The American Type of Isthmian Canal - Speech by Hon. John Fairfield Dryden in the Senate of the - United States, June 14, 1906
by John Fairfield Dryden
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It was the same Sir Henry Bulwer who, in 1850, succeeded by questionable diplomatic methods in foisting upon the American people a treaty which was contrary to their best interests and which for half a century was a hindrance and barrier to an American Isthmian canal. We owe it chiefly to the masterly and straightforward statesmanship of the late John Hay that this obstacle to our progress was disposed of to the entire satisfaction of both nations. I refer to these matters, which are facts of history, only to point out how an interminable discussion of matters of detail is certain to delay and do great injury to projects which should only receive Congressional consideration in broad outlines and upon fundamental principles. If we are to enter into a discussion of engineering conflicts, if we are to deliberate upon mere matters of structural detail, then an entire session of Congress will not suffice to solve all the problems which will arise in connection with that enterprise in the course of time. I draw attention to the Suez experience solely to point out the error of taking into serious account minor and far-fetched objections which assume an undue magnitude in the public mind when they are presented in lurid colors of impending disasters to a national enterprise of vast extent and importance.

So eminent an engineer as Mr. Robert Stephenson by his expert opinion deluded the British people into the belief that the Suez Canal would not be practicable; that, even if completed, it would be nothing but a stagnant ditch. Said Palmerston to De Lesseps:

All the engineers of Europe might say what they pleased, he knew more than they did, and his opinion would never change one iota, and he would oppose the work to the end.

Stephenson confirmed this view and held that the canal would never be completed except at an enormous expense, too great to warrant any expectation of return—a judgment both ill advised and erroneous as was clearly proved by subsequent events. I need only say that the Suez Canal is to-day an extremely profitable waterway, and that although the work was commenced and brought to completion without a single English shilling, through French enterprise and upon the judgment of French engineers, it was only a comparatively few years later when, as a matter of necessity and logical sequence, the controlling interest in the canal was purchased by the English government, which has since made of that waterway the most extensive use for purposes of peace and of war.

These are the facts of history, and they are not disputed. Shall history repeat itself? Shall we delay or miscarry in our efforts to complete a canal across the Isthmus of Panama upon similar pretensions of assumed dangers and possibilities of disaster, all more or less the result of engineering guesswork? Shall we take fright at the talk about the mischief-maker with his stick of dynamite, bent upon the destruction of the locks and the vital parts of the machinery, when history has its parallel during the Suez Canal agitation in "the Arab shepherd, who, flushed with the opportunity for mischief and with a few strokes of a pickax, could empty the canal in a few minutes"? Shall we be swayed by foolish fears and apprehensions of earthquakes or tidal waves, and waste millions of money and years of time upon a pure conjecture, a pure theory deduced from fragmentary facts? Again the facts of canal history furnish the parallel of Stephenson and other engineers, who successfully frightened English investors out of the Suez enterprise by the statement that the canal would soon fill up with the moving sands of the desert, that one of the lakes through which the canal would pass would soon fill up with salt, that navigation of the Red Sea would be too dangerous and difficult, that ships would fear to approach Port Said because of dangerous seas, and, finally, that in any event it would be impossible to keep the passage open to the Mediterranean.

It was this kind of guesswork and conjecture which was advanced as an argument by engineers of eminence and sustained by one of the foremost statesmen of the century. How absurd it all seems now in the sunlight of history! The Panama Canal is a business enterprise, even if carried on by the nation, and with a thorough knowledge of the general facts and principles we require no more expert evidence, so called, nor additional volumes of engineering testimony. The nation is committed to the construction of a canal. The enterprise is one of imperative necessity to commerce, navigation, and national defense, and any further discussion, any needless waste of time and money, is little short of indifference to the national interests and objects which are at stake.

