teddy roosevelt in panama -- 7/28/15

Today's selection -- from The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. The Panama Canal, built by the U.S. Government between 1904 and 1914, was at the moment it was undertaken the biggest financial and engineering feat in the history of the world. President Theodore Roosevelt, known for his boundless optimism and inexhaustible supply of energy, was perhaps the individual most responsible for making it happen. When he visited the canal in 1906, he intentionally picked Panama's notorious rainy season to see the progress at a time when the work was most difficult. His visit captivated the nation and the world:

"[President Theodore Roosevelt's] trip to Panama to see the canal was one of those small, luminous events that light up an era. No President had ever before left the country during his time in office and so from the day of the first advance announcement in June the journey became the talk of the country. In much of the press, serious apprehensions were expressed, even though it had been stressed that he would be in constant communication with Washington by wireless and that every possible precaution would be taken to insure his physical safety. But by and large the idea of Teddy Roosevelt going personally to Panama, like a general to the front, had tremendous appeal, and on the eve of his departure in November, even the cautious Washington Star lent its support. Perhaps it was a good thing after all for a President to get out and see something of the world, the paper declared; conceivably future occupants of the office might even undertake European journeys. ...

Theodore Roosevelt visiting the Panama
Canal construction site in 1904

"The visit lasted all of three days, which, he later stressed to Congress, was insufficient time for an 'exhaustive investigation of the minutiae of the work ... still less to pass judgment on the engineering problems.' But according to the Star & Herald, no one in the four hundred years of Panama's history had ever seen so much in so little time.

" 'He seemed obsessed with the idea that someone was trying to hide something from him,' Frank Maltby would recall. ... 'He was continually pointing to some feature and asking, "What's that? ... Well, I want to see it." . . . he was continuously stopping some black man and asking if he had any complaint or grievance.'

"Everyone who tried to maintain his pace wound up exhausted and half-drowned.

"He walked railroad ties in Culebra Cut, leaped ditches, splashed through work camps, made impromptu speeches in the driving rain. 'You are doing the biggest thing of the kind that has ever been done,' he said, 'and I wanted to see how you are doing it.'

"He inspected the quarters for both white and black workers, poked about in kitchens and meat lockers. On the morning of the third day, John Stevens told Maltby that it was his turn to lead the procession. 'I have blisters on both feet and am worn out,' Stevens said. At Gatun, Roosevelt said he needed an overall view of the dam site and pointed to a nearby hill. In Maltby's recollection, '. . . we, together with three or four secret service men, charged up the hill as if we were taking a fort by storm.'

"At home the papers reported his every move. 'ROOSEVELT IS THERE' proclaimed the Washington Post. 'A STRENUOUS EXHIBITION ON THE ISTHMUS' read another headline. 'THE PRESIDENT CLIMBS A CANAL STEAM-SHOVEL' The New York Times announced on its front page.

"The famous moment on the steam shovel occurred early on his second day, en route to the Cut. It was about eight in the morning and again the rain was coming down hard. At the site of the Pedro Miguel locks, Roosevelt spotted several shovels at work and ordered that the train be stopped. He jumped down, marched through the mud, and was soon sitting up in the driver's seat, engineer A. H. Grey having happily moved over to make a place for him.

"He was fascinated by the huge machine and insisted on knowing exactly how it worked; he asked that it be moved back and forth on its tracks. He had to see how everything was done. 'All his questions, like his movements, were deliberate and emphatic to a noticeable degree,' a reporter noted; 'he would stand for no ceremony. ...'

"He was at the controls for perhaps twenty minutes, during which a small crowd gathered and the photographers were extremely busy. Presidents of the United States had been photographed at their desks and on the rear platforms of Pullman cars; Chester A. Arthur had consented once to pose in a canoe. But not in 117 years had a President posed on a steam shovel. He was wearing a big Panama hat and another of his white suits. And the marvelous incongruity of the outfit, the huge, homely machine and the rain pouring down, not to mention his own open delight in the moment, made it at once an event, an obvious and inevitable peak for the man who so adored having his picture taken and who so plainly intended to see success at Panama. One of the photographs would quickly become part of American folklore, and as an expression of a man and his era, there are few that can surpass it."


David McCullough


The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 1977 by David McCullough


492, 495-496
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