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Goethals, George W.

Goethals, George W. (1858–1928), U.S. Army engineer and builder of the Panama Canal.Born in Brooklyn on 29 June 1858, Goethals graduated second in his West Point class in 1880, and went on to achieve what William Tecumseh Sherman predicted would be a “brilliant future.” Early in his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he worked on lock and dam projects that later served him well in Panama. More engineer than soldier, Goethals viewed the military simply as a vehicle through which he could express his talent.

On President Theodore Roosevelt's order, Goethals was appointed chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907 when John F. Stevens resigned because of the difficulties in the first three years of construction. Goethals supervised nearly all major excavation and all construction. He vastly expanded the proposed canal's size, taking into account U.S. Navy preferences for access, passage, and defense. To oversee the building of immense locks and dams, Goethals brought in army and civilian engineers who had distinguished themselves in similar work. He then set the two groups to work on opposite sides of the canal, expectant that professional rivalry would encourage speed and excellence.

Goethals's responsibilities at Panama extended well beyond construction. He organized a strictly regimented social order, with engineers and designers at the top and workers at the bottom. Each lived in separate communities with separate amenities, with a court system adjudicated by Goethals himself. Goethals had the ability to manage an incredibly diverse number of workers. He completed the canal in 1914, having done the job under budget and ahead of schedule, and still operating with most of the original construction equipment. General Goethals served as governor of the Canal Zone (1914–16) and then with the War Department's supply agencies in World War I.


Joseph B. Bishop , Goethals, Genius of the Panama Canal: A Biography, 1930.

T. R. Brereton

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