[Editor's note: Paul Sutter joins us today to talk about his research on the Panama Canal. Paul is one of my favorite colleagues in the profession and an outstanding environmental historian. His first book, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, is smart, readable, and a great stocking-stuffer. The holidays are just around the corner, people; it's never too early to plan ahead. Thanks, Paul, for doing this.]

On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, safely ensconced in the Executive Office Building, pressed a button that remotely trigged a dynamite blast on the Isthmus of Panama, a blast that destroyed the Gamboa Dike and, for the first time, created a continuous liquid passage across Central America. It was a moment that the New York Times called, in language typical of the triumphalism that attended the Panama Canal’s construction, “the greatest spectacle in the history of the world’s greatest engineering work.” The Gamboa Dike had kept water out of the famed Culebra Cut, a monumental excavation through the highest point along the canal route, and as the dike collapsed and water rushed into the cut from Gatún Lake, workers joyously rode the rapids in small-draught boats. But the destruction of the Gamboa Dike did not mean that the Panama Canal was ready for business — as the Times put it, “Besides the wreckage of the Gamboa dike there are two earth slides to be cleared away before large vessels can pass from ocean to ocean.”(1) The first complete passage by a boat of any size took place on January 7, 1914. U.S. officials then made plans for an opulent opening celebration, to occur in early 1915, but the exigencies of the First World War scuttled those grand plans. The Panama Canal opened to the world’s oceangoing traffic in August 1914, to minor fanfare.

Nonetheless, the Gamboa Dike’s destruction symbolically fulfilled a centuries-old dream — if only for daredevil canoeists on that October 10th — of a direct water passage from west to east. Or was it east to west? Actually, to be precise, it was, going from the Caribbean to the Pacific, a passage that took ships in a southeasterly direction, the counterintuitive result of a wicked bend in the Isthmus that makes Panama look like an S that fell on its face. But, at the moment, precision mattered much less than superlatives and grand geographical theorizing. The gap had been breached, continental geography defied, and the dream of a passage to India realized. Americans were certifiably full of themselves.

There are so many ways in which the construction of the Panama Canal was earth-shattering in its historical import, and it is easy to fall for the hyperbolic rhetorical celebrations that attended its completion. Finished six months ahead of schedule and under budget, the Canal struck many as an unvarnished triumph of American administrative and engineering know-how. Indeed, during the 1910s, literally dozens of books appeared to crow about how the Americans had succeeded where the French — whose canal-building effort in the 1880s was plagued by financial scandal and catastrophic disease mortality — had failed. If one were to search for a single symbolic moment to mark America’s self-conscious arrival as a global industrial and economic power, the successful completion of the Panama Canal would be as good a candidate as any.

But American triumphalism hid — and in many ways has continued to hide — what was a more complicated achievement. Behind the claims of American achievement, for instance, lay the work of hundreds of thousands of non-American laborers, most of them black West Indians, though there were large numbers of Spaniards, Italians, and even African-American workers whose efforts built the canal. These workers lived in a Canal Zone that, like much of America at the time, was deeply segregated and deeply unfair in terms of return on labor. White American workers were paid in gold and enjoyed excellent housing and clubhouse amenities. Meanwhile the largely non-white work force (and for some, like the Spanish, whether they were white or not was a source of some contention) worked on the silver roll and endured substandard company housing (or none at all), poor food, and no amenities to speak of. American officials justified such disparities by claiming that the operative distinction was one of national origin — successfully recruiting American citizens to work on the canal required the ICC to offer them more than did recruiting non-U.S. workers desperate for a wage of any sort. But as the experiences of African Americans, who found themselves largely confined to the silver roll, attested, national origin mattered little when you were black. The construction of the Panama Canal, then, might rightly be seen as an integral chapter in the rise of Jim Crow.(2)

