The Panama Canal and a “Staunch Little Craft” of Polar Exploration

Image of “Bird’s-Eye View of Panama Canal” from the February 1912 NGM

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.”

The Frams hull was built to stand the crushing force of polar ice. Photo by Fridtjof Nansen.

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.)

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About Cathy Hunter

I have worked as an archivist at National Geographic for over 20 years and particularly love learning more about our old expeditions.
This entry was posted in National Geographic magazine, NGS History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Panama Canal and a “Staunch Little Craft” of Polar Exploration

  1. michael suever says:

    I may be mistaken but after waiting two months in late 1913 for the canal to open the Fram was redirected by Amundsen to proceed around the South American coast to the Pacific. However various infestations aboard the ship and sickness among the crew led to Amundsen’s decision to return the ship to Norway. He also decided to begin his Arctic drift expedition via the northeast passage rather then through the Bering Strait. As a result the Fram arrived at Horten, Norway on 16 July 1914. The canal wasn’t officially opened until August 15, 1914- thus it seems unlikely that the Fram entered the canal as discussed in the article. For a basic outline of these events see Roald Amundsen By Tor Bomann-Larsen….

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