From the day the U.S. started digging the Panama Canal in 1904, doubters scoffed. To link the Atlantic and Pacific would mean digging across 50 miles of rugged hills and hot, suffocating jungle. In the late nineteenth century, the French had tried and failed. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t care. He sent engineers to the isthmus with instructions to “make dirt fly.”
Thousands of men went to work digging, blasting, and dredging. They fought floods, mudslides, and yellow fever. Red tape and logistical problems threatened to stymie the project. Then the chief engineer quit, probably out of sheer exhaustion, and Roosevelt had to find someone else to see the canal through. He resolved to get “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.”
In 1907 he appointed Col. George Washington Goethals as the canal’s new chief engineer. A master at organizing, Goethals set to work an army of civilians and soldiers numbering as many as 57,000 men. They dug out more than 200 million cubic yards of earth, constructed a dam to create a lake, and designed huge locks operated by giant electric motors (manufactured by a new company called General Electric).
Every week, it seemed, brought a setback. One explosion killed 23 men. One mudslide lasted 10 days. With every adversity, the naysayers predicted failure. Goethals said nothing in return. He kept working, year after year.
“Aren’t you going to answer your critics?” one staff member asked. “In time,” said the chief engineer. “How?” the man asked. “With the canal,” Goethals answered.
The Panama Canal, one of history’s great engineering triumphs, opened to traffic on August 15, 1914.