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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 work was well in hand and could be completed by men “as competent and far more willing to pick up and carry the burden than I am.” Therefore, he concluded, “if in the next two or three months, you can see your way clear to let me follow along other lines much more agreeable to me, I shall ever be your debtor. May I ask your calm and dispassionate consideration of this matter …”
Roosevelt’s reaction was far from dispassionate. “To say that the President was amazed at the tone and character of the communication is to describe the feelings mildly,” wrote one reporter who talked to someone who had been with Roosevelt at the time. The President’s first decision had been to put the letter aside until the next morning. Then he sent it over to Taft with a note saying that “Stevens must get out at once.” There was a brief meeting, it seems, after which Roosevelt cabled: “S TEVENS , P ANAMA C ANAL: Y OUR LETTER RECEIVED AND RESIGNATION ACCEPTED .”
It was at this point that Roosevelt decided to turn the whole project over to the Army. At first he appointed Stevens chairman of the Canal Commission, presumably to supervise the military man who would take over the work of construction. But his irritation was evident in his statement, reported by the New York Tribune , explaining his choice of a uniformed chief engineer. “Then,” he said, “if the man in charge suffers from an enlarged cranium or his nerves go to the bad, I can order him north for his health and fill his place without confusion.” The efficient but colorless Goethals, who earlier had accompanied Taft on an inspection tour of the Canal and who was a specialist in locks and dams, was picked immediately for the top command. Stevens declined to remain as chief of the commission, thereby leaving Goethals in full charge.
All kinds of explanations were offered for Stevens’ departure. Perhaps he had relied too confidently on Roosevelt’s invitation to address him “personally, as man to man, with entire freedom upon any and all matters.” There were those who said that he was overworked; that the climate had gotten to him; that the lobbying experience in Washington had turned his stomach; that he had fallen out with the administration over a contract about to be signed with a man who would bring convict labor to Panama.
One intriguing theory offered years later suggested that Stevens had inadvertently stumbled on certain dealings within the administration that, if ever revealed, “would blow up the Republican Party and disclose the most scandalous piece of corruption in the history of the country.” The quotation is from Josephus Daniels—later to be Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy—who also held that the alleged corruption involved the silver-tongued William Nelson Cromwell, the man who had drawn Stevens into the whole Panama affair in the first place.
Stevens refused to discuss the matter. He made no attempt to answer the President’s remarks. (The Panama City Star and Herald , however, which stood firmly behind Stevens, editorialized that “the top-heavy craniums are located in Washington, and … the unsettled nerves are caused by unusual and abnormal political ambitions.” And it added that the French were doubtless laughing up their sleeves.) To the men who kept after him for a word of encouragement when the news of his replacement broke, Stevens answered: “Don’t talk, dig.” A petition was circulated begging him to change his mind. By the time of his leaving, it bore ten thousand signatures.
Stevens officially terminated his service with the Canal at midnight on March 31, 1907. When he sailed away April 8, the crowd that turned out to see him off was like nothing ever witnessed on the Canal before or since. “I have never seen so much affection displayed for any man,” wrote Goethals, who had already had to endure a cold reception from Stevens’ workmen. As the ship pulled away, Stevens was seen standing at the rail with his son. It was said he looked very pale and sad.
Yet he did not, then or later, break his silence. After the lapse of many years he wrote: Various reasons for my resignation were given by irresponsible scribblers. They all had points of similarity, as they were all stupid and mendacious. In one respect they were exactly alike; they were all absolutely untrue. I resigned for purely personal reasons, which were in no way, directly or indirectly related to the building of the canal, or with anyone connected with it in any manner.
What these personal reasons may have been he never said or gave even the slightest hint.
He gave up the chance to be immortalized as the builder of the Canal. It was a hard choice to understand. Captain DuVal, who has studied Stevens’ Panama career as closely as anyone, believes that Stevens had grown extremely restless, even bored with the job. There may be much to this explanation. Change, Stevens once wrote, was for him among the prime attractions of his profession, and the prospect of another seven years or so at the same thing doubtless had little appeal. He had never remained in one place for very long. Moreover, the creative engineering required had been accomplished and the chief obstacles overcome. The rest would be fairly routine, except for the locks, which were of relatively little interest to him. He really had no desire for personal glory; and once the success of the work was obvious, he was ready to move on, just as he had told Roosevelt he would the first time they met.