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We set the Panama Canal Location: Who Are We?

 Second Isthmian Canal Commission
Second Isthmian Canal Commission

The commission was the Second Isthmian Canal Commission appointed by President McKinley in 1899 to select the route along which the United States would build a canal across the Isthmus. The committee included some of the giants of the civil engineering profession along with high ranking military officers.

First row left to Right: George S. Morison, Samuel Pasco, Admiral J. G. Walker, Alfred Noble, Prof. Emory Johnson

Back Row: Lewis Haupt, William H. Burr, Lt. Col. Oswald Ernst, Col. Peter C. Hains

The Commission was instructed to look into all of the routes that had been surveyed or suggested starting the the 1840s. They organized themselves as follows:

For the investigation of the Nicaragua route:
Mr. Noble.
Mr. Burr
Colonel Hains.

For the investigation of the Panama route:
Mr. Burr.
Mr. Morison
Lieutenant-Colonel Ernst

For the investigation of other possible routes:
Mr. Morison.
Mr. Noble.
Colonel Hains

For the investigation of the industrial, commercial, and military value of an interoceanic canal:
Mr. Johnson
Mr. Haupt
Mr. Pasco

For the investigation of rights, privileges, and franchises:
Mr. Pasco
Lieutenant-Colonel Ernst
Mr. Johnson

Perhaps the most interesting part of their studies was that initially the majority of the Commission selected the Nicaragua Route, which had been the route favored by the U.S. from 1879 onward, with only George S. Morison, past president of the ASCE, dissenting. Morison believed that the Panama Route was the best route, and that the French would sell their rights for a reasonable sum. He convinced President Theodore Roosevelt that Panama was the right choice and Roosevelt made it known to the Commission that he supported Morison’s position. The French reduced their asking price to $40,000,000 and the Commission unanimously approved the Panama Route and the President submitted the revised report to Congress in January 1902. The House approved the recommendation in the same month and after a prolonged debate the Senate passed the bill on June 19, 1902. Roosevelt signed the bill shortly thereafter. It was thought that Roosevelt would have appointed Morison to be Chief Engineer on the construction of the canal but Morison died a year later on July 1, 1903.