Theodore Roosevelt Atop a Steam Shovel in Panama | November 1906
In November of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt made a highly publicized trip to Panama to observe the progress of the Panama Canal. In typical Rooseveltian fashion, charisma suffused the President’s interactions with almost everyone he met. Roosevelt greeted diplomats and ditch diggers alike over the course of several days, but few moments were as remarkable as when the president made his way to the Culebra Cut, located where the canal bridged the continental divide. To deal with the tens of millions of cubic yards of earth that had to be removed to split the isthmus, U.S. engineers began using massive mechanical steam shovels. Never one to avoid the spotlight, Roosevelt eagerly took control of one the machines. This stereogram captures that iconic moment as the president, clad entirely in white, sits atop the steam shovel while a crowd of machinists and laborers watch. On the surface this extraordinary image reflects both Roosevelt’s persona and the new technologies that helped create the canal, but it is also indicative of the imperial ambitions and racial biases that shaped the acquisition and creation of the waterway.
Starting in the late 1800s, the United States sought to construct an isthmian canal for expediting transportation between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The rationale for this push was two-fold. The creation of a canal would give American manufacturing greater access to Pacific markets, including the West Coast of the United States. Additionally, advocates for U.S. expansion overseas and national defense, Roosevelt among them, recognized the strategic value of rapidly moving military forces between the oceans. After several decades of topographical surveys and engineering studies, a U.S.-backed Panamanian independence movement, and some political strong-arming of the new nation, Americans broke ground on the canal in 1904. The process of completing the waterway was arduous and took a decade. U.S. engineers and West Indian laborers toiled in the tropics, dealing with landslides, workplace accidents, and tropical diseases. Constructing the canal took more than a decade and during the first few years there were substantial questions as to whether it actually could be built.
Roosevelt’s undertook his visit to Panama in large part to assuage concerns about the slow progress of construction during the early years. Prior to Roosevelt’s trip in 1906, the project was marked by indecision and near-continual setbacks, and the President, a master of public relations, saw the visit as a chance to mitigate public anxiety surrounding the canal. The trip was largely successful on that front. Upon his return, Roosevelt quickly reported to Congress that “what has been accomplished gives us good reason to believe that the canal will be dug in a shorter time than has been anticipated and at an expenditure within the estimated amount.”
Produced by the famed stereoscopic company Underwood and Underwood, this image is a stereogram, meant to be viewed with specialized binocular devices that imparted an illusion of depth and immersion. Thus Americans could see their rugged President controlling a marvel of modern technology to carve out the great waterway in an exotic tropical environment. The press quickly capitalized on this spectacle. Newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post described the moment on the front page, ensuring that Americans around the country knew of Roosevelt’s exploits. The image became an iconic representation of drama and awe surrounding the canal’s construction, leading historian David McCullough later to claim it “would quickly become part of American folklore.”
The image also portrayed a great deal about how the canal was constructed. Humans and machines worked in concert to remove unprecedented volumes of earth. The steam shovels were the heavy lifters, excavating up to five cubic yards of soil in a single shovel load. The exhumed earth was deposited onto railway cars which carried it to dumping sites located in swamps and lowlands throughout the Canal Zone. Meanwhile, laborers scurried amongst the machines, laying track so the machines could move, planting explosives to shatter earth and rock, and stocking the machines with remarkable volumes of coal. While work was still in its infancy by the time Roosevelt arrived, the dynamic fusion of human and mechanical labor embodied by the picture seemed to suggest the project was gaining momentum.
In addition to the very physical act of taming a rugged environment, the image also, perhaps unintentionally, reflects the imperial ambitions and racial biases that proved so instrumental in the construction of the canal. The canal was an imperial construct by its very nature. Americans helped foment and support a revolution in Panama when Colombia—which Panama was a province of until 1903—refused to cede territory to the United States. Washington threatened to withhold support for the fledgling Panamanian government if it declined to sign over the rights to construct a canal. The photo embodies this tension, showing Americans bringing their might and technology to bear on a foreign environment. Without imperial ambitions, and a foreign policy reliant on exercising hegemony over less powerful nations, it’s unlikely that the land for the canal could ever have been obtained.
But it wasn’t only the landscape that was a relic of imperialism. Alongside the white U.S. machinists who helped the President control the steam shovel stand several black laborers. Most workers who toiled on the canal were not American, but rather West Indian, primarily from Barbados. However, U.S. racial biases influenced the adoption of “gold” and “silver” payrolls within the Canal Zone. Gold laborers generally earned higher pay, had access to better quarters and food, tended to work more skilled jobs, used segregated services and were almost invariably white and Americans. Silver laborers lived in cramped labor camps, had little access to recreation and leisure, were paid a fraction of the rate given to gold laborers and died at rates considerably higher than their counterparts. Perhaps the most significant imperial relic in this picture then resides in Roosevelt himself. TR, clad in his impeccable tropical suit and hat, manages the controls of the machine, a king holding court in the Cut atop a throne of mechanized progress, while the rest of the Canal Zone world looks on, perhaps longingly, at the United States reigning supreme in Panama.
Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
Franck, Harry. Zone Policeman 88: A Close Range Study of the Panama Canal and Its Workers. The Century Company, 1920.
LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, 1990.
McCullough, David G. The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon and Schuster, 1977.