Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Goethals and the Panama Canal

by Howard Fast

Published: Messner, 1942
HTML Markup: For in December, 2001.
Note: Only chapter 1 completed.

For My Father

A man went down to Panama
Where many a man had died
To slit the sliding mountains
And lift the eternal tide:
A man stood up in Panama,
And the mountains stood aside.
-Percy MacKaye




The author wishes to express his gratitude to D. S. Otis, of New York University, for his careful research and assistance in checking the facts and material in this biography.

The author and publisher also wish to thank Percy MacKaye and The Macmillan Company for permission to use the poem "Goethals," from Collected Poems, by Percy MacKaye.

The Engineer

THE QUIET, BLUE-EYED BOY WAS not given to boasting. His inclination to sit and dream sometimes worried his parents and sometimes prompted other boys to poke fun at him. And then his answers, in a slow, liquid drawl, sent them into gales of laughter. There was no other drawl like that in Brooklyn. The boys would say, "You're not in Dixie, Dutch." He hated to be called Dutch. A steely glint would come into his blue eyes. "I'm not Dutch," he might say very quietly.

He was not given to boasting. His parents were Flemish, out of Belgium, but he didn't consider it worth thinking about. His name was George Washington Goethals, and he was American, and that was enough for him. There was enough for him to boast about, had he desired to.

If they made fun of his name and asked him when he was going to cross the Delaware, that same steely glint came into his eyes. "It's good enough for me," he would say, in that slow, curious drawl--the origin of which bewildered even his parents.

Usually they would leave him alone when that look came into his face. He was big and slow-moving for a boy of ten, but there seemed to be a dynamic power underneath that even children could recognize.

He himself was proud of his name. It had meaning. His parents had called him George Washington out of love and affection for this new land they had made their own.

It was better than having a name that was just a name, like John or Arthur or Sam. His name was something and it meant something. So let them make a joke of it; to him it would never be a joke, but something to be proud of.

As for his other name, Goethals, there was something of which he could have boasted, too, had he been given to boasting. But he had an instinctive knowledge that in this land such things did not matter and should not matter. It was enough that he should be simply the son of John and Marie Goethals, who had come from Flanders to this country, seeking a better way of life.

However, he had a book which told of that other name, Goethals, and what it meant. The book was written by a man called Schellinck, and the name of the book was the Goethals Chronicles. It was the story of all the Goethals for a thousand years back, and though he could not read the strange language in which it was written, young George knew most of the stories it told.

There were never more wonderful stories than that book held, stories of knights and crusaders and judges and scholars, all of them bearing the name of Goethals and somehow connected with the simple carpenter who was George's father.

George never felt any need or desire to boast about what was in that book, but it was comforting to dream about all the great men who had borne his name.

* * *

In the year 1848 there was a great wave of emigration from Europe to America. People left Europe by the thousands and poured into America. They sought, most of them, one thing--freedom.

This is how that came about. For many hundreds of years, these people of Europe, who were poverty-stricken, had been oppressed by their rulers. But as the Dark Ages passed, they began to talk of freedom and liberty. In France and England and America there were revolutions, and from those places the spirit of freedom spread to all of Europe. And in the year 1848 uprisings broke out in almost every country in Europe.

Most of these revolutions were not successful, but they gave people a taste of liberty they would not soon forget. And having failed, so many of them, in their own country, they turned their faces to America. That is why, in 1848, so many thousands of people left Europe and sailed for America.

Among those thousands was a Belgian woodworker, John Goethals by name. In America, John Goethals married a country woman of his, Marie Baron, and they settled down in Brooklyn to raise a family. John Goethals took out citizenship papers. He loved America, and he was satisfied that it was the best place in the world for a man to be.

In 1856 his first child was born, a boy he called John. But when the second child was born two years later, another boy, John and Marie Goethals decided that nothing else would do but to give him that best of American names, George Washington.

George Washington Goethals. They were proud of the boy and just as proud of the name. How could he help but do great things with such a name to help him along?

