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A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!

July 2024
27min read

The Big Ditch had so far been a colossal flop, and Teddy Roosevelt desperately needed an engineering genius who could take over the job and “make the dirt fly.” The answer was not the famous Goethals, but a man whom history has forgotten.

The Panama Canal was the biggest, most costly thing Americans had ever attempted beyond their borders, as was plain to everyone in the summer of 1905, and particularly to the man most responsible for the project, Theodore Roosevelt. But as Roosevelt also knew full well by then, and as the American people were beginning to suspect, the Canal was so far a colossal flop. Earlier, when a group of Yale professors had challenged the legality of the American presence in Panama, Roosevelt had answered grandly, “Tell them I am going to make the dirtfly on the Isthmus.” That was supposed to have squashed all such talk and fixed public attention on ends instead of means. Henceforth the President would speak of building the Canal as though it were a mighty battle in which the national honor was at stake. It was just the way the ill-fated Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had talked twenty years earlier.


In Washington, however, Roosevelt’s seven-man Canal Commission seemed incapable of agreeing on anything, let alone how to direct history’s most massive engineering effort from a distance of two thousand miles. In Panama things were in a fearful muddle. There were no plans to go by, no proper equipment to work with. Nobody had any real say, and nobody seemed to give a damn about building a canal. Among some of the engineers there the situation was looked upon as a disgrace to the profession, and among influential Republicans back home it was viewed as a potential disaster of alarming proportions.

Ships arriving in New York were bringing home more men than they were taking down—hundreds that spring. The newspapers were filled with grim, discouraging accounts by young Americans back from “that sink hole.” Every white man in Panama was afflicted with running sores, it was said. Workers were sleeping six to a room and eating high-priced food that would sicken a dog. The place was crawling with vermin, and there was absolutely nothing to do—no music, no churches, no sports, no books. The boredom alone, according to one eyewitness, was “appalling.”

But worst by far were the stories of yellow fever and malaria. There had been an outbreak of yellow fever in April; now, supposedly, an epidemic was raging. The “dead train” to Mount Hope Cemetery was making daily trips. Accounts of health conditions were, it happens, largely distorted. There was, in truth, still comparatively little yellow fever considering the number of men on the Isthmus—134 cases and thirty-four deaths during the eighteen months of the so-called epidemic. But the impression was that the Americans were fast going the way of the French, who had lost thousands of lives trying to do the same thing in the same tropical wilderness.

When de Lesseps began his Panama venture, the finest civil engineers in France had enlisted in the work, believing it to be a noble cause for the glory of France. Now it was exceedingly difficult to get any young American to sign up.

And then suddenly, with no warning at all, the chief engineer of the Canal, a Chicago railroad man named John F. Wallace, resigned his job. He was getting twentyfive thousand dollars a year for his services in Panama, but he said he had had a better offer and gave no further explanation. Roosevelt was furious. And when Wallace came up to New York from Panama to meet with Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who had overall responsibility for the Canal, there was a stormy session in Taft’s room at the Manhattan Hotel. Taft ripped into Wallace for deserting his duty for “mere lucre.” Stunned by Taft’s outburst, Wallace”asked for time to talk things over, but Taft told him his resignation would be accepted immediately.

The news that Wallace had quit set off something very near panic in Panama, where nobody thought that his motive was monetary. Wallace lived in mortal terror of yellow fever, the story went. Incredible as it may seem, when he and his wife first arrived on the Isthmus, they had among their belongings two expensive coffins.

The meeting between Taft and Wallace took place on June 22, 1905, and the newspapers made much of it. A few days later the job of chief engineer was quietly offered to another railroad man from Chicago. Roosevelt had decided to put the Canal in the hands of somebody he had never met and knew little about—except for what the railroad magnate James J. Hill, a Democrat and no special admirer of Roosevelt, had to say for him.

His name was John Frank Stevens, and he had been described by Hill, in a conversation with Taft, as the best civil engineer in America. Hill had good reason to know. Stevens had played an outstanding role in the building of the Hill-owned Great Northern Railway Company. Stevens turned the offer down at first, but then he was called upon by an unofficial emissary—William Nelson Cromwell, New York corporation lawyer, lobbyist for the Panamanians, Republican mystery man, and behind-the-scenes arranger of shadowy deals. Cromwell told Stevens that a failure to build the Canal would be disastrous for the administration, and after an hour or more of what Stevens later described as “silver-tongued arguments” from Cromwell, Stevens consented, with conditions. (One of Stevens’ sons later said his mother also urged Stevens to say Yes, telling him that his whole career had been in preparation for this great engineering command.)

