Crossing the Isthmus by railroad during his first week in Panama, Stevens's fellow passengers had pointed out Gorgas's sanitation squads draining pools, fumigating houses, and oiling waterways. Each spotting was cause for new “ridicule, not only of Colonel Gorgas but also of the mosquito theory, some of these comments reflecting very severely upon the quality of the Colonel's mental equipment. My attention,” Stevens later wrote, “was repeatedly called to the great waste of money and the utter futility of the whole procedure.”
Since the arrival of Magoon, Gorgas had at last started receiving supplies, and Stevens and Shonts, with Roosevelt's instructions ringing in their ears, had further upped the backing for the Sanitation Department. Shonts, although still skeptical about the mosquito theory, had in July 1905 increased Gorgas's workforce from two hundred to over two thousand. Stevens initially shared Shonts's doubts. But he was so impressed both with the urgent need to combat the fearful disease and by Gorgas's conviction that he could do it, that he decided to provide full support and funding.
So began, in July 1905, one of the most famous sanitary campaigns in history. Mosquito brigades were formed for every district of Panama and Colón. Panamanian doctors were recruited at the local level, responsible for daily house-to-house inspections. A combination of respect for Magoon and Gorgas's charm and tact produced new compliance from the residents of Panama City, who were offered a $50 reward for reporting a case of yellow fever. For each one—and there were forty-two cases in July—their movements during the days before the appearance of the first symptoms were painstakingly traced to find the source of infection.
But nothing was left to chance. Every dwelling, from the grandest palacio to the tiniest shack, was now meticulously fumigated. Teams were sent out through the streets, with each man carrying a ladder and a gallon of glue. On their shoulders they had strips of paper 6 feet long and 3 inches wide to stick over doors, windows, holes, and openings in the wall to prevent the smoke or the insects escaping when the pans containing sulphur or pyrethrum and alcohol were lit inside. If it was a large building, once it was sealed the sulphur smoke was pumped in from outside, through a tube inserted into the door through the keyhole. In a year, 330 tons of sulphur and 120 tons of pyrethrum—the entire annual output of the United States—were used up. “The fumigation campaign was so intense,” remembered one sanitary squad worker, “that there was a big, thick white cloud of smoke from the sulphur hanging over the Zone and Panama City, and even the leaves on the trees curled up.”
At the same time other teams checked on the water that people kept in barrels for everyday use, unwittingly providing breeding grounds for the next generation of Aêdes aegypti. In early July 1905 running water had at last been connected for Panama City, which was of great assistance to the efforts of the sanitary squads. So with households in the city largely clear of water containers, the squads could concentrate on potential breeding sites among rubbish and elsewhere. “An empty tin can was the special aversion of the Sanitary Squad,” wrote Frank Maltby. “We became so clean, orderly, and ‘dried out’ that it was painful.” Where water could not be removed—in cesspools, cisterns, puddles, or potholes—other teams arrived to spray the surface of the water with kerosene to smother the “wrigglers.” In a year, over two and a half million gallons of oil was used in this way. Success demanded total thoroughness. Gorgas even had the holy water in the font of the cathedral changed every day once it was found that mosquitoes were breeding there.
Indeed, with most households dispensing with domestic water containers, the yellow fever mosquitoes started laying their eggs wherever they could find pools of water—in hollowed-out stones and even in the leaves of trees, in particular that of the calocasia, which grew in weedlike profusion around the houses. As well as clearing all vegetation from the vicinity of living quarters, Gorgas's squads started laying traps. Such is the fastidiousness of the female Aëdes aegypti that the bowls of sweet clean water now left out by the sanitarians proved far more tempting for ovipositing than a dirty puddle. Every day the water in the traps was simply emptied on to the dry ground and replaced. “They eagerly accepted the much cleaner tin pans placed out for their particular benefit,” writes Joseph Le Prince, “and thus involuntarily committed race suicide.”
As well as aiming to exterminate the A¨des aegypti by attacking its larval stage, Gorgas sought to prevent any adult survivors from coming into contact with humans, or more precisely, vulnerable white Americans. The U.S. workforce now found itself thoroughly protected by metal screens. Because of the warm, salty, and damp climate of the Isthmus only very pure copper would resist rapid corrosion (even so, the screens on every American home or dwelling place had to be checked by yet another team every week). It was all astronomically expensive. One order for high-grade copper screening, signed off by Stevens in the autumn of 1905, came to $90,000, nearly double the entire Sanitary Department budget for the previous year. Orders also went in for three thousand rubbish bins, four thousand buckets, a thousand brooms, and 5,000 pounds of common soap. Alongside the specific antimosquito measures came a massive expansion of the medical facilities. A second hospital at Colón belonging to the Panama Railroad was taken over and the capacity of Ancón hospital was extended to 1,500 beds and the staff to 470. Twenty district hospitals were opened the length of the line, along with forty smaller field hospitals, as work started on refurbishing the old French sanatorium on Taboga. In his first twelve months Gorgas had been allowed to spend $50,000. For the next year, his expenditure topped $2 million.