George grew up into a quiet, thoughtful boy. He preferred listening to talking, and very often he preferred the world of books to the more apparent world around him. He was always big for his age, somewhat self-conscious of his fair hair and his very blue eyes.

The Goethals family lived in Brooklyn until George was eleven, and then they moved to number 47 Avenue D, on the East Side of New York. The East Side had not yet become the turbulent slum area it was to be later. Number 47 was in a quiet residential neighborhood, a place that fitted in well with George's thoughtful, almost dreamy youth.

* * *

Thus our story of a ditch, a huge ditch, a fantastic ditch, a ditch to dwarf all seven wonders of the world, and of the man who dug that ditch, begins. It is the story of an engineer who quietly performed the greatest feat of engineering the world had known up to his time.

Today this ditch and the wonderful locks that lift great ocean liners over mountains are known as the Panama Canal. And when one speaks of the Panama Canal, in the same breath one mentions George Washington Goethals, its builder.

To Goethals, building the Panama Canal was only one job in a long, rich life that was filled with many hard jobs. For us, it is part of the security of the United States, part of our heritage of democracy and freedom. And for the whole of the civilized world, it is the gift of a man of genius, an everlasting miracle.

This is the story of the canal, of why it was built and how it was built--and thus the story of Goethals, the builder, the man who went down to Panama.

* * *

Young George, at a very early age, made up his mind to plan his life. While still in grammar school, though he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, he had already made up his mind what he didn't want to do.

He had seen his older friends drift from one thing to another, planning nothing, falling by chance into any notch that came their way. He didn't want that; he wanted a profession, medicine, law, or--and this more than anything--

engineering. He lived in a world of structures, cobbled streets, stone houses; already little old New York was reaching for the sky. Men were building, everywhere, and building fascinated him. If a man could take stone and steel and make something new and wonderful out of it, what more could he desire?

Though going to school, George Goethals found time to work. Work was not difficult for a boy to find in New York of the early Seventies. The city was expanding with leaps and bounds, rapidly becoming the commercial center of the world. But as yet there were no telephones--which meant that all messages between the various business houses had to be delivered by messenger.

George discovered that he could always find work as a messenger. Messengers were in demand, and hundreds of boys made spare-time money that way. And, as George noticed, the boys either slipped into messenger jobs and stayed there or became assistant bookkeepers and then bookkeepers. For seven or eight dollars a week, these latter then spent their days on a high stool, bent over a roll-topped desk.

He conceived a horror of such an existence. It was definitely one of the things he did not want, and as insurance against it, he began to save money for his higher education. He took part-time jobs wherever he could find them, office boy, assistant bookkeeper, addresser--and each job strengthened his determination not to fall into such a groove.

With the part-time work, he kept his marks up and had no difficulty in passing the entrance examinations for the College of the City of New York. And at City College, where good scholarship was no novelty, he still ranked high. For three years, George studied at City College; then during his fourth year, fate intervened to set him on the road that led to Panama.

News came to the college that there was a vacancy for an appointment to West Point. The congressman of the district had already selected a candidate, but the appointee had failed in the competitive examinations. Therefore the place was open--and the news set George's heart beating faster.

Nathan P. Beer was the principal of the grammar school George had attended. For many years he had followed George's career, watching the hard, even persistence of the boy, and knowing how much he wanted a good education and a profession--preferably engineering. Now, when Beer heard of the vacancy at West Point, his first thought was of Goethals.

"Would you want it?" he asked George. "You know, it's about the best training an engineer can have, four years at the Point."

George held his breath, scarcely daring to hope, and Mr. Beer went to work. First he obtained the quick approval of President Webb of City College, an old West Pointer himself, and then he proceeded to interview the congressman, Samuel S. Cox, in whose district the vacancy had occurred.

"I was going to hold competitive examinations," Cox protested to Beer's enthusiasm.

