See the Panama Canal on American Experience, January 24, 2011
What is the Panama Canal? A symbol of arrogance? A triumph of man over nature? One of the seven modern wonders of the world?
In 1880, France tried to build a canal through the isthmus of Panama, despite the advice of experts who said it was impossible. Everything that could have gone wrong did. Marked by accidents, disease, and corruption, the project failed.
No country had more to gain from a canal than the United States. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt championed the building of the Panama Canal as a way to protect American interests. He saw it as America’s route to global supremacy.
For America to be able to build the canal, Panama had to gain independence from Colombia. A bloodless coup, taking less than a day, accomplished the Panamanian Revolution (In fact, there were two deaths: a shopkeeper and a donkey.).
Panama Canal will premiere on American Experience (PBS) on Monday, January 24, 2011. It’s a fascinating look into the political, personal, and engineering challenges behind the building of this marvel. Yellow Fever besieged the project, encouraging many to flee and discouraging others from joining, and one worker predicted that “at the rate things are going, the canal would not be finished for fifty years.” The arrival of engineer John Stevens in 1905 was to turn the project around. What was needed was innovative thinking; Stevens brought it to Panama. However, it was George Washington Goethals who brought the project to its conclusion.
Panama Canal chronicles the many aspects of uniting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and instructs how the canal works. Archival films provide reminiscences from workers. Most interesting are the details of gold/silver segregation—workers were labeled gold or silver based on how they were paid. Those paid in silver were West Indian unskilled laborers, mostly black; those paid in gold were white, skilled workers. Of equal interest is the story of controversial medical advances necessitated by diseases such as malaria and yellow fever that plagued the workers, killing many. Victory over yellow fever contributed largely to the successful completion of the Panama Canal.
The canal officially opened August 15, 1914, a triumph of politics, medicine, and public relations. Its story is told through journal entries, letters, vintage photographs and film, recollections of canal workers’ descendants, and recent interviewees, including authors, educators, scholars, and historians. Panama Canal is involving and surprisingly entertaining, perhaps because it is told on a personal level.