George Washington Goethals, an American Army officer and engineer, died Jan. 21, 1928, at the age of 69. In 1907, President Roosevelt placed Goethals in charge of the Panama Canal project, which had been underway for three years but was not yet showing much progress. During his seven-year tenure as Chief Engineer, Goethals brought the project to completion. His biggest task was the construction of the Gatun locks, at the Atlantic end of the Canal. These triple locks can raise or lower a vessel a height of 85 feet in three steps; each lock can hold a ship that is 110 feet across and 1000 feet long. These locks, and the accompanying Gatun dam, were the largest engineering projects ever undertaken to that time. Goethals’ other major accomplishment was the completion of the Culebra Cut, which sliced through the continental divide of Panama, and involved moving literally a hundred million tons of earth. The French had started the cut way back in 1881 and had made some headway over 23 years, but when the Americans took over in 1904, it was not at all apparent that such a colossal dig would ever be successful. But the mammoth shovels on the two sides of the cut met in May, 1913, and just over a year later, on Aug. 15, 1914, the first ship went through the canal.

The Library holds the considerable A.B. Nichols collection of Panama Canal Project material; Nichols was Office Engineer for the entire enterprise and kept clippings, notebooks, and hundreds of photographs. These and other material were displayed by the Library in 2014 in a centennial exhibition called The Land Divided, The World United: Building the Panama Canal. The entire Nichols collection is available in our Digital Collections.

The images above show the Gatun Locks; the Culebra Cut; one of the many landslides the engineers had to content with; and a group photo that includes Goethals, in white, in the center of the lowest step, his hands behind him.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to