Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century

Editor's Note: APWA developed the Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century Program to honor the ten most outstanding public works projects of the 20th Century that significantly affected and improved the quality of life in the United States or Canada. Our goal was to generate awareness of the positive contributions public works has made as well as to build appreciation for public works and its contributions to North America.

The APWA Reporter will highlight each of the outstanding projects through the October 2001 issue. This issue features the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal

Managing Agency: The Panama Canal Authority

Nominated by: United States Army Corps of Engineers

From the time of the earliest Spanish explorers, there was interest in the possibility of a canal somewhere in Central America, and Thomas Jefferson, the United States ambassador to France, tried to obtain Spanish surveys of the area. With the development of the West in the second half of the 19th Century, the United States increased its interest in a canal in either Panama or Nicaragua. The French attempted to build a sea-level canal in Panama in the 1880s, but failed due to a yellow fever epidemic and a loss of financing. A United States company tried to build a canal in Nicaragua in the 1890s but failed due to a lack of money.

The Spanish-American War reinforced the need for a canal when it took the USS Oregon over 60 days to go from San Francisco to the Caribbean by way of Cape Horn. In 1901, when a congressional-appointed commission recommended Nicaragua as the canal site, the French, who were interested in selling their Panama company to the United States, hired Phillip Bunau-Varilla to convince Congress that Panama was the proper canal location. He did so, and the Spooner Act of June 1902 set up the presidential-appointed Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) to build the Panama Canal.

The ICC's first chief engineer, John F. Wallace, hired both skilled and unskilled workers during his one-year tenure. Most of the skilled workers came from the United States, but the unskilled came mainly from the West Indies, with some coming from southern Europe. The large number of workers entering Panama created a yellow fever epidemic, and part of the problem was nonsupport for Army doctor Colonel William C. Gorgas, an authority on tropical diseases. He had eradicated the disease from Havana in 1901 by attacking the yellow fever mosquito, but the ICC wanted him to concentrate on cleaning up Colon and Panama Canal. When John Stevens replaced Wallace in July 1905, he gave full support to Gorgas, and by November the epidemic was over.

Stevens saw the canal simply as a railroad freight job to move the excavated spoil to dump sites. He improved the Panama RR by double tracking the mainline and reinforcing the bridges, and he set up a conveyor-belt-like track system to operate the steam shovels and remove the spoil. When he resigned in February 1907, his system was in place. But when the United States decided to build a lock canal, he faced the challenge of hydraulic engineering-the design of dams and locks and the large-scale use of concrete. That was not his specialty, but it was the expertise of Army engineers.

LTC George W. Goethals arrived in Panama in March 1907 as both chief engineer and ICC chairman. He brought with him other Army engineers, all experienced in hydraulic engineering. Major David Gaillard concentrated on the Culebra Cut where he pushed Stevens' system and the Bucyrus steam shovel to a maximum effort and efficiency. Major William Sibert, responsible for the Gatun dam and locks, used the largest amount of concrete until the construction of Boulder Dam. Major Harry F. Hodges designed the locks to include the steel gates at both ends and within the chambers. They constructed the canal to create its own energy and run on electricity with waterpower at the Gatun spillway generating the electrical current.

When the canal opened in August 1914, the obvious benefit was the shortening of the water trip from one side of the continent to the other. It came in under budget, ahead of schedule, and without hint of financial scandal or corruption. Ten years after the opening, the canal was handling over 5,000 ships annually to include the newest Navy aircraft carriers USS Lexington and Saratoga. That figure more than doubled after WWII, and by the 1970s the canal was handling more than 15,000 ships per year.

The Panama Canal remains a marvel of the 20th Century. Never before nor since has any project accomplished the feats of mastering the elements, engineering and construction, or future planning as has been done at the Panama Canal.