President Roosevelt Visits Panama

Sep 17, 2014

Letter to Kermit on Panama

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, November 20, 1906. Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

In 1906, President Roosevelt visited Panama to inspect the American effort to build an inter-oceanic canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He described the work to Kermit Roosevelt as “the greatest engineering feat of the ages.”

“I went over everything that I could possibly go over in the time at my disposal. I examined the quarters of married men and single men, white men and negroes. I went over the ground of the Gatun and La Boca dams; went through Panama and Colon, and spent a day in the Culebra cut, where the great work is being done. There the huge steam shovels are hard at it, scooping huge masses of rock and gravel and dirt previously loosened by the drillers and dynamite blasters, loading it on trains which take it away to some dump, either in the jungle or where the dams are to be built. They are eating steadily into the mountain, cutting it down and down. Little tracks are laid on the side hills, rocks blasted out, and the great ninety-five ton steam shovels work up like mountain howitzers until they come to where they can with advantage begin their work of eating into and destroying the mountainside. With intense energy men and machines do their task, the white men supervising matters and handling the machines, while the tens of thousands of black men do the rough manual labor where it is not worth while to have machines do it. It is an epic feat, and one of immense significance.” 

President Roosevelt was also caught up in the beauty and wildness of the jungle.

“The deluge of rain meant that many of the villages were knew-deep [sic] in water, while the flooded rivers tore through the tropic forest. It is real tropic forest, palms and bannanas [sic], bread-fruit trees, bamboos, lofty ceibas; and gorgeous butterflies and brilliant colored birds fluttering among the orchids. There are beautiful flowers, too. All my old enthusiasm for natural history seemed to revive, and I would have given a good deal to have stayed and tried to collect specimens. It would be a good hunting country too; deer and now and then jaguars and tapir, and great birds that they call wild turkeys; there are alligators in the rivers. One of the trained nurses from a hospital went to bathe in a pool last August and an alligator grabbed him by the legs and was making off with him, but was fortunately scared away, leaving the man badly injured.”

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