Destiny by Design: The Construction of the Panama Canal (Heritage $44.95)
A collaboration between historian Jeremy Snapp and his great-grandfather, Destiny by Design: The Construction of the Panama Canal (Heritage $44.95) documents the canal’s con-struction from coast to coast. Snapp’s recent Panamanian photos complement 120 photos taken by his grandfather, Gerald Fitzgerald Sherman, in 1912, two years before the Canal opened, as well as some miscellaneous pictures. There are more than 160 never-before-published images and a brief historical summary.
The Panama Canal is usually traced to the ambitions of Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer primarily responsible for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As a hero in France, de Lesseps had convinced the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceúanique that a sea-level connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific was feasible. During construction he hired Alexandre Gustave Eiffel to design a lock canal.
But Panama Canal as a project goes all the way back to the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean by traversing Panama by land in 1513. As early as 1529 the Spanish, at the behest of King Charles V, surveyed Panama for a possible canal route across the isthmus.
Panama became independent from Spain in 1821. When the California gold rush swelled the population of the West Coast, tracks were laid for a trans-isthmian railroad. The Panama Railroad Company sent a locomotive across the American continent for the first time in 1855. Commerce and military prudence demanded a similar route for shipping.
Three-and-a-half centuries after Balboa, de Lesseps moved tons of earth but he didn’t count on being beaten by the mosquito. Approximately 22,000 workers died between 1881 and 1889, many killed by malaria and yellow fever. This venture disintegrated in scandal and bankruptcy for the Compagnie Universelle, leaving the French desperate for a buy-out.
The canal was resurrected thanks to American money and Cuban medicine.
A Cuban physician named Carlos Finlay discovered in 1881 that the Aedes mosquito carried yellow fever. This led an English doctor working in India, Ronald Ross, to identify the Anopheles mosquito as a carrier for malaria.
Dr. William C. Corgas arrived in Panama as chief sanitarian in 1904, having worked with Carlos Finlay in Havana, and began to eliminate malaria and yellow fever, chiefly by draining and treating standing water.
Two years earlier the Americans had decided to buy the French canal project after the French had lowered their asking price from $109 million to $40 million. This price included the Panama Railroad, rights to build the canal, previous French construction, survey information and much equipment. It was a small price to pay for maritime supremacy.
In 1902, when Congress approved this scheme, Panama was still joined to Colombia. The Americans conveniently supported Panama’s revolution and its break with Colombia in 1903. Only 12 days after the revolution succeeded, President Teddy Roosevelt signed a treaty with the new republic to “make the dirt fly.” The U.S. paid Panama $10 million and initially agreed to make an annual payment of $250,000.
Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to leave the United States while in office when he inspected the canal zone in 1906. As a veteran of the so-called Spanish American War—the Cuban Spanish Philippino American War—Roosevelt appreciated the importance of sea power to ensure Washington D.C. could become the new Rome.
Roosevelt had read and admired Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, published in 1890, that argued the Caribbean Sea, as the American Mediterranean, needed to be connected to the Pacific by a canal. Roosevelt didn’t need to look to the example of the British Empire in order to agree. He was aware that in 1898 the USS Oregon had struck the decisive blow against the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba, crippling the battleship Cristobel Colon, but it had taken a long voyage from its berth at the naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington to secure the victory.
The Oregon had left San Francisco on March 19, 1898 and reached Key West 67 days later, a record time. Taking on nearly 2,000 tons of coal, the Oregon had hastened to Cuba and won the day on July 3, 1898. But the Oregon’s voyage could have been decreased by 8,000 miles if a canal existed.
For Manifest Destiny to prevail, $40 million was a reasonable investment to gamble on complete dominance. Consequently the Americans imported workers from Barbados, Jamaica, the U.S., Spain, Italy and India, gathering a workforce of more than 53,000 men. Daytime temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees and sometimes rose to 130 degrees. Medals were given to the 7,400 Americans who remained on the job for two years.
The construction of the concrete locks took four years and ultimately cost the Americans $352 million. The canal handled its first commercial cargo in 1914 when the American-Hawaiian steamer Alaskan arrived at Balboa with 12,000 tons of sugar and 2,000 cases of pineapples. Commercial sail was rare; sailing ships comprised less than two per cent of the vehicular traffic during the Canal’s first two years of operation.
The formal opening didn’t occur until 1920 due to frequent slides and the First World War. Since then the annuity paid to Panama eventually rose to $10 million plus 37 cents per ton of each transiting vessel. Two 1977 treaties agreed the Panama Canal would remain politically neutral but revert to Panamanian control at century’s end.
Jeremy Snapp’s previous book is a maritime history of the West Coast, Northwest Legacy: Sail, Steam & Motorships. A licensed captain and a boatbuilder since age 12, he has built more than 40 wooden boats and owns an 80-foot schooner for charters. He lives with his family in the San Juan Islands. 1-894384-03-X
[BCBW SUMMER 2001]