George Washington Goethals

G. W. Goethals


George Washington Goethals was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 29, 1858, the son of John and Marie Baron Goethals. He received his training as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1880. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on June 12, 1880. In the eighties he served for four years as an instructor in civil and military engineering at the Military Academy. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1882, and to captain on December 14, 1891. In 1884 he married Effie Rodman.

During the Spanish-American War he served as Chief of Engineers in the Volunteer Army, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was later placed in charge of the Muscle Shoals canal construction on the Tennessee River and also built canals near Chattanooga, Tennessee and at Colbert Shoals, Alabama.

On March 4, 1907, Goethals was appointed by President Roosevelt Chairman and Chief Engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission (I.C.C.). He served in that position until completion of Canal construction in 1914, following which he served as Governor of the Panama Canal until his resignation January 17, 1917.

As Chief Engineer of the I.C.C., Goethals faced many daunting tasks. Aside from the task of eliminating disease, Goethals was faced by many unique problems, any one which was a stupendous work in itself. The first of these was the cutting down to a much lower level several good sized mountains near the center of the Isthmus in order to minimize the elevation of the canal itself.

The second mightiest feat was the damming of the powerful and erratic Chagres River with the Gatun Dam and the formation of Gatun Lake. The third was the building of the huge concrete locks with filling and emptying systems and great steel gates with opening and closing devices. Many times the plans were changed, and the chief engineer himself spent many sleepless nights working out the complicated calculations. But finally the job was done, and in 1915 General Goethals received the thanks of U.S. Congress "for distinguished service in constructing the Panama Canal."

The name Goethals will be recorded in history as the man who accomplished one of the greatest feats of engineering and construction since the Egyptians completed the mighty pyramids - the construction of the Panama Canal.

From April to July 1917 Goethals served as General Manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, and on December 18, 1917, was recalled to active duty and appointed Acting Quartermaster General, U.S. Army. From 1918 to 1919 he was Chief, Division of Purchase, Storage and Traffic, U.S. Army. At his request, Goethals was relieved of active duty with the Army in March 1919.

From 1919 to 1928 Goethals was President of George W. Goethals and Company, a New York engineering firm and Advisor and Consulting Engineer to the Port Authority of New York.

Goethals died on January 21, 1928, in New York City. Many tributes have been paid to Goethals by distinguished persons. Of these, the following most represents consensus about the man and about his achievements.

"Colonel Goethals proved to be the man of all others to do the job. It would be impossible to overstate what he has done. It is the greatest task of any kind that any man in the world has accomplished during the years that Goethals has been at work. It is the greatest task of its own kind that has ever been performed in the world at all. Colonel Goethals has succeeded in instilling into the men under him a spirit which elsewhere has found only in a few victorious armies."