Panama Canal, 1913 Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress


“Left to themselves, Americans build, cultivate, bridge, dam, canalise, invent, teach, manufacture, think, write, lock themselves in struggle with the eternal challenges that man has chosen to confront, and with an intensity not known elsewhere on the globe. Bidden to make war their work, Americans shoulder the burden with intimidating purpose. There is, I have said, an American mystery, the nature of which I only begin to perceive. If I were obliged to define it, I would say it is the ethos – masculine, pervasive, unrelenting – of work as an end in itself. War is a form of work, and America makes war, however reluctantly, however
unwillingly, in a particularly workmanlike way. I do not love war; but I love America.”
John Keegan, “Fields of Battle:The Wars for North America”

“Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.” 
Alexis de Tocqueville

Perhaps the two greatest symbols of what America means are the Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal. The statue represents our values. The canal represents what we are all about. Together, they are us.

Constructed by the United States between 1904 and 1913, the Panama Canal epitomizes the ethos and character of the American spirit. It is worth noting that neither John Keegan nor Alexis de Tocqueville was a U.S. citizen, but each captured the essence of what the canal represented in terms of the American ethos. 

For centuries, world shipping empires had dreamed of a cross-isthmus sailing capability to stitch the Atlantic and Pacific trade routes without the time-consuming and dangerous transit of the Straits of Magellan and the “Roaring ’40s.” Cross-country transits were developed, but they were paltry in terms of commerce and essentially involved people only, not goods. Nations hoped and wished for such a shortcut. America made it happen. 

A true cross-isthmus canal was conceived during the French association with Colombia in 1881. The Credit Mobilier de Suez financed an initial survey and dig, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, a national French hero and chief of construction for the Suez Canal. He deployed a sizeable force of skilled French engineers and imported a large number of laborers from the Caribbean. From the start, he was challenged by major geologic, medical and environmental facts that impeded construction. He was also constantly beset by financial issues, necessitating constant sales requests. 

The bulk of the land was swampy and difficult to dredge and drain; that which was not had erratic and variable strata of solid granite that defied the small engineering equipment available.  Laborers, both French and Caribbean, died in huge numbers from yellow fever and malaria. The bills mounted. Progress was nil. Finally, in 1902, de Lesseps admitted failure and abandoned the project. He returned to France in disgrace as his bond sales proved to be something like a Ponzi scheme, defrauding thousands of investors.

The new holders of the canal right, Philippe Bunau-Varilla and U.S. partner James Cromwell, attempted to gain American engineering support but were thwarted by the Colombian government, which owned the land and demanded more money than was offered. This issue was quickly resolved in 1903 when the local Panamanians, with significant under-the-table support from new President Theodore Roosevelt, overthrew the Colombian government and were immediately recognized by the United States. 

The Panamanians then installed Bunau-Varilla as their representative to the United States. He and Roosevelt constructed a treaty granting the United States rights of transit “in perpetuity” in return for digging the canal. This was memorialized by the creation of the Panama Canal Zone, a stretch of land five miles on each side of the artery. It was known as “the Zone.” This was, in essence, sovereign U.S. territory, a point underwritten by Operation Just Cause in 1990 to secure the canal from Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

Even though President Jimmy Carter signed the Carter-Torrijos treaty in 1977, ceding the canal in 1999, U.S. control of the Zone remained in place until the end. From 1921 until 1999, one of the most robust areas of The American Legion was “in the Zone” and represented thousands of veterans and active-duty U.S. military personnel who populated the land.

Now that Roosevelt had “won” the canal rights, the work had to begin to excavate it – and fast. He made it abundantly clear that he expected “the dirt to fly” and instilled a sense of urgency on all the leadership. First to feel the heat was the initial senior engineer, John Findley Wallace, formerly chief engineer and finally general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Wallace inherited the remains of the French infrastructure as well as all the problems. Roosevelt installed an oversight committee that became intrusive in the project, which still faced all the physical and geographic issues. Wallace completed the basic surveying and set up labor camps along the trace. He kept the issue of sea-level vice lock canal undecided as he, literally, had only begun to scratch the surface of the immense challenge.

