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.