PEORIA — Merv Rennich made Lee Fosburgh's day with his visit to the new Panama Canal exhibit that opened at the Caterpillar Visitors Center on Friday.
Rennich, who spent five years in Latin America during a 33-year career at Caterpillar Inc., presented Fosburgh, Caterpillar's archivist who planned the exhibit on building of the Panama Canal, with photographs as well as a remarkable artifact.
As a field engineer for the company, Rennich, now 81, oversaw the deployment and operation of Caterpillar equipment engaged in widening the canal in the 1960s. Along with photographs of Caterpillar personnel engaged in Panama at that time, he also produced a stoneware beer bottle left behind from the French effort to build the canal between 1881 and 1889.
"We were digging in some of the same places the French had worked years before," said Rennich of the unearthed treasure.
The French attempt failed in the face of financial difficulties as well as disease. Malaria and yellow fever took the lives of more than 20,000 workers before the endeavor was abandoned.
Whether Fosburgh puts the bottle on display isn't known, but it represents another reminder of the massive effort that was required — by humans, horses and machines — to build the canal that the United States finally completed in 1914 after a 10-year effort.
The world’s greatest shortcut, as the canal is often referred to, cuts shipping time from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans (and vice versa) by approximately three weeks, said Fosburgh.
Fosburgh explained that photographs used to detail the original building on the canal came from the archives of Bucyrus, the heavy machinery maker that Caterpillar acquired in 2011, and Marion Steam Shovel Co., a major supplier of steam shovels for the construction of the Panama Canal. Bucyrus acquired the Marion firm in 1997.
Included among the archives are glass-plate negatives that bring remarkable clarity to the digging effort. One photograph in the exhibit pictures a white-suited President Teddy Roosevelt sitting in the cab of a giant steam shovel from a 1906 visit. Roosevelt became the first U.S. chief executive to travel abroad while in office.
Along with an array of machine pictures, there's even a display case devoted to the many horses used in the excavation effort.
Caterpillar machines left their own mark on the canal when expansion efforts were undertaken in 1935. Further widening took place in the 1960s, while a significant expansion effort that allows the canal to accommodate modern container ships and super tankers was completed in 2016 with the aid of Caterpillar equipment.
A video screen in the exhibit displays digitized images of 16mm film that depicts the building effort as well as the explosion triggered by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. The dynamiting of a dam allowed water to surge into the canal for the first time. Wilson pressed a button from his Washington, D.C., office to set off the charge.
For those that want to learn more about a Caterpillar employee's work in Central and South America, Rennich authored a book, "Beer and Diesel Fuel, Memoirs of a Caterpillar Tractor Co. Service Representative," a collection of his experiences while traveling for Caterpillar.
The Panama Canal exhibit runs through the end of summer.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.