March 31, 1907: An irritated President Theodore Roosevelt reluctantly accepts the resignation of West Gardiner native John Frank Stevens (1853-1943) as chief engineer on one of the 20th century’s most challenging engineering projects – construction of the Panama Canal.

Stevens, who came on board when the project already was underway and plagued with problems, engineered major construction solutions and stopped work until a malaria epidemic among canal workers was brought under control.

Stevens’ successor, U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals, lauds Stevens as a genius and says the canal will be his monument. The canal opens to ship traffic on Aug. 15, 1914.

Stevens attended Farmington Normal School, now called the University of Maine at Farmington, and later received an honorary degree from Bates College.

Earlier in his career, Stevens was in charge of several railroad construction projects in the American and Canadian West. In the dead of winter, he personally found the Marias Pass through the Continental Divide in Montana; and he located what later was named Stevens Pass, in his honor, through the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.

Photograph of John F. Stevens taken around 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Note: This story was updated Tuesday, March 31, to correct a reference to Stevens’ affiliation with Bates College.

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