Map of the Gaillard Cut


The Gaillard Cut

Most ship canal projects involved deep excavation along the canalís entire route. Because American engineers chose to dam the Chagres River to create a 33-mile-long lake, they greatly reduced the amount of material requiring excavation. Instead, traditional digging occurred only in the lowlands along each coast and for nine miles at the Continental Divide. Still, workers removed an estimated 182,537,766 cubic yards of material.

For 7 miles from each coast, the canal line scarcely peaked above high tide, but in the interior, hills 530 feet high stood in its path. French builders had already excavated 20,847,000 cubic yards from the hillsides, but the vast majority remained. To direct the excavation in the interior, Chief Engineer


George Goethals appointed fellow Army engineer Lt. Col. David D. Gaillard.

With Gaillard orchestrating the chaos, up to 6,000 men worked in the cut daily. Laborers attacked the hillsides with drills, dynamite, and steam shovels and used trains to remove the spoil. Drill teams dug so many holes that, if lined up, they would have burrowed through the center of the earth. While steam shovel operators rested, dynamite crews fired 600 coordinated explosions a day. Moving the material out of the cut required 43 steam shovels, 3,700 flatbed railcars, and 140 locomotives, which came and went up to once per minute. Other laborers moved the rails to each new digging site as needed.

Gaillard had established an incredibly efficient excavation process, but no one could control or predict the devastating landslides. Some hillsides adjacent to the canal started sagging and breaking. A few slides sent mud and gravel down the slopes slowly, almost like glaciers, while others burst from the canal walls, trapping men and equipment. All of them reversed progress by destroying machinery, covering rails, and refilling excavated areas. In total, slides poured 40 million cubic yards of earth into the canal, almost one quarter of the excavation total. The slides bewildered Gaillard and drove him to what many thought was a nervous breakdown. In the summer of 1913 he began speaking incoherently and suffered memory loss. Doctors later discovered his ailments were caused by a brain tumor, from which he died on December 5, 1913. In recognition of Gaillardís gallant efforts, President Woodrow Wilson renamed the Culebra Cut in his honor after the canal opened.

Two steam shovels meeting at the bottom of the cut
Steam shovels meet at the bottom of the cut

Workers removing dirt from a fresh slide
The Cucaracha Slide