If this was throwing money at the problem, it worked. In August cases of yellow fever fell by nearly a half to twenty-seven, with nine deaths. The following month there were only seven cases and four deaths. The last death from yellow fever was reported in Panama City on November 11, 1905. As they gathered in the autopsy room, Gorgas instructed his staff to take a good look at the man: he was, said Gorgas, the last yellow fever corpse they would see.
And so it proved. It may have taken twice the eight months required in Havana, but now Panama was free of yellow fever, for the first time, and forever. It was a massive breakthrough for the American canal.
he following year, 1906, would be one of the most difficult for the project: even if the terrible fear caused by yellow fever had faded, the death rate among the workers and technicians—from malaria, pneumonia, typhoid, and accidents—would actually increase to its highest for the whole U.S. construction period. But at the end of 1905 the project's leaders could congratulate themselves on a number of achievements to add to Gorgas's yellow fever victory. Problems with the water supply for Panama City had been corrected, so that Mallet could write to his wife in September that at last “the strong smell of decomposed fish has gone.” Sewers were in operation and much of the city had been paved. In the six months since Stevens's arrival over six hundred of the old French buildings had been repaired, twice the number Wallace managed in a year. Stevens's other priority, food supply, although not solved, was certainly being addressed. Refrigerated trucks were now carrying ice and perishables along the line to the growing number of commissary stores, hotels, and messes. Several of the Panama Railroad's steamers had been fitted out with cold compartments, so that fresh food could arrive in pristine condition from the United States. At the end of the year Stevens started plans for a cold-storage plant and bakery at Cristóbal.
The white, largely American canal community was changing, and the project was beginning to lose its frontier town feel. When American journalist John Foster Carr visited the Isthmus at the beginning of 1906, six months after his first trip there, he found that “the day of the good-for-nothing tropical tramp had nearly passed.” Certainly Stevens had set about, as he put it, “weeding out the faint-hearted and incompetent,” but for Carr, the Isthmus itself had also carried out some sort of selection. “The men themselves,” he wrote, “have distinctive virtues as a body that are easily accounted for. Most of them are plucky, for it took pluck to come to the Isthmus and stay when yellow fever was in the land. They are mostly decent, healthy fellows, for the climate is severe on vices of over-indulgence in a northerner. Of those who will not heed the warning many are invalided home; a certain number die. Something like a real moral selection is the result.”
Six months before, Carr had found the young Americans on the project simply surviving. At the end of the day, “they were too tired to talk. They sat about silently and went to bed at nine o'clock. On Sunday there was nowhere to go, because the jungle hemmed them in as if it were a thousand leagues of ocean.” The one day off would be spent “on the hotel verandas, smoking, lazily watching the vultures floating high up in the air, ‘talking shop,’ and telling tales of Cuba and the Philippines, where scores of them have been.” But now some of the rough edges were disappearing. Food was plentiful and relatively cheap; screens on windows and doors meant that lights could be burned after dark; the shock of the climate and the work ahead wore off; the fear of “yellow jack” was gone. “The last six months have seen a great change,” wrote Carr at the beginning of 1906. “New habits are forming and life is rapidly approaching the normal.”
Carr was something of a drumbeater for the canal project; other journalists give a more nuanced view of the emerging new community. “Normal family life is becoming established and society is developing peculiar forms,” reported the New York Independentmagazine in March 1906. “In some places it resembles official life in India. At the balls married women reign supreme, with abundance of admirers and no debutante rivals … After the novelty … wears off, life … is barren and dull for most of the men … It is more from ennui than from viciousness that many of the employees seek for solace in the cocktail and the jackpot.”
Some of the Americans did take things into their own hands. Frank Maltby still living in the old “De Lesseps Palace” where every room was now full of young engineers, used trips back to the United States to bring to Panama a pool table, card tables, and a piano. He also subscribed to every paper he could think of. So was established “Maltby's Mess,” a mini-community remembered fondly by many. Others started a baseball league and bridge clubs.
