Modern history

19

The Chief Point of Attack

The chief point of attack was, of course, the Culebra Cut, then, as always, the most formidable obstacle to be fought and overcome. How much more formidable it really was than had been suspected was soon to be revealed.

—JOSEPH BUCKLIN BISHOP

I

For anyone to picture the volume of earth that had to be removed to build the Panama Canal was an all but hopeless proposition. Statistics were broadcast—15,700,000 cubic yards in 1907, an incredible 37,000,000 cubic yards in 1908—but such figures were really beyond comprehension. What was 1,000,000 cubic yards of dirt? In weight? In volume? In effort?

The illustrative analogies offered by editors and writers were of little help, since they were seldom any less fantastic. The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator. The spoil would be enough to build sixty-three pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. (To help its readers imagine what this might look like, Scientific American commissioned an artist to draw Manhattan with giant pyramids lining the length of Broadway from the Battery to Harlem.)

The material taken from Culebra Cut alone, exclaimed one writer toward the completion of the work, would make a pyramid topping the Woolworth Building by 100 feet (the Woolworth, at 792 feet, was then the world’s tallest building), while the total spoil excavated in the Canal Zone would form a pyramid 4,200 feet high, or more than seven times the height of the Washington Monument.

If all the material from the canal were placed in one solid shaft with a base the dimension of a city block, it would tower nearly 100,000 feet—nineteen miles—in the air.

But who could imagine such things? Or how many could also take into account the smothering heat of Panama, the rains, the sucking mire of Culebra, none of which was less troublesome or demoralizing than in times past. For however radically systems or equipment were improved upon, however smoothly organized the labor army became, the overriding problem remained Panama itself—the climate, the land, the distance from all sources of supply. At the bottom of Culebra Cut at midday the temperature was seldom less than 100 degrees, more often it was 120 to 130 degrees. As Theodore Shonts once remarked, to have built the same canal in a developed country and a temperate climate would have posed no special difficulties.

More manageable—and more impressive—were the results of, say, a month’s or even a day’s work in Culebra Cut, or the relative effectiveness of the whole earth-digging, earth-moving system as compared to what the French had achieved at Suez or at Panama, these being the only prior efforts that were really analogous. When the work under Goethals was at its height, the United States was excavating at Panama the equivalent of a Suez Canal every three years. The 37,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock removed in the one year of 1908 was nearly half as much as two successive French companies had succeeded in digging at Panama in a total of nearly seventeen years, and more than all that portion of excavation by the French that was useful to the present plan.

In any one day there were fifty to sixty steam shovels at work in the Cut, and with the dirt trains running in and out virtually without pause, the efficiency of each shovel was more than double what it had been. Along the entire line about five hundred trainloads a day were being hauled to the dumps. A carload of spoil was being removed every few seconds and the average daily total was considerably more than what the French had been digging in a month’s time the year John Wallace arrived on the scene. But all prior effort, American as well as French, was put in the shadows.

Perhaps as extraordinary as anything that can be said is that the work could not have been done any faster or more efficiently in our own day, despite all technological and mechanical advances in the time since, the reason being that no present system could possibly carry the spoil away any faster or more efficiently than the system employed. No motor trucks were used in the digging of the canal; everything ran on rails. And because of the mud and rain, no other method would have worked half so well.

But the canal builders were not merely achieving what others had failed at; they were doing more, much more, than they or anyone had foreseen, for every prior estimate of the size of the task had been woefully inaccurate. The American engineers had been no less naïve in their reckoning of the total mass to be removed than had the French. On November 13, 1904, the day after the first Bucyrus shovel began digging in Culebra Cut there had been a small landslide which put that shovel out of commission for several days. Presently, in Stevens’ time, there had been further slides on the order of what the French had experienced. But no one had the remotest conception of what was to occur during the Goethals years. Rather, it was felt that the whole issue of slides had been overemphasized. Professor Burr, of Roosevelt’s international advisory board, had testified that there really need be no concern: “All that is necessary to remedy such a condition is simply to excavate the clay or to drain it to keep the water out. It is not a new problem. It is no formidable feature of the work.”

The advisory board in its 1906 study—that is, in the minority report for a lock canal—had placed the total volume of excavation still to be accomplished at not quite 54,000,000 cubic yards. But by 1908 that estimate had to be revised to about 78,000,000 cubic yards. In 1910 it was put at 84,000,000; in 1911, at 89,000,000. By 1913 the estimate had reached 100,000,000 cubic yards, or nearly equal to the figure initially given by the advisory board for a canal at sea level!

As in the French time, the more digging that went on, the more digging there was to be done.

•   •

For the man who now bore the burden of responsibility for all that occurred, the initial hurdle had been primarily personal and as difficult as anything in his experience.

Goethals’ reception upon arrival had been pointedly cool. Plainly, neither he nor the Army was wanted by the rank and file of Americans on the job and everyone seemed eager to make a special point of Stevens’ tremendous popularity. Thousands of signatures had been gathered for a petition urging Stevens to withdraw his resignation and stay. No one, it seemed, had anything but the strongest praise for him and all he had done. Never in his career, Goethals remarked, had he seen so much affection displayed for one man.

Stevens and Dr. Gorgas were at the pier the morning Goethals and Major Gaillard landed. No real reception had been arranged; nothing had even been done about a place for Goethals or Gaillard to stay. Stevens still occupied the official residence of the chief engineer, a new six-bedroom house at Culebra that was to be Goethals’ once Stevens departed, but since Stevens “didn’t seem inclined to take us into his house” (as Goethals wrote to his son George), the two officers had moved in with Gorgas at Ancon, where there was little privacy, not even a desk at which Goethals could work. His letters to his family those first weeks were written on his lap as he sat in a straight-backed chair in one of the bedrooms.

To add to the spirit of gloom, the Star & Herald openly deplored the prospect of military rule. Probably no workers would have to wear uniforms, the paper presumed, but neither should anyone be surprised if he had to answer roll call in the morning or salute his new superiors.

That the railroad men around Stevens had scant regard for Army engineers seemed also abundantly plain to Goethals. “Army engineers, as a rule, were said to be, from their very training dictatorial and many of them martinets,” he would write, “and it was predicted that if they . . . were placed in charge of actual construction the canal project was doomed to failure.” The Army men had only technical training, it was said; they had never “made a success as executive heads of great enterprises.”

His own private estimate of the state of the work was entirely favorable. The difference between what he saw now and what he had seen in 1905, during the visit with Taft, was extraordinary. As he wrote to his son, “Mr. Stevens has done an amount of work for which he will never get any credit, or, if he gets any, will not get enough. . . .”