It is also worth stating an obvious, though to my mind underappreciated, point about the construction of the Panama Canal: it was a decidedly imperial project, an exercise in territorial and commercial expansion. It was also one that resulted in a substantial enlargement of the American state. The Panama Canal was the largest public works project yet undertaken by the federal government, a project whose cost and mobilization of labor and materiel was rivaled in previous U.S. historical experience only by war. That it occurred outside the borders of the United States seems particularly noteworthy, even in this day of spending billions on preemptive nation renovation. A few critics sheepishly pointed to the socialist qualities of the enterprise, but most saw it merely as emblematic of national greatness. The construction of the Panama Canal suggests that just as the U.S. West was “the kindergarten of the American state,” to quote historian Richard White, America’s extra-continental imperial holdings, cobbled together in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, allowed the state to continue its elementary education.(3) In other words, Americans not only had their imperial moments, but our very national statehood was forged in the crucible of empire.

U.S. forays into places such as Panama were more than simply extensions of the westering process. Indeed, the more interesting point is that Panama had long been a territory of western expansion. Between 1848, when U.S. mail first began traveling across the Isthmus to reach the West Coast, and 1869, when the transcontinental railroad shunted trans-isthmian traffic northward, hundreds of thousands of Americans crossed the Isthmus of Panama to get to and from the West Coast — and particularly the California gold fields. In fact, Panama was the site of the Americas’ first transcontinental railroad, built with American capital by an American company in the early 1850s. (In a superb recent study, Aims McGuinness aptly calls the isthmian route during this period a Path of Empire)(4). In the mid nineteenth century, heading west often involved international travel. Panama had long perched at the edge of the West.

Getting to the West through Panama also involved traversing, confronting, and conceptualizing the tropics as an environmental space. For most of the 19th century, the tropics were a geographical and environmental zone to be feared, a plenum of pestilence and vegetable rankness. But the Panama Canal changed that. Amidst all the post-construction celebration, one of the chief claims Americans made was that they had conquered tropical nature in Panama, in turn providing an object lesson for the world. American medical and sanitary officials, armed with the recent discoveries that mosquitoes spread malaria and yellow fever — the two so-called “tropical fevers” that most scared temperate Americans — were able to rid the Isthmus of yellow fever and bring malaria under control. For many observers, the completion of the canal was a sanitary conquest of the highest order, what Charles Francis Adams called “an epochal event in sanitation.” But again, this rhetoric of tropical conquest hid as much as it revealed. First of all, framing the canal’s construction as an errand in the tropics had profound racial implications. As many a commentator noted at the time, the U.S. sanitary achievement was not merely to make Panama a healthy place; it was to prove that white people could survive in the tropics, a conclusion that suggested all sorts of imperial and developmental possibilities. For too long, the logic went, the tropics had been a space where non-white people, either condemned to lassitude by the debilitating climate or lulled into a life of laziness by the prelapsarian riches of the tropics, had wasted the promise of tropical fecundity properly harnessed. Moreover, the cruel irony had been that enterprising temperate peoples had had to watch all this from the sidelines, for fear of disease or even racial degeneration. But the Americans claimed to have changed all that. That the most frequent causes of death in the Canal Zone during the construction period were pneumonia and tuberculosis, afflictions that largely affected non-white workers and resulted from crowding and inadequate provisioning, was hardly mentioned, as these diseases were not sufficiently tropical to garner the attention of white America. Nor was it much mentioned that troubles with malaria and yellow fever had as much to do with the environmental transformations attendant to the canal-building enterprise as they did with tropical nature per se. The conquest of nature was a much more satisfying obfuscation.

Whether he realized it or not, then, there was a cartoonish symbolism to Woodrow Wilson’s remote control destruction of Gamboa Dike on October 10, 1913. It may not have literally opened the canal to commerce, but it was a gesture that embodied the distance between the swelling American pride in its great engineering achievement and some of the deflating imperial realities of the canal building experience.

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(1) “Few Saw Button Pressed,” New York Times (October 11, 1913): 9. See also “Canal Is Opened by Wilson’s Finger,” New York Times (October 11, 1913): 9. See also David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977).

(2) On canal zone labor, see Julie Greene’s forthcoming The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin, 2009).

(3) Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991): 58.

(4) Aims McGuinness, Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007).