Roosevelt at Canal Site

Date: c. 1908
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph is from Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Panama in 1906. This was the first time a president had ever left the United States while in office and it reflects both how important the canal project was to him and his desire for U.S. imperial expansion. He was perhaps the key personality responsible for North American involvement in Panama by shifting U.S. canal interests from Nicaragua and providing military aid for the Panamanian Revolution of 1904. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. had a duty to bring "civilization" and modernity to the "backwards" parts of the Americas, and he considered the canal itself to be the embodiment of progress.

This photograph was taken on the second day of his two week trip to the Canal Zone, a voyage planned intentionally to coincide with Panama's rainy season because Roosevelt hoped to see tropical conditions at their worst. It depicts a famous episode in which Roosevelt climbed into a steam shovel train while inspecting the site of the Culebra Cut to learn how the shovel worked and to practice operating it. The shovel pictured here is a ninety-five ton Bucyrus, one of 102 steam shovels at work in the canal, and could move three to five times more dirt than the earthmovers employed by the French. This event characterized Roosevelt's energy and enthusiasm for the Canal as a feat of modern engineering as well as U.S. expansionism. His presidency, which was integrally connected with the canal project, marks the full-flowering of U.S. imperialism in Central America.


 McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

CITATION: Pres. Theodore Roosevelt on steam-powered digging machine during construction of the Panama Canal c. 1908. Medium: 1 photographic print. Photoprint copyrighted by H.C. White Co., N.Y. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-85403.