The undertaking of the "Impossible Project" : the design and construction of the Panama Canal and Railroad

When James Gordon Steese graduated with honors from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY in 1907, one of his first assignments was in Panama with the Army Corps of Engineers. Panama Canal and adjoining railroad operation were experiencing severe construction delays and the newly commissioned officers of West Point were choosen to oversee the construction efforts. In 1907 the project was considered impossible to many people. Several failed attempts over many decades had produced nothing but death and debt in the horrid tropical conditions of Centeral America. The Panama Canal was seen as simply too large, too ambitious, and too expensive for accomplishment. The young officers of West Point viewed the project not only as a challenge for their training, but also to their will to succeed. Steese arrived in Panama to undertake the operational difficulties of the Panama Railroad; however, he would leave only a few short years later with a wealth of knowledge and experience that shaped the rest of his life. The undertaking would have to face the hardships of the terrain, weather, money, and time. Any small aspect of the Canals construction was worthy enough to be considered a monumental project, the fact that all projects were being undertaken at a single time, and relied heavily upon one another in order to succeed only compounded the seriousness of the undertaking. In the short period Steese worked on the Canal, he and his classmates from West Point were able to accomplish all tasks placed before them, get the Panamanian Railway running again, and progress on the digging out of the Canal running smoothly.

The Panama Canal Project was nothing new in concept to ambitious engineers and statesmen in the Western Hemisphere. The idea of a waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific dated back to the original discovery of the American Continents. Early explorers has dreamed of finding a passage to carry their sailing ships from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, cutting out the long and dangerous trip through the Straits of Magellan or around Cape Horn. Dating back as far as the sixteenth century European explorers had begun searching the North American Continent for a northwest passage. A navigatable waterway was not present through either North or South though; and technology of the time largely put an end to any ideas of inter-oceanic travel across the continent.

In 1849 new concepts for spanning the continents of North and South America began to formulate with the growing Railroad industries of the United States. The Isthmus between North and South America had been eyed as the easiest place to cross the continents because of the narrow width of the landmass. However, the location also posed many problems to construction because of climate, terrain features, and hundreds of issues concerning construction and operation in an untamed tropical region. 

The first true proposal of a Railroad spanning the isthmus came in 1849 by Col. George W. Hughes of the U.S. Topographical Engineers.1 In 1852 the proposal for a rail line was followed up by the Scientific Commission of the Army Corps of Engineers, with a survey of land across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.2 Although a Railroad was a far cry from the dreams and desires of the grandest of engineers to one day sail ships across the isthmus, the initial steps began to explore the idea of reliable large-scale travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Between 1850 and 1852 the American and Pacific Ship Canal Company began to survey a canal route across Nicaragua. This, along with most other ventures was reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers and at the time found practicable, with some minor changes to the initial plans.3 However, it would not be until after the American Civil War that any further in-depth thought would be given to a canal. 

In 1872 American President U.S. Grant appointed an Inter-oceanic Canal Commission to review several proposed locations for a canal and the feasibility of construction of such a passageway.4 At the time the most favored route was through Nicaragua with use of some existing ports and rivers for the design.

The United States was not the only country looking into the possibility of an inter-oceanic canal though. The French Government was also deeply involved in searching for a waterway through the isthmus. From 1876 onward the French began to seriously consider the construction of a canal in the same areas as the United States were surveying. As American interest dwindled under various issues and concerns, the French pushed forward the concept of feasible construction. Ultimately financial difficulties would end the French dreams of constructing a canal, although an actual construction attempt had been attempted.

Between 1899 and 1901 the Isthmian Canal Commission began to investigate the construction of a canal under the guidance of the United States. Researching nineteen proposed canal routes they ultimately began to narrow down the possible routes for a canal and discuss the purchase of rights to construction of a canal from France. By 1904 the negotiations for the construction were drawing to a close and Panama was chosen as the best location for the construction of a canal. Second Lieutenant Mark Brooke of the Corps of Engineers was instructed to take possession of the canal properties and begin construction of the canal. His memorandum stated:

I, Mark Brooke, officer of the Corps of Engineers of the Army of the United States of North America, declare and state the following:

To-day, the fourth of May, Nineteen hundred and four, early in the morning, in my capacity as representative of the Governments of the United States of North America, I came into the building situated in the city of Panama, known in that city by the name of “Hotel de la Copmagnie,” in which are located the central offices of the New Panama Canal Company, for the purpose of receiving in the name of my principal, the Government of the United States of America, all the properties, personal and real, of the above named company, which are located in the Isthmus of Panama.

