MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Theodore Roosevelt's Letter to John Ripley Freeman
regarding the Panama Canal, 1908

The letter | The engineers | The site

Steam shovelEngineers, kings, and businessmen had dreamed since the sixteenth century of constructing a canal through the Central American isthmus to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans . Such a canal would save approximately 18,000 miles of sailing and eliminate the need for an arduous and risky passage through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America. Most of the work on the Panama Canal was accomplished in two stages. A French company headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal, worked on the project between 1881 and 1888, but ultimately left the job unfinished because of problems related to disease and inadequate equipment. The United States resumed work on the canal in 1904 and completed it (a total length of 50.7 miles) in 1914.

French equipment left in jungleLandslides and labor troubles impeded U.S. efforts in early phases of the Panama Canal 's construction, and various questions arose regarding such critical factors as the width of locks. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt enlisted the aid of six "engineers of high standing" to inspect the canal work on site, report on the status of the undertaking, and evaluate possible changes in the plans. John Ripley Freeman was one of the engineers chosen for the trip.

Freeman received an S.B. in civil engineering from MIT in 1876. He spent much of his long career as a consultant for companies engaged in waterpower projects and factory construction, or as an advisor to governments regarding municipal water supply. He took a special interest in earthquakes and in the need for adequate design and construction methods as safeguards against damage caused by large-scale earth movements.

Suction dredgeFreeman's photographic records related to the Panama trip include images of the excavations in progress, gargantuan steam shovels, dredges, railroads for moving soil and rock, laborers, engineers, living quarters for workers, and residential neighborhoods inhabited by the indigenous population. The photographs call attention to the immense scale of the project and to the variety of tasks to be performed. One view of rain forest foliage shows French machinery from the earlier attempt, now abandoned and overgrown.

The John Ripley Freeman Papers (MC 51) document a wide range of hydraulic engineering projects and other activities, and include his "Study No. 7," a detailed proposal for MIT's new Cambridge campus. Also in the Archives' collections are the papers of Allen Hazen (MC 430), another of the engineers appointed to report on the canal work. Both collections are available for research in the reading room of the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Object of the Month: August 2006

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