Friday, August 15, 2014

Dartmouth and the Canal

The Panama Canal was officially opened 100 years ago on August 15, 1914, ten years after the United States assumed control of the project. Construction had been started by France in 1881 but ultimately faltered due to cost overruns and the high mortality rate experienced by the construction workers. Once the United States took over there was a need for highly skilled engineers. Several alumni from Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering were involved in the project.

Robert Fletcher went to visit the canal in May 1913, during the latter part of construction. While there he saw a number of Dartmouth and Thayer alumni. Among them was Herbert Hinman (Dartmouth 1907, Thayer n1908) - in charge of the Balboa terminal work and earlier superintendent of work on the Pedro Miquel locks. Fletcher also mentions Otis Hovey (Dartmouth 1885) who designed and constructed the canal's emergency dams, and Fred Stanton (Dartmouth 1902, Thayer 1903).

Pictured here are several lithographs from Joseph Pennell's Pictures of the Panama Canal (Philadelphia, London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1912) that depict places mentioned in Fletcher's diary or in letters from alums to Fletcher.

Culebra Cut
The Culebra Cut is mentioned in a letter from Stanton to Fletcher from July 25, 1913. "It was a great pleasure to have you here when the Canal work was in its most interesting stage. The Culebra Cut will be flooded about October tenth, so you weren't here any too soon."

The Gatun locks appear in one of Fletcher's diary entries. "Langley met me and went over the Gatun Locks end to end and into some operating chambers in the middle wall. In the lower approach excavation 42 ft. below sea level." A postcard in Clarence Langley's (Dartmouth 1907, Thayer n1908) alumni file bears the inscription: "At Fort Lorenzo. Occupation - Transitman I.C.C. Address - Gatun, C.Z. Dear Prof. F. I answered your letter promptly...I do not intend to return to Hanover this Sept." I.C.C. stands for Isthmian Canal Commission, C.Z. for Canal Zone, and Prof. F. is Robert Fletcher.

Gatun Locks
More letters indicate the scope of the project and the cost. Fred Stanton wrote to Fletcher on September 10, 1907: "The work which I will be engaged in consists of removing some eight millions cubic yards of rock and about five millions of sand. I expect to find the work very interesting and instructive…." Another alum, Clarence Pearson (Dartmouth 1907, Thayer 1908), worked at the Gatun Locks and left the Canal Zone in 1910 due to poor health. He died in 1911 and is mentioned by Hinman in a letter to Fletcher, ca. 1911: " We are still fighting it out on the same old lines down here but we lost poor Pearson. I think his death was a direct result from this work."

Ask for Robert Fletcher's diary from 1913 (DA-4, Box 2234, folder 2) and the alumni files for the Thayer School (DA-4, filed by class year). The Pennell illustrations can be seen by asking for Illus P382pe.

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