George Washington Goethals

views updated May 21 2018

George Washington Goethals


American Army Engineer

George Washington Goethals was a United States Army Engineer appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the chief engineer of the Panama Canal when John F. Stevens resigned in 1907. Goethals took a special interest in the employees working under him, which he was to be well known for, and created an atmosphere of cooperation on the project. His engineering and people skills helped him complete the Panama Canal six months ahead of schedule in 1914. Goethals remained at the Canal from 1914 to 1916 as governor of the Canal Zone.

Born on June 29, 1858, in Brooklyn, New York, Goethals was described as a quiet, slow-moving boy. He was a serious child who spent much of his youth planning his future. He worked after school to save money for college and attended the College of the City of New York. He later entered the Military Academy at West Point in 1876. Goethals graduated from West Point in 1880 as a second lieutenant and served in the Corps of Engineers. Four years after his graduation Goethals married Effie Rodman and they had two sons.

Before his work on the Panama Canal, Goethals gained practical experience building dams, bridges, and locks on rivers like the Ohio and the Tennessee. He served as an instructor and taught at West Point, employing his valuable field experiences. Goethals gained a reputation as a highly skilled and qualified engineer.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) appointed Goethals to the position of chairman and chief engineer of the Panama Canal project. This followed the resignation of two other engineers. At the beginning of the following year, he took complete control of the construction of the Canal. Goethals faced an enormous task complicated by technical problems and problems associated with coordinating the activities of 30,000 workers depleted by bouts of malaria and yellow fever. Goethals maintained a hands-on knowledge of the day-to-day construction of the Canal by visiting construction sights in person, and by holding informal sessions with his men every Sunday to work out problems with the crew. The Canal was completed six months ahead of schedule and opened for traffic in 1914. Goethals remained at the Canal to act as the governor of the Canal Zone from 1914 to 1916.

The Panama Canal is regarded as one of the world's most important and spectacular engineering feats. It links the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and extends 51 miles (82 km) from Limón Bay on the Atlantic to the Bay of Panama on the Pacific. The Canal shortened the ocean voyage between New York and San Francisco to less than 5,200 miles (8,367 km) from 13,000 miles (20,917 km). An important commercial and military waterway, approximately 13,500 ships pass through it a year carrying 220 million short tons (200 million metric tons) of cargo. Most of the traffic is to or from American ports, but other countries such as Canada and Japan frequently use the Canal as well. The Canal was a significant waterway during the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, with large amounts of equipment and troops passing through it. While the Panama Canal has often been a source of trouble between the Americans and Panamanians, it has inspired the imaginations of many and has demonstrated the amazing reach of human innovation.

George Washington Goethals enjoyed a long and distinguished career that extended past his achievements at the Panama Canal. He served as quartermaster general during the First World War, as director of purchase, storage, and traffic and as assistant chief of staff in charge of supplies. President of the engineering firm George W. Goethals and Company, from 1919 to 1928, Goethals continued to work in the field of engineering. He was also a consultant for many engineering organizations and on projects such as the Port of New York. Goethals died on January 21, 1928.


George Washington Goethals

views updated Jun 27 2018

George Washington Goethals

U.S. Army officer and engineer George Washington Goethals (1858-1928) succeeded in building the Panama Canal after many others had failed.

On June 29, 1858, George W. Goethals was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Dutch immigrant family. Intending to become a physician, he attended the City College of New York for 3 years. He then won a coveted appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1880, second in a class of 52. He was one of two members of his class selected to go on to engineering school.

From 1882 to 1903 Goethals served with distinction on projects dealing with river and harbor improvements. He taught engineering at West Point (1885-1889, 1898-1900) and was assistant to the Army chief of engineers (1894-1898). During the Spanish-American War he was chief engineer of the I Army Corps, and from 1903 to 1907 he was on the general staff of the Army.

Meanwhile the United States had begun construction of the Panama Canal, but the Isthmian Canal Commission and the two civilian engineers who headed the project had made slow progress. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt decided to place a military engineer in complete charge, picking Goethals over many other talented engineering officers.

Combining administrative ability with professional skill, Goethals overcame enormous obstacles of engineering, climate, disease, and living conditions before the canal was officially opened in 1914. The most difficult part of building the canal, Goethals later wrote, was the problem caused by the "human element." As many as 45,000 persons, of many nationalities and speaking a variety of languages, worked on the canal. Goethals made himself accessible to all, heard complaints, visited every aspect of the project, and had an uncanny mastery of the smallest details. In the process, sanitary officer William C. Gorgas succeeded in eliminating yellow fever.

Goethals served as governor of the Canal Zone from 1914 to 1917. During World War I he was in charge of the purchase, storage, and transport of all supplies and the movement of all troops within the United States and overseas, winning the Distinguished Service Medal for his achievements. After retiring from the Army in 1919, he was a private consulting engineer on many important projects, including the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge, connecting Manhattan and New Jersey, and the Goethals Bridge, connecting Staten Island and New Jersey. He died on Jan. 21, 1928, and was buried in the Army West Point cemetery.

Further Reading

Goethals's life is best described in Joseph Bucklin Bishop and Farnham Bishop, Goethals: Genius of the Panama Canal (1930). See also Gerstle Mack, The Land Divided: A History of the Panama Canal and Other Isthmian Canal Projects (1944). □

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