In 1905, Wallace quit in frustration and was quickly replaced by the strong-willed John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad for James G. Hill. Briefed by Wallace on the bureaucracy of the undertaking, Stevens simply bypassed the control commission and communicated his reports and requirements directly to the White House. Roosevelt liked the approach, which conveyed an appearance of progress and ensured he was well-resourced.

After an initial survey of the land, Stevens ordered a halt to all work. Based on his experiences in building over huge tracts of rugged land in bad conditions, he recognized that a quality infrastructure was crucial to ultimate success. He also saw that the issue of digging was quite simple: it was a transportation problem, and he knew a lot about railroads and moving things from place to place.

Stevens immediately went about building and rebuilding the housing, cafeterias, hotels, water systems, repair shops, warehouses and other infrastructure needed by the thousands of incoming workers. He also saw the need for skilled, educated engineering and systems managers at all levels and began recruitment efforts to entice people from the United States and other areas to come to the Canal Zone to work. The canal became an object of American will and symbol of national optimism. 

A rail plan was crucial to Stevens’ concept and occupied most of his first two years managing the project. Construction was to occur around the clock with continuous two-way traffic. Simply moving dirt from Point A to Point B – where it could be dumped without impeding progress – was a primary challenge. One of his earliest decisions was to finalize a dam across the Chagres River to create a lake that would be an earth vice concrete structure. Two problems were thus solved in one stroke.

Equally crucial were the two ends of the canal and roadsteads at each entrance – long fingers of dirt and rock stretching from the water’s edge to deep anchorage points. Both were ideal recipients of the rock and dirt generated by the excavations. Next required was a rail and conveyance system to manage the huge quantities of material. Again, U.S. ingenuity came to the forefront.

Workers designed a derrick and frame system on the back of a flatcar. This could pick up complete sections of track and lay them down on new ground, allowing an entire portable railroad, much like toy train sets, to be created. Stevens imported hundreds of yard engines from the United States as work horses. Work became a 24/7 reality. Trains ran continuously. “Engines don’t get tired,” Stevens observed. “The engineers do.” He mandated 12-hour shifts with Sundays off, on a staggered schedule so work would be constant.

Flatcars with hinged sides were fabricated to hold the spoil. A simple steel blade called a Lidgerwood plow was created that scraped the spoil off the drop-sided car and into the emerging roadstead or dam.

The Marion Power Shovel Co., with its massive Bucyrus-brand excavator, was named the prime contractor for equipment. The company shipped hundreds of the newly designed excavators which were fitted onto the backs of modified short flatcars. They would become the prime work horses of the dig. Portable rails allowed them to literally chew their way through the land on a continuous basis with tracks alongside to take spoilage away. The dirt began to fly.

Congress had been assuming a sea-level canal would be the design, but this was an open issue with Stevens. He had seen the Chagres in full flood. He had studied the engineer reports suggesting a depth of cut across the middle mountain range and doubted that would work. He traveled to Washington in 1905 to argue his case.

To the Canal Commission and Congress, he outlined what would be the ultimate design: three lock areas, two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic, connected and fed by a huge lake, Gatun, that was filling up behind the emerging dam. The lake would allow continuous passage, fed by the significant annual rainfall. The design would be cheaper and more likely successful than sea-level. Stevens won the day.

Arriving on site shortly before Stevens traveled to Washington was one of the most important Americans to work the canal: William Gorgas. He had been appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project in 1904. Gorgas implemented a range of measures to minimize the spread of deadly diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, which had previously killed hundreds of workers.

Gorgas’ so-called “mosquito science” was not popular among his colleagues, but he was adamant and won full support from Stevens. Investment was made in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. After two years of extensive effort, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated.

Completely spent by the harsh environment, constant quibbling and meddling by Congress and a fervent desire to return home, Stevens abruptly quit in 1907. This infuriated Roosevelt, who demanded that an Army engineer replace Stevens “because he can’t quit.” The chosen man was a major, later a general, named George Washington Goethals. Widely but somewhat erroneously credited with buiding the Panama Canal, Goethals saw the project through completion in 1914 but always gave full credit to his predecessors, especially Stevens.

