Canal Builder on Alaskas Railroad
August 26, 1912
By a Former Employee of I.C.C.
In the August number of the World's Work appears an article entitled, "The Builder of the Canal." Farnham Bishop, the author has made a careful study of the conditions and difficulty of construction on the Canal Zone, and his article is well worth reading. In speaking of an interview he had with Colonel Goethals, the ever popular builder of the greatest engineering feat in the history of the world, Mr. Bishop says:
"When I asked him his opinion of the scheme to use the Panama railroad and canal equipment, after it is no longer needed on the Isthmus, for building government railroads in Alaska, Colonel Goethals said:
"Its advisibility must be determined by two things, the cost of transfer and the character of the roads to be built. If what are contemplated are comparatively shot, isolated lines running from the coast to the coal fields then our five foot gauge equipment would probably do well enough. But if the government is going in for railroad building there on a large scale, there would be no economy in anything but new and standard gauge equipment. As for transferring the organization from Panama to Alaska, there will be none left to transfer."
This statement by a man of the capabilities of Colonel Goethals is most interesting. No man knows more of the constructing of railroads under adverse conditions than does the white-haired leader of the forty thousand men who are hastening the completion of the most gigantic undertaking of its kind in the world's history. For thirty-two years this man has given his time and thought to the one subject.
Now let us consider for a minute what the equipment of the Isthmian canal Commission (or I. C. C.) and the Panama railroad consist of. Those of the commission are mostly powerful locomotives that have seen about five or six years of service over the worst kind of roadbeds. They have been nursed and doctored and pruned by the best group of machinists and engineers that money could obtain. They have hauled rock, sand and human freight over the 40 odd miles that separates the Atlantic from the Pacific many times. With the exception of those used exclusively by the Panama railroad for passenger traffic between Colon and Panama city they are all coal burners. The rest of the roiling stock consists of dump cars, flat cars, and a few box cars. The discarded coaches of the Panama Railroad company would be valueless for to make a train equiped for tropical service comfortable for travel in this country would require almost as great an expenditure as would the construction of new coaches.
The heavy traffic on the canal has made the laying of only the heaviest rails possible. The average track running through the bottom of the cut is a decidedly temporary one. Oftimes the big track layer will simply drop a mile or so in a place and pull it up again in less than a week. The poor roadbed, the constant strain of the heavy loads, the everlasting handling of the rails must certainly affect them. It seems then that the colonel is right in his contention that if the government should ever attempt to construct a railroad in Alaska new equipment would be cheaper in the end than the shipping of the "leavings" of the canal commission's rolling stock and track.
In three years the canal will be opened
to the public. Colonel Goeth- als is not buying any new equipment, but is making
the old go just as far as he can. Men are being laid off daily as the work of
construction nears completion. The one stumbling block has been the Culebra
Cut, and it looks now as though suitable restraining wails would not permit
the repetition of the landslides that used to occur. The great organization
is slowly but surely breaking up. In another year there will be still fewer
of the old tribe left in the Canal Zone. But there are men equally as capable
in Alaska, and they need the work. The breaking up of the happy family of construction
men on the Canal Zone would not prevent Alaskans from doing efficient work on
their railroad if they were given a chance, but the doubtful, even dangerous,
quality of what would be left of the rolling stock and equipment of the Canal
Commission certainly makes it seem wiser to start right by purchasing that which
we know will be suitable, and not throw away what chance we might have of getting
this great necessity by having the first few miles of construction cost so much,
because of unsound or unsuited material, that the government would decide its
cost would not permit Uncle Sam to guarantee the bonds of the proposed railroad.