It’s a well spread out myth, that the father of the construction of the Panama Canal is George Washington Goethals. That is incorrect. The fact of the matter is that the Panama Canal has not one, but three fathers, (i.e., John Findley Wallace, John F. Stevens and George W. Goethals).
John F. Wallace was a prominent railroad engineer appointed in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt to build the Panama Canal. Although he was mindful of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s orders to “make the dirt fly”, Wallace was accustomed to working under civilized conditions.
Using equipment the French had left behind when they abandoned the project in 1889, Wallace did start digging the canal, but soon found Panama squalid and riddled with malaria and yellow fever, which he feared. Additionally, the Panama Canal Commission had to approve even the smallest decisions through a lengthy process. After a year, beset by health concerns and bureaucratic woes, Wallace resigned.
He was succeeded a year later by John F. Stevens, the man who really got the massive but bogged-down job organized, equipped and finally on track. Goethals, his successor, had only to carry on. Stevens was named Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal in 1905. He was one of the most experienced railroad builders in the United States. He was also one of the most heavy cigar smokers ever present in the Panama Canal. For that characteristic, he was known as John F. “Big Smoke” Stevens. When he wasn’t chain-smoking cigars, he was chain-chewing them.
He already had spent his adult life building railroads on the U.S. Western frontier. No stranger to rough living, he had been chief engineer for the Great Northern Railroad during construction of its transcontinental line on the northern route. In his varied travels, he had been marooned in blizzards, attacked by Apaches and even treed by wolves.
A decisive and strong leader, Stevens took immediate control of all aspects of the work. He saw that disease was brought under control and was largely responsible for deciding to build a lock-type canal.
Stevens’ primary achievement in Panama was in building the infrastructure necessary to complete the canal. He rebuilt the Panama Railway and devised a system for disposing of soil from the excavations by rail. He also built proper housing for canal workers and oversaw extensive sanitation and mosquito-control programs that eliminated Yellow Fever and other diseases from the Isthmus. Stevens argued the case against a sea level canal like the French had tried to build. He successfully convinced Theodore Roosevelt of the necessity of a high-level canal built with dams and locks.
Stevens resigned suddenly from the Canal project in 1907 to Roosevelt’s great annoyance, as the focus of the work turned to construction of the canal itself. As a railroad engineer, Stevens had little expertise in building locks and dams, and probably realized he was no longer the best person for the remainder of the job.
Stevens would also have been aware that the original great Cascade Tunnel, for which he was responsible, was in hindsight built in error too close to the ruling grade and was perhaps turning from a credit to a debit. The true reasons for his resignation have never been known.
George W. Goethals took over and finished the job in 1914. Goethals was deeply impressed with John F. Steven. In a letter to his son, Goethals wrote, “Mr. Stevens has perfected such an organization … that there is nothing left for us to do but just have the organization continue in the good work it was done and is doing … 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 …“
Credits he received. He was presented the John Fritz Gold Medal on March 23, 1925, for “great achievements as a civil engineer, particularly in planning and organizing for the construction of the Panama Canal; as a builder of railroads, and as administration of the Chinese Eastern and Siberian Railways.”
The Panama Canal Commission also built a monument to honor John F. Steven’s contribution in building the Panama Canal. It’s known as Steven’s Circle Monument. Embedded in the white marble of the monument you can read the following words: “John F. Stevens 1853-1943, Isthmus Canal Commission, President 1907, Chief Engineer 1906-1907, The Canal is his monument, Goethals.”
I was at this monument last Sunday and took the following photographs for your ready reference. This is what I saw. Here we go.
Photograph of Steven's Circle at Balboa, former Canal Zone. The building at your left is Citibank and the building in the background is the former Balboa Clubhouse. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A close up view of the John Steven's monument at Balboa, former Canal Zone. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
I wonder if there’s a direct relationship between smoking cigars and building canals. Good Day.
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