On May 6th, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed John F. Wallace Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal Project. The job awarded Wallace a $25,000 annual salary -- the highest of any government employee other than the President. On June 21, Wallace, along with assistant engineer William Karner, set sail on the Allianca from New York. After a rough weeklong voyage, the ship arrived in Colón, Panama during the rainy season. The streets were thick with impassible mud and houses elevated just a few feet above dirty, foul smelling water. Wallace and his men were not optimistic about the future in their new home.
To meet the government's demands for fast, visible progress on the canal, Wallace attempted to excavate the spoil as quickly as possible, but flooding and landslides caused repeated setbacks. The delays damaged morale among workers already suffering from terrible food and living conditions.
Logistical problems added to the inefficiency. At the start of the project, the laborers only had at their disposal the antiquated machines left behind a decade earlier. Soon Wallace ordered newer equipment from the U.S., but the giant steam shovels excavated more spoil than the existing train infrastructure could remove, forcing Wallace to operate them at 25% of their peak efficiency or less.
Wallace also faced bureaucratic challenges from Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC). A seven-member presidential committee was established to help avoid the inefficiency and corruption that had plagued the French 15 years earlier. The ICC had to approve every decision Wallace made in the Canal Zone. With engineers filling out more than 1,000 work request forms weekly, even the simplest tasks often took months to complete.
Overwhelmed, Wallace resigned abruptly in June 1905. His successor was railroad mastermind John Stevens, engineer of the Great Northern Railroad that traversed the Pacific Northwest. Right at the start of his tenure Stevens did the one thing that Wallace failed to do -- stop digging.