In Afmerica, anything is possible,” Jan van Hardeveld would proclaim to his wife, Rose, and their two small daughters whenever he learned of some modern miracle of enterprise in his new country. The family lived on a homestead in a remote part of western Wyoming, where Jan worked as the foreman of a gang of largely Japanese workers on the Union Pacific Railroad. A recently naturalized Hollander, he had particular admiration for President Roosevelt's Dutch blood. When he heard about the start of the American canal, he was determined to be part of “the mighty march of progress.” “The French gave up …but we will finish!” Jan proclaimed. “With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible.”
George Martin, a carpenter's apprentice living in Barbados, was eighteen when he wrote, “A voice from a great people” invited him to help build the Panama Canal. “With the others I accepted … so I leave father and mother, brothers and relatives, away in the land of the Indies, in the west, and came to this strange land…”
As early as January 1904, while the Senate was still debating the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, journalists from the “great people” were on the Isthmus reporting back that there “is nothing in the nature of the work … to daunt an American. The building of the canal will be a comparatively easy task for knowing, enterprising and energetic Americans.” Many were confident that it would be a splendid showcase of the ever-growing industrial and technological might of the United States, and the country's new superiority over the old powers of Europe.
With hindsight, the American project might seem to have a “solid inevitability” compared to the tragically doomed de Lesseps adventure. In fact, the construction was beset by very serious difficulties throughout, but particularly in the first three years, and on several occasions came close to disaster. When the Americans started work they replicated almost all the mistakes made by the de Lesseps company: they favored a sea-level canal; they split authority for the job, as the French had done up until the arrival of Dingler in 1883; their initial site investigation was patchy, leading to unpleasant surprises later on; and more than anything, they understimated or misunderstood the dangers of disease and the simply vast scale of the construction challenge.
On March 3, 1904, a week after the formal exchange of treaties with Panama, Roosevelt appointed a seven-man Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC). Their order from the president was simply that “the results be achieved.” The chairman was the veteran Admiral Walker, known to many as the “Old Man of the Sea,” who had led previous canal bodies. Although in this respect experienced, he was an old-fashioned figure and had not overseen any really large construction projects. The next most senior appointee, and the only member of the Commission who would actually reside on the Isthmus, was another military man, Major General George W Davis, who was to be governor of the Canal Zone. The emphasis for the other five appointments was on engineering experience, rather than familiarity with heading up such an immense logistical project. Davis, for his part, had been involved with one of the Nicaragua private canal companies, but was first and foremost a colonial administrator—he had played a part in the organization of the U.S. military governments of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. As in the other newly acquired territories, the government of the Canal Zone, indeed, the entire commission and canal effort, would report to the new secretary of war, William Howard Taft.
Before the Isthmian Canal Commission was appointed, Roosevelt had been lobbied by delegations of prominent U.S. doctors urging him to give the medical challenge in Panama top priority. They seem to have been preaching to the converted. Roosevelt had been shocked by the death rate from yellow fever among U.S. soldiers in Cuba—five times more men had been killed by illness than by enemy action—and had himself, before he became president, publicized these terrible statistics in Washington. As early as February 1904 he wrote to Admiral Walker, “I feel that the sanitary and hygiene problems … on the Isthmus are those which are literally of the first importance, coming even before the engineering …”
Nevertheless, there was no medical representation on the first Commission, effectively the board of directors of the canal effort. But the American Society of Doctors did get their recommended man, Colonel William Crawford Gorgas, appointed chief medical officer. Gorgas was well respected for his work attacking the yellow fever epidemic in Cuba and was the country's leading expert on tropical diseases.
In early April the grandees of the Commission descended on Panama, accompanied by Gorgas and another sanitary officer and fellow veteran of Cuba, Louis La Garde. The doctors wasted no time in diagnosing malaria as an even greater threat to the canal builders than the dreaded yellow fever. Gorgas visited the marine barracks at Bas Obispo, a seemingly healthy, breezy spot, and was told that 170 of the 450 men had caught malaria since the beginning of the year. The source of the infection was not difficult to find. When Gorgas and La Garde examined the inhabitants of the nearby “native” village, they discovered that some 70 percent had the enlarged spleen of the malaria carrier.
The engineers of the ICC were accompanied by Roger Farnham, the press agent of the ubiquitous William Nelson Cromwell. As well as getting himself appointed Panama's U.S. counsel, Cromwell had become an “all-purpose trouble-shooter for the Republican Party.” He did not need to be told what failure in Panama would do to the party's fortunes in the forthcoming presidential elections and was determined to keep an eye on the canal effort. Mallet did his best during the Commission's two-week stay to discover what he could about the Americans’ plans. One of the commissioners told him that “he was sure every member of the Commission hoped that a sea-level canal would be built if it be practicable.”
In fact, nothing concrete was decided by the trip. The question of the design of the canal hinged on the suitability of a variety of sites for the construction of dams and/or locks, namely Gamboa, Bohío, and Gatún. Until proper, deep borings were made, all the engineers could propose in the meantime in the way of “making the dirt fly” were harbor improvements at Colón and designs for waterworks for the two terminal cities.
On May 6, two days after the official handing over of the French properties to the United States and the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Ancón Hill, John Findlay Wallace was appointed to the job of chief engineer, in charge of all canal construction work, although without a seat on the Commission. Wallace, a Midwestern-railroad veteran and first-rate engineer, had been tempted to Panama by $25,000 a year, a salary larger than that of any other government employee except the president.
The new governor of the Zone, Major General Davis, arrived to stay on May 17. A man of few words or courtesies, he soon found that what could be got away with in Cuba or the Philippines would not do in Panama. Davis threw himself into the work, issuing orders and rushing about, but failed to call on President Amador for several days and even refused to attend the many ceremonies inevitably arranged in his honor by the Panamanians. Complaints reached Washington and eventually Davis was ordered to change his attitude. There was further bad feeling as the marking out of the new U.S. Canal Zone boundaries was begun and the reality of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty sunk in. “They have taken all the meat and left the bone,” one “disgusted” Panamanian complained to the British consul.