Several days passed before he was granted a more or less official welcome—a Saturday-night “smoker” given as much to entertain a party of visiting congressmen. John Stevens declined to attend and Goethals, at the head table, sat listening without expression as the toastmaster extolled Stevens at length and made several cutting remarks about the military. It was an evening he would never forget. With each mention of Stevens’ name there was a resounding cheer, while the few obligatory references to Stevens’ successor were met with silence. Goethals was furious at what he regarded as “slurs” on the Army, but kept still until it was his turn. He had come to the affair not in uniform but in a white civilian suit. In fact, he had brought no uniforms to the Isthmus and never in the years to come would he be seen in one.

He was, he told the assembled guests, as appreciative as they of the work Stevens had accomplished and he had no intention of instigating a military regimen. “I am no longer a commander in the United States Army. I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama, and that the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the Canal, and any man here on the work who does his duty will never have any cause to complain of militarism.”

He took over from Stevens officially at midnight, March 31, 1907, and a week later Stevens sailed for home. One of the largest crowds ever seen on the Isthmus jammed the pier at Cristobal to see him off, everyone cheering, waving, and singing “Auld Lang Syne.” Stevens was noticeably amazed and touched by the outpouring of affection. This time it was Goethals’ turn not to attend.

Having none of Stevens’ colorful mannerisms or easy way with people, Goethals impressed many at first as abrupt and arbitrary, a cold fish. The word “goethals” in Flemish, it was soon being said, meant “stiff neck.”

He hated to have his picture taken. He found the visiting congressmen rude, tiresome, terribly time-consuming. Callers were “an awful nuisance.” It was expected that he appear at every dance and social function at the Tivoli or the Culebra Club. He would “brace up” and go “out of a sense of duty” and spend the evening sitting on a porch listening to the music, waiting only for the time when he could politely withdraw.

Stevens’ former secretary, having agreed to stay and help with the transition, suddenly resigned. William Bierd, the railroad boss, made a surprise announcement that he was retiring because of his health, but then Goethals learned that Bierd was taking a job with Stevens on the New Haven Railroad. Frank Maltby decided no civilian engineer had a future any longer at Panama and so he too quit. Then the steam-shovel engineers, sensing the time was at last right for a show of strength, threatened to strike unless their demands were met. Goethals refused and they walked off the job. It was the first serious strike since the work had begun. Of sixty-eight shovels, only thirteen were still in operation. He recruited new crews.

Even the newly arrived Major Sibert was proving “cantankerous and hard to hold” in meetings. Mrs. Sibert, Goethals learned, was “disgusted” with the Panama weather.

From surviving letters written to his son George, then in his senior year at the Military Academy, it is apparent that he was also extremely lonely. Mrs. Goethals was still in Washington “doing society at a great rate”; another, younger son, Thomas, was at Harvard. He felt very out of touch, he wrote; there was not time even to read the paper. His sole source of amusement was the French butler, Benoit, who still spoke practically no English but went with the official residence at Culebra, Goethals being his seventh chief engineer.

The day began at first light. At 6:30, with Benoit standing stiffly in attendance, “the Colonel” had his breakfast—one peeled native orange stuck on the end of a fork, two eggs, bacon, one cup of coffee. By seven he had walked down to Culebra Station to catch either the No. 2, northbound, at 7:10, or the No. 3, southbound, at 7:19. The morning was spent inspecting the line. He carried a black umbrella and customarily wore white. Invariably he looked spotless; invariably he was smoking a cigarette.

Back at the house again, immediately upon finishing a light lunch, he would rest for half an hour, then walk to his large, square corner office on the first floor at the Administration Building. There he would receive people until dinner at seven. In the evening, unless otherwise engaged, he would return to the office to concentrate on his paper work until about ten.

To most observers he seemed wholly oblivious of his surroundings, intent only on his work. One employee, relaxing on his own porch one particularly beautiful moonlit evening, witnessed the following scene:

“There were only a few lights here and there in the Administration Building. One by one they went out, all except that in the old man’s office. It was getting on toward ten when his window went dark . . . . A full moon, as big as a dining-room table, was hanging down about a foot and a half above the flagstaff—a gorgeous night. The old man came out and walked across the grass to his house. He didn’t stop to look up at the moon; he just pegged along, his head a little forward, still thinking. And he hadn’t been in his own house ten minutes before all the lights were out there. He’d turned in, getting ready to catch that early train. . . .”

To his elder son, Goethals wrote that he was better off occupied, since there was nothing else to do. He confessed to working so hard that he would often end the day in a kind of daze. He was not the “clean-desk” man Stevens had been. His “IN” and “OUT” baskets were always jammed. Papers were piled wherever there was room on his desk—correspondence, folded maps, specifications, plans, half a dozen black notebooks, reports in heavy dark-blue bindings. The bit of clear desk surface he managed to maintain directly in front of him was soon peppered with cigarette burns.

He liked things on paper. If during his morning excursions along the line a department head or engineer urged some new approach or improvement, the inevitable response was “Write it down.”

It was not in him to court popularity. He wanted loyalty first, not to him but to the work, that above all. He abhorred waste and inefficiency and he was determined to weed out incompetents. Nor was there ever to be any doubt as to his own authority. “What the Colonel said he meant,” a steam-shovel engineer remembered. “What he asked for he got. It didn’t take us long to find that out.” Requests or directives from his office were not to be regarded as subjects for discussion. When the head of the Commissary Department, a popular and influential figure, informed Goethals that he would resign if Goethals persisted in certain changes in the purchasing procedure, Goethals at once informed him that his resignation was accepted and refused to listen when he came to retract the threat. “It will help bring the outfit into line,” Goethals noted privately. “I can stand it if they can.” He put Lieutenant Wood in as a replacement. “ . . . I just put it up to him to make good . . .” he wrote.

“Executive ability,” he observed on another occasion, “is nothing more or less than letting the other fellow do the work for you.” But to some he gave every appearance of wishing only to dominate everything himself. Marie Gorgas, in particular, found him “grim, self-sufficing.” He was much too abrupt for her liking. “His conversation and his manners, like his acts, had no finesse and no spirit of accommodation.” She grew to dislike him heartily. Even Robert Wood, who admired his “iron will and terrific energy,” found him “stern and unbending—you might say a typical Prussian . . . . I was his assistant for seven years,” Wood recalled long afterward, “and I might say that everything in my life since has seemed comparatively easy.”