Of objections to either plan there is no end, and there will be no end as long as the subject remains open for discussion. To answer such objections in detail, to search the records for proof in support of one theory or another, is a mere waste of time which can lead to no possible useful result. Among others, for illustration, there has been placed before us a letter from the chief engineer of the Manchester Ship Canal, who is emphatically in favor of a sea-level waterway. It would have been much more interesting and much more valuable to the members of Congress to have received from Mr. Hunter a statement as to why he should have changed his opinions; or why, in 1898, he should have signed the unanimous report of the technical commission in favor of a lock canal, while now he so emphatically sustains those who favor the sea-level project. It is not going too far to say, appealing to the facts of history, that Mr. Hunter may be seriously in error in this matter and may have drawn upon his imagination rather than upon his engineering experience, the same as Mr. Robert Stephenson was in serious error in his bitter opposition to the canal enterprise at Suez.

Mr. Hunter, in his letter, argues, among other points, that the lifts of the proposed locks would be without precedent. Without precedent? Why, of course, they would be without precedent. Is not practically every large American engineering enterprise without precedent? Was not the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, without precedent? Were not the first steamboat and the first locomotive without precedent? Were not the Hoosac Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge feats of American engineering enterprise without precedent?

Without precedent is the great barge canal which the State of New York is about to build, which will mean a complete reconstruction of the existing waterway which connects the ocean with the Great Lakes.[3]

All this is without precedent. But it is American. It is progress, and takes the necessary risk to leave the world better, at least in a material way, than we found it. In the proposed deep waterway, which is certain some day to be built to connect the uttermost ends of the Great Lakes with tide-water on the Atlantic, able and competent engineers of the largest experience have designed locks with a lift of 52 feet.[4] That will be without precedent. On the Oswego Canal, proposed as a part of the new barge canal of the State of New York, there will be six locks, two of which will each have a lift of 28 feet,[5] and that will be without precedent, but neither dangerous nor detrimental to navigation interests.

Need I further appeal to the facts of past canal history? Is it necessary to recite one of the best known and most honorable chapters in the history of inland waterways—I mean the problems and difficulties inherent in the great project of constructing the canal of Languedoc, or "Canal du Midi," which forms a water communication between the Mediterranean and the Garonne and between the Garonne and the Atlantic Ocean, one of the best known canals in France and in the world? Need I refer to that pathetic story of its chief engineer, Riquet, one of the greatest of French patriots, who, in his abiding faith in this great engineering feat, stood practically alone? Need I recall that he met with scant assistance from the government, with the most strenuous opposition from his countrymen; that he was treated even as a madman and that he died of a broken heart before the great work was finished?

That canal stands to-day as an engineering masterwork and as a most suggestive illustration of man's ingenuity and power to overcome apparently insuperable natural obstacles. It has been in existence and successful operation, I think, since 1681. For a sixth part of its distance it is carried over mountains deeply excavated. It has, I think, ninety-nine locks and viaducts, and as one of its most wonderful features it has an octuple lock, or eight locks in flight, like a ladder from the top of a cliff to the valley below. If in 1681 a French engineer had the ability and the daring to conceive and construct an octuple lock, will any one maintain that more than two hundred years later, with all the enormous advance in engineering, with a better knowledge of hydraulics and a more perfect method of transportation and handling of materials—will any one maintain that we are not to-day competent to construct successfully a lock canal such as is proposed to be built at Panama upon the judgment of American engineers?

Mr. President, the overshadowing importance of the subject has led me to extend my remarks far beyond my original intention. I express my strong convictions in favor of a lock canal and of the necessity for an early and specific declaration of Congress regarding the final plan or type of canal which the nation wants to have built at Panama. I am confident that it lies entirely within our power and means to build either type of waterway; that our engineering skill can successfully solve the technical problems involved in either the lock or the sea-level plan; but there is one all-important factor which controls, and which, in my opinion, should have more weight than any other, and that is the element of time. If I could advance no other reasons, if I knew of no better argument in favor of a lock canal, my convictions would sustain the project which can be completed within a measurable distance of years and for the benefit and to the advantage of the present generation. Time flies, and the years pass rapidly. Shall this project languish and linger and become the spoil of political controversy and a subject of political attack? Can we conceive of anything more likely to prove disastrous to the canal project than political strife, which proved the undoing of the French canal enterprise at Panama?