“The canal employees are coming,” Mallet wrote to his wife on June 2. “The Isthmus is swarming with Yankees already,” he reported a week later. “From ocean to ocean you see them everywhere and American flags hoisted on all sides.” Most excitement was attached to the arrival—at the end of the month—of Wallace and Gorgas to take up permanent residence. “The medical board declares that not one mosquito shall survive,” wrote Mallet. “Panama without mosquitoes? What a blessing…”
n June 21 the steamer the allianca sailed from New York. As well as Wallace and Gorgas, on board was William Karner, a colleague of Wallace from Chicago who had been appointed assistant engineer; two other senior sanitary officers; a new head nurse, Eugenie Hibbard, with two other nurses; and about a dozen clerks and sanitary inspectors. Karner, who would later play a crucial role as the chief recruiter of labor for the canal, had taken the job out of loyalty to his old boss, in spite of the fact, he wrote, that the “proposition [of the job] and a residence in Panama was not very alluring to me.” Eugenie Hibbard, a Canadian, had made her name in hospital and training-school administration. Forty-eight in 1904, she had served in Cuba— and survived an attack of yellow fever. In spite of her great experience of difficult postings, Hibbard reports that she was quite daunted by the prospect of Panama. Her friends had asked her why she would want to go to “such a God forsaken place where the French have so finally failed!” “We felt,” she wrote of herself and two fellow nurses, Miss Markham and Miss McGowan, “that we were going to a country of swamp and jungle, filled with crawling and flying death, where any white woman was sure of destruction.”
After a rough and uncomfortable voyage, the Allianca arrived at Colón on the morning of June 28. “The rainy season had just commenced,” William Karner remembered, “and a shower that morning had left the streets of Colón and Cristóbal in thick, impassable mud. It was not a pleasant introduction to a strange country and city, both of which we knew had a bad reputation as to health and sanitation.” The party was met by Governor Davis and piled onto a train to Panama City.
The outskirts of Colón made their customary shocking impression on the new arrivals. The conditions, Hibbard remembered, “beggar description, the houses being huts of wood built on piles 2 or 3 feet above the most filthy water, foul smelling and covered with green slime filled with most objectionable refuse … Leaving Colón behind,” she continued, “we saw for quite a distance alongside the Canal long neglected and broken and abandoned machinery, with here and there many graves surrounded by small railings (wooden) and marked with a rough white wooden cross impressed one forcibly of what had taken place. Soon we began to climb the mountains and the remarkable beauty of the country, the hills and foliage thrust itself upon us. I had never seen such luxuriant growth of trees and shrubs … flowering plants and many beautiful orchids growing at random.”
The transit completed, the nurses were conveyed to the French-built hospital at Ancón. Once the pride of the tropics, the grounds had reverted to jungle, and the buildings were in a woeful state of decay and dilapidation. The nurses were shown to their quarters, “a strange and unattractive abode,” said Hibbard, “the first night passed in these quarters was sufficient to have broken down the courage that has brought us here. The following day, I asked the Commanding Officer for something to guard ourselves with and he gave me a pistol (a Colt revolver) too heavy for me to handle in one hand. I placed it on a chair at my bedside at night and looked lovingly upon it as a possible protector.”
The wards, in which about thirty patients, mostly incurables, were being cared for by the French Sisters of Charity, were filthy by Eugenie Hibbard's standards. The task of cleaning them up, and clearing out the ancient, bug-infested horsehair mattresses, fell to the nurses. “There was, I realized, a stupendous piece of work before us,” Hib-bard wrote, “and so it proved to be.”
The day after the arrival of the Allianca, Joseph Le Prince, one of Gorgas's sanitary inspectors, carried out a check on potential mosquito breeding sites near the Ancón wards. The bottom of the hill, he discovered, was continually soggy, and adjacent pasture had hoof-prints full of water. Nearby drainage ditches were choked with weeds, which retarded the water flow and provided the environment mosquitoes needed to lay their eggs. In fact, he concluded, “A more prolific source would be hard to imagine.” The result was that the hospital was swarming. “The Anopheles [malaria-carrying mosquitoes] were so numerous,” wrote Le Prince, “that night work had to be done in relays; one set of men using fans to protect those working.” No fewer than fifty-four Anopheles were noted on the upper panel of a single screen door. Furthermore, the patients in the wards were located according to nationality rather than the nature of their illness. “Had it been intended,” said Le Prince, “to spread yellow fever and malaria with the greatest rapidity among the patients as soon as they arrived, no better plan could have been adopted.” Within just weeks, all but a couple of the small hospital staff had come down with malaria, Gorgas included.
he engineers among the first arrivals would find a similarly melancholy scene. According to Wallace, there was “only jungle and chaos from one end of the Isthmus to the other.” Panama was a gigantic scrap heap. All along the line of the old French canal, abandoned excavators and dredges, some of huge size, slumped lopsidedly, half submerged in swamp or stream. Over everything the voracious returning jungle had draped a thick web of vines. Discarded locomotives and spoil cars were piled in huge mounds of rust and twisted metal. Materials lay scattered everywhere, as if abandoned by a hastily retreating army. The buildings, which at one time had housed more than twenty thousand canal workers, had been reclaimed by termites, rot, or vegetation. Inside one building, where the rafters had decayed and the roof had collapsed, Joseph Le Prince found several trees growing with trunks more than ten inches in diameter. In one place, an entire village had been completely buried by the returning jungle.
Although the wreckage of the French effort scattered everywhere had an unnerving effect on the first American canal builders, once they started to go systematically through their inheritance, the picture brightened considerably. Many of the two thousand buildings would be repairable. Six working machine shops provided a nucleus for later expansion. The French had left their successors maps and surveys, “excellently recorded [which] proved to be of great use.” According to Wallace, there was a significant amount of materials and supplies safely stored in warehouses and unissued, which were in “a fairly good condition, and were systematically stored, arranged, tabulated and properly cared for.” Vital spare parts and machine tools had been liberally coated in grease against the corroding warmth and damp of the climate. “Splendid workmanship was shown on these machines,” one American engineer conceded, “and good material was used in their construction.” Although, “obsolete,” he went on, “they were good appliances of their date.”
On second glance, the actual digging achieved was impressive also. As well as an eleven-mile passage from Colón to Bohío, there were vast excavations where Eiffel's locks were to have gone. On the Pacific side a passage had been dredged from La Boca to deep water, and “considerable work had been done on the channel from La Boca to Miraflores.” In addition, over thirty miles of diversion channels had been created for the Chagres River. There had clearly been a lot of very hard work. After everything they had heard, most new arrivals were surprised by the “magnificance of the French failure.” The Europeans had achieved, it was apparent, “vastly more than the popular impression.” How much of this immense excavation— nearly 50 million cubic meters (73 million cubic yards)—would be useful would, of course, only be determined when a definite plan for the American canal emerged.
