Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Coming of the Americans

During the first two and a half years after the United States undertook the construction of the Panama Canal, they were busily engaged in making preparations for construction work, and in discussing whether it would be better to make a sea-level or lock type of waterway.

Owing to the great increase in size of modern ships as compared with the largest ships that were in use, or being built, when the French planned the Canal, America determined to construct a very much wider and deeper waterway than the one that had been begun by her predecessors on the Isthmus. But apart from the vast expenditure of both time and money that would be involved by the stupendous amount of excavation necessary in the construction of a sea-level canal, there were some sound scientific objections against that ideal type of canal to be taken into account—notably, the tendency of Nature to wreak vengeance by landslips when man interferes with the equilibrium of Mother Earth by digging and blasting. To the lock type of canal there is always the objection that traffic is impeded and valuable time lost whilst ships are being taken in turn through the locks. And there were some very special local difficulties in connection with the construction of a lock type canal for the Panama route. The Chagres River, with its tributaries, must be used as one of the principal sources of water-supply; but up to the point where the river would be required to feed the canal, the waters of the appropriated section of its course must be maintained at a given level, and in order to subject the river to the service of the canal its course must be altered. The variation of the rainfall in the Chagres valley, and the sharp contrasts in the form of the country, presented some very difficult problems in connection with the control of the Chagres; for instance, the Americans had to face the disconcerting evidence of statistics which gave the low-water surface of the Chagres as one foot above mean sea-level at Bohio, forty-eight feet above mean sea-level at Obispo, which is only thirteen miles from Bohio, and ninety-five feet above mean sea-level at Alhajuela, which is only eleven miles farther up the valley; and statistics which told of the river rising over twenty-five feet in twenty-four hours at Gamboa.

On June 24, 1905, the President of the United States appointed an International Board of Consulting Engineers to report upon the type of canal which should be adopted. On January 10, 1906, the Board presented two reports: The first, or majority report, recommending a sea-level canal, was signed by eight members, five of whom were foreign experts; the minority report favouring a lock canal at an elevation of eighty-five feet was signed by five members, all of whom were American experts. These reports were submitted to the Isthmian Canal Commission, which, on February 5, 1906, sent a report to the Secretary of War recommending a lock canal. On June 29, 1906, Congress authorized the construction of the lock type of canal.

Meanwhile the Isthmian Canal Commission had been devoting itself to the business of preparing for construction work. I have already told you about the measures they took for making the Isthmus healthy, and of the mosquito-proof buildings they erected for the housing of staff officers and the labour force.

The Commission first sought labour recruits among the negroes, both in the States and the West Indies. From a member of the Commission who, at the outset of its organizing operations, was intimately associated with the important work of recruiting labourers, I heard some amusing stories about the way the negroes took the bait which was designed to appeal to their sense of self-importance. For instance:

Mr. Ebenezer Johnson, living in some little country place in the States, would write to the head offices of the Isthmian Canal Commission. in New York applying for a job as plumber. Provided his qualifications and character were found to be satisfactory, a letter, running somewhat as follows was sent to him:

"I have the honour to inform you that you have been appointed plumber to the Isthmian Canal Commission." A few days later the staff officer who signed that letter was pretty certain to be having this experience:

Clerk:  Mr. Ebenezer Johnson to see you, sir.

Staff Officer:  Who is he? I don't know him.

Clerk:  He says he's had a letter from you.

Staff Officer:  Show him in.

Enter Mr. Ebenezer Johnson, attired in draught-board pattern trousers, black tail-coat, fancy waistcoat, yellow tie, green socks and patent leather shoes, carrying straw hat in one hand, letter in the other. "I am Mr. Ebenezer Johnson," he announces in a tone which, combined with his manner of walking over to the table, suggests that the Panama works are at a standstill, and that the staff officer has been eagerly waiting for him to appear and announce his readiness to proceed at once to the Isthmus to set things moving there.

A very little experience on the Isthmus taught the Americans that it would be hopeless to attempt to carry through their enterprise solely with negro labour. The black man, considering himself indispensable, was idle and uppish. The authorities decided to send to Spain and Italy for labourers. White labourers were attracted by the terms offered them, and went to the Canal Zone. Spanish and Italian gangs were put to work side by side with negro gangs. The black man soon discovered that the white man was advising his friends at home to come to Panama; also, the black man began to realize how much work he must do in a day if he did not want to lose his job.

In addition to coping with the unhealthy condition of the Isthmus, solving the housing problem, and recruiting a labour force, the preliminary work of the Commission included:

The transference to the Isthmus of construction plant, consisting of steam shovels, locomotives, cars, pile-drivers, cranes, dredges, steamboats, barges, etc., etc.

The organization of a Commissariat Service for supplying the employees with all things necessary for their comfort and convenience.

The framing of a system of civil government for the Canal Zone, together with the establishment of courts, a police force, post offices, public works, fire stations, and suchlike civil machinery.

The increasing of the capacity of the existing railway system, by double tracking many sections of the Panama railroad, enlarging yards, and establishing communication with areas available as dumping grounds.

In short, for the purpose of carrying through the "big job" she had undertaken, America built on the Canal Zone a vast construction camp, capable of accommodating some 35,000 employees, together with the wives and families of a large proportion of the married men on the rolls; also equipped that camp, and organized for it a system of service and control calculated to make every employee a healthy, happy, loyal and efficient servant.

For the period of the "big job," the form of government devised for the Canal Zone by the democratic United States was autocratic. Owing to the acquisition by the United States of the Panama railroad, and the care, springing from a keen commercial instinct, which the American Government as boss of the "big job," took to see that its employees were well housed and properly fed, by itself housing them free and feeding them at "cost price," some people have called the Canal Zone system of government "socialism." That description of the method by which the Zone community was ruled is contradicted by the fact that the employees had no vote, no say in the way they should or should not be ruled.

Colonel George W. Goethals, the Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal, won distinction as an able and just autocrat, in addition to universal fame as a Master Engineer.

Colonel Gorgas, the popular Head of the Department of Sanitation, became world-famous as the man who transformed a death-trap region into a veritable health-resort.

Prominent among other men whose names must be put high on the Panama scroll of fame are Mr. Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Secretary of the Commission, and Dr. Claude C. Pierce, the Quarantine Officer at Colon, who was the first sanitary representative on the ground.