Sunday, February 17, 2013

Steamship Ancon

By Julie Rahm

On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson telegraphically set off the detonation. The explosion demolished the dike that separated the Culebra Cut from Gatun Lake. The explosion was the culmination of 31 years of effort. This project was started by France in 1882. And, it first ended in failure. You guessed it, the Panama Canal.
     France had assembled a huge labor force of about 20,000 men. The French engineers were well paid and the prestige of the project attracted the best from France's engineering schools. But the huge death toll from disease made retention difficult. Engineers either left after short service, or died. In 1885, it became clear to the French that a sea-level canal was impractical and an elevated canal with locks was the best answer. So, in 1887, the lock canal plan was adopted. However, the mounting financial, engineering and mortality problems, coupled with frequent floods and mudslides, put the project in serious trouble. In May 1889, the project became bankrupt, and work was finally suspended. After eight years of French effort, the work was about two-fifths completed, $235 million had been spent and 22,000 lives had been lost.
     Enter the United States and Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt became president in 1901 and believed that a United States controlled canal across Central America was a vital strategic interest to the United States. On February 15, 1898 Roosevelt was able to push through the acquisition of the French Panama Canal effort. Panama was then part of Columbia. Thus, Roosevelt opened negotiations with the Colombians to obtain the necessary rights. In early 1903, a canal treaty was signed by both nations. But, the Colombian Senate failed to ratify the treaty.
So, in a controversial move, Roosevelt implied to Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the United States Navy would assist their cause for independence. As a result, Panamanian rebels declared independence on November 3, 1903, and the USS Nashville in local waters prevented any interference from Colombia. The victorious Panamanians returned the favor to Roosevelt by allowing the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904. As a result, the term Gunboat Diplomacy was reinforced!
The Panama Canal cost the United States around $375 million. At the time, it was the single most expensive construction project in United States history. Remarkably, it was actually completed $23 million below the estimate, in spite of landslides and an increase in the canal's width. More than 75,000 men and women worked on the project. At the height of construction, 40,000 workers worked on the project. According to hospital records, 5,609 workers died from disease and accidents during the American construction era.
The Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon, piloted by Captain John A. Constantine, the Canal's first pilot, made the first official transit of the canal on August 15, 1914. Now you know!
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