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Born in Latin America, Sons of Rensselaer
Cuban-born Aniceto Garcia Menocal is a prime example. Born in 1836, the son of a wealthy planter in Cuba, he graduated from Rensselaer in 1862 with a degree in civil engineering and immediately returned to Cuba to become an assistant engineer. Within three years, he was appointed chief engineer in charge of construction at the waterworks of Havana. In 1870, New York City’s Department of Public Works enticed Menocal to leave Havana, but he only stayed with the department for two years. At age 36 he found himself looking for a more meaningful challenge that came his way when the U.S. Navy commissioned him as a chief engineer and offered him a major project in 1872: planning a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The idea of a canal in Central America certainly wasn’t new in 1872. As early as 1513, the conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa had hacked his way through the jungles and crossed the Culebra Range, mountains that rise more than 1,000 feet above sea level, to stand in the surf of the Pacific and claim the Isthmus of Panama for King Ferdinand of Spain. The first canal plan was submitted to the king 16 years later, but the forbidding geography and the poisonous nature of the land prevented any practical progress for 300 years.
Spurred by the needs of thousands of travelers and commercial possibilities following the California Gold Rush of 1848, American entrepreneurs formed the Panama Railroad Company in 1849 and built a railroad that spanned the isthmus over the next six years. That allowed passengers to travel from one ocean to the other in about three hours, and it created the means to cart away the actual mountains of rock and dirt that digging for a canal would create. The French, confident after completing the Suez Canal, were the first to dig in Panama, but their plan to build another sea-level canal became a disaster that cost the lives of more than 20,000 men and $100 million. Menocal believed he had a better way.
Menocal mapped the two most plausible routes for an interoceanic canal initially working through the narrowest part of Nicaragua, which included Lake Managua, and then surveying the route through the Isthmus of Panama that paralleled the existing railroad. He favored the route through Nicaragua, arguing that it possessed lower mountain passes and existing, usable lakes, and that a canal placed there would lie closer to American ports than one built across Panama.
Menocal was able to persuade Ulysses S. Grant to organize first the Provisional Inter-oceanic Canal Society in 1880. Menocal recommended from the start that a lock system in Panama, rather than a one-level, sea-level canal, was the only possible way to surmount the Culebra Range.
A sea-level canal, as the French tried to construct it, would necessitate a cut 300 feet deep and nine miles long at minimum, and that cut alone would require removal of at least 150 million cubic yards of earth. Menocal proposed that they dam the Chagres River in the east and the Rio Grande River in the west to form two inland lakes on both sides of the Culebra Range. Then locks could be built to raise the water level in these lakes and let the water literally lift the ships over the mountains and back down to the ocean on the other side. Few in power were listening, however, and Menocal returned to Washington, D.C., and moved on to his new duties as a consulting engineer with the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks. Thirty-one years later, on June 21, 1906, two years before Menocal’s death, the United States Senate finally approved construction of a lock canal in Panama.
Engineering Modern Cuba
Thirty years of war in Cuba (1868-1898) had demolished the infrastructure of that country. When former general Geraldo Machado took office as president in 1925, he ran his campaign with the promise of “roads, waters, and schools” for Cuba and as president set about modernizing the country. Machado wanted to showcase an extensive public works program to appease the public and appointed Coroalles as chief engineer of public works for the Cuban government.
Coroalles found himself in a tricky situation: working for a leader who had quickly grown into a dictator, yet one who had ambitious plans to transform the infrastructure of the struggling country. Nevertheless, Cuba was a major tourist destination for Americans then (increasing from 33,000 visitors in 1914 to 90,000 in 1928), and successful tourism required modern roads, bridges, and transportation systems. Coroalles could not resist taking on the largest road-building project in history at that time. In New York City, he gave an interview to The New York Times and described the project. “Our new Cuban Central Highway, for which contracts amounting to $78,000,000 have just been given out, will be 700 miles long and, beginning at Pinar del Rio, will run to Havana and thence as straight as good engineering permits all the way to Santiago,” he told the newspaper.
The road would have a Portland cement concrete foundation for its entire length, but the surface would consist of bituminous concrete or granite in some places and of asphalt in others. In towns, the road would be 26 feet wide; in the country it would be only 20 feet. And besides the central highway, which would run approximately across the middle of the island, they would also be building branch roads north and south to connect with all seaports and important towns. “This road program is part of President Machado’s effort to open up Cuba more extensively to tourists,” Coroalles told The Times.
The project was completed by the spring of 1931 with a final price tag of $100 million. President Machado hosted engineers from the American Road Builders Association and provided them with a tour of the entire highway, which also included 2,300 bridges, trestles, underpasses, and overpasses. A reporter from the New York Herald Tribune who accompanied the American engineers wrote that the highway had been visited by experts from all over Latin America and even from Russia “and will, it is believed, exert an influence for the building of good roads throughout the southern continent.”
In 1950, the Rensselaer Alumni Association awarded Manuel Coroalles the Albert Fox Demers Medal, noting that Coroalles became one of Cuba’s best-known citizens, was elected a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and “consistently fostered in many ways the prestige and welfare of both the Institute and its alumni.”
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