After having shown my authority and instructions, the Director of the New Panama Canal Company made formal delivery to me of the said property, personal and real, in the following manner:

He delivered the keys of the buildings and inventories of the properties, called together the principal employes of the service, and in my presence gave them instructions to place at my orders all the material in the storehouses of the company, and the storehouses themselves, and finally, also in my presence, he sent by letter and telegraph the same order and instructions to all the employes of the company living in Colon and on the line between that city and Panama.

In consequence, I declare in the name of the Government of the United States of North America, which I represent in this act of transfer, that I acknowledge having received all the properties, personal and real, that belonged to the New Panama Canal Company, which have passed into the possession of the Government of the United States of North America, my principal.

This receipt is written and signed in French, English, and Spanish.

Mark Brooke,
2nd Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers,

 With the acquisition of rights to the construction of the Panama Canal firmly in the hold of the United States, the massive effort of constructing a working canal was handed to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1907. The handing over of the Canal Project to the military was a developing event. The Canal was originally planned as a civilian contractor project. However, the contractors and administration of the Canal had been largely ineffective in getting any construction actually accomplished. As one statement was made, “The first year of American canal administration was a year of bungling, bickering, and incompetence. When in compliance with the Spooner act President Roosevelt appointed the Isthmian Canal Commission in March 1904 he selected skilled engineers rather than executives accustomed to the organization of gigantic projects – a costly mistake which he soon had cause to regret.”6 Roosevelt had good reason to regret his mistake and he did correct the error. Roosevelt then decided to place construction of the Canal to “men who will stay on the job until I get tired of having them there, or till I say they may abandon it. I shall turn it over to the army.”

Roosevelt had good reason to trust the Army and the Corps of Engineers that would construct the Canal. They were not only well trained in Engineering but also well disciplined and adhered to the same doctrines and values of West Point Military Academy. The soldiers of the Point considered themselves part of a time 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 in charge of the Canal. It was not that they were necessarily superior technicians to the railroad people who preceded them in direction of the project, 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.8 Those young men who graduated from the academy every year who joined the Corps of Engineers were sent to Panama to oversee construction and work on the engineering of the project.

When James Gordon Steese arrived in Panama he came with several of his classmates from West Point and was immediately assigned to the Panama Railroad Project. The Panama Railroad plagued with logistical and operational issues; not to mention the constant troubles of floods, land slides, and jungles conditions in Panama. In 1905 the head of the Canal project, John Stevens, said of the railroad, “About the only claim for good work… was that there had been no collisions for some time. A collision has its good points as well as its bad ones – it indicates that there is something moving on the railroad.”9 The Railroad was critical to the construction of the Canal in a supporting role for supplies and logistics, and under the guidance of the engineers slowly became a functioning, well-managed division of the canal. 

Rehabilitation of the Panama Railroad involved two distinct and successive steps: first, a general overhauling of the old line and the installation of double tracks over 37 miles of its length to accommodate and endless procession of dirt trains and well as vastly augmented commercial traffic during the period of canal construction; second, the building of an entirely new railroad in a different location for use after the opening of the canal. The first process, wholly the work of former director of the Canal Commission, Stevens, and his staff, was completed by June 1907… The total cost of the relocation line, not including new station buildings at Colón and Panama, amounted to $8,866,392 or about $1,000,000 more than the original road had cost in the eighteen-fifties.10

The second of the two above-mentioned projects became the main undertaking of Steese between 1907 and 1909. From 1909 till 1910 Steese was sent back to the United States to attend the U.S. Army Engineer School in Washington D.C. to further extend his capabilities and training as an engineer. Returning to Panama after his training, he was assigned to work on the Canal Locks, a crucial project to the success of the canal. Steese would not spend long on the project though, and in 1911 took a trip around the world with some friends before being assigned to engineering projects in the United States; particularly at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and later a position as the president of the Alaska Road Commission. It would not be until early 1941 and the threat of the Second World War that would recall him to active service at the Canal that he had helped design.

By the 1940’s the Panama Canal had been operational for nearly thirty years. It also had become the eminent passageway from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans and had fulfilled all the aspirations of those who nearly a century before had begun to plan for such a canal. War forced upon the Canal a new set of priorities, something infact it was originally intended for even more than to allow the flow off commerce ships. It became a vital transit route for war supplies destined for the pacific theater. All forms of ships from freighters to aircraft carriers were transferred through the canal for service in the pacific. The Canal had been originally designed to allow for the transport of large naval vessels and military warships of all variations. Original construction of the Canal included mandatory requirements by the U.S. Navy that the Canal be able to allow for the passage of battleships and carriers so that such vessels did not have to travel around the tip of South America on a long and expensive journey. After Pearl Harbor, this role was even more vital for the Canal as the Navy was forced to transfer portions of the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific Theaters. The later Island Hoping Campaigns in the Pacific would never have been possible without the free flow of supply and troop ships through the canal bound from Atlantic ports. The canal also became a vitally needed port, as it serviced much of the supply ships traveling between the two oceans. Finally, being of such logistical importance, defense of the canal was vital to the war effort. If the canal suffered attack or sabotage it would severely cripple the war effort of the United States. So important was the Canal and the fear of attack that it was known throughout WWII as the "Achilles Heel" of American Defense.

