Make the Dirt Fly!

Panama Canal, circa 1907

Panama Canal, circa 1907

“If we are to hold our own in the struggle for supremacy,” Roosevelt insisted, “we must build the canal.”

On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, just a few years earlier, the French had failed disastrously. But the U.S. paid a price for victory: more than a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than 350 million dollars — the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time — and the loss of more than 5,000 lives.

Number of snow shovels inexplicably ordered by the French: 10,000
Earth moved to date: 66,744,000 cubic yards
Total cost to date: approximately $30 million
As many as 22,000 workers were estimated to have died during the main period of French construction (1881–1889).

In late 1903, revolutionaries organized and financed by France’s former chief engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla staged a coup on the Isthmus, and a U.S. warship suddenly steamed into Panama City’s harbor to deter the Colombians from suppressing the revolt. The new, independent nation of Panama quickly gave the United States the go-ahead. The Americans, however, could only use a portion of what the French had excavated. Over 48,000,000 cubic yards of earth moved through French back-breaking labor was useless as the Americans began to dig.

For the men leading the Panama Canal project in 1904, challenges of building the canal were exacerbated by the infectious diseases that ran rampant in the hot, wet Panamanian climate. By 1906, more than 85% of the canal workers had been hospitalized. But the Americans had a way to fight the disease.

Supplies required for eradication of yellow fever:
Gallons of kerosene oil per month: 50,000; Tons of Sulfur: 300; Brooms: 1,000; Fumigation pots: 1,200
Total cost to date: approximately $407 million

Rose van Hardeveld, the young wife of an American civil engineer working on the Panama Canal, joined her husband on the Isthmus in 1906. A firsthand account of her time in the canal zone, Make the Dirt Fly! charts her experiences from her first day in Panama to the completion of the project in 1914. In the following excerpts, Rose records every detail of life in Panama. (The book was originally published in 1956.)

“In America, anything is possible,” Jan would boast, whenever he learned of some modern miracle of enterprise in his new country. An avid reader of any and all newspapers he could obtain at our little whistle-stop post on the Union Pacific Railroad in western Wyoming, he was forever marveling at the spectacle of progress in the United States at the turn of the century, and from time to time he would add, proudly, “With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible!”

“This will be our chance to be among those who make history! Your Papa is helping to build the big canal, the waterway that has been in the minds of men for centuries. This canal, when it is finished, will change the face of the earth. It will unite the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, and alter the course of the ships that sail upon them. Yes, children, we will be among those who make history!”

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Panama Canal: American Experience
1/24 9:00 pm WOSU TV
1/25 1:00 am WOSU TV

– Scott