Goethals was instantly sensitive to the immensity of the management tasks. He created a simple, utilitarian chain of command using Army officers in most key projects. Where Stevens rarely delegated much authority, Goethals saw delegation as the key to efficiency and success.

He divided the engineering and excavation work into three divisions: Atlantic, Central and Pacific. The Atlantic Division was responsible for construction of the massive breakwater at the entrance to Limon Bay, the Gatun locks and their 3½-mile approach channel, along with the immense Gatun Dam. The Central Division had the difficult task of cutting through Culebra and establishing the trace into Gatun. The Pacific Division was responsible for the Pacific 3-mile breakwater in Panama Bay, the approach channel to the locks, the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, and their associated dams and reservoirs.

He intuitively understood that each major area was unique and required focused attention. One key issue was the immense design and construction of the locks, as well as the seemingly innocuous question: how will the canal be run?

Goethals asked for bids on canal support systems and power infrastructure. New Jersey/New York Edison made a bid, as did a new firm, General Electric (GE), fronted by Charles Steinmetz, the other wizard of electricity. The GE bid, which was highly innovative, suggested electric tow cars for each lock and electrical gates for all water discharges. Many of the discharge pipes and the Chagres Dam would be penstock power generators requiring no traditional boiler steam turbines and their attendant needs.  

In sum, GE suggested the canal be all-electric.  GE also agreed to do the bulk of the work at cost and take its profit later. Edison was not nearly as forthcoming, desiring steam turbines in a proposal that was considerably more expensive. Thomas Edison’s personal lobbying was unsuccessful, and Congress selected the low bidder. The system that GE installed remains in use today. Big, strong and simple, it was also highly innovative.

Cement was needed in huge quantities. Goethals monopolized most of the East Coast cement shippers and extracted minimal profitability per sack for the value of the quantity purchased. The issue then became how to mix and transport the material. Each area was different, requiring a unique approach. The hill areas necessitated long cable stringers of mix where the flat lands were dependent on rail transport from mix to pour sites.  Again, the delegation of authority was critical.

No one had ever developed a formula for the proper cement-sand-water ratios for the lock systems. They would be exposed to both salt water and fresh water, the intense Panamanian sun, and constant wet-dry-wet exposure. These chambers, each eight stories high, 1,000 feet long and 108 feet wide, staggered the designers. No precedent existed. Goethals’ guidance was simple: “Don’t worry about precedent. Just do.” 

The mix ratio, now lost to history, worked superbly well. Routine concrete testing done today by maintenance personnel shows the cement is as strong now as the time it was poured.

The overall design was uniquely simple and based on the fact that water seeks its own level.  Water in Gatun, higher than all but the entrance locks on each side, would be gravity-fed to each lock through the floor chambers. The water would raise the ship inside, the next stage lock would open and the ship would progress. The preceding chamber would drain into the canal, and the technique would be repeated. Simple in all respects, other than construction.

By 1910, the system design was complete. Continuous labor remained, albeit with a major problem: Culebra Cut. Goethals supervised the dig from his yellow locomotive, the “Yellow Peril.” A successful cut at Culebra presented unique challenges. The hill was a mix of unstable granite slabs and dirt. The deeper the cut, the wider the opening had to be. Army engineer David DeBose Gaillard improvised a miniature railroad system for each of the multiple cutting levels on each side, much like rice paddies on a hill. Despite prodigious drilling and blasting, a sufficient “angle of repose” could not be found.

At one point, Gaillard believed he had finally reached the right angles. That night, an earthquake, one of many routine to the isthmus, collapsed both sides. Gaillard went to Goethals in despair. Goethals simply said, “Dig it out and keep digging.”  

Finally, on Oct. 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegraph that dynamited the Chagres River blocking dam, and the canal became reality.

What America willed would and did happen.

The challenges were opportunities to demonstrate what we as a nation could do if we set our mind to it. From that moment, the Canal Zone and its population of “Zonies” became living symbols of American spirit, competency and values.  

Keith Nightingale is a retired Army colonel, two-tour Vietnam War combat veteran and former assault commander in Grenada. He managed the Department of Defense’s Counterdrug Task Force in Latin America, from Panama.