The Panama Canal Mystery
A few years ago, my friend Ivan told me that he’d seen a great documentary on the building of the Panama Canal, and that part of what made it successful was the benevolent dictatorship of Col. George Goethals, who oversaw the final third of the construction. His supervision brought the project in before deadline and under budget.
Mildly interesting. But just mildly. A story needs conflict, and a novel needs lots of conflict.
Still, building a canal would have lots of things going wrong, and I decided to read one nonfiction book about it with the hopes that I could find a hook for a novel.
My parameters were simple. It had to be something of interest to readers a hundred or so years later, and it had to be something that had not been done before.
I began with The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough.
By the time I’d finished this read, I was hooked. Especially when I discovered all the political lobbying that took place for Congress to choose Panama over Nicaragua.
Lobbying means money, right? So I began to read all I could about the building of the canal.
Here’s where the story, from my perspective, developed some real interest: the missing $25,000,000 in funds to pay the French for rights to the railway through the Canal Zone, this in an era when the average working wage was 22 cents an hour.
Implicated in this were two political figures of as much magnitude as today’s candidates for the presidency: William Howard Taft, running for president, and Theodore Roosevelt, who had chosen Taft to be his successor.
Let’s back up for a moment. There’s a great case to be made that Roosevelt, six years or so earlier, had played a large and unseen part in the Panamanian revolution to secede from Colombia, because Colombia supposedly attempted to blackmail the United States into a higher payment for the rights to the canal. (I list the nonfiction books that make this argument at sigmundbrouwer.com.)
As for the missing funds, during the heat of the presidential race, Joseph Pulitzer ran a front-page story in the New York World accusing Taft’s brother and Roosevelt’s brother-in-law of being members and beneficiaries of a secret syndicate allegedly set up to profit from France’s sale of the Panama Canal Company to the United States. And yes, the $25,000,000 was untraceable.
Roosevelt sued for libel. And lost.
High stakes politics, potential fraud, a vast sum of missing money, and an exotic setting in Central America.
How could that not be the basis for a story with conflict?
I continued my research. All I needed was a character to throw into the story. It was fun to discover that Goethals held a King Solomon-type court every Sunday to listen to complaints from anyone at any level of society, no preference given.
Goethals, however, would not make a great main character. He is too prominent in history. But wait…
Any decision he could not make on the spot, he turned over to an assistant, T.B. Miskimon. That’s someone I can almost guarantee you are unfamiliar with.
Part of Miskimon’s job description was to write a letter to Goethals for every complaint he had to investigate. A century later, those originals, typos and all, were available for viewing at two separate archives: Georgetown University and Wichita State University.
Talk about fun research! Reading between the lines of those letters, I developed a sense of a man very particular in his job, someone who paid great attention to detail.
Did I mention that a story needs conflict?
I thought it might be fun to throw a fictional character in the mix — a laid-back cowboy type who wasn’t fond of rules. (Think James Garner in The Rockford Files television series or in the original Maverick movie.) So I decided to send a Dakota rancher named James Holt down to the canal to make Miskimon’s life miserable. (James in homage to Garner, and Holt chosen at random because one-syllable names are stronger than fancy names.)
Miskimon, however, is no pushover, and by the end of the story, the two form a grudging friendship that I hope is enjoyable to watch develop.
The story was finished, or so I thought.
Until it struck me during the final edits that I’d never wondered about what names led to the initials T.B.
Back to my research to add some final small details. Hours of genealogy research led me to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, whe, two years after starting the project and three months after completing the second-to-last draft of the novel, I stood at the man’s gravesite to finally discover his first and middle name.
Sorry, I won’t answer that here. You’ll have to put up with the video I threw together and posted at www.sigmundbrouwer.com/saffire.
But I will tell you this. Long, long after randomly choosing the last name of Holt for my fictional character who, in a piece of fiction called Saffire becomes good friends with the real-life T.B. Miskimon, I did find out one more thing through the genealogy websites. It was my Twilight Zone moment.
On his return to the United States, Miskimon married, and he and his wife had two sons and a daughter.
The real-life Miskimon named one of his sons Holt. I’m not making this up.
What are the odds?
Sigmund Brouwer is the best-selling author of twenty-three novels including the historical mystery Saffire.