Why you should care

Because achieving the impossible often hinges on arrogance, not to mention lots of hard work.

The shortest route between two points may be a straight line, but many would argue that distance isn’t the only significant measure of a journey.

Imagine navigators’ frustration at having to travel 8,000 miles out of their way to get around Cape Horn and sail between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Explorers as far back as the 16th century wanted a more direct route. It would take another 400 years before we got around to building one, and now the 50-mile-long, man-made waterway cutting through the Isthmus of Panama is celebrating its 100th birthday.

Achieving the impossible depended on a few proud, power-hungry and ingenious men — and tens of thousands of workers.

The Panama Canal changed international shipping forever: More than 1 million boats have glided through its famous locks — ranging from sailboats to 950-foot-long ships (an expansion project is underway). But like so many man-made miracles, the canal came at a great human cost: Nearly 25,000 men died in the building process, and success was far from assured throughout much of the effort.

Achieving the impossible depended on a few proud, power-hungry and ingenious men — and tens of thousands of workers.

The Proud

The U.S. and France sent investigatory teams to Central America in the 1870s in search of a plan to carve an ocean-linking path. Ferdinand de Lesseps, riding a wave of success in building the Suez Canal, got France to approve his plan for a sea-level waterway in 1879, to the tune of $240 million.

He ignored those who suggested a lock system would better suit the terrain, insisting instead that crews dig into the Culebra Cut of the continental divide, just as they had through the sand at Suez. Eventually, after several years of little progress, de Lesseps acknowledged that a lock-based system made more sense and switched gears. But it was too little, too late; the effort collapsed in 1888 under the weight of 20,000 deaths — mostly from malaria and yellow fever — and financial mismanagement.

Group of men posing for camera, image is color tinted

The 50-mile ditch that transformed an industry.

Source Library of Congress

The Power-Hungry

Cue a Republican “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, hell-bent on securing American power and international prestige; he took the helm in 1901 with an eye toward completing de Lesseps’ dream. After all, shipping between New York and the West Coast took months, and the aspiring world power needed its Navy — which Roosevelt wanted strengthened — readily at hand at both ends of the country.

[I] left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.

 

Two years later, after the U.S. supported Panama’s path to independence, the Canal Treaty was signed, giving the U.S. the right to build the canal.

Roosevelt later boasted about his own singular role in the canal’s construction, explaining how involving Congress would have meant the canal being completed “50 years in the future.” Instead, he “took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”

To recruit and retain workers — who hailed primarily from Colombia, Cuba and the West Indies but also the U.S., Panama, Europe and even Asia — Roosevelt played to their vanity, encouraging them to be involved in “one of the great works of the world.” Still, few stayed more than a year, suffering cold, wet conditions; inadequate housing; racial divide; and the constant threat of deadly diseases.

The Ingenious

The three biggest obstacles facing the U.S. project were misguided plans, the need to dispose of mountains of dirt and addressing the disease-carrying mosquitoes. The first required a convincing voice, the second a functional railroad and the last, progressive medical care.

In 1905, crews were still digging toward the impossibility of a sea-level canal. After the original chief engineer of the project resigned, Roosevelt appointed John Stevens, an engineer from rural Maine, to the task. Stevens would prove instrumental in convincing leadership of the need for a lock-based canal, as well as an efficient railroad system for removing the dirt.

Headshot of Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt.

His forward-thinking approach also stretched to the pesky insects plaguing the workers with disease. This enabled Col. William C. Gorgas, a U.S. Army physician and fan of Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay’s research on yellow fever, to get to work wiping out the plague-carrying mosquitoes around the canal site. Gorgas’s so-called mosquito brigades — a fumigating army that visited homes with insecticide powder and wire mesh at hand for window screens — were instrumental in reducing the death toll among canal workers.

Stevens proved humble enough later to admit that his railroad-engineering expertise could not take the “Big Ditch” through to fruition. He stepped down, and Roosevelt appointed Lt. Col. George Goethals, a Brooklyn-born civil engineer, to the post. Goethals tackled the project with military precision and strength, quashing a workers’ strike and garnering loyalty every step of the way.

He not only finished the job, he got it done two years ahead of schedule, and the canal — one of mankind’s greatest engineering feats — officially opened on Aug. 15, 1914.

Whether bridging the divide between two oceanic worlds was worth the 25,000 lives and millions spent may never be easy to answer. But the canal’s legacy serves as a reminder that tackling man’s greatest and perceivably impossible tasks requires huge personalities, and often arrogant ones, who are determined to succeed at any cost.

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