Sunnyside Rotarian follows the lead of Teddy Roosevelt


Leroy Ganser

About a year ago at this time, Sunnyside Rotarian Leroy Ganser made the same trek Roughrider Teddy Roosevelt, then president of the United States, took in December 1905.

Ganser, like Roosevelt, was off to get a look at the Panama Canal.

Roosevelt's visit 100 years ago was not in the nature of the cruise Ganser enjoyed on the Holland American line. Rather, the "cowboy" president said at the time the men building the Panama Canal in 1905 were "doing a big thing and I want to see how you're doing it".

The big job they were tackling was cutting a trench across the isthmus of Panama, a job started by the French in 1879.

The French "were the pioneers" who spent 10 years slogging through mud and swamps to clear, by hand, a path across the isthmus, the noon Rotary Club learned yesterday from a commercial video Ganser brought back to share with the club.

"He got to go there, and we get to see the video," said Rotarian Jim Trull, who added that the group had been saving it for something special.

Yesterday was that special day, but, unfortunately, the video runs longer than the club's lunch hour program, so members due back at work had to slip away before it ended.

All of the members were still onboard when the video unfolded the story of how the U.S. got into the canal construction

It was, the video showed, after the French company went broke in 1889 trying to shorten the trip around the Horn of South America by cutting through Panama.

The grandiose idea, hatched by French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was behind the construction of the Suez Canal, "looked easy on paper", the video related, but the sea level canal-only half as long as the Suez Canal with which de Lesseps had been successful-ran afoul of poisonous snakes, a river that would rise to 40 feet within 24 hours and a miasma of disease that took at least 20,000 French lives in 10 years.

While Frenchmen mulled over the "unspeakable national disgrace, the swindle and waste of lives" brought about by de Lesseps (who died in his own pool of disgrace), the assassination of President William McKinley put the forward-thinking Theodore Roosevelt into office.

He took the isthmus by storm, literally, bringing a gunboat into play against Columbia to give the U.S. the leadership role over Panama's big ditch.

The new canal treaty of 1903, that was bent strongly toward the U.S. with little consideration for Panama, led to a year that was a fiasco with no organization but plenty of Yellow Fever.

John Stevens, engineer of Washington state's own Stevens Pass and builder of the Great Northern Railway through the Rocky Mountains, took over the canal work. He instigated a health and sanitation campaign that ranged from the use of carbolic acid to insecticides-a move that turned the treacherous swamp land into developed communities with homes that married men would bring their wives to and settle into.

Through Stevens' efforts, the project moved ahead-though not without difficulties-but by December 1905 there was no more yellow fever on the isthmus and 24,000 men were at work on a canal that would make the cut not at sea level, but by using a system much like a water elevator or steps.

That's when Roosevelt came to visit, choosing-as did our own Sunnyside resident, Leroy Ganser, last year-the peak of the rainy season.

"The worst time to go is during the rainy season because it rains and is nasty," Ganser said yesterday. "And when we went it was the rainy season and it did rain and it was nasty."

After that visit by President Roosevelt to the ambitious construction project, Stephens, in a never-explained move, resigned from the project. It was rumored that he was either bored with the work, heard of a terrible scandal in which he didn't want to be involved, missed his family, wanted more money or simply disliked his roughrider president.

Roosevelt put an Army officer at the head of the job, someone who couldn't quit. Men who had built dams and locks on American rivers came to put their expertise to work.

By 1912 there were 50,000 workers, many from Barbados, who earned 10 cents an hours for 10-hour days, six days a week. "It was considered excellent pay" the video vowed, explaining that the non-Americans were paid in silver while the Americans were paid in gold. "It was separate and seldom equal" treatment for the English-speaking, but darker, West Indians, the video emphasized.

It was at this point, that the Rotarians' luncheon meeting room at Snipes Mountain Brewing Inc. cleared out to the point where the remaining four agreed to forego the pleasure of knowing the rest of the story.

Of course we all know the ending . . . within recent history, the United States forfeited its "permanent" ownership of the canal and relinquished it to Panama, a decision made during the Carter administration.

"One of the surprises on the cruise," said Ganser, "was that some of the older people were just madder than all get-out that the United States gave up the canal. But, with the high cost of maintenance and considering the age of it, it may have been a good move."

"The United States does have," noted Trull, "the perpetual right to defend it."


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