Defense Media Network

History of Army Corps of Engineers Projects: Panama Canal to World War II

Part 1

The evolution of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has mirrored the nation it serves. One of the most enduring themes of the two-century history of the Army Corps of Engineers is that as technology has developed, USACE has embraced it, reflecting its advance in the systems and facilities it has constructed to meet America’s challenges. Whether facing natural disasters or realigning military infrastructure, USACE has always built to order.

“The Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time,” said John Lonnquest, chief of the USACE Office of History. “What it has done has changed based on what the nation needs.”

In the 20th century, the United States’ needs grew exponentially. A burgeoning economy, population, and sense of ambition dictated the construction of a civil and military infrastructure to support it all. America’s maturation as a nation and as a world power was inextricably linked to the water.


The Panama Canal

USACE did not build the Panama Canal. But without the expertise and dedication of USACE engineers, America’s efforts to complete the canal project might have failed just as those of the French did before them.

Panama Canal Construction

The middle and lower Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, looking north from the lighthouse on the west wall. In the distance is the Atlantic entrance of the canal, Oct. 27, 1913. Photo courtesy of Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In 1904, the Theodore Roosevelt administration established the Isthmian Canal Commission to oversee the project. Its first chief engineer, John F. Wallace, formerly chief engineer and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, resigned a year later, unable to brook the lack of infrastructure, bureaucratic inefficiency, and tropical disease hampering it.

John Frank Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railway, was subsequently appointed chief engineer. Stevens successfully argued for a change in the design to a canal and lock system, significantly improved canal project equipment and logistics, and collaborated in efforts to reduce the incidences of malaria. Nevertheless, he left the project in 1907 for more lucrative work.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Col. George W. Goethals to succeed Stevens as chief engineer, using the logic that “No. 1, an Army engineer couldn’t quit as the first two [civilian] engineers had and No. 2, the new plan called for locks, dams, concrete, things that Army engineers were used to dealing with,” USACE historian James Garber explained.

While the Panama Canal didn’t break new engineering ground, it was distinct in scale, location, and number of concurrent projects. Multiple dams, three sets of locks, and 10 miles of deep excavation were all done within a 60-mile radius. Railroad trains arrived at excavation locations once a minute to remove dirt, often carrying it 35 miles away.

“It was systems engineering at its finest,” Garber added.

Goethals abetted the process by dividing the engineering and excavation work into three divisions: the Atlantic Division, under Lt. Col. William L. Sibert; the Pacific Division, under Sydney B. Williamson (the only civilian member of the executive team); and the Central Division, under Lt. Col. David D. Gaillard.

Each of these men made huge contributions to canal construction and its ultimate completion in 1914. The decision to bring in USACE’s engineers to run the endeavor was instrumental to its success, said Garber. It was the highlight of the officers’ careers and a prime example of USACE personnel at work on projects beyond its specific scope.


The Federalization of Flood Control

Though it seems unimaginable today, flood control was not considered the responsibility of the federal government prior to the 20th century.

Beforehand, a patchwork of public and private dams and levees, many built during the 1850s, provided minor relief – particularly on the Mississippi River, where routine flooding became a vexing problem as human activity encroached. A succession of Mississippi and other large tributary floods would provide the catalyst for federal and USACE engagement. Such dams and levees as were previously built were funded by taxing state and local populations. Many of these were neglected and later destroyed during the Civil War, after which an impoverished South was unable to restore them.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...