam that caused the Johnstown flood, a fact that escaped attention in 1906.
Knox spoke on June 19. Two days later the Senate voted 36 to 31 for a lock canal. The House soon followed suit. As Navy Captain Miles P. DuVal, Jr., the leading authority on the subject, has written, “This was the great decision in building the Panama Canal.” Had the vote gone the other way, had the United States attempted a sea-level canal at that time, the project would have been finished perhaps by 1925 or, more likely, not at all.
Stevens went back to Panama after that, and the work moved ahead at a steady pace. In November, always one of the wettest, unhealthiest months there, Roosevelt arrived. He wanted to see the place at its worst. He spent three historic days sloshing about in tropical downpours, shaking hands, asking innumerable questions, and offering words of inspiration: “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.” Stevens was with him the whole time and stood by while Roosevelt, in a light linen suit, had himself photographed in the driver’s seat of a ninety-five-ton steam shovel. The dirt was flying at last.
Exactly what went sour after that is still something of a mystery. Early in 1907, just when all seemed to be going satisfactorily, Stevens, as suddenly as Wallace before him, left the job. On January 30, 1907, he wrote a six-page letter to Roosevelt, who received it less than three months after his return from Panama.
Though there was no formal request for resignation, Stevens clearly wanted out. He complained of “enemies in the rear” and of the discomforts of being “continually subject to attack by a lot of people, and they are not all in private life, that I would not wipe my boots on in the United States.” He estimated it was costing him one hundred thousand dollars a year to stay in Panama, considering what he could be earning at home. (He was being paid thirty thousand dollars at the time, an unheard of figure for a government job and the subject of no little carping on the Hill.) The honor of the task appealed to him but slightly, and he could at any time return to positions that “I would prefer to hold, if you will pardon my candor, than the Presidency of the United States.”