Building the Canal

Building the Canal

When the United States canal builders arrived in 1904 to begin their momentous task, Panama City and Colón were both small, squalid towns. A single railroad stretched between the towns, running alongside the muddy scars of the abortive French effort. The new builders were haunted by the ghosts of de Lesseps's failure and of the workers, some 25,000 of whom had died on the project. These new builders were able, however, to learn from de Lesseps's mistakes and to build on the foundations of the previous engineering. The most formidable task that the North Americans faced was that of ridding the area of deadly mosquitoes.

After a couple of false starts under a civilian commission, President Roosevelt turned the project over to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, guided by Colonel George Washington Goethals. Colonel William Crawford Gorgas was placed in charge of sanitation. In addition to the major killers--malaria and yellow fever--smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, and intestinal parasites threatened the newcomers.

Because the mosquito carrying yellow fever was found in urban areas, Gorgas concentrated his main efforts on the terminal cities. "Gorgas gangs" dug ditches to drain standing water and sprayed puddles with a film of oil. They screened and fumigated buildings, even invading churches to clean out the fonts of holy water. They installed a pure water supply and a modern system of sewage disposal. Goethals reportedly told Gorgas that every mosquito killed was costing the United States US$10. "I know, Colonel," Gorgas reportedly replied, "but what if one of those ten-dollar mosquitoes were to bite you?"

Gorgas's work is credited with saving at least 71,000 lives and some 40 million days of sickness. The cleaner, safer conditions enabled the canal diggers to attract a labor force. By 1913 approximately 65,000 men were on the payroll. Most were West Indians, although some 12,000 workers were recruited from southern Europe. Five thousand United States citizens filled the administrative, professional, and supervisory jobs. To provide these men with the comforts and amenities to which they were accustomed, a paternalistic community was organized in the Canal Zone.

The most challenging tasks involved in the actual digging of the canal were cutting through the mountain ridge at Culebra; building a huge dam at Gatún to trap the Río Chagres and form an artificial lake; and building three double sets of locks--Gatun Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks, and Miraflores Locks--to raise the ships to the lake, almost twenty-six meters above sea level, and then lower them. On August 15, 1914, the first ship made a complete passage through the canal.

By the time the canal project was completed, its economic impact had created a new middle class. In addition, new forms of discrimination occurred. Panamanian society had become segregated not only by class but by race and national origin as well. Furthermore, United States commercial competition and political intervention had already begun to generate resentment among Panamanians.

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