Wallace himself wrote that his approach to deciding the type of canal that should be built was determined by the “great amount of work already performed by the old and new Panama Canal companies” as well as “the tentative plans developed by the former Isthmian Canal Commission.” The Walker Commission of 1899–1901 had been heavily influenced by the French New Company plan put together in 1898 to increase the saleability of the canal concern. The French proposal had allowed for a dam and locks at Bohío, some fifteen miles upriver from where the Chagres meets the Atlantic. This, it was planned, would create an artificial lake at 68 feet above sea level. With a surface area of just over 13,500 acres (5,500 hectares), this would stretch for thirteen miles through the Culebra Cut, at the Pacific end of which would be built at Pedro Miguel further dams and locks to return shipping to sea level. The lake would provide water for the locks and also, it was hoped, absorb the seasonal floods of the Chagres. Alternatively, a further raised section could be created through the Continental Divide at 96 feet above sea level between Obispo and Paraíso. Clearly the thinking of the French was in part shaped by the sacrifices made in the 1880s. Both of these options had the merit of avoiding “the loss of any work already performed.” The idea of a plan that would render much of the French digging superfluous, as eventually adopted, was, for now, too ghastly to contemplate.
Although the Walker Commission had dispensed with the high-level option—feeding the top level of the canal from the upper Chagres would have been too difficult—they had remained wedded to the idea of the main dam at Bohío, albeit with a lake of the higher elevation of 85 feet above sea level. This is what the influential engineer Morison had argued for and defended at the Senate hearings before the Spooner debate. But the Spooner Act had not specified the type of canal except that it should “afford convenient passage for vessels of the largest tonnage and greatest draft now in use, and such as may be reasonably anticipated” and should use “as far as practicable the work heretofore done by the New Panama Canal Company, of France, and its predecessor company.” Indeed, during the “Battle of the Routes” in the Senate, one of Mark Hanna's arguments in favor of Panama had been that only there was a sea-level canal possible. In fact, de Lesseps's dream of an “Ocean Bosporus” still held a great appeal, even after the disasters of the 1880s.
The upshot was that Wallace and the ICC members went to Panama with the most basic specifications of the canal—lock or sea-level—undecided. Nothing could be ruled out, and therefore there was much work to be done investigating all the possible options.
When the New Company was handed over to the Americans on May 4, they took over a skeleton workforce of about five hundred men, most of whom were employed in the Culebra Cut, where two French ladder excavators were carrying out intermittent work. Others were maintaining such machinery as had been stored away. At the beginning of June, five different U.S.-led parties were established and set to work: one to survey Colón Harbor; another to start planning waterworks for Panama City. The three other parties were instructed to carry out the deeper borings demanded by the ICC to test for the suitability of various sites for dams and started work at Gatún, Bohío, and Gamboa. Although Gatún had not been mentioned by Walker as a possible dam site, there had been several recent papers published in U.S. engineering journals that had suggested it. The Gamboa group was also charged with mapping the routes of spillways to carry the floodwaters of the Chagres away from the line of the canal, as would be required for a sea-level canal. In July a base camp was established at Bas Obispo and the twelve Americans, accompanied by two dozen locals recruited to do the machete work, started to search for a route to link the upper Chagres with a small river that flowed from the heights of the Continental Divide into the Pacific.
Effectively, they were recrossing the ground covered by Henri Cermoise back in 1881–82, and the same conditions prevailed. But the laboriously cut tranches had long disappeared. “It was not possible to advance a foot without hacking one's way through a tangle of creepers,” an engineer wrote of the expedition. “Lizards and gaudy snakes crawled and scuttled everywhere… insect pests were superabundant.” At the end of each day a space was cleared in the jungle and a makeshift shelter was improvised using poles with canvas or palm fronds for a roof. Nighttime was a torment of itching and scratching at the festering sores caused by ticks, “red-bugs,” “jiggers,” and other parasitic insects that specialized in laying eggs under the skin of their victims. Supplies were carried by canoe upriver to the surveyors, but once in a while a monkey was cooked and eaten.
As fieldwork continued, three of the old French excavators were overhauled and set to work in the Culebra Cut, both to provide visible proof that they were “making the dirt fly” and also to provide data on the effectiveness and unit costs of different types of machine.
At the ocean termini of the line, a new divisional head engineer, Frank Maltby, had started work on dredging the harbors. Maltby was originally from Pittsburgh, but had worked for three years as head of dredging operations on the Mississippi. He got the job through a friend of his on the Commission. He had never been to sea before and was sick for the entire seven-day voyage to Colón. He found the town “indescribably filthy” but was given lodging in the old “De Lesseps Palace,” an imposing residence built at Cristóbal for Le Grand Français's 1886 visit. Within two days he was hospitalized for a week with diarrhea, but once at work he quickly demonstrated that whatever its outward appearance, much of the supposedly “obsolete” French plant was eminently usable, even machines that had spent the last fifteen years semi- or entirely submerged underwater. “As the use of cheap steel had not become the practice at the time of their creation,” explained one U.S. engineer, “they were built of a superior class of iron—a much better metal to withstand the ravages of time and sea water.” Within a couple of months Maltby had six of the old Scottish-built ladder dredges back working, crewed in the main, as during the French years, by Greeks. The locomotives that lay abandoned all around were also found to be “built like a watch in workmanship, of splendid material,” and were similarly pressed back into service.
But there were also numerous frustrations. Soon after his arrival, Maltby tried to organize the building of a short length of railway track. For some reason there seemed to be plenty of ties lying around. Rails could be picked up from abandoned track, and spikes could be pulled out of rotten ties. But as there was no spike maul to be had, his men had to bang in the spikes with axes.