On July 14, at Oyster Bay, Roosevelt and Stevens shook hands for the first time. The day, appropriately enough, was terribly hot and humid. Stevens had been invited to lunch, along with Theodore P. Shonts (still another railroad man, but a business executive rather than an engineer), whom Roosevelt had named chairman of his brand-new, streamlined Canal Commission.

According to Stevens’ recollection, Roosevelt admitted outright that things were in a “devil of a mess” at Panama. Stevens told Roosevelt that he was taking the job against his real wishes; that he was a man of few words, and those could be blunt on occasion. His conditions were these: he wanted a free hand, no trouble from bureaucrats or politicians, and an understanding that he would stay with the work until he was sure of its success or he had proved it a failure. Roosevelt, Stevens said later, agreed immediately and told Stevens to skip channels and report directly to him.

In another week or so Stevens was on his way to the Canal Zone, that “graveyard of reputations,” as Secretary of State Root called it. In the next year and a half Stevens would accomplish far more than his superiors in Washington could possibly have expected of him. The choice of Stevens was, as a matter of fact, among the wisest moves Theodore Roosevelt ever made, as Roosevelt himself said at the time. More than any other single man, except for Roosevelt, Stevens was to make the decisions that would bring the Panama Canal to completion.

In the Roosevelt Memorial Hall at the American Museum of Natural History there is a mural by William Andrew Mackay, which gives Stevens his rightful place of importance in the story of the Canal. It is, in this respect, a rarity. On the left, in the background, behind two canal workers, stands George Washington Goethals, the very able Army engineer who would replace Stevens. On the right, behind two more canal workers, is William C. Gorgas, the Army doctor in charge of sanitation at Panama and the one principal in the building of the Canal who was on the Isthmus from start to finish. In the center, presented full figure, side by side, are Roosevelt, holding a sheet of plans, and Stevens, who appears to be explaining to Roosevelt how the Canal will be built.


When the Canal was finished, Goethals would call it Stevens’ monument. The world could not give Stevens too much credit, Goethals would write. But in the time since, the world has given Stevens scarcely any credit at all. He has been strangely overlooked by history. His name now means little to any but a handful of civil engineers, some scholars of western exploration, a few elderly railroad men, and two or three Canal historians. The average student of American history has never heard of Stevens. Today the only engineer popularly identified with the Canal is the Army man, Goethals. That this is so, however, seems due largely to the particular make-up of John F. Stevens as well as that of the man who put him in charge at the Canal Theodore Roosevelt. The impulsive T.R. was at once taken with Stevens, who described himself later as “a kind of politic ‘roughneck,’ who did not possess too deep a veneration for the vagaries of constituted authority.” This was just what the situation in Panama demanded. But later, when Stevens left the job, Roosevelt—just as impulsively, it would appear—denied him his true place in the Canal’s history.


Stevens was fifty-two in 1905, powerfully built and strikingly handsome, with a somewhat swarthy complexion and a thick black mustache. He had been raised on a farm near West Gardiner, Maine. Like many other engineers of his time he never received any formal training, although virtually all his career would be spent building railroads. He first did some surveying in Maine and then went west in 1873. He worked as a rodman in Minneapolis, a section hand in Texas—driving spikes at a dollar ten cents a day—and eventually as an assistant engineer laying out lines for a half dozen western railroads, including the Canadian Pacific. In 1876 he married Harriet O’Brien of Dallas, Texas. They had five children, two of whom died in infancy.

In 1889 Stevens went to work for James J. Hill, the celebrated “Empire Builder” of the Northwest, and by the time the Canal job came along he was a vice president of the Rock Island Railroad in Chicago. During his years in the West, and particularly those with Hill, Stevens had educated himself as thoroughly as any man in the profession. He had earned a reputation as a worker and about the ablest engineer in the business. Moreover, he had been treed by wolves, chased by Indians, struck down by Mexican fevers, marooned by blizzards, given up for lost on more than one occasion; had developed a robust physique that seemed impervious to climate; and had become something of a legend in Montana, where, in the dead of winter in 1889, he had found the “lost” Marias Pass through the Rockies.