"When you can have a boy like this?" Beer spread George's records for the congressman to see.

"It's impressive," Cox admitted. "But what makes you so sure he should go to the Point"

"Because I want to do the Point a favor." Beer smiled.

"You think a lot of the boy."

"And a good many other people are going to think a lot of him," Beer said. "This is his chance. He's worked hard for it and he deserves it. I want you to give it to him."

Cox agreed. He decided that George should have his chance for West Point without any sort of competitive examinations if a guarantee would be given that once at West Point he would remain there until he graduated.

Previous to the West Point opportunity, George had considered, for a time, going into medicine, with an eye on surgery. Even in medicine, his main desire was to build and create. But already the task of holding jobs to pay his way while he attended City College was proving most difficult. Under the strain, his health was beginning to break down. Could he continue this through the years necessary for professional training?

"You owe it to yourself to go to West Point," President Webb told him.

That was enough encouragement for George. The step was taken and thoughts of medicine were put away. He would go to West Point and he would be an engineer.

* * *

Four years followed, four years of hard work mixed, strangely enough, with a good deal of enjoyment. For in spite of the legendary hardships of West Point in the Seventies, Cadet Goethals enjoyed himself thoroughly and managed to graduate without any demerits being scored against him.

West Point was not a picnic, and the achievement of a cadet going through four years of it without demerit was very rare. Nor was Goethals a prig; he did his work and he enjoyed it, and more than anything he took pleasure in the knowledge that he was becoming a full-fledged engineer.

Graduated from West Point with honors, Second Lieutenant Goethals called upon Congressman Cox to thank him. Cox was impressed with his tall, light-haired protégé, and would have nothing else but that he must give the lieutenant a letter of introduction to General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Goethals was embarrassed. Sherman, at that time, was at the head of the U.S. Army. "Please, sir," he said, "how can I presume on the commander in chief"

"Nonsense, not at all," Cox reassured him. "I'll give you the letter."

Somehow Goethals gathered the courage to present the letter to the commander in chief in person.

Sherman asked him, "What branch of the service did you select, Lieutenant?"

The story goes that Goethals answered, "The engineers, sir."

"The engineers!" sniffed Sherman. "However, in spite of that, I hope that you may do some good for your country someday."

Sherman could not foresee that the young engineer was to fight one of the greatest battles in all history, not against men with death and desolation as its outcome, but against fever and swamp and quicksand and rock, to let the waters of one ocean pour into another.

* * *

During the summer and autumn after his graduation from West Point, George Goethals served as assistant instructor of Astronomy at the Academy. Meanwhile he fretted for an opportunity to try his hand at some practical engineering. But it was to be two years before he would have a chance at a job all his own.

When his period of tutoring at the Academy was over in October, he was shifted to Willets Point, New York, where he became a student officer at School of Application.

He spent two years there on theory, while he learned to build a bridge, pour a dam, lay down a road or sink a shaft. As usual, he had no trouble getting along with his brother officers. He was popular, well liked everywhere he went. Whether it was for a sing, where a good tenor voice was needed, or to fill in at a dinner, or to make up a party to go to New York, George was always in demand.

For all his impatience, the two years passed quickly enough, whereupon he went out into the field. His first assignment was in the Far West to the Department of the Columbia in what was still Washington Territory. General N. A. Miles was in command there.

There they tried the young lieutenant's mettle first. He was sent into forest on surveying expeditions and he was ordered to "shoot" the stars for more precise mapmaking. Still, for him, it was not engineering, not the actual constructive work for which he yearned, not building and creating.

His chance was not long in coming. A flood washed out the bridge over the Spokane River, and since that was the main road to Fort Spokane, Goethals was ordered to replace the bridge with no time wasted.

Here was his first big piece of engineering work, the job to which he had looked forward so eagerly, and now that it had come he found himself nervous and bewildered. Not that the task was so difficult. The bridge was a wooden truss with a one-hundred-and-twenty-foot span, a standard piece of work that Goethals had seen in dozens of places.