But if the manner was occasionally severe, the standards demanding, he was invariably fair and gave to the job a dignity it had not had before. “I never knew him to be small about anything,” recalled an electrical engineer named Richard Whitehead, who joined the force that same summer of 1907. Goethals knew how to pick men. He knew how to instill determination, to get people to want to measure up. He was not loved, not then or later, but he was impressive. And by late summer he had “the outfit in line.”

“Another week of observation has confirmed my view . . . that the discontent and uneasiness which followed the departure of Stevens have nearly passed away . . .” wrote Joseph Bucklin Bishop to Theodore Roosevelt in mid-August. Undersized and grouchy-looking, with a little, pointed gray beard and a shiny bald head, Bishop was another new addition. He had been transferred from the Washington office on Roosevelt’s orders and was to be at Goethals’ side from then on, as secretary of the commission, ghost writer, policy adviser, alter ego. And not incidentally he was to feed confidential reports to the White House on how things were going.

Goethals, reported Bishop, was “worn and tired and says that he has had a veritable ‘hell of a time,’ but I believe he has won out. When I told him so, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ”

Mrs. Goethals had arrived and departed meantime. So his marriage, characterized years afterward by members of the family as “difficult,” became still another topic for local speculation as the lights in his office burned on into the night.

•   •

At Bishop’s suggestion, Goethals started a weekly newspaper, the Canal Record, the first such publication since de Lesseps’ Bulletin du Canal Interocéanique and very similar in format. Goethals insisted that the paper be neither a rehash of news from the United States nor a means for trumpeting the reputation of anyone on the canal commission. Indeed, quite unlike the de Lesseps’ paper, its editorial policy specifically forbade praise of any official. The objective was to provide the American force—as well as Congress—with an accurate, up-to-date picture of the progress being made, something hitherto unavailable in any form, as well as reports on social life within the Zone, ship sailings, sports, any activities “thought to be of general interest.”

With Bishop as editor, the first edition appeared September 4, 1907. The style was direct and factual and so it would remain, except for occasional letters from employees. Still it was an amazing morale builder. It did for its readers much what Stars and Stripeswould do for the A.E.F. in France. It brought the strung-out settlements in closer touch, made the Zone more of a community. In addition, it had an almost instant effect on productivity.

Bishop began publishing weekly excavation statistics for individual steam shovels and dredges, and at once a fierce rivalry resulted, the gain in output becoming apparent almost immediately. “It wasn’t so hard before they began printing the Canal Record,” a steam-shovel man explained to a writer for The Saturday Evening Post. “We were going along, doing what we thought was a fair day’s work . . . [but then] away we went like a pack of idiots trying to get records for ourselves.”

To give employees opportunity to air their grievances, Goethals next established his own court of appeal. Every Sunday morning, from about 7:30 until noon, he was at his desk to receive any and all who had what they believed to be a serious complaint or problem. He saw them personally, individually, on the basis of first come, first served, irrespective of rank, nationality, or color. By late 1907 there were thirty-two thousand people on the payroll, about eight thousand more than when he took over. By 1910 there would be nearly forty thousand. Yet once a week, beginning in the fall of 1907, any of these people—employees or dependents—could “see the Colonel” and speak their minds.

The scene was unique in the American experience, unique and memorable in the eyes of all who saw it. Jules Jusserand, the French ambassador, likened it to the court of justice held by Saint Louis beneath the oak at Vincennes. “One sees the Colonel at his best in these Sunday morning hours,” wrote a reporter who had been greatly frustrated by what seemed a congenital inability on Goethals’ part to talk about himself. “You see the immensely varied nature of the things and issues which are his concern. Engineering in the technical sense seems almost the least of them.”

Some advance screening was done. Bishop saw the English-speaking workers, while the Italians, Spaniards, and other Europeans were seen by a multilingual interpreter, Giuseppe Garibaldi, grandson of the Italian liberator. And often these preliminary interviews were enough to resolve the problem—the mere process of free expression gave the needed relief—but if not, Goethals’ door stood open.

On an average Sunday he saw perhaps a hundred people and very few appear to have gone away thinking they had been denied justice. They came to the front of the tall, barnlike Administration Building, entered a broad hallway hung with maps and blueprints and there waited their turn. Their complaints included everything from the serious to the trivial: harsh treatment by a foreman, misunderstandings about pay, failure to get a promotion, dislike of the food or quarters, insufficient furniture. He listened to appeals for special privileges and financial dispensation. One request was for the transfer of a particular steam-shovel engineer to a different division where a particular baseball team needed a pitcher. (The request was granted.) He was given constructive ideas regarding the work and was made party to the private quarrels between husbands and wives or families in adjoining apartments. By all accounts he was a patient listener.

Many complaints could be settled at once with a simple yes or no or by a brief note sent down the line. A serious situation of any complexity was promptly investigated. “He was a combination of father confessor and Day of Judgment,” wrote Bishop. The vast majority who came before him were almost excessively respectful. Rarely would anyone challenge his authority and then to no avail. “If you decide against me, Colonel, I shall appeal,” one man declared. “To whom?” Goethals asked.

Some of the remaining officials from the Stevens regime had expressed vehement disapproval when these Sunday sessions were first announced. Jackson Smith, of the Labor Department, had been especially exercised, since his own policy in past years had been to tell anyone who had a complaint to feel free to leave on the next ship. And this, apart from Smith’s own rude manner, had been considered a perfectly appropriate policy. Stevens had been in full accord. The new approach was in fact wholly unorthodox by the standards of the day. In labor relations Goethals was way in advance of his time, and nothing that he did had so discernible an effect on the morale of the workers or their regard for him: “they were treated like human beings, not like brutes,” Bishop recalled, “and they responded by giving the best service within their power.”

In Goethals’ own estimate, expressed privately many years afterward, it was thus that he won “control of the force,” and control of the force was “the big, attractive thing of the job.”

When another delegation of congressmen, members of the House Appropriations Committee, arrived in November, they were impressed as much by Goethals as by the strides being made, a point of special satisfaction at the White House. “I was present at all the hearings . . .” Bishop wrote to Roosevelt. “Not only did he [Goethals] show that he knew his business thoroughly, had absolute grasp of the work as a whole, but that he had at his tongue’s end more knowledge of details than any of his immediate subordinates.”

