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In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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George Washington Goethals: Panama Canal Construction Supervisor (1858-1928)

Posted November 22, 2011 12:00 AM by SavvyExacta

George Washington Goethals was an army officer who advocated the high-lift canal locks that would eventually be used in the Panama Canal. He was recommended as an engineer for the Panama Canal by U.S. President Taft. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907.

Earlier Canal Work

After graduating second in his class from West Point in 1880, Goethals joined the Corps of Engineers as a lieutenant and worked on the Ohio, Columbia, and Tennessee rivers. His responsibilities include the dams, bridges, canals, and locks. Goethals also taught civil and military engineering.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and was created by Goethals and 50,000 workers. In addition to the challenges of deal with all of the water and mud, the group had to deal with heat and disease.

The problems solved and tasks completed on the Panama Canal project included:

  • Cutting down mountains to eliminate canal elevation
  • Creating the Gatun Dam and Gatun Lake to control the Chagres River
  • Building concrete locks with filling/emptying systems and steel opening/closing devices
  • Handling frequent changes with the project
  • Supervising the well-being of the workers including health and sanitation
  • Listening to complaints and settling disputes among the workers

Although Goethals' background was in the military, the workers were civilians; Goethals did not wear his uniform during work on the Panama Canal project. The project was run with quasi-military discipline and efficiency. With Goethals' leadership, the Panama Canal project was completed six months ahead of schedule - and $23 million below budget.

Goethals retired after the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. In 1917 he was recalled to active duty and was tasked with reforming the Army's supply system. He also created the New York Port Authority. A bridge between New York City and New Jersey was named in his honor.

Resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Goethals

http://www.sil.si.edu/Exhibitions/Make-the-Dirt-Fly/goethals.html

http://www.pancanal.com/eng/history/biographies/goethals.html

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#1

Re: George Washington Goethals: Panama Canal Construction Supervisor (1858-1928)

11/22/2011 2:03 AM

In 1979 I transited the Panama Canal on a crab boat built in a barge yard in Tell City, Indiana, and destined for the Bering Sea king crab fishery. We overnighted in Gatun Lake. The Canal remains a marvel of engineering even after many decades.

I hope to make a retirement project of writing the story of this boat, the F.V. Bountiful, on which I served as chief engineer from 1979 to 1983. There were many larger-than-life personalities and events, near-fiascos and triumphs both, in the building and working of this highline crabber. The TV series The Deadliest Catch captures the flavor quite well. Been there, done that.

Thank you, Savvy, for bringing part of our maiden voyage back to mind.

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Re: George Washington Goethals: Panama Canal Construction Supervisor (1858-1928)

11/23/2011 9:39 PM

George Goethals is a national hero here in Panama, with the headquarters building for the Canal Authority bearing his name. He is one of the great engineering pioneers, and the canal still functions basically as he designed it. There are many other unsung heroes from that era that deserve recognition as well...

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