But to build it, having never built a bridge before--

Afterward Goethals admitted that it was the hardest task that had ever confronted him, harder even than building the Panama Canal. "I had never built a bridge and I did not know much about bridge-building," he said. "That was part of my trouble. In addition, the bridge was a considerable distance from the sources of supply of everything excepting wood, and I was expected to do my work in a hurry. That was far and away the hardest bit of work that has ever come to me. It might not have been hard for an experienced bridge engineer. He would have known exactly what to do. I did not; I had to find out as we went along. I read books all night and gave orders all day. However, we built the bridge, and on time. Those were the orders and they were followed. But no job since then has ever seemed so hard as that one.

"That is the way with engineering; it is scarcely ever the big, spectacular things that really count with an engineer.... Mere size sometimes matters; more often it does not. It is the difficulties overcome that make for greatness.... Nothing is hard if you know what you are doing. What makes my first bridge so stick out in my memory is that I did not know what I was doing. The man who is entitled to the most credit is the man who does something, no matter how crudely, for the first time. Those who come after him are directors or administrators--not originators."

But Goethals built the bridge, in spite of the difficulties. He had broken the ice, and now he was an engineer.

* * *

Lieutenant Samuel Rodman, stationed along with Lieutenant George Goethals, had a sister, and for long he discussed the possibility of having her come out to the Far West for a visit. Goethals, who had been proud of being a bachelor, began to be a little less proud. The sister's name was Effie, and when finally she arrived every eligible young man at the post called to pay his respects; among them, Goethals.

Goethals came more often than the others, and finally be gathered the courage to propose. He was accepted. He and Effie went East for the marriage, which took place in New Bedford, December 3, 1884. Their first child, a boy, was born at West Point in 1886, and the second child, also a boy, at New Bedford in 1890.

* * *

He was an engineer now, no longer dealing with theoretical problems but with actual and difficult jobs. For years, West Point had been the chief agency in America for the production of fine engineers, and many of the most difficult engineering problems in the country were thrown into the lap of the Army. They dredged the rivers, keeping the inland waterways fit for navigation; they explored the country and found routes for the railroads to follow; they probed for minerals and improved harbors.

One such job was the Ohio River Improvement. This consisted of dredging, the pouring of darns, and the construction of dikes, levees and locks. And to this job, Goethals was assigned in 1884 Goethals didn't realize it then, but here was the finest training he could possibly have for that big task later on, the building of the Panama Canal.

His position was assistant to Colonel William E. Merrill, and Merrill minced no words in making the situation completely clear to Goethals at the very beginning.

"You can wear your shoulder straps and your uniform, Lieutenant," Merrill said, "and stand on your dignity. In which case there's plenty of office work for you to do. But if you want to get out on the job and into construction, then you're going to learn under civilian assistants. That means dropping the uniform and putting on overalls. It also means you become an engineer."

Goethals put on the overalls, and from then to the last days of his life, he never hesitated to make that gesture, to put on civilian clothes or overalls and pitch into the job with energy.

There was almost a year on the Ohio River, a priceless year for Goethals, learning the way of water and of silt under water, of dikes and locks and canals. He also learned to know the workingman, to understand his viewpoint. Military discipline is very necessary in an army, but Goethals learned that on an engineering job understanding of the men at work is more to the point and more valuable.

When his job on the river was over, Lieutenant Goethals found himself detailed back to the Academy at West Point, this time to teach Civil and Military Engineering. He felt like an old veteran now, standing before his class of younger men and telling of jobs he had done.

* * *

August 1889 and Goethals was back in the field, this time as an assistant to Colonel Barlow, who was building locks and dams along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Once again, there were weeks of valuable experience in river work: diking, building of locks, pouring slabs of concrete to hold back the water.

