National Geographic : 1909 Apr
THE PANAMA CANAL* BY LIEUT. COL. GEO. W. GOETHALS, U. S. ARMY CHAIRMAN AND CHIEF ENGINEER, ISTHMIAN CANAL COMMISSION The following article was submitted to President Taft by Colonel Goethals, March 16, as a special report on the Panama Canal situation. The report gives such a complete and clear review of why the lock type of canal is being constructed that we publish it in full. A CANAL connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has occu pied public attention for up ward of four centuries, during which period various routes have been proposed, each having certain special or peculiar advantages. It was not until the nine teenth century, however, that any definite action was taken looking toward its ac complishment. In 1876 an organization was perfected in France for making surveys and collect ing data on which to base the construc tion of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and in 1878 a concession for prosecuting the work was secured from the Colombian Government. In May, 1879, an international congress was convened, under the auspices of Ferdinand de Lesseps, to consider the question of the best location and plan of the canal. This congress, after a two weeks' session, decided in favor of the Panama route and of a sea-level canal without locks. De Lesseps's success with the Suez Canal made him a strong ad vocate of the sea-level type, and his opinion had considerable influence in the final decision. Immediately following this action the Panama Canal Company was organized under the general laws of France, with Ferdinand de Lesseps as its president. The concession granted in 1878 by Co lombia was purchased by the company, and the stock was successfully floated in December, 188o. The two years follow ing were devoted largely to surveys, ex aminations, and preliminary work. In the first plan adopted the canal was to be 29.5 feet deep, with a ruling bottom width of 72 feet. Leaving Colon, the canal passed through low ground to the valley of the Chagres River at Gatun, a distance of about 6 miles; thence through this val ley, for 21 miles, to Obispo, where, leav ing the river, it crossed the continental divide at Culebra by means of a tunnel, and reached the Pacific through the val ley of the Rio Grande. The difference in the tides of the two oceans, 9 inches in either direction from the mean in the Atlantic and from 9 to II feet from the same datum in the Pacific, was to be over come and the final currents reduced by a proper sloping of the bottom of the Pacific portion of the canal. No pro visions were made for the control of the Chagres River. In the early eighties after a study of the flow due to the tidal differences a tidal lock near the Pacific was provided. Various schemes were also proposed for the control of the Chagres, the most prominent being the construction of a dam at Gamboa. The dam as proposed afterward proved to be impracticable, and this problem remained, for the time being, unsolved. The tunnel through the divide was also abandoned in favor of an open cut. THE FIRST CHANGE FROM THE SEA-LEVEL TO THE LOCK TYPE Work was prosecuted on the sea-level canal until 1887, when a change to the lock type was made, in order to secure the use of the canal for navigation as * See also "The Republic of Panama," William H. Burr, NAT. GEOG. MAG., February, 1904. "The Panama Canal," Admiral Colby M. Chester and Gilbert H. Grosvenor, October, 1905. "The Panama Canal," Theodore P. Shonts, February, 19o6.