But for most, particularly the young bachelors, there was little more variety of diversion than had been available for Henri Cermoise twenty years before. “Most of the young men on the Isthmus have absolutely no places of amusement, recreation, and rendezvous except the saloons and gambling places,” complained a U.S. diplomat. For all Carr's “moral selection,” over six hundred bars were kept busy on the Isthmus, arrests for drunkenness far surpassed any other cause, and a huge number of prostitutes made a good living in the terminal cities.
The corrupting influence of life in the tropics, and of life in Panama in particular, on fine young upstanding Americans was of constant concern and interest to the public at home. Apart from anything else, it made for good copy. Thus the challenge for Stevens and Magoon in finding respectable diversion for their workers became a question not just of protecting the men from their worst impulses, but also, and perhaps more important, of nullifying dangerous domestic criticism. In early 1905, a YMCA representative, touring the Isthmus, had written, in a widely reproduced report, that “positive forces for evil” were “wide open in … Panama and Colón.” At fault was the legal lottery in the republic, “saloons and drinking places in large numbers … dispensing a most inferior and highly injurious quality of liquor,” the popular sports of bullfighting and cockfighting, and prostitution, which, he said, was “as bad as might be expected in a country of loose marriage relations, lax laws etc.” The solution to the moral crisis was identified as the creation of “libraries and reading rooms … reputable places of amusement, grounds for outdoor games … [and] clubs for mental, moral or physical culture.”
This measure had been backed by Wallace and other senior Americans on the Isthmus, but the Commission under Walker, although “heartily approving of the plan,” had not felt that the law gave them the authority to “use money appropriated for the construction of the Canal for the amusement of the Canal employees.” The forceful Stevens had more luck and in November 1905 the ICC decision was overruled by presidential decree, and work started on a clubhouse at Cristóbal, complete with dance hall, card room, bowling alleys, gymnasium, showers, and a writing room. Three more were earmarked for Empire, Gorgona, and Culebra. At the same time, sports pitches, “opportunities for wholesome open-air exercise,” were planned and started.
But women were considered the key. To break down the all-male, army-camp atmosphere in which “immoral” behavior was considered acceptable, Stevens, Magoon, and Shonts went out of their way to encourage men to bring their wives to the Isthmus. A heavily subsidized steamer fare was offered, along with superior accommodation and commissary rights. By autumn 1905 work was under way on a number of schools for Zone children, the first of which opened in January 1906.
All this municipal work occupied much of the labor force in Stevens's first six months, but there were important improvements on the engineering side as well. Deeper borings with state-of-the-art drills had at last found bedrock deep under Gatún; at Colón, the docks were overhauled and vast warehouses constructed. The backlog on the all-important railway was cleared by the end of the year. Maltby's coastal division had dug an underwater channel out to sea for large ships to use the port, and the old French canal had been dredged as far as Gatún so that supplies could be brought inland. All this, which involved the removal during 1905 of well over a million cubic yards of underwater material, was achieved by the old, inherited machinery. There would not be an American dredge at work until mid-1907.
In the Cut, a pipeline had been laid carrying compressed air to power the drills, and by December 1905 there were nineteen shovels at work in the “big ditch.” Not that “dirt” was “flying”—the floor of the French diggings had not been lowered by an inch. Instead, patience was still the watchword as the shovels carefully widened and prepared the site to Stevens's exact specifications. Terraces were built for further excavators to work on, as teams such as Jan van Hardeveld's laid miles of heavy track for the spoil trains to come.
All the while, the chief engineer took pains to remain visible and accessible. Mallet reported to his wife in September 1905 that “Stevens lives on the line.” The chief engineer also put aside three hours every Sunday morning to hear complaints from the workforce and continued to tour the works, dropping in unannounced for lunch with the shovel operators or engineers. According to William Sands, “Stevens’ sturdy, competent presence gradually put new heart” into the workforce.
But whatever public image he projected, Stevens had a number of grave concerns at the end of his first six months in charge, in particular with that selfsame workforce. Stevens had asked his recruiters in the United States to send south some five thousand technicians, mainly railroad men. They had managed to produce only a little more than three thousand, and clearly some barrels had been scraped. On one occasion a consignment of eighteen track foremen reported for work only for it to be discovered that only two had any sort of track experience at all. The rest were sent back on the next steamer. “I am not running a training school to teach boys engineering and construction,” wrote Stevens angrily to Commission chairman Theodore Shonts. “What I want is men who can go to work when they get here.” In Washington, Shonts had his own problems. For political reasons he was already trying to juggle the lucrative contracts for canal machinery around various states. Now he was being steadily lobbied by politicians on behalf of their constituents wanting jobs on the Panama gravy train.
