Friday, July 19, 2013

The Great Northern/Panama Connection

By:  Cassandra Sunell

John F. Stevens, Explorer of Marias Pass
It may not seem like the connection between the Panama Canal and Glacier National Park would overlap or play a large role, however, the same ingenuity that would be used to create a passageway through the country of Panama was the same used to build a railway through one of the most challenging passes over the Continental Divide—eventually becoming the gateway to Glacier National Park.  John Frank Stevens, an explorer and engineer, was both the chief engineer for one of the Seven Wonders, the Panama Canal and also discovered the passageway through one of the most notably difficult routes through the Rocky Mountains, Marias Pass.

Nearly a century since the completion of the canal and after my ancestors worked for the Panama Canal building the foundation for my family’s homestead in Panama City, I now work marketing the fruits of John Steven’s work as a social media and marketing coordinator for Glacier Park Inc.  I have lived nearly my entire life in the Flathead Valley, but not until my recent Red Bus Tour did I find out that John Stevens was both the engineer for the Great Northern Railway and the Panama Canal

Enjoying the views of Glacier Park
John Stevens was born in Maine in 1853, and after he finished schooling he spent 15 years working his way from City Engineer’s Office, to surveying and building railroads, and gaining experience as a self-taught engineer.  Stevens became a principal assistant engineer for the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway in 1886 and was then hired on by James J. Hill as a locating engineer for the Great Northern Railway, and was placed in charge of the Rocky Mountain reconnaissance in 1889 where he discovered Marias Pass. 

The history of discovering Marias Pass had stretched over decades before Mr. Stevens would be able to find this unsearchable passageway across the Continental Divide.  After the territory of Washington was created, a railway survey crew was sent to explore the Northern zone, connecting the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean.  A team led by Major Isaac Stevens to find the best route to the Pacific through the mountains in 1853, ended one year later after funds for the project were discontinued and Marias Pass would be placed on hold for the next thirty years.  That would be until John Frank Stevens would almost single-handedly discover the elusive Marias Pass in the winter of 1889. 

Stevens set out to the summit with a team of mules, snow-shoes, and a local Flathead Native Indian guide.  In the midst of the exploration, Stevens was forced to abandon the mules and eventually his local guide in camps in order to proceed to the summit.  On December 11, 1889, Stevens made a reconnaissance through Marias Pass.  This night Stevens was forced to tramp through the deep snow all night in order to survive the 40-degree below temperature. 

In the first annual report to Great Northern stockholders in the summer of 1890, Hill announced that “An extremely favorable pass over the main range of the Rocky Mountains has been found for this line, permitting a maximum grade, on the eastern approach, of 52.8 feet per mile, no tunnel being necessary.  In 1891, completion of the Great Northern Railway allowed for people to settle near Marias Pass, and on January 6th 1893, the Transcontinental line laid its final spike finally connecting to the Pacific Ocean.  In 1910, President William Taft signed the bill creating Glacier National Park and two years later in 1912, construction began on hotels and chalets in and around Glacier Park, connecting travelers by way of train into the heart of Glacier Park.   

During this time, Stevens would be appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the chief engineer for the Panama Canal from 1905-1907, where he would argue for the necessity of a dam system with locks to raise and lower ships from one ocean to the other, he aided in the rebuilding of the canal’s worker infrastructure better facilitating the ease of recruitment of workers from the U.S., and the rebuilding of the Panama Railway.  Stevens’ experience with Great Northern Railway, prepared him for the rebuilding and upgrading of the new Panama Railroad that would serve primarily as a massive earth-moving project, but to also transport workers, supplies, equipment, and commercial freight and passengers to and from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Stevens resigned in 1907 when work changed primarily to canal and lock construction.
Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal
John Stevens’ resourcefulness linked the world by way of the Panama Canal, allowing for the ease in transportation and travel by connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, avoiding the long and arduous trip around the southern tip of South America.  Also, he linked the northern-most parallel of North American continent by creating a passageway through the dangerous Rocky Mountains, which would also serve as the channel that would unite tourists to the “Crown of the Continent” – Glacier National Park.  Millions of people around the world have benefited or been affected from these great engineering feats, and as tribute to his works, when crossing the Continental Divide by the Northern Railway, a traveler will now pass by the bronze statue of John F. Stevens at the very location he discovered Marias Pass.

Commemorative bronze statue of John Stevens at Marias Pass

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating account of a very remarkable pioneering gentleman whose courage and determination made it possible for others to follow in the opening of new territories.