It was under the dangers facing the Canal that Steese was recalled to duty to provide his expertise in engineering to assure the smooth operation of the canal during wartime. In January of 1941, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Steese was assigned to Canal work as the Executive Assistant to the Engineer of Maintenance of the Canal.11 The department of operation and maintenance embraced functions related to the actual use of the Canal, as a waterway, including the dredging of channels, locks, damns, aids to navigation, accessory activities such as shops and dry docks, vessel inspection, electrical and water supply, sewer system, roads and streets, hydrographic observations, surveys and estimates, and miscellaneous construction other than the erection of buildings.12 The task of maintenance to the canal and ships traveling through it was enormous during the war years. For example, in 1941 only several hundred ships had been repaired in canal repair yards. However, in 1945 4,377 ships had been repaired by the same facilities.13 The repairs were compounded by wartime necessity for security. Blackouts along the canal to prevent sabotage or aide in the event of an enemy attack made travel through the canal highly difficult and a true task for even the best ship captains’ as travel was constant through the night. Repairs were facilitated by two existing dry docks already at the canal and two more floating docks transported to it. One dry dock was floated through the on its side, on account of being too wide to fit through the canal any other way.14 Further operations were undertaken to dredge the canal at points to allow larger ships to pass through it. In example of the projects undertaken, the dredging division expanded from 1,030 people before the war to 3,173 workers by 1943.15

While repair and maintenance to ships was occurring in the water, on land heavy construction was being performed on airports, docks, bridges, concrete structures, pipe lines and tanks, military revetments and armored positions, sewers and drains, and highways of all types.16

On May 16, 1944 Steese was officially designated Assistant to the Governor. By this time he was serving as supervisor of the Locks, Electrical, Municipal Engineering, and Office Engineering Divisions.17 Through till the end of the war Steese served in his appointed positions and as advisor or stand in executive for many of the various positions of importance for the administration of the Canal. Overseeing many large-scale construction projects and specifics for canal improvement for the post-war world Steese became invaluable to the growth of the canal for a second time in history. In 1947 he permanently retired from the Canal Service and spent his remaining years traveling and “resting like a gentleman.”18

Reflecting on the accomplishments of James Gordon Steese with his involvement in the Canal Project demonstrates amazing skill and craft, with a desire to attempt the supposed impossible. The restructure of the Panama Railroad by a twenty-five year old young man allowed trains to freely transport supplies, the removal of millions of tons of dirt, the accessibility of large steam shovels to remote regions to dig the canals path, and the later supply and support of the canal by rail. When Steese was reassigned to the design of locks, the task faced was even more daunting than that of the railway. The locks, simple concrete doors that closed to allow water to be pumped into bays to raise and lower ships through elevation changes in the terrain. Previous attempts by the French to build a canal had failed partly because of the difficulties of building a sea level canal in the Isthmus; the U.S. Engineers understood that in order for the project to succeed, working locks were absolutely vital. More importantly, locks were something that could not be upgraded easily, the side, depth, and width had to fit the projected size of shipping for the future. So impressive was the undertaking that in WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the American Navy was capable of sending several of its capital ships through the canal without any trouble nearly thirty years after the opening of the canal.

James Gordon Steese graduated from West Point and was thrown into massive projects at the beginning of his career. Such memories and experiences would drastically shape Steese’s life; when in WWII the nation needed a man to help administrate the canal through a war, they turned to Steese. During the 1920’s the work Steese did on the Canal would help him learn how to administrate and run the Alaska Road Commission and create viable transportation routes through unforgiving terrain just as dangerous and brutal as the tropics of Panama. The accomplishments of the Military Engineers in Panama reflects upon the quality of preparation that West Point, and Dickinson gave to young men like Steese at the time. For the most ambitious construction project of the day, the President of the United States turned to untested young men full of daring plans and youthful exuberance to accomplish the dream of a Canal. Through hard work and dedication, the engineers designed and oversaw the construction of a project that has been envisioned four centuries before. 

End Notes and Bibliography