This was immediately apparent to stenographer Mary Chatfield, a formidable looking spinster in her midforties, who arrived at Panama City from San Francisco on November 30, 1905. Chatfield would spend sixteen months on the Isthmus, during the course of which she wrote numerous letters to her ladies’ literary club in her home city of New York. One of her first letters sets the tone for her reports from Panama: “I am not running things. If I were there would be some changes, for I never saw such a state of affairs.”
Her most immediate complaint was about the quality of the “skilled” workforce. Starting her first job in the Hydrography Department, she soon discovered that it was almost impossible to find good recruits to man the gauging stations that measured the velocity and flow of the numerous streams in the canal's path. “So many men sent down here drink to excess,” she reported back to her literary society. “I am informed that the Isthmian Canal Commission send numbers of such people down here at the request of senators, congressmen and heads of departments.”
Her own boss, the chief clerk of the department, a Scotsman, comes in for particular criticism. “Like many other people here in positions of authority,” she wrote, he was “lacking in training and experience for such a position.” A young graduate engineer under the man ended up teaching him his job, “an everyday state of affairs on the Isthmus,” wrote Chatfield. An American journalist with far less of an ax to grind backs this up, recounting the story of a well-connected clerk starting work on a salary of $2,500, more than twice that of his overall supervisor. Good workmen were arriving, Chatfield writes, but “finding they have not a fair chance against the favourites,” they were leaving just as quickly.
appily for Stevens the beginning of 1906 saw the West Indian workers arriving far faster than they were departing. Much of this was due to Karner's renewed recruitment drive in Barbados, and the fact that the West Indians on the Isthmus could now report more regular wages and less police harassment. At the end of 1905, there had been about eighteen thousand on the payroll, compared to thirty-five hundred twelve months before. Of the fifteen thousand nonwhites, about half were Barbadians.
Such was the exodus of labor from Barbados that by early 1906 it was hardly possible to go ahead with the sugar crop in the St. James and St. Peter parishes because men “have returned [from Panama] with money which they are spending in sight of those who did not go,” who promptly took off themselves. But if Panama now drew in Barbadians in unprecedented numbers, Stevens was less than happy with the results. Although he applauded the West Indians’ “innate respect for authority,” the improved food supply seemed to have had little impact on their productivity or ability to resist diseases. So he started looking elsewhere, seeing the problem, as always, as one of racial characteristics. His first preference was for Japanese or Chinese labor, but a delegation from Tokyo had toured the works in May 1905 and described conditions as “unsatisfactory.” The Chinese were also unwilling to help, still stunned by the appalling treatment of “coolies” by the British in the Transvaal. Furthermore, Stevens was aware that the importation of thousands of Chinese would cause political problems at home in the United States, where indentured labor was frowned on by public opinion, and in Panama. One of the government's first new laws, introduced at the end of 1904, had been a measure to prevent Chinese immigration.
In Cuba the quality of the large influx of Spanish labor at the end of the war had impressed the Americans, and Stevens saw this as a possible answer to his problems. For him, they had the advantage, unlike the blacks, of “a capacity to develop into subforemen … they are white men, tractable, and capable of development and assimilation,” he wrote to Shonts in December 1905. Certainly something had to be done. “I have about made up my mind,” he went on, “that it is useless to think of building the Panama Canal with native West Indian labor … I do not believe that the average West Indian nigger is more than equivalent to one-third of an ordinary white northern laborer … I regard the situation as critical, as the success or failure of our plans rests wholly upon the labor proposition.”
It was all getting the best of John Stevens. He was now working eighteen hours a day and suffering from insomnia, so frustrations about the lack of expertise in his organization, the high rate of sickness, or delays in progress became ever more overwhelming. “No one will ever know,” he later wrote, “no one can realize, the call on mind and body which was made upon a few for weary months while all the necessary preliminary work was being planned and carried forward … and the only gleams of light and encouragement were the weekly arrivals of newspapers from the States, criticizing and complaining because the dirt was not flying.”
And it was not just the lack of visible, photogenic progress that fueled newspaper attacks on the canal. Still under scrutiny by the partisan Democratic press was Roosevelt's precise part in the “revolution” of November 1903. Then, as men returned from Panama sacked or otherwise embittered by the canal leadership, stories starting circulating of out-of-control extravagance and corruption on the Isthmus. The oil supply business, it was alleged, had been given to the Union Oil Company in controversial circumstances. Under the direction of Cromwell, the Panama Railroad had made an undoubtedly illegal bond issue, which afterward had to be recalled. Some higher-ups on the Isthmus were receiving inflated salaries, it was suggested.