Stevens’ discovery of the pass saved Hill more than a hundred miles and gave the Great Northern the lowest grade of any railroad over the divide. Later, in the Cascades, Stevens found another important pass that, against his wishes, was named for him. By the time he moved on in 1903, Stevens had built bridges, tunnels, and more than a thousand miles of track for Hill (quite probably as much track as any man in the world), and the Great Northern was recognized as the best-engineered railroad in the country.

Stevens later called Hill the finest man he ever knew. And once he got to Panama, at the end of July, 1905, Stevens quickly demonstrated a number of Hill’s more noted qualities. Like Hill, he believed in giving subordinates as much authority as possible and then holding them responsible for results. He was decisive, intelligent, highly intolerant of incompetence, and never did he leave anyone in doubt as to who was boss. But it was his ability to instill spirit and personal loyalty among workingmen that gave Stevens his most obvious resemblance to Hill and had the most immediate effect at Panama.

Stevens found the situation a good deal worse than it had been described to him. At high tide tons of garbage drifted about the piers at Colon, the terminal where ships from New York docked. Wharves were crowded with goods nobody seemed able to account for and men with little to do. Colon itself and Panama City, the opposite terminal, were vile, depressing places with foul drinking water, dreadful food, and streets strewn with filth. The American workers all seemed possessed by fear of yellow fever. (Black laborers and others native to the Caribbean or Panama were largely immune.) And though the trouble to date was nearly all in their minds, there was still no guarantee that a real epidemic might not break out any day.


Few workers appeared to know what they were doing. For those who did there was a maddening tangle of red tape to cope with. At one point Stevens saw two new recruits from Martinique hoist a wheelbarrow full of dirt up onto the head of a third man, who carried it off that way. Carpenters were forbidden to saw boards over ten feet long without a signed permit. When he went out to Culebra Cut (later renamed Gaillard Cut), the place midway across the zone where the Canal would have to slice some nine miles through the mountain spine of the Isthmus, every steam shovel in sight was idle. “Nobody was working but the ants and the typists,” he said.

There was, as he wrote, “no organization worthy of the name, no answerable head who could delegate authority and exact responsibility; no cooperation … between what might charitably be called departments …” When a first meeting with department heads was called shortly after Stevens’ arrival, the men thought it was to announce that the United States was pulling out and abandoning the whole project.

Since the Americans had taken over, surprisingly little had been done. Equipment left behind by the French, which Wallace had tried futilely to make do with, was nearly all too antiquated to be of value, and scarcely any new equipment was on hand. (Wallace had wanted to experiment at length with various kinds of steam shovels, dump cars, and other machinery before deciding on what to order.) The famous Panama Railroad had only one track, and its undersized rolling stock was twenty years out of date. There were no sidings and no warehouses. When somebody told Stevens there had been few collisions, he answered, “A collision has its good points as well as bad ones—it indicates that there is something moving on the railroad.”

The Canal was to follow the line of the railroad, which was approximately the route the French had figured on. The French, contrary to popular opinion in the United States, had accomplished quite a lot considering the equipment they had. Their determination in the face of continual setbacks and death had been heroic to say the least, and almost certainly they would have succeeded had it not been for yellow fever and de Lesseps’ insistence on a sea-level canal like the Suez. But the jungle had long since returned over most of the French work, and the forty-two-mile stretch between Colon and Panama City looked about as it had to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had discovered the Isthmus four centuries earlier. There was still no final plan authorized by Washington, and Stevens had seventeen thousand men waiting to be told what to do.

Stevens’ own plan was very simple. He would prepare to dig a canal. Making dirt fly, he saw from the start, was not at all what was called for. That, he estimated, would be the easiest part of the job and it could wait. So he stopped all excavation and announced that it would not resume until he had everything ready (a very unpopular move back home where the American people were eager for news of progress).


His first step was to do something about morale, and that came easy to him. By nature he was not an “office engineer.” He put on a pair of overalls and rubber boots and rapidly became a familiar sight up and down the line, riding the railroad, tramping through the jungle (he would walk the entire length of the Zone, surveying the scene and studying what the French had done), or out among the men talking to them in a way they had not been talked to before. “There are three diseases on the Isthmus,” he told them, “yellow fever, malaria, and cold feet. And the worst of these is cold feet.”

