Until the 21st century, there had been no large heavy-duty equipment available to create any waterway through the Central American jungle and mountains. When President Theodore Roosevelt created a political probability for a canal, the U.S. steam shovel company Bucyrus engineered machines that would create the mechanical probability for a canal.
Between 1904 and 1908, Bucyrus built 77 of the 102 steam shovels that cut a pathway in the small country of Panama and changed world shipping and travel before World War I began.
Large steam rail shovels had been used for strip mining, but the most were partial-swing shovels mounted on standard-gauge railroad tracks. By 1890, Bucyrus had built several large dipper dredges, elevator dredges and hydraulic dredges, and their equipment had been used for the Chicago Drainage Canal and the New York State Barge Canal.
The Bucyrus reputation was at a level that they were contracted to build steam rail shovels for use in digging the 51-mile long Panama Canal. The first order was for one 70-ton and two 95-ton shovels in 1904. The Isthmanian Canal Commission continued the orders for the steam rail shovels.
Five men were needed to operate a steam shovel—a craneman, a main operator, a fireman and two wheelmen. The sixth person in the system was the mechanic. The shovel could rotate 180 degrees. Approximately 90 cubic meters of material could be excavated in an eight-hour day. Railroad cars (4,000 wagons) ran continually on a double track, and 160 locomotives were used to pull the cars. the material excavated was used to build the Charges Dam. All total, there were 300 million cubic yards of material moved in the project.
Moving the amount of material that was done with the steam rail shovels has been the most famous application of this machine. This very prestigious endeavor shoved Bucyrus into the world market.
When the Canal was complete, the steam shovels were sent to Montana, Ohio, Alaska, Spain and Costa Rica to work in the mining fields.