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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 fact that Stevens never adequately explained his decision gives it a certain unavoidable fascination. But apart from that, and the drama of its suddenness, the resignation was really an epilogue. Stevens’ real work was over by 1907. Had he stayed on, his further contributions, aside from personal magnetism, would have been relatively few and inconsequential. He also knew comparatively little about hydraulics, which would be the principal concern once the digging was finished and the lock construction started.
Yet Stevens had made extraordinary achievements in remarkably little time. He had created order out of the most disheartening chaos; he had backed Gorgas, without whose efforts the Canal could not have been built—or at least not without an appalling loss of life; he had devised an earth-moving system that did the job; he got the men to care about the work they were doing and established a spirit and a way of life in the Zone that most of them would talk about for the rest of their days; and he successfully championed the lock plan.
One old hand at Panama would later write: “The canal was built in those years [when Stevens was in charge] and from 1907 on nothing would have stopped its being completed.” So Stevens, whatever his reasons, had simply walked offstage at that point when there was no longer much left to his part. According to his calculations the work would be completed, the Canal ready to open, on January 1, 1915. He was off by just four and a half months. The first vessel went through on August 15, 1914.
Stevens lived a long and exceedingly active life thereafter. For a time he worked for the New Haven Railroad. Then in the fall of 1909 he went back to work for James J. Hill, secretly, travelling in an open car with his son through the spectacular Deschutes River valley in Oregon and passing himself off as John F. Sampson, a wealthy sportsman interested in trout fishing and possibly buying a little land. His actual purpose was to scout a route for a railroad line southward to San Francisco, which Hill wanted to build—but never did—in direct competition with E. H. Harriman.
Stevens stayed with Hill until 1911, when he set himself up as a consulting engineer in New York. Then, during the First World War, the White House was after him again. In 1917, the year his wife died, Stevens was asked by Woodrow Wilson to go to Russia as head of the American Railway Commission. Stevens, who was sixty-four by that time, accepted and spent the next five years in Russia, Japan, and Manchuria. During the Kerensky regime he directed a reorganization of the vast TransSiberian and Chinese Eastern railroads. He was in Russia through the revolution, and as the de facto director (the Russians called him General Stevens) he and some three hundred carefully picked American railroad men kept the Trans-Siberian running through the remainder of the war. After the war, at the request of the Russians, he stayed on as an adviser until 1922.
Stevens lived long enough to see a heroic statue erected in his honor at Marias Pass (in 1925) and to serve as a consultant on the construction of the great Cascades Tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel in America, at Stevens Pass. In 1927 the profession honored him by electing him president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And in 1937, at the age of eighty-three, he flew off to the Canal in a Pan American clipper. He was immensely impressed by all he saw in Panama and wrote of how clean and healthy the place looked. But the thing that gave him the greatest thrill, he said, was the airplane ride.
His final years were spent in retirement in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He did some advising on a proposed monorail for Los Angeles, was bothered badly by arthritis, and wrote a little about his career. His greatest service to his country, he said, had been to convince Roosevelt and the Congress to build a lock canal. He never said anything to suggest that Goethals’ fame as builder of the Canal bothered him the slightest. Goethals, he said, had done a fine job.
Stevens died on June 2, 1943, at the age of ninety. He had outlived Goethals, Taft, Gorgas, Roosevelt—all of them; so he could have had the last word had he chosen.
That Stevens’ achievements at Panama had been almost entirely forgotten, even in his own lifetime, was largely his own doing—because he had quit when he did—and doubtless he appreciated this. But Theodore Roosevelt had something to do with this neglect, too.
Roosevelt considered himself a historian as well as a great many other things, and he was so regarded by the public. When Roosevelt came to write about the Canal in his famous Autobiography , he never once mentioned the name of John F. Stevens. Gorgas was very briefly credited for his contribution. But the one who “proved to be the man of all others to do the job,” according to Roosevelt’s version of the story, was Colonel Goethals. Roosevelt said: It would be impossible to overstate what he has done. It is the greatest task of any kind that any man in the world has accomplished during the years that Colonel Goethals has been at work. It is the greatest task of its own kind that has ever been performed in the world at all.