I do not usually cross-post items I have written elsewhere, but a version of this appeared earlier today on the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Facebook page. I could not let the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal go unnoticed here on The Strawfoot. I have been a bit surprised that there has not been more coverage of this over the past few days. I will have to check the C-SPAN listings to see if maybe there is anything over the weekend. Canals have played a an important and curiously under under underappreciated role in the world’s economic and political development. The Suez, the Erie, China’s Grand Canal. These are hugely significant feats that had, and have, important consequences. I suspect the reason for the lack of appreciation for canals is that visually they are not much to look at. Essentially a canal is a big ditch. The Brooklyn Bridge is something that poets and painters can get excited about. The Soo Locks are not.
Still that does lessen the importance of the Panama Canal. This is a monumental day in the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, it was an important day in the history of science, engineering, trade, commerce, and more. The canal took so much of Roosevelt’s and John Hay’s diplomatic energies. For years everyone had understood the growing importance of navies and shipping. A canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been a dream for decades. Before the canal it was necessary to sail around the lower tip of South America. The canal cut 8,000 miles off that journey. Another option was to traverse the isthmus by mule, carriage, or on foot. That was as dangerous, even fatal, as it sounds.
The French had tried and failed in the nineteenth century. Construction on the American attempt began in 1903 and took eleven years. Completion of the 77 kilometer (48 mile) passageway could not have come at a better time; the Great War had begun just weeks earlier. Keeping the oceans free and accessible was now easier. I believe the canal’s role in the First World War is ripe for Interpretive possibilities, and I intend to write about it over the Centennial. It was crucial during the Second World War as well. Today the canal is busier than ever and is being expanded.
To say that there were obstacles—political, logistical, and otherwise—would be an understatement. When I worked for the public library I had a Panamanian colleague whose ancestor had worked on the project. One of the biggest problems were the disease carrying mosquitoes that took the lives of the manual laborers. Roosevelt’s visit to the canal’s construction site was the first time a sitting president left the United State. Eight years later all of that had been overcome and Roosevelt’s dream had become a reality. It took all of his skills—and yes even a little political intrigue—to make the whole thing happen. He was not in Panama 100 years ago today, but one can only imagine what he must have been thinking that day.