I’ve been helping my 9-year-old son research and write a report about building the Panama Canal. It was an engineering project that was so far-reaching, requiring a knowledge of managing workers, budgets, healthcare issues, politics, finance and weather, it’s hard to imagine how the Americans pulled it off. The French couldn’t.
It started with the French sending their legendary engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, just fresh from the success of building the Suez Canal, to survey Panama in the sunny season. Big mistake. Panama has nearly 250 days a year of RAIN, read mudslides. And then there were terrible problems with malaria and yellow fever. And the conditions for building the Suez Canal couldn’t have been more different from those in Panama. The French lost many workers to illness and death, couldn’t cope with the impossible weather and finally just gave up, leaving behind piles of construction vehicles stuck in mud, rusting in the jungles.
What’s so interesting to me is how the Americans came in, challenged all assumptions the French had made, and turned the project around. The American in charge was an engineer named John Frank Stevens, a railroad man, who quickly realized the primary issue was making his workers happy and healthy. He had a ninety percent turnover rate in his workforce when he arrived.
He knew there would be no canal building until he built proper housing, hospitals and instituted worker-friendly policies to keep people there and keep people alive. He allowed his workers to bring their wives and families to Panama and poured lots of money into medical facilities and research. Happy workers = WOW! Project.
I’ve been reading children’s history books on the subject, but here are some links to adult titles:
The Path Between The Seas—David McCullough
How Wall Street Created A Nation: J.P.Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and The Panama Canal—Ovidio Diaz Espino
[I haven’t read these books yet, so feel free to tell us in our comments if these are your favorites, or about other books you might recommend on the subject.]