Before leaving for Washington the chairman of the delegation, Congressman James A. Tawney, told Goethals privately not to worry about appropriations—he could count on whatever he wanted. The committee reported the situation in Panama to be in “excellent shape.” And as time went on, Goethals’ standing on Capitol Hill was to be a factor of the greatest importance. Money sufficient to do the job correctly was never to become an issue.

“There is only one man who should be heard at Washington on the Canal, and that is Goethals,” Bishop stressed to Roosevelt. “He has absolute knowledge, perfect manners, and can talk . . . . He says I am the man who should be spokesman rather than he, but don’t let him persuade you into such a belief. He is the man at the helm . . .”

•   •

Within less than a year after Goethals took charge, several major changes were made in the basic plan of the canal, and with a sweeping reorganization, beginning in early 1908, he installed his own entirely new regime. The widespread impression was that the plan was firm, that this at last was the canal that was to be built, and that these were the men who would build it. The widespread impression was correct.

The changes, each very important, were as follows:

—The bottom width of the channel through Culebra Cut was to be made half again wider, from two hundred to three hundred feet. Thus it was to be more than four times as broad as the French canal would have been at that point.

—The width of the lock chambers was enlarged, primarily to satisfy the Navy. The locks would be 110 feet wide (rather than 95 feet) to accommodate the largest battleship then on the drawing boards, the Pennsylvania, which had a beam of 98 feet. (The largest commercial vessel then being built was the Titanic, with a beam of 94 feet.) So each lock chamber was to be 110 feet by 1,000 feet.

—On the Pacific side, where heavy silt-bearing currents threatened to clog the entrance to the canal, the engineers now planned a tremendous breakwater that would reach three miles across the tidal mud flats to Naos Island.

—When trestles began sinking in the mud at the site of the Sosa Dam, a major change had to be made in the placement of the Pacific locks. Previously, there was to have been one lock at the south end of Culebra Cut, at Pedro Miguel, then an intermediate-level lake and another set of two locks close to the Pacific shore, at Sosa Hill. In the new arrangement, the Pedro Miguel complex remained unchanged, but the dam and second set of locks were pulled back from Sosa Hill—back from the Pacific—to a new site at Miraflores. Consequently the terminal lake (called Sosa Lake on the old plan) was greatly reduced in area and the first flight of locks at the Pacific end was now to be as far inland as were the Gatun Locks. From the military viewpoint this was regarded as a far better solution, since the Pacific locks would now be far less vulnerable to bombardment from the sea, a point Goethals had made to Taft as early as 1905, following their tour of the area. The possibility of bombardment from the air had not been considered then, nor was it now late in 1907, since the world had as yet to catch up to the achievements at Kitty Hawk.

With his reorganization Goethals did away with all the old departments first established by Wallace and carried on by Stevens. Under that system the work had been portioned off according to specific types of activity—excavation and dredging, labor and quarters, and so forth. Now everything was simply divided into three geographic units—an Atlantic Division, a Central Divison, and a Pacific Division—each run by one overall chief who was responsible for virtually everything within the district other than sanitary and police activities. It was a scheme very like that used by the French, with the fundamental difference that none of the work was to be done by contract, except for the lock gates. Stevens’ contract plan had been dropped at the time Goethals took over.

The Atlantic Division included the four miles of sea-level approach from Limon Bay, Gatun Locks, and Gatun Dam. The Pacific Division included the sea-level entrance at that end, as well as the locks and dams. Everything in between, some thirty-two miles of canal and including Culebra Cut, comprised the Central Division.

The Atlantic side was to be run solely by Army men, with Major Sibert as division head assisted by several other engineering officers. Forty-seven years old, large, headstrong, full of ambition and good humor, William Sibert was cut from much the same pattern as John Stevens, with whom he was one day to collaborate on a book about the canal. Sibert’s civilian clothes fit him badly, he chewed on unlit cigars, and he spoke his mind. His relations with Goethals, strained from the start, were to become more and more unpleasant.

Born on a farm in Alabama, Sibert had finished at West Point in 1884, worked on the famous Poe Lock at the Soo Canal and ran a railroad in the Philippines. But for the past six years, assigned to river and harbor work at Pittsburgh, he had built more than a dozen locks and dams on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. His experience in such work was second to none, a point neither he nor Goethals would lose sight of.

The Central Division was assigned to Major Gaillard, but his highly competent executive officer was a civilian, a lean, red-haired Bostonian named Louis K. Rourke, who had been running things very well in Culebra Cut for nearly two years.

David Du Bose Gaillard (pronounced Ge-yard) was a South Carolinian. He was a year older than William Sibert and a close friend. As cadets at the Military Academy they had been roommates and were known as David and Goliath. Still slim and youthful-looking, Gaillard had had a solid if unspectacular career in the Corps of Engineers and like Goethals had been singled out for the initial General Staff. “Sibert’s experience on locks and dams makes his assignment to that work very necessary,” Goethals explained to his West Point son, “ . . . so Gaillard had to take the Cut.”

Like Goethals, these and the other engineering officers who were to serve in Panama considered themselves part of an honored tradition; and this, it should be emphasized, gave to their whole mode of operation a very different tone from that of the previous regime. It was not that they were necessarily superior technicians to the railroad people who preceded them, but that their entire training and experience had been directed toward large construction works in the national interest. They were engineers of the state, no less than those who had come out from France to build the de Lesseps canal. Even their training had been patterned after that of the École Polytechnique, from the time Sylvanus Thayer instituted the sweeping academic reforms at West Point that were to make him “Father of the Military Academy.” It was Thayer in the 1820’s who, after observing the program of the famous French school, made engineering the heart of the curriculum at West Point and instilled the mission to construct into the academic program. “We must get up early, for we have a large territory,” a cadet once explained to a visitor in the 1850’s; “we have to cut down the forests, dig canals, and make railroads all over the country.” And that had remained the prevailing spirit. Only the top men from each class qualified for the Engineers.

But the Goethals regime did not consist solely of Army people, the common view again notwithstanding. Indeed, the only division head that he personally appointed was a civilian, Sydney B. Williamson, who had been a young assistant at Muscle Shoals when Goethals constructed the high-lift lock. He and Williamson had worked well together then and on several subsequent projects, and their trust in each other was total. Williamson was put at the head of the Pacific Division and all his subordinate engineers were to be civilians. So naturally the lines were drawn: if the Army was to build the Atlantic locks and the civilians the Pacific locks, then it would be a test to see which group was the most resourceful and competent. A sharp rivalry ensued, just as Goethals anticipated.

