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September 2013

Civil Engineers Build a Meeting Around the Panama Canal

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

Next year, the Panama Canal turns 100 — and will be a focal point of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2014 Civil Engineering Conference in Panama City. We begin a year-long exploration of how a storied organization builds a meeting around one of its industry’s greatest accomplishments in a still-emerging business destination.


John Findlay Wallace and John Frank Stevens had two things in common: Both men served as chief engineer of the Panama Canal construction project, and both served a term as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) — Wallace in 1900 and Stevens in 1927. ASCE has since declared the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” (in 1994) as well as one of the “Monuments of the Millennium” (in 2000).

The long, involved history of ASCE and the canal will enter another phase in October 2014, when ASCE brings its 144th Annual Civil Engineering Conference to Panama City in honor of the canal’s 100th birthday. “We just started talking about [the fact] that it is one of the engineering feats,” said Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conferences and meeting services, discussing why the canal made Panama a natural fit for ASCE’s annual conference. “They’re opening up several new locks. They’re building a bridge. And the Panama Canal contributed to a lot of other historical feats besides just the engineering portion of it. [It was there that the United States] discovered how to cure malaria.”

It was July, and Rushing was sitting in her office in ASCE’s Reston, Va., headquarters, looking simultaneously at the past and the future of the Panama Canal. “That’s why the French failed and that’s why the Americans were able to succeed,” she said, “because they finally found out what was causing the sickness, and how to treat it and prevent it. [The canal] is going to be a big part of the conference.”

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA

“Big” is a word that naturally attaches itself to the Panama Canal, the massively ambitious waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project was begun in 1881 by the French, who largely abandoned it eight years later, exhausted from their attempts to cut a 50-mile-long, 30-foot-deep, sea-level passage through the mosquito-infested jungles and landslide-prone mountains of the Isthmus of Panama, in what was then part of Colombia. More than 22,000 laborers died — from floods, accidents, and, especially, yellow fever and malaria. The United States took control of the project in May 1904 — literally, after backing a rebellion against Colombia by Panamanian separatists, resulting in the creation of the Republic of Panama and the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, which was only turned back over to Panama in 1999.

The first chief engineer on the U.S. project, Wallace, formerly the chief engineer and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, lasted 13 months. He “seemed, almost from the beginning, defeated by the job and by the climate and terrain,” Julie Greene writes in The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal. “He saw the unhappiness of workers, their constant flight back to the United States, and accurately evaluated the problem: not only were the men worried about yellow fever, but they felt that housing was inadequate, amusements and diversions were nonexistent, and food prices were much too high. And they were homesick.”

Wallace’s successor, Stevens, was also a railroad man, with stints as chief engineer and general manager of the Great Northern Railway and as vice president of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. He made it 20 months as the canal’s chief engineer, but in that time had an enormous influence on the project, overhauling its railway system and successfully lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt to switch construction from a sea-level canal to a lock-based canal, which would use a series of dams and locks to raise ships to a 163-square-mile artificial lake 85 feet above sea level for passage through the isthmus.

Stevens resigned in 1907 and was replaced by Col. George Washington Goethals, never a president of ASCE but a distinguished military officer who served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and who saw the project through to its completion in 1914. And while the U.S. team, led by chief sanitary officer William Gorgas, was able to nearly eradicate yellow fever and malaria by zeroing in on mosquitos as carriers of the diseases, about 5,600 workers still died during the 10-year, $375-million project.

Since its official opening on Aug. 15, 1914, the canal has become a crucial link in international maritime trade and tourism — giving passage to more than 1 million ships by the end of 2011. More than that, it helped usher the United States onto the world stage. “As a symbol of American efficiency, enthusiasm, and contributions to world civilization, the Panama Canal hovered over the twentieth century like a phantom,” Greene writes. “It connected the acknowledged strengths of the United States in medicine, technology, and industry to expansionist aims and in this way helped make Americans more comfortable with their new role as a world power.”

And the canal is about to get even bigger. In 2007, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) broke ground on a $5.25-billion expansion project that will double the canal’s capacity by adding a third lane of traffic and widening and deepening existing lanes. The project is scheduled for completion in 2015.

BEYOND THE CANAL

This is the marvel of engineering, industry, and policy around which ASCE will build next year’s Civil Engineering Conference. “The ASCE has a longstanding relationship with Panama and the canal,” said Ana María Viscasillas, a business-tourism consultant who is working with the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) to promote Panama as an international meeting destination. “In one of the museums in Panama City, it shows one of the former presidents of the society actually working on the canal. It’s a wonderful tie-in. Those delegates attending the convention will experience not only the majesty of the canal but also enjoy the new expansion…. [Panama offers] much more beyond the canal, but celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the canal, it’s a historical moment.”

But before formally committing to the destination, in April 2012 Rushing and other ASCE executives — the executive director, the senior managing director of communications and public relations, the senior managing director of engineering and lifelong learning, and the then-president of the board of directors — attended the Panama Canal 2012 International Engineering and Infrastructure Congress, organized by ACP and Congrex, and supported by ASCE. “We went down to see how that was run, what kind of education they were having, what their turnout was,” Rushing said, “and to look at the city and see if that would fit our needs. And then, what it was going to be like planning a meeting in a Latin American country.”

The visit went well, and soon ASCE signed off on Panama City for its 2014 conference. This past April, Rushing returned to Panama for her first formal site visit, which included meetings with officials at ACP, who will be partnering with ASCE on the conference, and whose administrator, Jorge Luis Quijano, will serve as honorary chair. For obvious reasons, the canal will be a centerpiece of the meeting — hosting tours and site inspections, providing fodder for education sessions and historical presentations, offering its expansion as a case study of a “gigaproject” in progress, and more.

But ASCE isn’t meeting

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