In fact, it was just as well that so much equipment was suitable to put back to work, as precious little was arriving from the United States. In Washington the Isthmian Canal Commission was from the outset in a state of paranoid ineptitude. The sensational events of the “Panama Affair” in France in 1890–92 had been watched around the world. So, however unfairly, the French had left behind in Panama, along with everything else, the taint of waste, extravagance, and corruption. The instinct of the U.S. Commission, therefore, was to query and triple-check every requisition. “When this whole thing is finished,” Commission chairman Walker announced, “I intend that those fellows on the hill shall not find that a single dollar has been misspent.” As well as critics in Congress, Walker was acutely aware that the anti-canal or anti-Roosevelt press was waiting to pounce on any example of “waste” in the French style. Therefore, everything had to be cleared by all seven members of the Commission, each of whom felt personally responsible that no “graft” would be tolerated on their watch.
The result was chaos and deadlock. A system of purchases was created that required a nightmare of forms in triplicate. The work on the Panama sewers was hampered by the fact that it took the filling in of six vouchers for the hire of a single horse and cart. That meant that the engineer in charge had to spend his Saturday night filling in no fewer than 1,200 such forms. There was a further, more serious setback to this work when it emerged that the pipes for the job had been sent in the wrong order. Then it was discovered that some vital equipment had been sent, for economy's sake, by sailing schooner and would not arrive for months. When Wallace cabled Washington to protest the lack of equipment coming through, he was sharply reprimanded by one of the commissioners that sending cables cost money.
Among an ever-thickening blizzard of paper, orders became duplicated or lost. Alternatively they were pared down or simply filed away. When Walker left his job the following year, over 160 requisitions were found stuffed into drawers in his desk, some many months old. Those on the Isthmus responded by attempting to predict their needs far into the future or simply bumped up their orders, expecting them to be adjusted downward. On one occasion, Wallace's chief architect, his twenty-nine-year-old nephew O. M. Johnson, calculated that he would eventually require 15,000 doors, for which he needed 15,000 pairs of hinges. He might have expected to receive a fraction of that, but somewhere in the paper storm in the Washington office the order took on monstrous proportions and, soon after, 240,000 perfectly made hinges turned up at Colón.
The architect's office was one of the many bottlenecks in the initial organization. There was a great deal of work involved in repairing the French quarters, let alone designing and building new accommodations. But it was a chicken-and-egg situation. As Wallace complained, “Suitable quarters and accommodations could not be provided without organization, supervision, plans and material, which of course, rendered a large force necessary almost at the commencement of the work, which had to be provided with suitable quarters and accommodation.”
Demand for labor was acute while the need for quarters massively outstripped the available supply. Cities of tents were created on the slopes of Ancón Hill and elsewhere, but these were soon full as the workforce expanded to thirty-five hundred by November 1904. To “make the dirt fly,” the Washington office was sending hundreds of men to the Isthmus every week, “before there was any way to care for them properly, or any tools or material to work with,” as Frank Maltby complained.
Soon after her husband's departure for the canal project, Rose van Hardeveld received her first letter from Jan, who had given up his post on the Union Pacific Railroad to accept a job with the Commission and thus become part of Teddy Roosevelt's “great march of progress.” Having sailed from San Deigo, van Hardeveld arrived at Panama City and made his way to Culebra. “A heavy suitcase in each hand, no light anywhere, the sweat rolling down my face, I stumbled along the wet slippery track, which I had been told to follow until I found a place to turn off,” he wrote. “I could sense that the water was on both sides. If my foot slipped from the ties, it landed in soft mud. In the deep darkness I seemed to have walked miles, and I never dreamed there could be such unearthly noises as came to my ears from all around. Thick croaking, hoarse bellowing, and strange squeaks and whines leaped at me from the blackness. I have learned since that these swamp noises are made by lizards, frogs and alligators, but to me they sounded like the howling of demons. Well, I decided that turning back looked almost as hard as going on, so here I am.” As she read the letter, remembered Rose, “tears stood in my eyes… My Jan was not a man to contemplate turning back from any goal he had elected to pursue—unless obstacles loomed virtually insurmountable.”
His accommodation turned out to be “a big bare lumber barn, not quite so well constructed as the horse stables on the ranches at home,” divided into cubicles just big enough for two men to share. A week later another letter arrived. “The food is awful,” Jan wrote, “and cooked in such a way that no civilized white man can stand it for more than a week or two … Almost all the food is fried. They feed us fried green bananas, boiled rice, and foul-smelling salt fish. It rains so much that honest to goodness my hat is getting mouldy on my head… I haven't had on a pair of dry shoes in weeks.” In the next letter, he reported that disease was rife. Rose's parents started raising objections to her plan for the rest of the family to join Jan in Panama.
There are numerous such examples of the shock and instant demoralization experienced by new arrivals during this early period. Some, however, greeted these challenges with a cheerful determination resonant of the early French period. Jessie Murdoch landed at Colón along with a party of other young nurses in mid-1904 feeling, she admitted, a mixture of “apprehension,” “homesickness,” and “dread of what the future might hold.” Colón was alarming with its “narrow, dirty, half deserted streets, with the native element running about half clothed,” and at Ancón Hospital, in spite of the warm welcome from Eugenie Hibbard, she was dismayed by the “old rusted iron French beds, with mildewed mattresses.” On her first night she ventured outside, only to be “eaten alive” by mosquitoes. Retreating to bed, “Each had a candle, but it was soon found that it was not wise to keep these burning, as they attracted moths and all sorts of flying insects.” “Yet in spite of these many difficulties,” she would write later, “we were not disheartened, but thoroughly enjoyed the novel experiences.” “We found upon our arrival here,” wrote young engineer James Williams, “the wreck of the French companies, a foreign language, strange people, poor food, no ice, no lights, no drinking water, no amusements, or decent living quarters …” But more important for Williams was the “thrill and the knowledge that we were working for Uncle Sam, accomplishing something that the eyes of the world were focused upon and something that every citizen of the United States [was] interested in.”
Others employed in the United States by the Washington office were less impressed with the patently yawning chasm between what they found and what they had been led to expect. “We were supposed to have furniture issued to us, my allotment being nominally six chairs, a bed, three tables, washstand and tin pitcher, and a clothes rack,” explained John Meehan, who arrived in early December 1904. “What we really got was a cot, and a dynamite box.” Meehan, like van Hardeveld, was living in Culebra, which consisted of several laborers’ bunkhouses and a smattering of cantinas and “chino shops,” which sold canned food at high prices. Everyone lived on tins of sardines and soggy crackers. The only two-story building was a “hotel” run by “Cuban Mary,” a “disorderly place, very dirty, crude in every way.” There was one muddy main street; “chickens walked about inside the stores and native shacks, a few pigs and a million goats wandered about the streets.” Reading in the evening was impossible, Meehan complained, because of the “army of bugs.” The only thing to do was to go to bed or to one of the bars.
