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[gO' thulz] Panama Canal construction supervisor
George Washington Goethals was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 29, 1858. He attended the local public schools and then the College of the City of New York before being appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1876, from which he graduated in 1880.
Goethals spent the summer and fall of 1880 at the Academy as an assistant instructor in practical astronomy, and attended the Engineer School of Application at Willets Point, New York, in 1881. In 1882 he was promoted to First Lieutenant and appointed as engineer officer of the Department of the Columbia in Vancourver, Washington, where, among other duties, he worked on a 120-foot bridge across the Spokane River. In September of 1886, Goethals transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio, as an assistant to Lieutenant Colonel William E. Merrill, who was then in charge of navigational improvements on the Ohio River. Goethals worked his way up from assistant surveyor to foreman of concrete work and, finally, to chief of construction. He taught civil and military engineering at West Point from 1885 to 1889, and then returned to the field to assist Colonel John W. Barlow with navigational improvements on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. In 1891, Goethals was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of the completion of the Muscle Shoals Canal along the Tennessee River near Florence, Alabama. During the Spanish-American War, he served as a Lieutenant Colonel and Chief of Engineers in the First Army Corps. He served on the General Staff of the U.S. Army from 1903 to 1907.
On March 4, 1907, after two civilian engineers had already resigned from the project, Goethals was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers to supervise construction of the Panama Canal. Some of the challenges Goethals had to overcome included "digging" through the mountain range that bisected the canal path, damming of the Chagres River, and building a series of locks to lift and lower ships into and out of the canal. Goethals spent many sleepless nights working through each and every complication that arose during construction and the canal was completed in 1914, two years ahead of schedule. Soon after the first ship passed through the canal, Goethals retired from the Army to serve as the first civilian Governor of the Panama Canal Zone; he resigned from that position in 1917.
After leaving his duties in Panama, Goethals served as general manager of the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, acting Quartermaster General of the Army, and assistant chief of staff and director of the Army's Division of Purchase, Storage, and Traffic. He left public service for good in 1919, after which he established a private consulting engineering firm, which, among other projects, consulted on development of the inner harbor of New Orleans and on the Columbia Basin irrigation project. He also served as the chief consulting engineer for the Port of New York Authority.
George Washington Goebels died in New York City on January 21, 1928.
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This page was last updated on April 12, 2017.