Two years of that and his superiors began to realize that young Lieutenant Goethals was a very unusual type of man. Then his chance came, a chance for his first big independent command. Improvements were being made on the Tennessee River. The Muscle Shoals Canal was being completed and a great lock was planned at Colbert Shoals. They wanted an engineer to take charge, and they picked Goethals.

It was his chance to make good, but the task was not a simple one. Already the canal was weeks behind schedule. Now Goethals was given a certain date, before which he must have the canal open for traffic. He had become Captain Goethals by now, and he did not hesitate to take the bull by the horns. Organizing two shifts, he threw himself into the work, directing the night shift himself. And the work was completed even before the limit of the time allowed.

There too, on the Tennessee, Goethals had his first experience in railroad construction. To facilitate the construction work, he built a railroad fourteen miles long.

There were three years on the Tennessee River, and it was during that time that Captain Goethals conceived the high-lift lock. It may be well here to explain the purpose of a lock in a canal. Digging a canal through a flat plain is very simple; all it means is to dig a ditch of even depth and fill it with water, and lo and behold! one has a canal. But suppose that canal has to go over a hill?

One method is to cut right through that hill, keeping the bottom of the canal at the same level. But it may be very expensive to cut through that hill. And if the hill is of rock, it may mean blasting out enormous quantities of material.

Or suppose the canal is being built in country that slopes uphill. You can't make water run uphill, and, therefore, to keep the bottom of the canal level, you must cut deeper and deeper into the earth. Presently the walls of the canal will be hundreds of feet high and every additional foot of construction will cost thousands of dollars.

Then what is the answer?

The answer is simply to build many canals, each on a higher level as your country goes uphill, or on a lower level if your country goes downhill. If you come to a hill, you do not cut your canal right through it with walls a hundred feet deep, but build instead many short canals, each one a little higher than the other until you reach the top of the hill, and then each one a little lower than the rest until you reach the bottom.

Of course this solves every problem but one--how to transfer boats from a low canal to a higher one, or from a high canal to a lower one. And that is where the lock domes in. If you look at the picture on page 21, you will see a typical lock, and in the lock a boat being raised from a lower canal to a higher canal.

As you can see, the lock consists of a pair of huge gates. These gates start at the bottom of the low canal and extend to the high watermark of the upper canal; so the gates contain between them a narrow canal that is as high as the high canal and as low as the low canal.

When the boat is in the low canal, the water between the gates is kept at the same level as the water in that canal. The gate facing the boat is opened, and the boat sails into the narrow space between the two gates. Next the open gate is closed and the boat is secure in the little canal formed by the two gates. Then a pump is started and water pours into the little canal formed by the two gates. As the water rises, the boat floating on the water also rises, until at last it has been lifted smoothly to the level of the upper canal.

At this point the pumps are stopped and the other gate opens, and the boat is free to sail away on the other canal, having never once left the water.

Now when Goethals took over the work at Colbert Shoals, there were already in existence on the Tennessee River eleven locks such as have just been described. Each of these locks had a lift varying from twelve to fourteen feet, and now it was proposed to construct two more locks at Riverton with a lift of thirteen feet each.

"But why two locks?" Goethals asked himself. "Why not a single lock with a lift of twenty-six feet?" One such lock would cut the cost almost in half, and it would also cut almost in half the time needed to pass a boat from the lower canal to the upper.

But no one had ever heard of a lock with such a lift. Clearly, it was impracticable and impossible. But Captain Goethals went ahead, designed the impossible, built the impossible, and finally made it work. Here again he was preparing himself and engineering world for the great project of the Panama Canal, where three locks produced a combined lift of eighty-five feet.

Bids were taken for construction of the lock, and the job was finally awarded by the authorities to the lowest bidder, a man whom Goethals did not believe capable of the task. The captain's feeling proved right. The private contractor messed up the job and left his preliminary excavation a mass of quicksand and broken piling.

Goethals took over himself. He had the contract annulled and hired labor to complete the job. In charge he put a civilian called Williamson, a steady, efficient, and honest man who was to work with Goethals on every other job he tackled.

