Work on a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama to create a water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was begun by France in 1880. But bankruptcy halted construction nine years later, although not before costing $287 million and 25,000 lives. America took over work in 1904, not long after Panama declared its independence from Colombia and signed a treaty with the U.S. for the canal zone.
The project's first chief engineer was John Findley Wallace, a prominent railroad engineer appointed in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt. But his tenure was short. Wallace resigned just a year later, overcome by the harsh tropical climate, difficulties of procuring equipment and supplies and red tape from the Washington, D.C.-based commission supervising the project.
FREE HAND Wallace was succeeded by John F. Stevens, also a railroad engineer but experienced in rough climate from years of building rail lines on the western frontier in the midst of blizzards and Apache raids. He also dealt better with management issues--demanding a free hand from Roosevelt.
Stevens found the canal project in shambles: a plague of diseases, almost no housing, inadequate food supplies, too few pieces of excavating equipment and a poor transportation system. Under his direction, yellow fever and malaria were soon eliminated, heavy equipment brought in and massive construction of housing, a railway and port facilities under way. The rail line was critical in dealing with growing pressure from Roosevelt to show progress. It was the only way to dispose of excavated material that eventually totaled more than 260 million cu yd by the time of canal completion.
But project politics also took its toll on Stevens. He resigned after two years, allegedly because he was being pressured by politicians to accept an unsuitable contractor. To alleviate such management problems, Roosevelt decided to appoint someone who couldn't resign--an army officer. His choice in 1907 was Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals of the Army Corps of Engineers. Under Goethals' direction, excavation levels soared and tropical disease incidents fell.
Goethals divided the project into three divisions: Atlantic, Central and Pacific. Work at the Atlantic division involved construction of a breakwater at the entrance of Limon Bay, dredging a 3.5-mile channel inland, damming the Chagres River and building three pairs of locks. The Gatun Dam, built by hydraulic fill, was 1.5-miles long, 105 ft high and 1,200 ft wide at its base. It created the 23.5-mile-long Gatun Lake. Of the canal's 50.5 miles, half are covered by man-made lakes.
The Pacific Division's task was to build a 3-mile breakwater at Panama Bay, excavate a channel along the bed of the Rio Grande River and build three additional flights of locks. But it was the Central division that faced the greatest challenge--digging an 8-mile, 45-ft-deep channel to a depth of 40 ft above sea level through the Continental Divide, which was 260-ft-high Culebra Mountain.
DIGGING DIRT The initial plan was to cut a channel with 1-in-3 sloped walls, excavating 53 million cu yd. The channel profile would be 300 ft at the bottom and 670 at top. But freshly excavated walls gave way and sent millions of cubic yards of soil into the cut. Earth at the bottom of the cut erupted and generated 26 serious landslides. By the time the cut was completed, the channel was 1,800 ft wide. The basic tool for dry excavation was the 95-ton, rail-mounted Bucyrus-Erie steam shovel that was equipped with a 5-cu-yd bucket. More than 100 of the shovels were put to work across the isthmus.
The 12 locks along the canal that allow ships to easily rise to water 85 ft above sea level and pass through the isthmus remain imposing structures today. Lock chambers are all 110x1,000 ft. Each pair of locks shared a 65-ft-wide center wall. Side walls were built like gravity dams, 45 ft wide at the base and 8 ft at the top. Lock gates are 65 ft wide and 7 ft thick, ranging in height from 47 ft to 82 ft.
Theodore Roosevelt was no longer president and was within five years of his death when the Panama Canal was finally finished in 1914--10 years, $302 million and 5,609 lives later.
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