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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 15:53 GMT
Building the canal: New world success

For almost ten years the French excavations lay abandoned


Ten years after the French effort ground to a halt, America once again began to think of the benefits of an interoceanic waterway.



By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was president related to the Panama Canal
Theodore Roosevelt
(Click here for part one of the canal history)

The project's main advocate was the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the canal not as a tool for commerce but for securing America's position as a major world power commanding two seas.

In 1898, as America headed to war with Spain, the navy's first and only real battleship, the USS Oregon, took a full 67 days at full steam to get from San Francisco to the Carribean.

It was a long and arduous 12,000-mile journey around Cape Horn and by the time it finally reached its destination the war was practically over.


Roosevelt is regarded by many as the father of the canal
The debacle stuck in Roosevelt's mind and after ascending to the presidency in 1901 he pushed Congress to approve plans for a Central American canal.

Initially the plan was to build a route through Nicaragua, but after some ferocious lobbying on the part of the French the decision was made to take up where de Lesseps had left off.

A payment of $40m bought the rights to what was left of the French canal, but the constantly changing Colombian government -still the colonial power in Panama - refused to sell the land to the US.

A new nation

Roosevelt, describing Colombia's leaders as a gang of "irresponsible bandits", abandoned attempts at negotiation and instead gave his implicit backing to the growing Panamanian movement for independence.


Canal fact
Each lock chamber can fit a ship the size of the Titanic with room to spare
As the Panamanian revolutionaries finally made their move, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of US warships to both coasts of Panama preventing Colombia from landing troop reinforcements - it was one of the first and most blatant examples of gunboat diplomacy.

The leaders of the newly independent nation quickly agreed to a new treaty with the United States and in 1903, in return for $10m compensation, Washington was given sovereign control over a 10-mile-wide Canal Zone.

Work began immediately, but many of the first labourers once again fell victim to the disease and harsh terrain that had been the scourge of the French effort.


Landslides continued to hamper the American construction effort
A year later, in 1905, railway engineer John Stevens took over the project and immediately brought a halt to the excavations.

"This is no reflection on the French," he said shortly after arriving, "but I cannot conceive how they did the work they did with the plant they had."

Following the advice of the project's Chief Sanitary Officer, Dr William Crawford Gorgas, Stevens began a huge public health campaign aimed at bringing disease under control and transforming Panama into "a fit place to live."

Huge areas of swamp were drained, running water and sewage pipes were laid, and whole new towns were built.

Back to the drawing board


Canal fact
Each ship transit uses 200m litres (52 m gallons) water to pass through the canal
Stevens also saw what he called the "impracticable futility" of trying to build a canal at sea level.

Even if it could be built, he said, the result would be little more than "a narrow, tortuous ditch" constantly vulnerable to landslides.

He convinced Roosevelt that the best chances for success stood with a lock and lake canal that would harness the power of Panama's wet climate and in particular the power of the mighty Chagres River.



The problem is one of magnitude and not miracles
John Stevens
Plans were drawn up for the damming of the Chagres creating a massive manmade reservoir that would provide the canal with an unending supply of water.

The simplicity of Steven's scheme was to create a self-sustaining canal that relied almost solely on gravity, creating what extra power it needed from generators built into the dams.

Backed up by an efficient railway system, also of Stevens' design, work began again in 1907 with more than 24,000 labourers shifting an average of twice the amount of earth per month that the French had managed.

Deadly work


Giant steam shovels helped, but much of the work was heavy labour
Most of the workers came from Barbados and were paid what was considered at the time an excellent salary - 10 cents an hour, for a ten-hour day, six days a week.

But the work was still tough and, at times, lethal. During the American construction more than 5,000 died, 4,500 of whom were black.

Most effort was concentrated on the mountainous Culebra Cut, the location of the Continental Divide and the highest point on the route, where more than 300,000 tonnes of rock would have to be shifted.



This is one of the great works of the world
Theodore Roosevelt
There, in what became known as "hell's gorge", periodic landslides would often set work back by months, burying workers and equipment in the process.

But the project continued and, although Steven's himself quit under the pressure of the job, thousands of labourers continued to arrive to work on the project.

As the work proceeded, now under the command of an Army Colonel, George Washington Goethals, the canal's construction took on epic proportions.


The locks were the largest structures ever built
The massive locks began to take shape - each one sealed with giant steel gates so perfectly balanced that they only required a 40 horsepower motor (half the power of a modern family car engine) to open them.

On the Atlantic side the Gatun Locks alone used enough concrete to build a wall half a metre wide and a metre tall all the way across the United States.

Each lock chamber was big enough to hold three Statue of Liberties laid end-to-end with room to spare.

A jungle conquered

Finally on May 20th 1913 two battered steam shovels met at the bottom of the Culebra Cut and sounded their horns - the digging was over.


The finished canal helped realise Roosevelt's dream of US naval dominance
By the end of that month the last concrete had been poured and in October of that year the tug Gatun made the first transoceanic trial run.

Almost unbelievably for such a massive project the canal had been finished ahead of schedule and under budget.

The Panama Canal officially opened to the world's shipping on 15 August, 1915, each ship taking an average of nine hours to cross from ocean to ocean.

Under American control the canal allowed American battleships easy transit between the two seas and proved the basis for realising Roosevelt's dream of turning the US from a fledgling nation into a 20th century superpower.


Click here to go to a gallery of archive pictures from the canal's construction

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