Meehan would remain on the project for many years. Others took one look around and simply headed back home again. Charles L. Carroll, a graduate from Pittsburgh, arrived in Panama in August 1904. A month later he wrote to his mother: “I am thoroughly sick of this country and everything to do with the canal… Everyone is afflicted with running sores. We are compelled to sleep in an old shed, six to a room …The meals would sicken a dog …Tell the boys at home to stay there, even if they get no more than a dollar a day.” Weeks later Carroll left the Isthmus for good.
In October 1904, the Italian minister in Panama reported back to his government on the dismal start to the U.S. canal effort: “The managers are said to be dishonest and incompetent,” he wrote. “There have been many errors and much wastage and pilfering of money. The workers of all nationalities are treated inhumanely. As a consequence of all this, most people look back on the French administration, with all its defects, as more capable, more honest and more just towards the workers.”
allace would complain that the delays in sorting out the problems in accommodation were down to “supplies taking for ever to arrive” and the labor “immediately available and who could be secured from the surrounding countries [being] incompetent, shiftless and lazy.” But much of the intake from the United States was also seriously below standard. A request was posted for twenty-five track foremen, and when they arrived there were only two who could drive a railroad spike. In further echoes of Blanchet's experience with his new arrivals in 1881, William Karner complained that recruits employed by the Washington office “were not examined at all.” One young man presented himself to Karner as a rodman. It was quickly realized that he was nothing of the kind, having no training or experience at all. It was then established that he had received his appointment through the efforts of his member of Congress.
In spite of all the worries about corruption or graft, this was the origin of many of the Panama appointments not just in the early years but throughout the American period. The Swinehart family were typical. At the end of 1904 Swinehart Senior, the chair of a local Republican group in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, wrote to his congressman: “I have two sons who wish to go to Panama to work on the Canal… I will consider it a great favor if you will see some member of Canal Com.” Less than a month later, the congressman delivered two plum appointments. “Please place my name on your list of working Republicans and command me at any time,” responded the delighted father.
Along with idealists, professionals, and the beneficiaries of political favors, the Isthmus was also drawing in “railroad men who were blacklisted on the American railroads, drunks, and what we called tropical tramps, American drifters in Latin America.” U.S. diplomat William Franklin Sands sailed for Panama in early October 1904. On his ship, a British Royal Mail Packet Company steamer, he was taken aback to read a notice outside the dining room which ordered: “Americans will put their coats on for meals.” Why pick on Americans? Then he discovered that the captain had frequently had to arrest U.S. mechanics on the way to the Isthmus for drunkenness, gambling, and even leading mutinies against the officers.
As in the days of the gold rush, such new arrivals inevitably caused friction and difficulties with the Panamanians. One British journalist reported that “the people of Panama look upon Americans as noisy, grabbing bullies.” In return, admitted a senior American administrator, “The average American has the utmost contempt for a Panaman and never loses an opportunity, especially when drunk, to show it.” In fact by the autumn of 1904 relations between Americans and Panamanians were strained at every level. This had led to dangerous, potentially violent fractures within the new Panamanian political establishment, as well as dissent between senior U.S. Zone officials. It was to report on the origins of this mess, and to suggest solutions, that diplomatic “troubleshooter” William Sands—only twenty-nine but a veteran of diplomatic posts in the Far East—was sent by Taft to the Isthmus in October 1904. His mission was to ensure that nothing in the Panamanian political firmament got in the way of the building of the canal.
After independence at the beginning of November 1903, the leaders of the plot who were Panamanian nationals, rather than Americans, had formed themselves into a temporary ruling junta. Led by Arango and Amador, the junta contained several token Liberals but was otherwise firmly Conservative. The Panamanians had been given a firm warning by U.S. officials in the Zone: the civilized world had determined to enforce order and peace; “Panama must conduct itself as a civilized nation or it will cease to exist as an independent country.”
This threat did much to keep tension between the Conservative administration and its Liberal enemies in check, and a national assembly was elected which, although Conservative-led, included an almost equal number of Liberals. Nevertheless, the Conservatives set about removing potential enemies. Several senior Liberals were offered plum diplomatic postings to get them out of the country; General Huertas, a Hero of the Republic for his part in the events of November 1903, was now seen, because of his popularity and Liberal sympathies, as a threat and was sent on a lengthy fact-finding mission to the United States and Europe.
But as soon as one potential enemy was removed, another emerged. The undisputed leader of the Liberals was Dr. Belisario Porras, an archenemy of Amador, described by the American consul in Panama as a “revolutionary firebrand” and “notorious hater of foreigners.” Porras, who had worked as a lawyer for the French Company, had opposed the Hay-Herrán Treaty as giving too much control to the United States, and was appalled by the terms of the subsequent Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Panama, he said, had been “swallowed up” by the United States; national sovereignty had been sacrificed for the benefit of a few wealthy Conservative Panama merchants. In June 1904, he returned to Panama City from exile abroad to be greeted by a huge crowd in Santa Ana Square. Although he admired, he said, the “greatness and harmony of North American institutions,” he believed that “any Latin American nation who fused her destiny with that of the United States would suffer greatly and rue the day of their alliance.”
In the meantime, the Americans themselves had been providing plenty of fuel for anti-US. sentiment on the Isthmus. In May 1904, the Zone authorities successfully demanded that an American doctor be allowed to inspect all ships arriving at Colón and Panama. The man appointed did not even speak Spanish. The following month it was announced that the domestic tariff laws of the United States would be applied to the Zone. This meant that goods from the United States arrived free of duty, while imports from other countries, including Panama, were forced to pay very high rates. As it was simple to smuggle merchandise from the Zone to the Republic, the measure would slash the Panama government's vital customs revenue at the same time as infuriating the country's merchants. Then ports were opened at La Boca and Cristóbal, both adjacent to the terminal cities but within the Zone. As well as threatening to ruin Panama City and Colón, this seemed to be contrary to the terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which had specifically excluded the “terminal cities and the harbours adjacent to said cities” from the U.S. controlled area.
