Why Build a Canal in Panama?

How the Panama Canal Works

U.S. Army Engineer Involvement

Sibert and Gaillard
David Gaillard and William Sibert

Isthmian Canal Commission
The Isthmian Canal Commission

Williamson placing concrete
Williamson directing concrete

Taft and Engineers on inspection
Taft inspecting locks

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Involvement

Even before the United States superseded France in Panama, U.S. Army engineers were influential in shaping the canal plan. Retired Brig. Gen. Henry L. Abbot helped convince the Theodore Roosevelt administration to abandon the Nicaragua route and purchase the French holdings in Panama. He also helped pen the lock and dam construction plan ultimately adopted by Congress and the president.

Roosevelt appointed a seven-member Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) to oversee construction. The first two chief engineers were experienced railroad builders; however, both resigned within two years of taking the job. As a result, Roosevelt chose an Army engineer as the third chief if for no other reason than because the officer could not resign his position. Additionally, the Corps of Engineers offered unrivaled expertise in hydrology, lock and dam construction, and construction management. On March 4, 1907, President Roosevelt appointed Col. George W. Goethals as chief engineer of the ICC.

Goethals had graduated second in his West Point class of 1880 and began his engineering career building bridges. In 1891 he took charge of completing the Muscle Shoals Canal in Alabama, where he built innovative locks with an unprecedented 26-foot lift. In 1903 he joined the Army’s General Staff in Washington and made strong impressions on Secretary of War Taft. Taft recommended Goethals go to Panama as an assistant to the Chief Engineer, but when the Chief Engineer abruptly resigned, Goethals instead went as his replacement.

Goethals was an exceptional leader, and he left most of the engineering aspects to the capable and trusted engineers he brought to the project. He reorganized the workforce into divisions based on geographic regions. As heads of those divisions, he placed two Army engineer colleagues, Lt. Col. David D. Gaillard and Lt. Col. William L. Sibert, and one Army civilian, Sydney B. Williamson, among whom he purposely created friendly competition. The reorganization succeeded, as each appointee remained on the job until his work was complete. Goethals himself remained in Panama even after the canal opened as governor of the Canal Zone.