Any men who were not needed, now that the digging had stopped, he sent home. They would be hearing from him later, he said. The rest he put to work building decent housing, mess halls, hospitals, schoolhouses, churches, jails—whole communities. Under his direction approximately five thousand new buildings were built, old French facilities refurbished, streets paved, and new harbor installations, a sewage disposal plant, and water mains put in. He installed a telephone system. He established a commissary to feed the entire force at cost. He introduced refrigeration equipment, something unknown in Panama, and the men began eating dressed meats, eggs, and perishable vegetables for the first time. He built clubhouses and organized band concerts and a baseball league, with each settlement along the line getting up its own team. When a young clerk told him there were no funds available to build seven or eight home fields, Stevens said to charge them to sanitary expenses. For months he had twelve thousand men doing nothing but putting up buildings. The most imposing structure, the Tivoli Hotel, was rushed to completion when it became known that Roosevelt was coming down to visit.

Previous plans were for the chief engineer to be quartered in a palatial residence to be built overlooking Panama Bay. But Stevens wanted no part of that. He and his family would live on the side of Culebra Cut, he said, where he could watch the work progress from his front porch. So he had a plain house with a corrugated roof put up there.

But for all his talk of cold feet, Stevens had a very realistic fear of yellow fever and considered it the one overriding threat to success. He said as much only in private, but unlike his predecessor—or his successor—as chief engineer he had total confidence in the courtly and dedicated Gorgas, and he decided at the outset that giving Gorgas whatever he needed to do the job was the only sensible course.

Gorgas was the doctor who had rid Havana of yellow fever, but many people, completely discounting his mosquito theory, considered him a crank all the same. Commission Chairman Shonts, for example, wanted Stevens to fire Gorgas first thing. Stevens, however, with Roosevelt’s blessing, made Gorgas the second most powerful man on the Isthmus and backed him up whenever his methods came under fire. Every dwelling in the Zone would be fumigated. Stagnant pools would be sprayed with kerosene, drainage ditches built, rain barrels dumped, grass kept cut—everything possible to destroy the breeding places of the stegomyia and anopheles mosquitoes, the respective carriers of yellow fever and malaria. And all new buildings were fitted out with wire screens. Gorgas’ original budget for medical supplies had been fifty thousand dollars; before he was through, Stevens would sign requisitions for ninety thousand dollars for window screening alone.


By October there would be only a few cases of yellow fever; by December, just one. After that there would be none at all, and the Zone would remain “as safe as a health resort,” as Roosevelt put it. Indeed, no labor force in history had ever been so handsomely provided for.

Stevens saw the job of building the Canal itself as chiefly one of transporting dirt rather than digging it. Culebra Cut was, in his eyes, a gigantic railroad cut—nothing more. All that was needed was a proper system to haul the dirt out. He was to write: To get the maximum efficiency out of any loading machine, steam shovel or dragline, the boom must be kept swinging every possible minute of the time. And this can only be accomplished by keeping empty cars, or trucks, always at hand to receive their loads from the machines. In this case it was wholly a matter of steam railroad operation.

This, of course, was precisely what he knew best.

The little Panama Railroad was overhauled and double-tracked with heavier rails. Most important of all, he devised an elaborate but elastic system of tracks leading out of Culebra Cut, whereby loaded cars always ran on a downgrade. The Cut itself he would slice back with gigantic steam shovels operating along a series of long steps, or benches, as they are known in surface mining, a subject with which Stevens had had some experience in the iron-ore fields of Minnesota. The material to be excavated was a miserable combination of clay and shale that, once exposed, had almost no stability. During the rainy season, or more than half the year, sudden cloudbursts would bring on terrible slides along the Cut. The French, during their stay on the Isthmus, had found it everything they could do just to keep pace with the slides.

The simplest way to cope with the problem—the only way, really—was to keep digging at the sides of the Cut, reducing the angle all the time. Since there was ample room in which to work, no pre-existing structures in the way, or other traffic of any kind, the Cut, in theory at least, could be as broad as was necessary. So the main objective was to marshal the right equipment in sufficient quantity. It was all a matter of “magnitude not miracles,” Stevens wrote.

Stevens knew exactly what was needed in the way of machinery and wasted no time experimenting. By the time he was ready to begin digging, he had assembled a construction “plant” such as had never been seen before all in one place—hundreds of railroad cars, thousands of hand tools of every kind, huge compressors, rock drills, as many as eighty steam shovels, and more than a hundred locomotives. And once he set it all in motion, he would go striding about the Cut, ordering this change or that and burning up cigars, as someone said, like Grant at The Wilderness.


