The Dreamers: Part 3
Pedro stepped onto Panamanian soil ten years after abandoning the failed French canal attempt. He had returned as an American surveyor, tasked by the Isthmian Canal Commission with assessing the feasibility of the United States building a canal across the isthmus.
The jungle had all but reclaimed the derelict French excavations. Vines and foliage flourished everywhere. The abandoned equipment and work camps were mere skeletons rotting back into the living earth.
But Pedro knew that beneath the cloak of green lay the ghosts of past sacrifice – the bones of men he had known buried in landslides and unmarked graves. Their unfinished work called to him.
Pedro was heartened that mighty America now took up the cause. If any nation could tame the isthmus, it was the inventive young industrial powerhouse of the north. Even the jungle seemed to quake at the mechanized might soon to be unleashed.
The Americans came in 1904 on the heels of their newfound imperial reach after seizing Panama from Colombia and establishing it as an independent republic. The United States signed a treaty with tiny Panama granting full rights to complete the canal in exchange for defense and financial guarantees.
Armed with the lessons of the failed de Lesseps venture, the Americans arrived not just with people but advanced technology and equipment. Enormous Bucyrus steam shovels capable of excavating three stories down with their dipper arms. Modern cranes, dredges, tugboats and railroad cars to haul away debris.
Sanitation was a top priority after disease killed thousands of French workers. Massive infrastructure projects got underway across Panama to pave roads, purify drinking water, establish modern hospitals and eradicate mosquitoes. Everything was meticulously planned where the French approach had been ad hoc.
Top engineers like John Stevens and George Goethals surrounded themselves with the best doctors, sanitation experts, geologists and surveyors. A diverse international workforce was recruited. Barracks were constructed to comfortably house thousands of laborers and staff.
Pedro stood on an expanse of bare earth that had once been jungle, marveling at the hive of activity transforming the land. A new town called Culebra housed workers near the massive cut bearing its name through the Continental Divide. It was jarring to see trains steaming across Panama carrying spoils of the historic dig.
The Americans attacked the work with military precision, efficiency and confidence. Laborers advanced methodically from both the Atlantic and Pacific sides towards the half-finished central Culebra Cut like armies claiming disputed territory foot by foot.
The cut emerged again as the key battleground against the land itself. But now teams worked in carefully planned phases with modern power equipment. The soil and rock stood no chance against the onslaught. Each day Pedro gazed up awestruck as the colossal shovels swallowed the terrain with their insatiable appetites.
Other sections came together in parallel. Vast new lakes were created by immense dams at Alajuela and Gatun to fill the locks that would raise and lower ships over the mountains. A sprawling new port facility took shape at Cristóbal on the Atlantic side as the massive infrastructure grew daily.
Most importantly, the nightmare of disease that had decimated the French was held largely in check by America’s expensive preventative war against malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and dysentery. While some deaths still occurred, the scandalous mortality rate was slashed dramatically. Workers remained healthy enough to dig relentlessly.
Seven years after first arriving, Pedro stood with throngs of cheering laborers, engineers and doctors at the site where the mammoth Culebra Cut finally connected the Pacific and Atlantic sides through the Continental Divide for the first time. Railcars decorated with flags were hauled across, symbolizing the joining of the oceans. Church bells rang out across Panama in celebration.
After 10 grueling years of construction, the last concrete was poured and channel dredged to completion. Thanks to the Americans, the centuries-old dream of a canal across Panama had been dramatically realized through ambition, sacrifice, and unwavering dedication.
On January 7, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson triggered a telegraph message that exploded a charge detonating Gamboa Dike, flooding the Culebra Cut to fill the vast manmade channelway for the first time. Ocean waters now connected from coast to coast.
Six months later, Pedro stood proudly along the canal bank among throngs of cheering workers and dignitaries. Whistles blared and church bells rang as the SS Ancon became the first ship to officially transit the entire 77 kilometer canal on August 15, 1914. Champagne spilled over its bows.
As he watched the Ancon steam by, Pedro’s weathered face was wet with joyful tears. The old man raised his trembling hands skyward, as if releasing the dream that had filled his life for so long. It was finally fulfilled. Nature’s barrier had been conquered at last through vision, resilience, and sacrifice. The impossible was realized.