Looking back at this month’s issue of National Geographic from 100 years ago gives us a window into what was then one of the major undertakings of the modern world. “The Panama Canal,” illustrated with 48 photographs, takes up over one-third of the magazine. By the time the canal opened in 1914, it had been featured in NGM at least 15 times. This feat of engineering captured the public’s attention for its scope, but also because it took a staggering human toll. The French pulled out, beaten by yellow fever and malaria; whereupon the U.S. government took over the project, and an Army doctor, Walter Reed, proved mosquitoes to be the vectors of these two diseases.
This bit of medical history added to the black humor of an old Hollywood classic, Arsenic and Old Lace. In the movie, Cary Grant’s character, Mortimer Brewster, has returned to his childhood home only to make the gruesome discovery that his sweet old aunts are hastening their depressed visitors’ demises with poisoned elderberry wine. Disposal of the bodies has not been a problem as the uncle in residence thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. When not charging upstairs via San Juan Hill, he provides proper funerals in the basement, a.k.a. the “Panama Canal.”
The author and hero of our story, however, is Colonel George W. Goethals, a brilliant engineer who graduated second in his class at West Point. If his name sounds familiar, it may be because the bridge that connects Staten Island to New Jersey is also named after him. And it was the real Teddy Roosevelt who appointed him as chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907.
The magazine’s editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, had been corresponding with Goethals prior to the opening of the canal and so had arranged for a particular ship to be on that historic first trip through the locks. In a letter dated November 21, 1913, he wrote to the colonel:
“You will recall the correspondence with Captain Amundsen relative to the “Fram” and your kind permission to let her through with the first vessels because the staunch little craft holds the record of fartherest North and fartherest South of anything that floats, and we think it would be a splendid recognition if she could be sent through as the first foreign bottom on the way to the Pacific coast from whence she will depart for the Arctic.”
Due to the canal’s delayed opening, the Fram did not pass through; however, a few months later, in March 1914, the Society presented Col. Goethals with its Special Gold Medal. Previous winners of the medal included Amundsen, and before him, Admiral Robert E. Peary, both of whom were on the Fram. (Many thanks to Michael Suever for his comment correcting this post.)