The men called him Big Smoke. He talked of bringing in Chinese labor, which bothered a number of people, and he wanted to do away with the eight-hour day. He was working about fourteen hours a day himself and saw no reason why the rest shouldn’t too. But everyone agreed that he was the right man for the job. His popularity grew steadily. His earth-moving system worked superbly. When he encouraged rivalry among the steam-shovel crews, it worked better still. After the Army took over, Colonel Goethals would say that no Army engineer of the time could have laid it out, and he would keep the same system in operation, pretty much as it was, until the Canal was finished.

Stevens began excavation in Culebra Cut in early 1906, six months after arriving in Panama and about the time Congress was getting around to debating the question of which sort of canal he ought to be building—a sea-level canal or a lock type. (Stevens had already drawn up plans for both.) It was rather late in the game to belabor the matter, and the chief engineer had long since made up his own mind on the subject. Still, it would be June before Congress would vote on it. The final decision voted by the legislators turned out to be the right one, but only by a narrow margin. Again, Stevens played a decisive role.

When he first came to Panama, Stevens had thought he would be building a sea-level canal. He had a mental picture, he said, of a “wide expanse of blue, rippling water and great ships plowing their way through it like the Straits of Magellan, minus the current.” Roosevelt had about the same idea, it seemed. All the same he had appointed a board of distinguished engineers from several countries to consider the problem, and in November, 1905, the board voted 8 to 5 for a sea-level plan. The Navy concurred, John Wallace returned briefly to Washington to contribute his support, and it looked as though a sea-level canal was what almost everyone wanted.

Certainly a sea-level canal had great popular appeal. To the public it appeared that the “Big Ditch” needed only to be dug down deeper to get a canal free of locks, and that whatever extra time and money the job took now would be well spent in the long run. But it was not that simple.

There is, for example, a maximum tidal range on the Pacific side of about twenty feet, but only about twenty inches on the Atlantic side. So even a sea-level canal would require a system of locks to handle the resulting tidal currents. (One sea-level plan called for twin tidal locks a thousand feet long by a hundred feet wide.) In addition, an incredible volume of earth would have to be removed for a sea-level ship channel. In the view of some engineers, including Stevens, the job was beyond what their equipment was up to, and the actual cost would be beyond what the politicians would be willing to pay. The French, it was said, had made that very mistake. De Lesseps had insisted on digging down to sea level even after everyone else had seen it was madness. Their equipment was woefully inadequate, the French engineers had discovered, and by the time de Lesseps (who was not an engineer) gave in and agreed to build a lock canal, it was too late. The French canal company was bankrupt, ridden with corruption, and the whole brave, tragic enterprise collapsed. Stevens’ equipment was clearly superior to what the French had, but it was not that much superior—or so argued those who looked on a sea-level canal as decidedly unrealistic.

But the most formidable problem of all was the torrential Chagres River, “the lion in the path” as one authority called it. How it might safely be tamed was a question the sea-level enthusiasts had not resolved. Stevens had had no idea of the volume and violence of the river until he saw it with his own eyes. And in his talks with the other engineers who had been on the Isthmus for some time, he found not a single sea-level man among them—chiefly because of the Chagres. Why Wallace favored the sea-level plan is a puzzle.

But for the others who did (none of whom had had any real experience on the Isthmus), the issue was largely one of building something that would serve the purpose for a long time to come. It was argued that the increasing size of ships would make a lock canal obsolete one day. A sealevel canal would then have to be built to replace it (one of the new canal proposals now being discussed is indeed a sea-level canal), so why not do the job properly in the first place? Besides, as one leading sea-level spokesman pointed out, in all the other great engineering enterprises of the world “there is scarcely a case where the projectors have overshot the mark.” Nobody ever seemed to overestimate the needs of the future. It also seemed to the sea-level people that their canal would be less vulnerable to breakdown or to destruction by enemy attack.

After considering the issue firsthand for a while, Stevens became the most powerful and persuasive voice of all for a lock and high-level lake canal. As he saw it, the Isthmus should be bridged by a man-made lake (the largest artificial body of water on earth at the time) with locks at either end stepping down to sea level. The Chagres would supply the lake and the lake would control the Chagres, thereby making a virtue of the Canal’s greatest natural obstacle.