Meantime, Rear Admiral Harry Harwood Rousseau, who at thirty-eight was the youngest member of the canal commission, was given responsibility for the design and construction of all terminals, wharves, coaling stations, dry docks, machine shops, and warehouses. Lieutenant Frederick Mears, aged twenty-nine, was put in charge of relocating the Panama Railroad, a large and very difficult task. To build the forty-odd miles of the new line would take five years and cost nearly $9,000,000.

Two further resignations were announced, those of Joseph Ripley, who had been Stevens’ choice for lock design, and Jackson Smith, whose competence Goethals recognized but whose manner had become more than Goethals was willing to tolerate. As a result Smith’s Department of Labor and Quarters was broken up and Major Carroll A. Devol was named Chief Quartermaster of the Zone, with responsibility for labor, quarters, and supplies. The personal choice of Secretary Taft, Devol had been in charge of the Army transport service in San Francisco in 1906 at the time of the earthquake and had managed the distribution of all supplies to the stricken city, an enormous and ably handled operation for which the Army was wholly responsible and for which the Army was to get too little credit.

Up until now all the design work on the locks had been handled in Washington, but with Ripley’s departure, Goethals transferred the design staff to the Isthmus and installed still another Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Foote Hodges, at its head.

Everything considered, Hodges was probably Goethals’ most valuable man, as well as the sort journalists and historians could readily overlook. Born in Boston, class of ’81 at the Academy, he was small, fussy, humorless, quite unspectacular in manner and appearance. With his sharp little face and large, dark, intense eyes, he looked not unlike a bright mouse. Like Sibert, he had spent several valuable years working with Colonel Poe on the Soo, and like Sydney Williamson, he was Goethals’ personal choice. Hodges, henceforth, had overall responsibility for the design and erection of the lock gates, all the tremendous conduits and valves beneath the walls and floors of the locks, every intricate mechanism required. He had, that is, the most difficult technical responsibility in the entire project, upon which depended the canal’s success. When Goethals was away from the Isthmus, Hodges would serve as acting chief engineer. According to Goethals, the canal could not have been built without him.

II

The “special wonder of the canal” was Culebra Cut. It was the great focus of attention, regardless of whatever else was happening at Panama. The building of Gatun Dam or the construction of the locks, projects of colossal scale and expense, were always of secondary interest so long as the battle raged in that nine-mile stretch between Bas Obispo and Pedro Miguel. The struggle lasted seven years, from 1907 through 1913, when the rest of the world was still at peace, and in the dry seasons, the tourists came by the hundreds, by the thousands as time went on, to stand and watch from grassy vantage points hundreds of feet above it all. Special trains had to be arranged to bring them out from Colón and Panama City, tour guides provided, and they looked no different from the Sunday crowds on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City. Gentlemen wore white shoes and pale straw hats; ladies stepped along over the grass in ankle-length skirts and carried small, white umbrellas as protection from the sun. A few were celebrities: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Lord Bryce, President Taft, and William Jennings Bryan (who “evinced more general excitement than anyone since T.R.”). “He who did not see the Culebra Cut during the mighty work of excavation,” declared an author of the day, “missed one of the great spectacles of the ages—a sight that no other time, or place was, or will be, given to man to see.” Lord Bryce called it the greatest liberty ever taken with nature.

A spellbound public read of cracks opening in the ground, of heartbreaking landslides, of the bottom of the canal mysteriously rising. Whole sides of mountains were being brought down with thunderous blasts of dynamite. A visiting reporter engaged in conversation at a tea party felt his chair jump half an inch and spilled a bit of scalding tea on himself.

To Joseph Bucklin Bishop, writing of “The Wonderful Culebra Cut,” the most miraculous element was the prevailing sense of organization one felt. “It was organization reduced to a science—the endless-chain system of activity in perfect operation.”

On either side were the grim, forbidding, perpendicular walls of rock, and in the steadily widening and deepening chasm between—the first man-made canyon in the world—a swarming mass of men and rushing railway trains, monster-like machines, all working with ceaseless activity, all animated seemingly by human intelligence, without confusion or conflict anywhere . . . . The rock walls gave place here and there to ragged sloping banks of rock and earth left by the great slides, covering many acres and reaching far back into the hills, but the ceaseless human activity prevailed everywhere. Everybody knew what he was to do and was doing it, apparently without verbal orders and without getting in the way of anybody else. . . .

Generally, the more the observer knew of engineering and construction work, the higher and warmer was his appreciation.

Panoramic photographs made at the height of the work gave an idea of how tremendous that canyon had become. But the actual spectacle, of course, was in vibrant color. The columns of coal smoke that towered above the shovels and locomotives—“a veritable Pittsburgh of smoke”—were blue-black turning to warm gray; exposed clays were pale ocher, yellow, bright orange, slate blue, or a crimson like that of the soil of Virginia; and the vibrant green of the near hills was broken by cloud shadow into great patchworks of sea blue and lavender.

The noise level was beyond belief. On a typical day there would be more than three hundred rock drills in use and their racket alone—apart from the steam shovels, the trains, the blasting—could be heard for miles. In the crevice between Gold Hill and Contractors Hill, where the walls were chiefly rock, the uproar, reverberating from wall to wall, was horrible, head-splitting.

For seven years Culebra Cut was never silent, not even for an hour. Labor trains carrying some six thousand men began rolling in shortly after dawn every morning except Sunday. Then promptly at seven the regular work resumed until five. But it was during the midday break and again after five o’clock that the dynamite crews took over and began blasting. At night came the repair crews, men by the hundreds, to tend the shovels, which were now being worked to the limit and taking a heavy beating. Night track crews set off surface charges of dynamite to make way for new spurs for the shovels, while coal trains servicing the shovels rumbled in, their headlights playing steadily and eerily up and down the Cut until dawn. And though it was official I.C.C. policy that the Sabbath be observed as a day of rest, there was always some vital piece of business in the Cut that could not wait until Monday.

Among the most fascinating of the surviving records of the work is a series of Army Signal Corps films made down in the Cut. Watching these rare old motion pictures (now in a collection at the National Archives), seeing the trains cut back and forth across the screen, seeing the dynamite go off and tiny human figures rush about through clouds of dust and smoke, one senses too how extremely dangerous it all was. At one point, when a shovel suddenly swings, Goethals can be seen to jump nimbly out of the way.

Bishop and those others who described the spectacle from the cliffs above had very little to say about such hazards. But year after year hundreds of men were being killed or hideously injured. They were caught beneath the wheels of trains or struck by flying rock, crushed to death, blown to bits by dynamite. “Man die, get blow up, get kill or get drown,” recalled one black worker; “during the time someone asked where is Brown? He died last night and bury. Where is Jerry? He dead a little before dinner and buried. So on and so on all the time.”

Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time. A single dynamite ship arriving at Colón carried as much as 1,000,000 pounds—20,000 fifty-pound boxes of dynamite in one shipload—all of which had to be unloaded by hand, put aboard special trains, and moved to large concrete magazines built at various points back from the congested areas.

At least half the labor force was employed in some phase of dynamite work. Those relatively few visitors permitted to walk about down in the Cut saw long lines of black men march by with boxes of dynamite on their heads, gangs of men on the rock drills, more men doing nothing but loading sticks of dynamite into the holes that had been drilled. The aggregate depth of the dynamite holes drilled in an average month in Culebra Cut (another of those statistics that defy the imagination) was 345,223 feet, or more than sixty-five miles.1 In the same average month more than 400,000 pounds of dynamite were exploded, which meant that all together more than 800,000 dynamite sticks with their brown paper wrappings, each eight inches long and weighing half a pound, had been placed in those sixty-five miles of drill holes, and again all by hand.

Difficulty was had at first in determining how much dynamite to use in a single shot, depending on the depth of the holes, the spacing of the holes, and the character of the rock, which could be anything from basalt to the softest shale. The foremen responsible for the loading and tamping learned by trial and error. Different grades of powder were tried, different kinds of fuses and methods of firing.

Premature explosions occured all too often as the pace of work increased. “We are having too many accidents with blasts,” Goethals noted in June 1907. “One killed 9 men on Thursday at Pedro Miguel. The foreman blown all to pieces.” Several fatal accidents were caused when shovels struck the cap of an unexploded charge. Another time a twelve-ton charge went off prematurely when hit by a bolt of lightning, killing seven men. Looking back years later, one West Indian remembered, “The flesh of men flew in the air like birds many days.”

The worst single disaster occurred on December 12, 1908, at Bas Obispo. More than fifty holes had been drilled in the solid rock on the west bank of the Cut and these had been loaded with some twenty-two tons of dynamite. The charges had been tamped, the fuses set, but none of the holes had been wired since the blast was not scheduled until the end of the day. As the foreman and one helper were tamping the final charge, the whole blast went off, by what cause no one was ever able to determine. Twenty-three men were killed, forty injured.

As time went on the men became extremely proficient and accidents became comparatively rare considering the volume of explosives being used and the numbers of laborers involved. Still, more men would be killed, and very often, as at Bas Obispo, there would be too little left of them to determine who they were.

•   •

The shovels in the Cut set records “never anticipated,” as Goethals noted, and in the eyes of most beholders they became something more than mere machines. They had personality and gender—usually feminine, yet they were also likened to Theodore Roosevelt—and accounts of their prodigious feats of strength, as well as their agility, acquired a kind of mythical quality. The Canal Record’s full-page reports on their performance were read as avidly as baseball scores.

The peak was in March 1909, when sixty-eight shovels, the largest number ever used at one time in the Cut, removed more than 2,000,000 cubic yards, ten times the volume achieved by the French in their best month. The record for a single shovel was set in March 1910, when a ninety-five-ton Bucyrus (No. 123), working twenty-six days, excavated 70,000 cubic yards. More astonishing is the realization that the vast rift in the earth at Culebra was dug entirely by what, comparatively speaking, was a mere handful of machines. The volume removed from the Cut was 96,000,000 cubic yards. So even allowing for replacements, the average shovel dug well over 1,000,000 cubic yards, despite the worst kind of punishment year in, year out. No machines had ever been subjected to such a test and their record was a tribute to the men who designed and built them.

The shovels were deployed along the entire nine miles of the Cut, but in one section just to the north of Gold Hill they were stacked one above another at seven different levels, while seven parallel tracks carrying the dirt trains were kept constantly busy. “There were any amount of . . . trains, which were going in every direction,” noted a young English tourist in her diary; “they must be very well arranged.” In fact about 160 trains a day were running in and out of the Cut, and the degree of planning needed to handle such traffic can be further appreciated when it is taken into account that most of the track had to be shifted—removed, replaced, relocated—time and again. There were 76 miles of construction track within the nine-mile canyon, while in the Central Division as a whole there were 209 miles, not counting the Panama Railroad. In any one year well over a thousand miles of track had to be shifted about within that area just to keep the work moving in the Cut. And to complicate the problem further still, the bottom of the Cut, the main work level, kept steadily contracting in width the deeper the Cut became.

No one part of the operation—not the drilling, the blasting, the shoveling, the dirt hauling—could ever be permitted to interfere or disrupt another. So consequently every move was the result of very careful study. All shovels, every mile of track, every one of the hundreds of rock drills in use, were located daily on a map at division headquarters at Empire. Careful estimates were made as to the progress of each individual steam shovel, when it would have to be repositioned, when tracks would have to be shifted, what effect such moves would have on the disposition of drilling and blasting crews. So neatly was everything coordinated, so smooth were communications, that at the close of each day locomotive crews, as an example, had only to check the assignment boards at the roundhouses to see exactly what they were to do the day following.

Traffic in and out of the Cut was directed from towers at either entrance by yardmasters who kept in telephone contact with the various dumps and with a half-dozen small towers strung out along the line of excavation. The yardmasters, who took their orders from the chief dispatcher at Empire, directed the passage of each loaded train to a particular dumping ground and ordered the right of way for the train when it hit the main line of the Panama Railroad. When the empty trains returned, it was the yardmaster again who distributed them to the shovels.

The dumping grounds—the other end of the system—were located anywhere from one to twenty-three miles from the Cut. Sixty-odd locations were used in the course of excavation, and though much of the spoil was simply gotten rid of—that is, put to no useful purpose—a very considerable part of it served to build earth dams, to build embankments on the new line of the railroad, and to create the huge new Naos Island breakwater at the Pacific end. To keep the flooding Chagres from backing up into the Cut as the great trench deepened, an earth dike was thrown across the north end, at Gamboa, seventy-eight feet above sea level.

All the dumps were carefully engineered, with tracks on several terraces. At each dump was another yardmaster who reported the arrivals and departures of trains and his “readiness for spoil,” who ordered the distribution of loaded trains to the several dumping tracks, and who, in addition, directed the movements of the Lidgerwood unloaders as well as two additional pieces of equipment that had since come into use: the dirt spreader and the track shifter.

