ON EPIDEMICS AND ESCAPE ROUTES: THE 100th ANNIVERSARY OF THE PANAMA CANAL AT THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU LIBRARY

Listening to National Public Radio this morning, I heard two news item that immediately caught my attention. The first was that today marks the hundred year anniversary of the celebrated completion of the Panama Canal by the Americans, even as the current construction project aimed at expanding that canal has been delayed by financial problems and now talk of a strike. I also heard on NPR that a Chinese billionaire is presently floating a plan to construct a new canal across the Central American isthmus in the territory of Panama’s northern neighbor, Nicaragua. This new proposal advocates crossing Lake Nicaragua to complete a 173-mile canal, and holds out the possibility of helping transform the economy of that impoverished nation, but also of drastically altering the region’s ecology. Materials in the Wolfsonian library remind us that the United States had also conducted a number of surveys in the isthmus to determine the best route for an interoceanic canal, and that early on, Nicaragua was the favored route. In 1886, the Cuban-born Chief Civil Engineer with the U.S. Navy, Aniceto García Menocal (1836–1908) published the report of the U. S. survey party through Nicaragua. 

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN

Ultimately Nicaragua lost out to Panama when the Americans decided to push forward with plans to complete the canal begun and then abandoned by the French. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today’s blog post comes to you from Sharf Associate Librarian, Rochelle Pienn, who recently put together an exhibition on the Herculean effort that went into the building of the Panama Canal. Here is her report:  

Today the Panama Canal celebrates its official centennial. When thousands of local workers recently decided to strike, plans for a massive and expensive Canal expansion came to a screeching halt. Nevertheless, scheduled fanfare in honor of the waterway will proceed. After all, the Panama Canal’s history of fits, starts, stops, and finally, success, is the basis for its current glory.

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Book, plate 7, from The Panama Canal: The World’s Greatest Engineering Feat. Panama: I.L. Maduro Jr., c. 1930.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

Before luxurious passenger ships, commodity-laden cargo carriers, and U.S. military vessels ever passed through the Panama Canal, this man-made waterway between the Eastern and Western hemispheres was a rocky, humid, infected isthmus.

XC2011.08.2.280_095Photograph album, plate 95, from Souvenir de Panama. [Panama], c. 1882.

 GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

This lovely original 19th century photographic print shows the quaint town of Venta Cruz, where pack donkeys and their riders were compelled to pass through in order to deliver goods across the Isthmus. During this period, France, fresh from its triumph over the completion of the Suez Canal, began its doomed mission to build the Panama Canal.

These days travel advisories warn individuals from approaching West Africa, where the largest outbreak of the Ebola virus currently spreads. Imagine entering a land in spite of the presence of a deadly disease for the sheer purpose of obtaining work—or for the larger goal of building the impossible. The Isthmus of Panama was more than just a staked-out piece of real estate ready for hacking: it was a death zone, replete with yellow fever and malaria, at the very least almost guaranteeing severe illness.

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Photograph album, plate 1, Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique: 4eme Bureau Technique Photographie Album-Archives. [Panama], c. 1886.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

This hospital, or Le Sanitarium, hosted ailing patients on nearby Toboga Island. After years of failed construction strategies, constant disease, catastrophic death tolls, and utter bankruptcy, the French finally pulled out of the Panama Canal project. The United States took control, facing the exact same issues, but taking daring new approaches.

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Book, page 144, “Col. William C. Gorgas, Medical Dept., U.S. Army, Head of the Department of Sanitation, Ancon,” from The Panama Canal: A History and Description of the Enterprise, by John Saxton Mills. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1913.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

Clearly the tragic cycle of disease and demise needed to be broken. President Teddy Roosevelt first rejected Dr. William Gorgas’s revolutionary methods to eradicate yellow fever due to its million-dollar price tag. Dr. Gorgas’s theory involved mass fumigation to kill mosquitos and their eggs, plus sealing off tons of standing water, where the fever fermented. Roosevelt did relent and fund the project, which utterly eliminated yellow fever on the Isthmus by 1906.

XC2011.08.2.285_170Book, page 170, from The Panama Gateway, by Joseph Bucklin Bishop. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.

 GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

On the heels of Gorgas’s miracle, Roosevelt pushed for new popular support of the project. He appointed reporter Joseph Bucklin Bishop as the Executive Secretary of the Isthmian Canal Commission. It was Bishop’s charge to disseminate positive information on the Panama Canal in order to garner favor from the American public.

Books like this one appealed to curious readers with its flamboyant prose and idyllic watercolor scenes. The author, Willis J. Abbot, once served as editor for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

 XC2011.08.2.296coverBook, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose: A Complete Story of Panama, as well as the History, Purpose and Promise of its World-famous Canal, the Most Gigantic Engineering Undertaking since the Dawn of Time, by Willis John Abbot. London: Syndicate Publishing Company, 1913.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

In 1914, the Panama Canal, with its fully functional system of gates, lakes, and locks, opened to the maritime traffic of the world. The U.S.’s accomplishment was somewhat sidelined by the advent of the First World War. By the early 1920s, the Canal became a popular destination for military officer R&R, cruise ships, and naval vessel peace-time practice maneuvers.

XC2011.08.2.304_81Photograph album, plate 81, from Panama and the Canal Zone: As I Saw It, February 9th to May 4th, 1921. [Panama], c. 1921

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

Exotic travel through the eighth wonder of the world enticed tourism. Here the SS President Van Buren, from the Dollar Steamship Line, rests in Gatun Locks. Shipping magnate Robert Dollar purchased vessels from the U.S. government and refurbished them for his leisure cruise line.

 XC2011.08.2.2_004Book, plate 4, from The Panama Canal: The World’s Greatest Engineering Feat. Panama: I.L. Maduro Jr., c. 1930.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

In 1999, the United States turned over control of the Panama Canal to the Panama Canal Authority (PCA). The PCA soon announced a plan to widen and improve the Canal to meet the modern needs of larger ships and denser maritime traffic. In the meantime, Nicaragua publicized its new partnership with a Chinese billionaire for the purpose of building its own competing canal. One hundred years later, the saga of the Panama Canal presses on … and wonders never cease.

~ by "The Chief" on August 15, 2014.

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