It was essentially the same plan as one presented by a brilliant but forgotten French engineer named Adolphe Godin de Lépinay nearly thirty years before, in 1879. Had the French followed the plan, they quite likely would have succeeded. As it was, the plan was still the surest solution beyond question, as Stevens argued with great fervor in his written correspondence with Washington and when he was called back there to testify before a Senate committee.

Stevens made an impressive witness. He explained the increased danger of slides in the construction of a sealevel canal because of the enormous depth of the cut required. Furthermore, he explained, the sea-level canal being talked about would be only 150 feet wide for nearly half its length—a very narrow channel indeed and one that could be blocked for months by a serious slide or collision. When two ships passed in such a channel, one would have to stop and make fast to mooring posts, as at Suez. This procedure, slow and hazardous by day and impossible by night, would drastically reduce the volume of traffic such a canal could handle. A lock canal, on the other hand, would be less expensive to build, less expensive to operate and maintain, and provide faster, safer passage across the Isthmus.

Skillfully, Stevens outlined his plan for an immense earth dam across the Chagres at Gatun, near the Caribbean end of the Canal, which was the key to his whole lock-and-lake scheme. When his description left some of his listeners a little uneasy (the Johnstown flood of 1889 had been caused by the failure of a faulty earth dam), he assured the committee that the earth dam he had designed was quite sound and that such suggested reinforcements as a masonry core would be a superfluous expense.

“Yes, if it is absolutely safe,” one senator replied. “Here I suggest that that is a very positive opinion or conviction you have.”

“Well, I am a positive man,” Stevens answered, and the committee seemed satisfied.

Stevens by this time had also persuaded Roosevelt, originally a sea-level advocate, to formally recommend to Congress that a lock canal be built. It was what the chief engineer wanted, he wrote, and the chief engineer had “a peculiar personal interest in judging aright.” Roosevelt by now had taken a great liking to Stevens, called him “a backwoods boy,” and admired Stevens’ taste for Melville, Poe, and Huckleberry Finn .

Through May and June, Stevens lobbied openly on Capitol Hill. He kept to facts and wrote most of what would be the crucial speech during the Senate debate, which was delivered by the bantam-sized Philander Knox of Pennsylvania—Roosevelt’s former trust-busting Attorney General and, interestingly, one of the former owners of the ill-fated dam that caused the Johnstown flood, a fact that escaped attention in 1906.

Knox spoke on June 19. Two days later the Senate voted 36 to 31 for a lock canal. The House soon followed suit. As Navy Captain Miles P. DuVal, Jr., the leading authority on the subject, has written, “This was the great decision in building the Panama Canal.” Had the vote gone the other way, had the United States attempted a sea-level canal at that time, the project would have been finished perhaps by 1925 or, more likely, not at all.

Stevens went back to Panama after that, and the work moved ahead at a steady pace. In November, always one of the wettest, unhealthiest months there, Roosevelt arrived. He wanted to see the place at its worst. He spent three historic days sloshing about in tropical downpours, shaking hands, asking innumerable questions, and offering words of inspiration: “You, here, who do your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise, will stand exactly as the soldiers of a few, and only a few of the most famous armies of all the nations stand in history.” Stevens was with him the whole time and stood by while Roosevelt, in a light linen suit, had himself photographed in the driver’s seat of a ninety-five-ton steam shovel. The dirt was flying at last.

Exactly what went sour after that is still something of a mystery. Early in 1907, just when all seemed to be going satisfactorily, Stevens, as suddenly as Wallace before him, left the job. On January 30, 1907, he wrote a six-page letter to Roosevelt, who received it less than three months after his return from Panama.

Though there was no formal request for resignation, Stevens clearly wanted out. He complained of “enemies in the rear” and of the discomforts of being “continually subject to attack by a lot of people, and they are not all in private life, that I would not wipe my boots on in the United States.” He estimated it was costing him one hundred thousand dollars a year to stay in Panama, considering what he could be earning at home. (He was being paid thirty thousand dollars at the time, an unheard of figure for a government job and the subject of no little carping on the Hill.) The honor of the task appealed to him but slightly, and he could at any time return to positions that “I would prefer to hold, if you will pardon my candor, than the Presidency of the United States.”