Both devices were of vital importance to the efficiency of the entire system, since the least delay at the dumping end at once decreased progress in the Cut. The dirt spreader was a railroad car with big steel blades mounted on either side, these operated by compressed air. Once a train had been unloaded, its spoil dumped beside the tracks, the spreader came through, pushed by a locomotive, and did the job of several hundred men working with shovels. The track shifter, an even cruder-looking piece of equipment, was the creation of William Bierd, former head of the Panama Railroad, who had built the first one in the shops at Gorgona shortly before Goethals’ arrival. It was a huge cranelike contraption that could hoist a whole section of track—rails, ties, and all—and swing it in either direction. And since the tracks at the dumps had to be shifted constantly, to keep pace with the loads being delivered, it was an extremely valuable adjunct. Bierd’s own creation could shift track about three feet, but subsequent models, built after he resigned, could reach as much as nine feet. With one such rig, fewer than a dozen men could move a mile of track in a day, a task that would have taken not less than six hundred men working by hand.

The largest of the dumps were at Tabernilla (fourteen miles beyond the north end of the Cut), Gatun Dam (the most distant location), Miraflores, and La Boca, the largest, which had been renamed Balboa. Some of the dumps covered as much as a thousand acres, and in the rainy season they became great seas of mud, with tracks slipping and sinking five or six feet. At Tabernilla, more than 16,000,000 cubic yards of spoil were simply dropped in the jungle. At Balboa, 22,000,000 cubic yards were deposited, with the result that 676 acres were reclaimed from the Pacific as a site for a new town.

By far the most troublesome of the dumps was the Naos breakwater, where, as at Gatun Dam, spoil from the Cut was dumped from a huge trestle, this one being extended slowly across the mud flats of the bay. At first everything went as hoped. But then the soft bottom sediments began to give way beneath the heavier material being poured on top. Overnight whole sections of trestle and track would vanish into mud and everything would have to stop until they were replaced. In some areas the vertical settlement exceeded a hundred feet, while the slippage sideways was three times worse. In time not a single foot of the long trestle remained where it had been to start with. By 1910 well over 1,000,000 cubic yards of spoil had been dumped into the breakwater and still it was a mile short of Naos Island. To reach the island, ultimately, would require 250,000 cubic yards of earth and rock from Culebra, which was ten times what had been originally estimated.

“Culebra Cut was Hell’s Gorge,” one steam-shovel man would write, recalling the heat and dust and noise. Nor were the rains any less of a problem than in times past. In 1908 and again in 1909, the years of the heaviest work, well over ten feet of rain fell. To check the torrential runoff, to reduce the chance of landslides, Goethals did what the French had done: he had diversion channels dug parallel to the Cut. But he greatly expanded on their plan. The channel on the east side of the Cut, known as the Obispo diversion, ran for a distance of five and a half miles and had a minimum width of fifty feet. To build this ditch, and another similar to it on the opposite side, the so-called Camacho diversion, required another 1,000,000 cubic yards of excavation. And very possibly they were a mistake, as Goethals himself later conceded, since they were dug too close to the Cut and water seeping from them below ground may have been the cause of several of the more disastrous slides.

•   •

All technical problems at Panama were small problems compared to the slides in the Cut. The building of the great dam at Gatun, for so long the most worrisome part of the plan, turned out to be one of the least difficult tasks of all. A tremendous man-made embankment simply grew year by year at Gatun, extending a mile and a half across the river valley, a ridge of earth that was to be fifteen times as wide at its base as it was high. At the eastern end were the beginnings of the Gatun Locks; in the center were the beginnings of what was to be the dam’s giant concrete spillway. Two big outer walls of “dry” spoil were built first as a base for the embankment. These toes, as they were called, were nearly half a mile apart—the river, meantime, having been turned into an old diversion channel built by the French—and into the space between them was pumped hydraulic, or “wet,” fill, a solution of blue clay, which when dry would create a core almost as impervious as concrete. There was no lack of controversy over the project as time went on (much of it stirred up by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who was convinced that Goethals did not know what he was doing), and once, on November 20, 1908, a section about two hundred feet long slipped sidewise and sank nearly twenty feet at the point where the dam crossed the old French canal. In the face of a storm of criticism and alarm in the newspapers, Goethals insisted that the situation was not serious and as it turned out he was perfectly correct. The damage was repaired; the work went on.

The slides, however, were a wholly different matter. The first occurred early in the fall of 1907, or just as Goethals was beginning to feel he had things under control.

The Cucaracha slide, located on the east bank of the Cut just south of Gold Hill, was the slide that had given the French such grief. On the night of October 4, 1907, after days of unusually heavy rain, Cucaracha “started afresh.” Without warning, an avalanche of mud and rock plunged into the bottom of the Cut, destroying two steam shovels, obliterating all track in its path. And for days afterward that same part of the slope, about fifty acres in area, kept moving down and down, slipping anywhere from ten to fifteen feet a day. “It was, in fact, a tropical glacier—of mud instead of ice,” Major Gaillard noted in an article for Scientific American, “and stakes aligned on its moving surface and checked every 24 hours by triangulation, showed a movement in every respect similar to stakes on moving glaciers in Alaska upon which the writer has made observations in 1896.” After ten days, when the slipping stopped, 500,000 cubic yards of mud had been dumped into the canal.

In 1910 Cucaracha let go twice again, burying shovels, track, locomotives, flatcars, and compressed-air lines. The entire south end of the Cut was bottled up for months. Within a year Gaillard reported that the worst of the slides were over, but in fact they were still to come. From 1911 on, as the Cut grew very much deeper, the slides occurred season after season and grew increasingly worse. “No one could say when the sun went down at night what the condition of the Cut would be when the sun arose the next morning,” Bishop wrote. “The work of months and years might be blotted out by an avalanche of earth or the toppling over of a small mountain of rock.” There were slides at Las Cascadas, La Pita, Empire, Lirio, East Culebra—twenty-two slides all together. Cucaracha was almost never still. It took three months to dig out the rock and mud dumped into the Cut by slides in 1911. In 1912 more than a third of the year, four and a half months, was spent removing slides. On one day more than a hundred trains would roll out of the Cut; the next day there would be none, because a monstrous slide had occurred.

Steam shovels were buried so deep in mud that only the tips of their cranes were left protruding. Hundreds of miles of track disappeared or were twisted into crazy roller-coaster patterns. In one bizarre instance a shovel and track were picked up by a landslide and were deposited unharmed halfway across the floor of the Cut.

