The Panama Canal

The construction of a waterway cutting through the land mass separating the Americas was the brainchild of early European explorers. They saw it as an ideal undertaking that would ultimately join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Notions of how to build the canal were gaining traction primarily because it would considerably shorten the voyage made by merchants traveling to the east. Business acumen and the technological innovations that marked the beginning of the 19th century were some of the main reasons why the project had to commence under the watchful eye of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a renowned French engineer (Crewe and Anderson 12). The project, however, proved a difficult task for the Frenchman and his personnel as they had not acclimatized themselves to the environment that they intended to work. Their debacle was further exacerbated by embezzlement of funds which was responsible for crippling the canal’s construction. It was at this moment that the United States decided to seize the opportunity and capitalize on the Frenchman’s failure to marshal forces to complete the canal. Carrying out the project was not an easy task for the United States government primarily considering that public opinion at home was not in its favor coupled with unfriendly South American countries. Commencing with the project became easier task when the people of Panama secured their independence as the United States now had an opportunity to carry out their operations at the canal without interference from other powers. In this essay, I will provide a discussion on the building of the Panama Canal and all the different facets of the project.

Building the Panama Canal

President Theodore Roosevelt pushed for increased US presence at the canal which at the time was thought to be quite strategic. It was through his efforts that the Federal Government was able to purchase the channel from the French at the cost of 40 million dollars in mid-1902. Through its famous “gunship diplomacy” technique, the United States was successful at ensuring that no other Latin American country interfered with the sovereignty of Panama. The independence of this newly formed nation provided near that the United States could place its weight behind efforts to build the canal, therefore ending up in control of a vital swathe of land. Pundits often claim that this particular scenario still presents a classic case of the United States is pursuing their interests as opposed to foreign policy (Engdahl 99). Before undertaking this daunting task, the United States decided to review elements that led to French failure at the canal under Ferdinand de Lesseps in a bid to correct them. The first step was to redesign the canal’s earlier proposed blueprint. The sea-level plan that was preferred by French engineers transformed into a lock-control channel one that was more practical. Moreover, the Federal Government ensured that only competent engineers would be sent to the site. Able leadership was vital if mistakes made by the French were to be corrected and by the Americans. The ripple effect was that these administrators would also look into the welfare of the workers who were to shovel through the isthmus. Part of this included controlling malaria and yellow fever, two tropical diseases that were notorious hindering progress.

The Panama Canal project was an instrumental undertaking that was also responsible for creating thousands of jobs thus putting a sizeable amount of people into gainful employment. The economy in the United States contained a significant number of immigrants from European countries who had crossed the Atlantic with hopes of following the “American Dream.” On arrival to the United States, it would soon dawn on them that this vision might as well be utopic. Conditions were getting harder by the day while jobs became rare. Additionally, their situation worsened due to an influx of new immigrants seeking fortune in this land of opportunity. It was for this reason that many opted to head to the Panama Canal to provide manual labor. At the time the United States depended on white Americans to provide skilled work and the main reason why they occupied most of the clerical positions and engineering jobs (Parker 67). Furthermore, the United States wanted to ensure that they monitored their finances keenly to avoid making the same mistakes that were made by the French. Budget cuts for additional materials were implemented to save money that would be redirected to the project. Other economic moves included seeking cheap laborers to supplement the workforce that was initially dominated only by the Americans. Workers from the French, and British West Indies were soon being employed to work at the site for meager pay. Most of these persons came from environments where they were either suffering economically or with a high unemployment rate. For the theme, this was the only way to emancipate themselves from their fiscal position.

Construction was done in phases with the engineers having to divide the landmass into three sections. Each section was placed under different management with the site engineers making autonomous decisions on how they would proceed with their excavation plans.  The sites were soon flocking with workers due to the improved working conditions. All managers therefore now have a steady flow of laborers to ensure that activities never came to a halt at the sites. John Findley Wallace was the first chief engineer at the time and had to grapple with faulty machinery that had been left in the warehouses for more than ten years. Government bureaucracy back in Washington also hampered his efforts to obtain heavy machinery. By 1905, he had resigned and was replaced by John F. Stevens who had embarked on an upgrade campaign before commencing with activities. William J. Oliver happened to be the lowest bidder and was the contractor by 1907 (Path of the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914). It was a widely known fact at the time that Oliver and Stevens were bitter rivals, but no one understood the level of their indifference for each other. Their disagreements and lack of government intervention on the plans that were to be undertaken led to Steven’s resignation and his subsequent replacement by George Washington Goethals.  He had inherited the project at a time when his predecessors had already laid the foundation for him. Goethals soon proceeded with the with subdivision plans of the isthmus into Pacific, Central and Atlantic divisions that would be worked on independently.

Construction was to begin from the Pacific division which would then enable the workers to dig inwardly through the canal. It would then be followed by the Central Division which had the most challenging task.  Under David du Bose Gaillard, the division was expected to make the Culebra Cut 40 feet below sea level through the continent (Vander 56). The excavation process was tasking because the team had cut through solid rock. Although the area was approached with utmost precaution, a section of the miners still fell victim to dynamite explosions which were often followed by landslides. The locks soon followed with structures being specially built to leverage gravity while at the same time lowering the area’s water level. Electricity powered these gates with the engineers operating them from the control board. The project would also lead to the creation of four dams that would be instrumental in blocking the Chagres River. The project would come to completion in 1914 when the first vessels crossed the channels from a different direction and met at Culebra Cut. A telegraphed message from President Woodrow Wilson was used as a trigger for dynamite explosions that went on to create the Gamboa dike, therefore completing the waterway. It was completed by the end of 1914 at the cost of $351 million and in essence the most expensive project in the history of the United States. The grand opening of the canal was expected to be one filled with pomp and glamour but had to be pulled down due to the outbreak of the First World War.

In conclusion, the Panama Canal still presents a unique example of innovation that human beings can apply in ensuring that they better their lives. The initial plan was to build a waterway that would cut travel time from the Californian gold mines, but ultimately led culminate with President Theodore Roosevelt commissioning the construction of the canal. Presently, it is one of the most vital trade routes and is even recognized as a wonder of the world.

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