These measures provoked furious clashes between Amador and his Liberal first designado, or vice president, Pablo Arosemena, and gave many the impression that the annexation of the terminal cities, and indeed, the entire republic, was imminent. “I look upon the Republic of Panama as doomed,” Mallet wrote to his wife at the end of June. “The Yankees are playing the same tricks here as they did with Colombia in regard to the canal question … The U.S. Government are behaving here like highway robbers; they neither respect treaties or persons.” A month later he reported, “Opinion here amongst the natives is spreading, and they now think the bargain with the Americans has been a bad one for them and their country; they would prefer, I think, to return to Colombia than continue this way.”
At this time the U.S. ambassador to Panama was John Barrett, who was attempting to negotiate a way out of the impasse. Then Governor Davis became involved, which, as he was not an accredited diplomat, the Panamanians saw as a further slight. The negotiations did not go well. For one thing, Davis was intensely unpopular, and Barrett was not much better, variously described as “very loud spoken,” “vulgar,” and “full of self-assurance.” Furthermore, the two Americans both felt that they should be the leading U.S. voice on the matter, and relations between them broke down completely.
In August, the United States published a letter, reportedly written by Bunau-Varilla to Hay back in January, that clarified the “ports question” in his treaty in favor of the Americans. The Frenchman was no longer in the employ of Panama, so he seemed an ideal candidate for taking the blame. But then other correspondence emerged, showing that the provisional government, specifically the archconser-vative Tomás Arias, had authorized Bunau-Varilla's concession. Soon after, an anonymous flyer was distributed in the streets, accusing Arias of having sold the country's interests, and ordering him to resign or be assassinated.
The following month Hero of the Republic General Huertas returned to Panama, having cut short his trip after hearing that Amador planned to replace him. On October 28, Huertas wrote to Amador demanding the removal of Arias, and of another ultraright minister. Arias resigned, but Amador refused to release the second man. Then the president learned that Huertas, with the backing of Belisario Porras, planned to arrest him at a forthcoming military function. A severely rattled Amador appealed directly to Roosevelt for help in avoiding a military coup, and Huertas and other opposition leaders were sent a firm message from the U.S. legation saying that revolutionary changes would not be tolerated. At the same time, a detachment of marines was moved from their barracks to Ancón Hill. The military function went ahead without incident; Amador stayed at home.
Fortified by U.S. support, the president then made his move against Huertas, demanding his resignation. The general held out for a while, but threw in the towel on November 18. After consulting with Barrett, Amador then decided that a standing army, albeit of only 250 men, was not needed by the tiny republic, and the Panamanian Army was disbanded.
The United States was subsequently blamed for the loss of the army and the national prestige that went with it. But while no doubt demonstrating the ruling elite's dependence on U.S. support, the move was orchestrated by Amador and his Conservative allies. They had worried about the power of the army even in the heady days of November 1903. Now, with the assistance of the United States, the only force in the land that could eject them from power was no more.
illiam Sands arrived in the aftermath of the failed coup, and found Panama “festering with intrigue,” the American canal officials and diplomats at loggerheads, and growing anti-Americanism in many quarters. The existence of the Canal Zone, Sands would write, “made for an ambiguous and most delicate diplomatic situation. Canal affairs and interests were constantly overlapping or overshadowing the Republic's affairs.” To many Panamanians, the Americans seemed determined to tell them what to do, and there was deep concern about “whither Theodore Roosevelt and his ‘Yankee imperialism’ might be tending.” Sands likened the position of the U.S. minister in Panama with that of a resident minister from Great Britain in India, where the threat of being “incorporated into the Raj” was ever present. Nevertheless, he was shocked at how much the Americans were disliked on the Isthmus.
One of Sands's first actions was to meet the new secretary for foreign affairs, Santiago de la Guardia, to request that the position of the governor and the U.S. minister to Panama might be combined in one person. In marked contrast to Davis, Sands was careful to adhere to proper formalities, donning full diplomatic garb, top hat included, and hiring the best two-horse carriage he could find for the one-block journey between the legation and the secretary's office. The approach worked, with the Panamanian happy to allow Sands's request, although de la Guardia did confide to Sands his fears about future relations between their two countries. “Don Santiago was aware,” wrote Sands, “that a new North America had come into being since the Spanish War, one that was not very well understood as yet even by the North Americans themselves.”
Meanwhile other Panamanians had taken the arguments, particularly about customs revenues, out into the open. A delegation was sent to Washington, and articles by prominent Isthmians started appearing in New York newspapers. Then, in October 1904 a leading Panamanian liberal, Dr. Eusabio Morales, secured a commission from the influential North American Review for an article critical of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. When word of this got to the Republican Party, Morales was approached by men representing the treasurer of the party and offered a bribe to spike the piece. It was just before the presidential election and there was concern that revelations about Roosevelt's connection with the independence of Panama might come out. Morales declined the money but withdrew the article when Roosevelt publicly instructed Taft to go to Panama and settle the tolls question.
The secretary of war, accompanied by Cromwell, arrived in Colón at the end of November. The highest-ranking American to set foot on the Isthmus so far, Taft was a good choice to mollify the Panamanians, in spite of the fact that, privately, he referred to their country as “a kind of Opera Bouffe republic and nation.” At over three hundred pounds, Taft was hugely, disarmingly fat and jovial-looking Sands would call him “a cold man, despite the legend which grew up about him … his geniality was wholly of the surface,” but most people found Taft charming. On December 1 he used a speech at a welcoming banquet to assure his audience that the United States had no imperialistic designs on the republic, and then over the next ten days he combined touring the works with negotiating with the Panamanians over the points in dispute. Every evening there were banquets or balls, where Taft entered heartily into the spirit, amazing the Panamanians with his enthusiastic dancing. “Though the heaviest man, in weight, in the room,” remembered William Karner, “he was as buoyant and light on his feet as a feather or a rubber ball.”