The work was well in hand and could be completed by men “as competent and far more willing to pick up and carry the burden than I am.” Therefore, he concluded, “if in the next two or three months, you can see your way clear to let me follow along other lines much more agreeable to me, I shall ever be your debtor. May I ask your calm and dispassionate consideration of this matter …”

Roosevelt’s reaction was far from dispassionate. “To say that the President was amazed at the tone and character of the communication is to describe the feelings mildly,” wrote one reporter who talked to someone who had been with Roosevelt at the time. The President’s first decision had been to put the letter aside until the next morning. Then he sent it over to Taft with a note saying that “Stevens must get out at once.” There was a brief meeting, it seems, after which Roosevelt cabled: “S TEVENS , P ANAMA C ANAL: Y OUR LETTER RECEIVED AND RESIGNATION ACCEPTED .”

It was at this point that Roosevelt decided to turn the whole project over to the Army. At first he appointed Stevens chairman of the Canal Commission, presumably to supervise the military man who would take over the work of construction. But his irritation was evident in his statement, reported by the New York Tribune , explaining his choice of a uniformed chief engineer. “Then,” he said, “if the man in charge suffers from an enlarged cranium or his nerves go to the bad, I can order him north for his health and fill his place without confusion.” The efficient but colorless Goethals, who earlier had accompanied Taft on an inspection tour of the Canal and who was a specialist in locks and dams, was picked immediately for the top command. Stevens declined to remain as chief of the commission, thereby leaving Goethals in full charge.

All kinds of explanations were offered for Stevens’ departure. Perhaps he had relied too confidently on Roosevelt’s invitation to address him “personally, as man to man, with entire freedom upon any and all matters.” There were those who said that he was overworked; that the climate had gotten to him; that the lobbying experience in Washington had turned his stomach; that he had fallen out with the administration over a contract about to be signed with a man who would bring convict labor to Panama.

One intriguing theory offered years later suggested that Stevens had inadvertently stumbled on certain dealings within the administration that, if ever revealed, “would blow up the Republican Party and disclose the most scandalous piece of corruption in the history of the country.” The quotation is from Josephus Daniels—later to be Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy—who also held that the alleged corruption involved the silver-tongued William Nelson Cromwell, the man who had drawn Stevens into the whole Panama affair in the first place.

Stevens refused to discuss the matter. He made no attempt to answer the President’s remarks. (The Panama City Star and Herald , however, which stood firmly behind Stevens, editorialized that “the top-heavy craniums are located in Washington, and … the unsettled nerves are caused by unusual and abnormal political ambitions.” And it added that the French were doubtless laughing up their sleeves.) To the men who kept after him for a word of encouragement when the news of his replacement broke, Stevens answered: “Don’t talk, dig.” A petition was circulated begging him to change his mind. By the time of his leaving, it bore ten thousand signatures.

Stevens officially terminated his service with the Canal at midnight on March 31, 1907. When he sailed away April 8, the crowd that turned out to see him off was like nothing ever witnessed on the Canal before or since. “I have never seen so much affection displayed for any man,” wrote Goethals, who had already had to endure a cold reception from Stevens’ workmen. As the ship pulled away, Stevens was seen standing at the rail with his son. It was said he looked very pale and sad.

Yet he did not, then or later, break his silence. After the lapse of many years he wrote: Various reasons for my resignation were given by irresponsible scribblers. They all had points of similarity, as they were all stupid and mendacious. In one respect they were exactly alike; they were all absolutely untrue. I resigned for purely personal reasons, which were in no way, directly or indirectly related to the building of the canal, or with anyone connected with it in any manner.

What these personal reasons may have been he never said or gave even the slightest hint.

He gave up the chance to be immortalized as the builder of the Canal. It was a hard choice to understand. Captain DuVal, who has studied Stevens’ Panama career as closely as anyone, believes that Stevens had grown extremely restless, even bored with the job. There may be much to this explanation. Change, Stevens once wrote, was for him among the prime attractions of his profession, and the prospect of another seven years or so at the same thing doubtless had little appeal. He had never remained in one place for very long. Moreover, the creative engineering required had been accomplished and the chief obstacles overcome. The rest would be fairly routine, except for the locks, which were of relatively little interest to him. He really had no desire for personal glory; and once the success of the work was obvious, he was ready to move on, just as he had told Roosevelt he would the first time they met.

