While the United States gets the credit for building the Canal, the project was in fact started by a series of French companies, notably the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. However, the French attempt failed due to a combination of inadequate machinery, financial problems and, most crucially, a lack of public health measures which resulted in thousands of deaths from Yellow Fever, Malaria and other tropical diseases. (McCullough, 239)
The successful American Canal project picked up where the French left off, but focused a great deal of attention on public health and the welfare of the workforce. As a result, rates of disease dropped dramatically, as did the associated death rates, and the project was completed in just over a decade, with the Canal opening to commercial traffic in 1914. Another important American innovation was the use of far more robust excavation equipment, including a fleet of Bucyrus-built steam shovels. (McCullough, 445)
One of the most iconic images of the Canal construction features President Theodore Roosevelt sitting at the controls of one of these steam shovels during his tour of the Canal construction in November 1906. He looks very much like a big kid playing in the sandbox in this image, and it fits his adventurous personality well. Not only did his trip result in an iconic photo, but it was also the first time that an American President had left the US while in office, changing the role of the Presidency forever.
Bucyrus, which has since been taken over by Caterpillar Inc., is rightfully proud of its role in building the Isthmian Canal, but one of its corporate history brochures makes two glaring errors about the project. The brochure, The Bucyrus Legacy, features the Roosevelt photo prominently on the cover and then goes on to explain TR's visit on the third page. The last sentence reads:
In 1908, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt climbed aboard a Bucyrus 86,000-kilogram (95-ton) shovel on an inspection trip to the canal.Oops! Roosevelt's trip was in November 1906, not 1908. (McCullough, 492-502) Secondly, Roosevelt was in office until 1909, so even if the trip had been in 1908, he would still have been President. This is an unfortunate error and I hope that it can be corrected in future publications.
McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. London: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
Underwood & Underwood. President Roosevelt Running an American Steam-Shovel at Culebra Cut, Panama Canal. Photograph, November 26, 1906. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011647853/.