Over the negotiating table, similarly light-footed, Taft managed to placate the Panamanians without actually conceding too much. A controversy over postage rates was settled in Panama's favor; imports from Panama to the Zone were to be duty-free; there was a pledge of money for a stretch of road and a new hospital in Panama City. Taft promised that only essentials for the canal would be imported tariff-free from the United States. Also included in what became known as the “Taft Agreement” was an assurance that employees of the ICC from tropical countries would not be allowed to purchase food from ICC shops. Loopholes in the deal ensured that canal business would not suffer from any of these concessions, but it was the spirit of the Taft Agreement that was important. In the Philippines, despite the defeat of the main pro-independence forces outside Manila in 1902, an insurgency had arisen in the Muslim south that was daily claiming American lives. For the moment at least, the United States felt that its best policy in Panama was to save the face of the incumbent, pro-American leadership and project a stance of compromise and respect.
aft's next stop was Jamaica. Taking consul Mallet with him as a go-between as well as Chief Engineer Wallace, the secretary met Governor Sir James Swettenham to ask permission to recruit workers for the canal.
The labor problem was among the most serious facing the first American canal builders. In spite of the stream of new arrivals, many soon left or turned out to be unsuitable, and by the autumn of 1904 departments had taken to offering inducements for men to leave one sector of the work to join another. One shipment of laborers was met by agents of the Municipal Engineering Division and others from the Building Department “and so keen a competition developed to obtain the men that there ensued a street fight and the subsequent arrest and jailing over night of the principals.” There was also a longer-term question: who was going to build the American Panama Canal?
The leaders of the project, of course, like the new machinery to be deployed, would be American. It was also “recognized” that “most of the superintendents, foremen, and the higher grades of skilled labor would have to be brought from the United States.” According to the canal's quartermaster, Major R. E. Wood, “there was no surplus throughout Central or South America” for this sort of work, and “in many classes there were no men at all available” locally.
It was initially hoped that the American canal effort would be characterized by machines rather than men. Early plans estimated that some eight to ten thousand workers would be required, and Wallace told Taft that he wanted to restrict the number to ten to fifteen thousand. A gross underestimate, as it turned out—at one point there would be more than fifty thousand on the payroll—but still a sizable force to be found.
White workers from the United States were ruled out from the unskilled jobs early on as too expensive, too unionized, and vulnerable to tropical diseases. It would be “useless to discuss the question of utilizing the white race for heavy out-of-door work with pick and shovel in the mud and rain,” wrote Governor Davis in November 1904. “American working men have no call to Panama,” suggested a U.S. commentator, “any more than English working men have to the plains of India.”
Characteristically for the time, the question was seen in terms of the fitness of different races for the job ahead. As chief recruiter William Karner would write, “It has been an interesting job—experimenting in racial types.” Brigadier Peter C. Hains, who served on the Walker Commission of 1899 and would become a canal commissioner in 1905, laid out official thinking on labor in a 1904 article for the North American Review: “Where will the labour come from? … The native Isthmian will not work. He is naturally indolent; not over strong; has no ambition; his wants are few in number and easily satisfied. He can live for a few cents a day, and he prefers to take it easy, swinging in a hammock and smoking cigarettes. The native population is wholly unavailable.” The “Chinese coolie,” who had built railroads all over the United States, was considered able to cope with the climate, “industrious,” and easy to manage, but could rarely speak English, and “as soon as he gets a few dollars,” wrote Hains, “he wants to keep a store.”
Hains's preference was for black workers from the British West Indies, whom he characterized as “fairly industrious; not addicted to drink; can speak English … he is willing to work, [and] not deficient in intelligence.” There were other advantages: the islands were reasonably nearby and well served by steamer services; education levels were relatively high; the Antilleans had some immunity to some tropical diseases. But more than anything else they were cheap—wages and conditions on the islands were such that virtually anything the Americans offered would be an improvement. To Taft, there was another great advantage to the West Indian worker. Despite his being “lazy,” he had been taught by the British respect for discipline and authority. “He does loaf about a good deal,” the secretary of state wrote, “but he is amenable to law, and it does not take a large police force to keep him in order.”
Thus Taft chose Jamaica as the nearest and largest of these “natural markets for unskilled labor” to visit in person. But the meeting with the governor did not go according to plan for the Americans. Swettenham remained immune to Taft's charm; in fact, he seemed rather anti-American. The United States party got the distinct impression that he would quite happily see the U.S. canal effort fail. It probably did not help that Admiral Walker, chairman of the ICC, had been musing, according to Mallet, that Jamaica should be taken over by the United States as part of the canal's outer defenses.
To the Americans Swettenham stressed the negatives of the Jamaican experience in Panama during the French period: the “able-bodied emigrants returned enfeebled, sick, infirm, or maimed [who] had to be kept alive at the expense of the parish;” the huge cost to the Jamaican government of repatriating workers after the de Lesseps Company failed. He may have also had in mind the destablizing effects of mass migration—serious worker unrest had been bloodily suppressed only two years before. Then there were the powerful planter interests on the island, ever reluctant to see their pool of cheap labor reduced. The upshot was that the governor announced he would only give permission for recruiting if the U.S. government deposited in the Jamaican Treasury £5 for each laborer shipped to Colón, against the possible costs of repatriating him. Taft, as expected, was appalled at these terms. He called the meetings to a close and returned to the United States.
Wallace arrived back on the Isthmus and, after his customary two days of prostration from seasickness, summoned William Karner and ordered him to get on the next boat to Barbados and to set up a recruiting office there as quickly as possible.
Barbados, although the most distant of the “natural markets for unskilled labor,” had several advantages over the other British West Indian islands. The Windwards and Leewards had relatively low populations and were considered to be ruled directly from the Colonial Office. Barbados, though, seemed to have more sympathetic and independent officials and was massively overpopulated, with two hundred thousand people living on just two hundred square miles. With the economy utterly dependent on a near-worthless sugar crop, there was desperate poverty and malnutrition among the black population. “The island has always been and still is run for the whites,” wrote an American journalist who visited Barbados at this time. “It is a heavenly place to live for the white man who can ignore the frightful misery of the negroes.” It looked like fertile recruiting ground for the Americans.
Karner arrived at Carlisle Bay, near Bridgetown, on December 31 and soon after was introduced by the U.S. consul to the colonial secretary, who told him that the government had been looking at setting up an agency themselves to aid work abroad, as there was a “large surplus” of laborers on the island. In turn, the secretary took Karner to meet the governor, Sir Gilbert Carter. Carter was keen that there should not be a repetition of the situation two years earlier when Barbadians working on a railroad project in Brazil had become stranded and had to be brought home at the government's expense, but otherwise he was far more open to the ICC than had been Swettenham. Karner reckoned that the fact that Lady Carter was an American was helpful.