The fact that Stevens never adequately explained his decision gives it a certain unavoidable fascination. But apart from that, and the drama of its suddenness, the resignation was really an epilogue. Stevens’ real work was over by 1907. Had he stayed on, his further contributions, aside from personal magnetism, would have been relatively few and inconsequential. He also knew comparatively little about hydraulics, which would be the principal concern once the digging was finished and the lock construction started.

Yet Stevens had made extraordinary achievements in remarkably little time. He had created order out of the most disheartening chaos; he had backed Gorgas, without whose efforts the Canal could not have been built—or at least not without an appalling loss of life; he had devised an earth-moving system that did the job; he got the men to care about the work they were doing and established a spirit and a way of life in the Zone that most of them would talk about for the rest of their days; and he successfully championed the lock plan.

One old hand at Panama would later write: “The canal was built in those years [when Stevens was in charge] and from 1907 on nothing would have stopped its being completed.” So Stevens, whatever his reasons, had simply walked offstage at that point when there was no longer much left to his part. According to his calculations the work would be completed, the Canal ready to open, on January 1, 1915. He was off by just four and a half months. The first vessel went through on August 15, 1914.

Stevens lived a long and exceedingly active life thereafter. For a time he worked for the New Haven Railroad. Then in the fall of 1909 he went back to work for James J. Hill, secretly, travelling in an open car with his son through the spectacular Deschutes River valley in Oregon and passing himself off as John F. Sampson, a wealthy sportsman interested in trout fishing and possibly buying a little land. His actual purpose was to scout a route for a railroad line southward to San Francisco, which Hill wanted to build—but never did—in direct competition with E. H. Harriman.

Stevens stayed with Hill until 1911, when he set himself up as a consulting engineer in New York. Then, during the First World War, the White House was after him again. In 1917, the year his wife died, Stevens was asked by Woodrow Wilson to go to Russia as head of the American Railway Commission. Stevens, who was sixty-four by that time, accepted and spent the next five years in Russia, Japan, and Manchuria. During the Kerensky regime he directed a reorganization of the vast TransSiberian and Chinese Eastern railroads. He was in Russia through the revolution, and as the de facto director (the Russians called him General Stevens) he and some three hundred carefully picked American railroad men kept the Trans-Siberian running through the remainder of the war. After the war, at the request of the Russians, he stayed on as an adviser until 1922.

Stevens lived long enough to see a heroic statue erected in his honor at Marias Pass (in 1925) and to serve as a consultant on the construction of the great Cascades Tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel in America, at Stevens Pass. In 1927 the profession honored him by electing him president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And in 1937, at the age of eighty-three, he flew off to the Canal in a Pan American clipper. He was immensely impressed by all he saw in Panama and wrote of how clean and healthy the place looked. But the thing that gave him the greatest thrill, he said, was the airplane ride.

His final years were spent in retirement in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He did some advising on a proposed monorail for Los Angeles, was bothered badly by arthritis, and wrote a little about his career. His greatest service to his country, he said, had been to convince Roosevelt and the Congress to build a lock canal. He never said anything to suggest that Goethals’ fame as builder of the Canal bothered him the slightest. Goethals, he said, had done a fine job.

Stevens died on June 2, 1943, at the age of ninety. He had outlived Goethals, Taft, Gorgas, Roosevelt—all of them; so he could have had the last word had he chosen.

That Stevens’ achievements at Panama had been almost entirely forgotten, even in his own lifetime, was largely his own doing—because he had quit when he did—and doubtless he appreciated this. But Theodore Roosevelt had something to do with this neglect, too.

Roosevelt considered himself a historian as well as a great many other things, and he was so regarded by the public. When Roosevelt came to write about the Canal in his famous Autobiography , he never once mentioned the name of John F. Stevens. Gorgas was very briefly credited for his contribution. But the one who “proved to be the man of all others to do the job,” according to Roosevelt’s version of the story, was Colonel Goethals. Roosevelt said: It would be impossible to overstate what he has done. It is the greatest task of any kind that any man in the world has accomplished during the years that Colonel Goethals has been at work. It is the greatest task of its own kind that has ever been performed in the world at all.

But Roosevelt’s anger at Stevens was not returned in kind. According to Stevens’ son, John F. Stevens, Jr., the old engineer, bedridden with his final illness, told him: “Son, the next time you come I shall not be here. On the mantel are the pictures of the only two men who ever influenced my life and I wish you to have them.” One of the pictures was of James J. Hill; the other, of Theodore Roosevelt.

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