On some of the terraced slopes the ground crept ever so slowly, barely inches a day, which was never enough to do any serious damage, but for two years gangs of men had to be kept constantly at hand, day after day, moving the track back to where it belonged.

At another place a slow but relentless slide kept perfect pace with the steam shovel working at its base. The shovel never had to move; as much as it dug, the slide replenished.

For the engineers the problem was not merely the size of the slides. They were also confronted with a type nobody had anticipated. Those slides that had beset the French, like the comparative few experienced by Wallace and Stevens, were normal, or gravity, slides—Cucaracha being the largest and most destructive example. As explained earlier, they nearly always occurred in the rainy season, when a top layer of soft, porous material slid from the sloping plane of underlying rock, “like snow off a roof,” as one American said. But the new variety, and much the worst, were what geologists classified as structural break and deformation slides. They were due not to sliding mud, but to unstable rock formations, the height of the slopes, and, in part, to the effects of heavy blasting. As the Cut deepened, the underlying rock formations of the slopes lost their lateral support and were unable to withstand the enormous weight from above. It was as if the flying buttresses had been removed from the wall of a Gothic cathedral: the exposed wall of the Cut simply buckled outward under its own load and fell. Rains and saturation actually had little to do with such slides. In fact, some of the most horrendous happened during the dry season.

The first signs of trouble were huge cracks in the ground running along the rim of the Cut, anywhere from a few feet to a hundred yards back from the edge. The next stage might come weeks or months later, or it might take years. A settling or outward tilt of big blocks, whole sections of the slope, would commence. Then the whole slope would give way, sometimes in an hour or two, sometimes over several days.

The worst of such slides occurred in front of the town of Culebra, on the west bank of the Cut, where huge cracks in the ground began appearing in 1911. By the summer of 1912, “the large and annoying Cucaracha” had put an additional 3,000,000 cubic yards in the path of the canal, but the slide on the west bank at Culebra had deposited more than twice that amount. Thirty buildings in the town of Culebra had to be moved back from the brow of the Cut.

“Now suddenly the people living nearest the Cut were being compelled to move,” wrote Rose van Hardeveld, the young wife and mother from Wyoming. “The bank was sliding into the Cut! One after another, the houses were being vacated.

“The neighbors three doors east of us were warned time and again that it was not safe to stay . . . . One morning they awakened to find their back steps well on the way to the bottom of the Cut.”

Before long some seventy-five acres of the town broke away and fully half of all the buildings had to be dismantled and removed to save them from being carried over the edge. Ultimately these breaks, all occurring in the dry season, dumped 10,000,000 cubic yards into the Cut, while on the opposite side another 7,000,000 cubic yards fell away, with the result that the top width of the Cut at that point was increased by a quarter of a mile.

The slides “seem to be maneuvered by the hand of some great marshal and sent forth to the fray in every way calculated to put the canal engineers to discomfiture,” declared the National Geographic Magazine. “Now they are quiescent, attempting to lull the engineers into a false security . . . now they come in the dead of night, spreading chaos and disrupting everything in whatever direction they move . . .” To many of the workers it seemed the task would go on forever. “I personally would say to my fellow men,” recalled one Barbadian, “that . . . my children would come and have children, and their children would come and do the same, before you would see water in the Cut, and most all of us agree on the same.”

Often wisps of smoke would trail from the moving embankments. Once cracks in the surface below Culebra issued boiling water. When Gaillard arrived to investigate the matter, he took a Manila envelope from his pocket and held it over one of the vents in the earth. In seconds the paper was reduced to ashes. The explanation, according to the geologist who was summoned, was “oxidation of pyrite,” but the terrified workers were convinced that they were cutting into the side of a volcano.

The most uncanny of all effects, however, was the rising of the floor of the Cut. Not merely would the walls of the canal come crashing down, but the bottom would rise ten, fifteen, even thirty feet in the air, often quite dramatically. Gaillard on one occasion grew concerned as a steam shovel appeared to be sinking before his eyes, but looking again he realized it was not that the shovel was descending, but that the ground where he stood was steadily rising—about six feet in five minutes, “and so smoothly and with so little jar as to make the movement scarcely appreciable.”

This phenomenon, diabolical as it seemed, had a simple explanation. It was caused by the weight of the slipping walls of the Cut acting upon the comparatively soft strata of the exposed canal floor. The effect was exactly that of a hand pressed into a pan of soft dough—the hand being the downward pressure of the slides, the rising dough at the side of the hand being the bottom of the canal.

The slides attracted worldwide attention and inspired all kinds of suggestions as to how the problem might be solved, very few of which were practical. The most popular remedy was to plaster the sides of the Cut with concrete, and this was actually tried in one particularly troublesome area, but without success. The concrete crumpled and fell along with everything else as soon as the slide resumed its downward progress.

To check the deformation slides considerable excavation was also done along the uppermost portions of the slopes in an effort to decrease the pressure on the underlying strata. But by and large there was still only one way to cope with the problem and that was the same as it had been since the time of the French—to work for an angle of repose, to keep cutting back at the slopes, to keep removing whatever came down, until the slides stopped. And no one honestly knew how long that might take. By late 1912 at Cucaracha and at Culebra, the chief trouble spots, the angle of inclination was about one on five (one foot vertical to five horizontal). Still the ground kept moving.

•   •

Fifteen thousand tourists came to watch the show in 1911 and in 1912 there were nearly twenty thousand. “You are now overlooking the world-famous Culebra Cut,” exclaimed the tour guides at the start of their standard spiel. There was more tonnage per mile moving on the tracks below, the visitors were informed, than on any railroad in the world. But meanwhile a big clubhouse at the town of Culebra was being dismantled and removed (“in order to lighten the weight upon the west bank of the canal at this point”), and on January 19 Cucaracha broke loose once again. It was one of the worst slides on record. It spilled the whole way across the Cut and up the other side. All traffic was blocked at that end; for the sixth or seventh time, the slide had wiped out months of work.

Gaillard was practically in shock, according to one account, and Goethals was hurriedly called to the scene. “What are we to do now?” Gaillard asked. Goethals lit a cigarette. “Hell,” he said, “dig it out again.”


1 The drills themselves were of two types, a well drill that could bore a hole five inches in diameter to a depth of one hundred feet and a smaller tripod drill that could bore a three-inch hole to a depth of thirty feet. These drills were all powered by compressed air fed into the Cut through some thirty miles of pipe from big compressors at Rio Grande, Empire, and Las Cascadas. The elaborate compressed-air system was another of those advances that distinguished the American effort from that of the French.

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