Karner then arranged for transportation through the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which had a large office on the island, employed a local agent, S. E. Brewster, and had medical and contract forms printed up. The contract, agreed with the government, was that each laborer would be employed for five hundred days at a rate of ten cents U.S. an hour. This was about half the minimum that would have been acceptable to a North American laborer but generous by the standards of Barbados, where wages had fallen to as low as a shilling (25 cents) a day. Work was ten hours a day, six days a week, with time and a half paid for overtime and Sundays. Passage to Colón was paid for—with food for the voyage provided—and “medical attendance, medicine, and quarters without furniture, [were] to be furnished free to the laborer, while in the employ of the Commission.” At the end of the contract, or if the worker was incapacitated while employed by the ICC, repatriation would be free.
Eventually some twenty thousand Barbadians—the engine room of the canal effort—would be employed under this same contract, with only small modifications. The initial results were disappointing, however. It seems that the memories of the French period, when over a thousand Barbadians had traveled to Panama, the bad political reputation of Central America generally, and the recent experience in Brazil combined to create suspicion of the new canal project. These fears were fanned by stories of unemployment and hardship on the Isthmus spread by planters and managers not keen to see their all-important labor surplus disappearing.
“There was no rush and on the steamer sailing for Colón, January 26th 1905,” wrote Karner, “I shipped only sixteen laborers.” It would have been seventeen, but at the last moment “one man got stage fright, shouted that I was sending him into slavery and that he would rather kill himself there than to go to the Isthmus and die in slavery.” The next shipment had a few more after Brewster “did some hustling in the adjoining parish.” But Karner was hindered in his efforts by a loss of contact with Wallace in Panama due to a broken cable. When he did receive a message from his boss his orders were vague. Then there was a problem cashing the ICC's checks and further administrative hurdles. Karner estimated that he needed a full-time employee just to fill out his myriad requisition and expenses forms. The frustration was similar to that being suffered on the Isthmus.
hose first Karner recruits arriving right at the beginning of 1905 joined a canal project mired in confusion and disillusionment. In Panama City, the job of installing running water and sewers was supposed to have been completed by January 1905, but was still months away Much important equipment had not arrived. The Americans tried to make do with reconditioned French tools and “scrap.” The building department was having the same difficulties. When materials were reluctantly supplied, they were often held up by the inadequate facilities at Colón for unloading, storage, and distribution. Building and dock workers were in short supply as the majority were taken up with “actual canal work.”
What this meant was “making the dirt fly” in the Culebra Cut. This is what journalists from the United States came to see, and they wanted to report back that the canal was being dug. But the effort from an engineering point of view was an almost total waste of time. In August, by which time three old French excavators had been chugging away for about a month, Gold Hill began to slide into the trench below it, and work was suspended for four weeks. In November the first American-built excavator arrived. This was a ninety-five-ton Bucyrus steam shovel, which could scoop up nearly 5 cubic meters of spoil at a time. Wallace was off the Isthmus, so it was William Karner as acting chief engineer who ordered the new shovel into action in the Cut. “Ambitious to ‘make the dirt fly,’” wrote Karner, “I came near to a mortifying and embarrassing failure, for the night after starting the shovel at work there was a slide in the cut which nearly buried the shovel from sight.” The Bucyrus shovel, three times as powerful as any equivalent used by the French, would become the workhorse of the canal, but it was an inauspicious start.
Bucyrus steam shovel
The following month there were six of the old French ladder excavators at work together with an increasing number of resurrected Belgian locomotives and French dump cars. But for all the sound and fury, an engineer reported, “the impression made on the soil in comparison with the entire mass of earth to be handled” was mere “hen scratches.” On wet days, the locomotives could pull only four cars at a time, and there were frequent derailments, blamed on the “long and rigid wheel base of the French and Belgian engines,” as well as the “poorly ballasted,” largely improvised, tracks. As there were also inadequate traction and dumping facilities, the excavators were often idle for lack of spoil cars.
The results of the test borings along the line had also provided disappointment. At Bohío, where the Walker Commission had planned a dam for the lock-canal option, drilling teams had discovered a deep geological gorge, the original bed of the Chagres River. Thus the bedrock on which the dam would have to be anchored was a seemingly unworkable 168 feet below sea level. Above the bedrock was a porous mixture of gravel and other alluvial detritus. Wallace concluded that “there is little probability of finding a satisfactory location for a high dam in this vicinity.” There were borings also at Gatún, which had been suggested as a possible site for a dam in spite of the great width of the valley at this point. But here there were two underground gorges even deeper than at Bohío. The Americans drilled to 200 feet below sea level and still did not reach bedrock. “As 200 feet was considered in excess of the practicable depth at which it was advisable to construct a foundation for a dam,” Wallace reported, “it was not considered necessary to go deeper.” For him, the test results precluded “the economical or safe construction of a dam in [the] general vicinity” of Gatún. Ominously, other scattered borings along the canal line offered only geological confusion: “Practically no regular stratification exists,” Wallace reported.
In the absence of an obvious site for a dam along the line of the canal on the Atlantic side, Wallace reported that he favored the adoption of a sea-level canal plan. This was, he wrote, “self-evidently” “the most desirable in economy of maintenance, operation, time of passage through it, and simplicity of design, plan and execution … the deterrent factors being time and cost.” But more than anything he wanted a decision, to “remove the principal elements of uncertainty now existing in regard to the project as a whole.”
Hampered by more than just uncertainty, the effort was on the brink of petering out, strangled by red tape, bickering, and incompetence. Wallace had underestimated the Isthmus. Under pressure to “make the dirt fly,” he neglected proper preparatory work. He also failed to provide leadership. His idea of management was to delegate. When he employed Frank Maltby, he told him: “I want you to build up an organization so complete and efficient that you won't have to do anything but sit on the veranda and smoke good cigars.” Wallace himself was hardly ever seen out on the line; he rarely left his office, and every small suggestion from one of his subordinates would be demanded in writing. Soon his desk was as covered in chaotic mounds of paper as that of Admiral Walker in Washington.
With no improvement in sight in the grim living conditions, discontent was spreading all along the line of the canal. Then at the end of 1904 it got dramatically worse: yellow fever broke out on the Isthmus.