Middle: Another early slide covering train track
Bottom: Culebra Cut today
The totally unforeseen nature of the approximately 22 “slides” that plagued the construction of the Panama Canal, and in particular the operations in Culebra Cut, was what made them such a deadly and thoroughly exacerbating feature of the canal’s creation. The slides were also the single most convincing factor in determining that a sea level canal would never be possible in Panama.
Cucaracha Slide, which was on the east side of the canal, had given the French construction company a great deal of trouble since 1884, when it started moving, until 1889 when they went bankrupt and stopped the work. They had been literally driven from that part of Culebra by Cucaracha Slide by the constant movement of material into the portion of the canal they had just dug out. When the U.S. resumed excavation in 1905 the slide began to move again and continued moving, especially during the dry season. Understanding the assault that the extremely deep excavations posed against this natural landscape, the slides were “Nature’s heavy artillery…in repelling the invasion of man.”*
There were truly hair-raising episodes such as the one in which the town of Culebra, for instance, had 75 acres break away and moved foot by foot into the canal. It carried with it hotels, clubhouses and homes until the buildings were removed. Of course, the town of Culebra would not be the only town to be evacuated for the safety of its population. Cucaracha Slide, in the fall of 1907, was no less hair-raising when, without warning, an avalanche of mud and rock, a “tropical glacier- of mud instead of ice,” according to Major Gaillard, destroyed 2 steam shovels and every inch of train track in its path. It kept “sliding” or moving for days afterwards until, ten days later, it finally stopped.
The slides were responsible for dumping into the Culebra Cut more than 250 acres of land, buildings, and driving downwards into the depths of the “big ditch” about 30,000,000 cubic yards of material that had to then be dug out time and time again. It has been estimated that the amount of material that slid into Culebra was enough to fill a load of train cars extending half way round the world. A total of 200 miles of train track was covered up, destroyed or dislocated in one year alone by these totally unpredictable slides.
At one time the slides were expected only during the rainy season usually after heavy rainfall. But time and again, the “gravity slides” which plagued construction during the rains were soon out done by the “structural break and deformation slides,” which occurred during dry season as well and primarily on dry ground. “If a cut is dug deep enough, even side walls of granite finally will break at the bottom, causing the material above to press down and into the cut.” In all, the slides would have baffled engineers and threatened the life of laborers at Cucaracha, Las Cascadas, La Pita, Empire, Lirio, West Culebra and East Culebra.
My grandmother, Fanny Reid, often recalled to me in my childhood how the Canal, especially Culebra Cut, “was always plugged up,” and this even after the canal was finished and opened for international transit. It was a constant, almost unyielding struggle to maintain the “Big Ditch” free of landslides and the spoil that settled to the bottom.
The struggle with the slides yielded to a resolve, on the part of the engineers, “of inviting the slides to do their worst, and then meeting them as they came.”* Although, officially, the slides continued to challenge the building of the canal for seven long years, they would be a natural factor to reckon with for decades after the canal’s completion.
This story will continue.