Shall the success of this great project be imperiled by the possible changes in the fortunes of parties? Shall we incur the risk that changes in economic conditions, hard times, or panic and industrial depressions may bring about? Time flies, and in the progress of industry and commerce, in international competition and the growth of modern nations, no factor is of more supreme importance than the years, with new opportunities for political and commercial development. Shall we, then, neglect our chances? Shall we fail to make the most of this the greatest opportunity for the extension of our commerce and navigation into the most distant seas which will ever come to us in our history, because of the demands of idealists, who, with theoretical notions of the ultimately desirable, would deprive the nation and the world of what is necessary and indispensable to those who are living now?

Vast commercial and political consequences will follow the opening of the transisthmian waterway. In the annals of commerce and navigation it is not conceivable that there will ever be a greater event or one fraught with more momentous consequences than uninterrupted navigation between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Little enough can we comprehend or anticipate what the far-distant future will bring forth, but this much we know—that it is our duty to solve the problems of to-day and not to indulge in dreams and fancies in a vain effort to solve the problems of a far-distant future.

But money also counts. Can we defend an expenditure of an additional $100,000,000 or more for objects so remote, and upon a basis of theory and fact so slender and so open to question, when a plan and a project feasible and practicable is before us which will meet all of our needs and the needs of generations to come? Shall we disregard in the building of this canal every principle of a sound national economy and commit ourselves to an enormous waste of funds and to the imposition of needless burdens upon the taxpayers of this nation and upon the commerce of the world? At least $2,000,000 more per annum will be required in additional interest charges, at least $100,000,000 more will be necessary as an original investment. Do we fully realize what that amount of money would do if applied to other national purposes and projects?

I want to place on record my convictions and the reasons governing my vote in favor of the minority report for a lock canal across the Isthmus at Panama. I entered upon an investigation of the subject without prejudice or bias and have examined the facts as they have been presented and as they are a matter of record and of history. I have heard or read with care the evidence as it has been presented by the Board of Consulting Engineers and the vast amount of oral testimony before the Senate Committee on Interoceanic Affairs. I am confident that the minority judgment is the better and that it can be more relied upon, because it is strictly in conformity with the entire history of the Isthmian canal project. I am confident that the objections which have been raised against the lock plan are an undue exaggeration of difficulties such as are inherent in every great engineering project, and which, I have not the slightest doubt, will be successfully solved by American engineers, in the light of American experience, exactly as similar difficulties have been solved in many other enterprises of great magnitude.

I am not impressed with the reasons and arguments advanced by those who favor the sea-level project, for they do not appeal to me as being sound, and in some instances they come perilously near to being engineering guesswork characteristic of the earlier enterprises of De Lesseps. I cannot but think that bias and prejudice are largely responsible for the judgment of foreign engineers so pronounced in favor of a sea-level project. Furthermore, I am entirely convinced that the judgment and experience of American engineers in favor of a lock canal may be relied upon with entire confidence, and that such an enterprise will be brought to a successful termination. I believe that in a national undertaking of this kind, fraught with the gravest possible political and commercial consequences, only the judgment of our own people should govern, for the protection of our own interests, which are primarily at stake. I also prefer to accept the view and convictions of the members of the Isthmian Commission, and of its chief engineer, a man of extraordinary ability and large experience.

It is a subject upon which opinions will differ and upon which honest convictions may be widely at variance, but in a question of such surpassing importance to the nation, I, for one, shall side with those who take the American point of view, place their reliance upon American experience, and show their faith in American engineers.


Incorporated under the laws of the State of New Jersey




[1] Report of the New Panama Canal Company of France; Senate Document 188, 56th Congress, 1st session, February 20, 1900.

[2] The Maritime Canal of Suez, from its inauguration, November 17, 1869, to the year 1884, by Prof. J.E. Nourse, U.S.N., Washington, 1884 (Senate Document 198, 48th Congress, 1st session).

[3] For a history of American canal building enterprises see History of New York Canals, ch. 5.

[4] Report of the Board of Engineers on Deep Waterways, H. of R., Doc. No. 149, 56th Congress. 2d session, Atlas.

[5] History of New York Canals, Appendix L. Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor. Vol. II, Albany, N.Y., 1905.


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