The task was not easy, but Goethals did it. That had become a habit of his, accepting difficult assignments and completing them to the satisfaction of everyone.

* * *

Thus another link in the chain of events that was to send a man finally to Panama had been completed. Goethals had put in years of work on rivers, canals, dikes, locks, and dams. He had tackled every angle of every problem, and he could have hardly done better had he been preparing himself for the single job of building the Panama Canal.

Four years now followed of further preparation for a task still undreamed of. Goethals went to Washington, and while there it was his duty to study and report on all contracts, surveys, and engineering work taken on by the Engineering Department. It was office work for the most part, and therefore not too much to his liking, but it was the sort of executive task that was to prove priceless in the future.

Meanwhile, the whole train of sad circumstances that finally led to the war with Spain was in the making. Finally, in April 1898, war was declared, and immediately the various generals began to bid for Goethals' services.

Goethals accepted a Lieutenant Colonelcy with Major General John Rutter Brooke of the First Army Corps.

When Captain Goethals left the Department of Engineering, General Wilson, who headed the department at that time, sent him the following letter:


May 25th, 1898

Lt. Col. Geo. W. Goethals
Capt., Corps of Engineers, U. S. A.

My Dear Col. Goethals:
Although the regulations of the Army prohibit me from stating in orders my deep appreciation of the earnest, faithful, efficient and thoroughly loyal assistance you have given me during the past sixteen months, there is neither law nor regulation which will prevent me from expressing my great personal regret that your promotion will deprive this office of your intelligent and energetic assistance and that I am to lose from my immediate official associates, one whom I have learned to admire and respect for his energy, skill and ability and who has won my warm personal regard by a modest display of all those attributes which make up the accomplished soldier, the ever courteous gentleman, the faithful friend.

I congratulate the corps upon your well-deserved promotion.

God grant that you may return in safety to your loved ones, crowned with honors which you will surely win, and that the remainder of your life may be filled with health, happiness and prosperity.

Yours very sincerely,
JOHN M. WILSON, Brig. Genl. Ch. of Engrs.,
U. S. Army.

* * *

General Miles, head of the Army at the time of the Spanish-American War, had recommended that the mobilized troops be concentrated at a camp where they might be trained. The site was chosen at Chickamauga Park, Georgia, and Goethals was given the task of preparing water lines and sanitary wells.

In that way, another bit of valuable experience was added to Goethals' training. His pipelines were tight and his wells were clean, but in spite of all that sanitary conditions at the camp were horrible. There were thousands of cases of typhoid fever and various lesser diseases. In fact, during the Spanish-American War disease killed more men than bullets did. Goethals learned that where thousands of men are gathered together, whether to work or to fight, sanitation is the first consideration. As an under officer, he could do nothing effective about sanitary conditions at the camp, but he stored away many grim scenes in his memory, mistakes that were not to be repeated at Panama.

From Georgia, the command to which Goethals was attached went eventually to Puerto Rico, but before they did any fighting an armistice was declared. Goethals was never to fight a human enemy, and his battles were never to leave death and destruction in their wake.

* * *

After his honorable discharge from the volunteers, Goethals returned to West Point, this time as instructor in Practical Military Engineering. He would have remained there four years had he not obtained his commission in the regular Army as major. Upon obtaining his commission, he was placed in charge of the United States Engineer Department District at Newport. This post put him at the head of all river and harbor work from Block Island to Nantucket, but his main job was to complete the seacoast defenses at Fort Wetherell and Fort Greble, Rhode Island, and Fort Rodman, Massachusetts. Added to that was the problem of building railroads to haul supplies. The chain of hard work and circumstances that was to train a man for the greatest engineering job in history Was almost complete.

In 1903 Goethals became a member of the General Staff, and in 1905 secretary of the Taft Fortification Board. There he worked directly under Secretary of War Taft, the man who was later to become President. Goethals had traveled the full length of the road that led to Panama.