Culebra Cut- Part I

Top image is a map view of the Panama Canal Route
showing the location of Culebra Cut
Bottom image shows a very early photo of
Culebra Cut in all it’s ominous splendor.

At a gathering of visiting congressmen a few days after his appointment in Panama (March 31, 1907)
Colonel George W. Goethals, the new Chief Engineer, remarked, “I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama, and that the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the Canal…”

The issue of whether the canal would be a sea-level canal (promoted by the French) or a lock canal favored by several American engineers, including John Stevens, was finally settled after a presidential commission voted 8-5 in favor of a sea level canal and handed their conclusions to President Theodore Roosevelt. After reading John Steven’s opposing statement favoring a lock canal, however, President Roosevelt was converted and passed the final decision for the lock canal through to be ratified by both houses of the American Congress.

Since the entire construction of the canal was, at least initially, a massive “digging” project, the excavations had to be done as efficiently as possible. The biggest challenges to the entire project, however, would invariably come from the legendary “Culebra Cut”– the nemesis of even the French builders back in the 1880’s. This fact also implied that the deep excavations at Culebra were of paramount importance. The “cuts” were being dug out of several points in the construction route through the Cordillera Central Mountains. In fact, whole sides of towering mountains were being brought down with violent, thunderous blasts of dynamite.

The struggle with “Culebra Cut,” considered by many engineers of the time as the “special wonder of the canal,” lasted at least 7 years between 1907-1913, and it often seemed as if the special hand of God was against the construction of the canal owing to the numerous and disastrous slides that accompanied the excavations in this “Hell’s Gorge.”

First, there was Panama’s climate. At the bottom of Culebra Cut it was normally never less than 100º F, usually 120º-130º F. Then, there were the torrential rains that continually increased the incidence of mud and rock slides. Added to the brutal heat there often arose an eerie smoke from the depths of the cut lending it an almost infernal appearance. It was no wonder that many of the West Indian workmen were convinced that they were digging into the bowels of a volcano.

We will soon see the enormous price in material, time and men’s lives that “Culebra Cut” exacted from the mortals who dared take from it what nature had granted to this very unique location on God’s earth.

This story will continue.

4 responses to “Culebra Cut- Part I

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Wow, I have to go get another cup of coffee! Don’t stop now…… Keep going. I want to drink another cup of coffee and keep reading……….Oh Man!!!!!!

    Good thing I have lots of coffee! I have to come back to read the next installment!
    I know that the area is hot(130F), but what caused the extrema heat, no ventilation?? (hot air from Americans) 🙂

    Now I am a little confused about why there was an issue of which way to build the canal.

    “The issue of whether the canal would be a sea-level canal (promoted by the French) or a lock canal favored by several American engineers,”

    What made the sea level type worse? Or was it really? ?????


  2. This site is most interesting and well worth repeated visits. You are informing the rest of the world about little known history and culture.
    Thank you so much
    Jane Buttery (jsbwrites)
    in Ontario Canada

  3. Kyle and Svet,

    Regarding the extreme heat in Culebra Cut, it is documented (Path Between the Seas by David McCullough) that geologists suspected that it was the burning of Pyrite underground. This also explained the wisps of smoke that arose as the men were at work.

    The French, in the beginning, decided on a sea level canal that does not require as extensive and deep “digging” and continual dredging as the lock canal does. Remember that the canal warranted bringing down mountains and millions of tons of soil and rock. After John Stevens became Chief Engineer he saw and experienced that given the terrain and the geographical factors, the best option would be the lock canal.
    Obviously his judgement was correct.
    Stay tuned. :-))


  4. Hello Jane Buttery,

    Thank you for your comment. I started this blog because I had read a few histories about the Panama Canal but no where were my people, the West Indian Panamanians, documented and their particular and crucial role in this “wonder” of the modern world. Also I wanted to express a lot of that history as I lived it.
    Thanks for your visit and I encourage you to subscribe in the feedblitz box for email updates. This gives you the option of reading the entire article if the short post interests you.
    I will be happy to explore your creative books site, as I think it is very relevant today.
    Best regards,

    Roberto C. A. Reid,