But it was the secrets of “the lawyer Cromwell,” still ever present in Panama's affairs, that most interested the canal's enemies. Ever since the signing of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, some sections of the press had put forward the theory that the entire revolution had been a ploy by a Wall Street syndicate, a “Stock Gambler's Plan to Make Millions!” as a New York World headline put it. Roosevelt's partners in the “theft” of the canal, the New York Times suggested, were “a group of canal promoters and speculators and lobbyists who came into their money through the rebellion we encouraged, made safe, and effectuated.” Soon after, the same paper reported that the president of a large French bank had said that roughly half the money paid to the New Company had stayed in the United States. Maurice Hutin, when interviewed, said that the payment had never reached French shareholders, “as the United States naively thought.” Instead, it was suggested, a syndicate set up by Cromwell had secretly bought up shares in the New Company at rock-bottom prices, and then, having persuaded the U.S. government to pay $40 million for them, had pocketed a huge profit.
Alongside the investigation of this story, reports of extravagance on the Isthmus became more and more common in the U.S. press, endlessly conjuring up the ghost of the famously wasteful French effort. At the end of 1905, therefore, a special Senate inquiry was authorized to carry out a full “investigation of salaries, supplies, contracts, and the general conduct of the commission.” The Senate Committee on Interoceanic Canals, the Panama Star and Herald reported on January 1, 1906, was going to “raise the canal lid.”
Three days later, on January 4, came the publication of Poultney Bigelow's report from his Colón trip in November. Carried by the prestigious New York Independent magazine, and provocatively titled “Our Mismanagement in Panama,” the article caused a sensation. As well as telling of his meetings with ill, disgruntled, and departing West Indian workers, Bigelow was scathing about the filthy state of Colón, faulty work on the sewers in Panama, and the shortcomings of the American workforce. “Our Panama patriots are kept busy,” he wrote, “finding occupation” for “flabby young men” with “political protection … who amuse themselves playing the doctor or the engineer.” In all, he found “jobbery flourishing” and the system in Panama showing “ominous signs of rottenness.”
The response in Panama was mixed. One engineer exclaimed, “I do not think there is a place on the face of the globe more lied about than the Isthmus of Panama. But the American people don't want to believe anything good of it, or of those who see fit to undertake the battles down here. However, we are going ahead regardless.” Others, like Mary Chatfield, found that Bigelow had echoed a lot of her own complaints. “I have heard all those things and many more since I have been on the Isthmus,” she wrote home about his criticisms. It could have been even worse; “he could not find out much,” she explained. “People were afraid to tell him.”
The reaction in Washington, however, was swift and ruthless. Bigelow was hauled before the Senate committee, but not before his report had been viciously rubbished by Taft and several of his sources uncovered and discredited (one, it emerged, had been the veteran American journalist and businessman Tracy Robinson). Bigelow had only been on the Isthmus twenty-eight hours, Taft pointed out, he hadn't left Colón, and the West Indians he saw leaving in “disgust” were simply going home for the Christmas holidays. The committee followed this line with Bigelow, but in other ways they were less sympathetic to the canal leadership. Magoon and Stevens were summoned from Panama to be interrogated. This particularly irked the chief engineer, who despised politicians and suffered terrible seasickness. Shonts was hauled in as well. Why was Colonel Gorgas, the senators asked, receiving $10,000 a year, far in excess of the salary due to his rank? The careful, diplomatic answers of Magoon alone to the barrage of questions stretch to nearly three hundred pages of published minutes.
Although no longer the committee chairman, Alabama senator John Tyler Morgan, now in his eighty-first year, was the driving force behind the questioning. And his main target was not so much the alleged extravagance, but the role of his archenemy, the man who now referred to Panama as “my canal,” William Nelson Cromwell. Determined to find out the truth of the lawyer's role in the Panama “revolution” and the rumored syndicate, Morgan summoned Cromwell before the committee. But Cromwell was saying nothing, refusing to answer questions that might affect the privacy of his ex-client, the New Company. Morgan, incensed, brought a resolution before Congress forcing Cromwell to testify. The measure passed, but Cromwell was out of the country in France at the time. Soon after, Morgan died, and without his leadership the Senate committee stuttered and then dropped the investigation. For now, the question of “Who Got the Money?” remained unanswered. But the story would not go away for long.
For its part, Bigelow's article would cast a long shadow over the next months on the Isthmus, dividing opinion while contributing to an air of uneasiness and crisis. In fact, while the piece contained justifiable criticism, its tone was undoubtedly slanted against the canal project. Although difficult, conditions were simply not as bad as he had made out. A British naval officer, Charles Townley, visited the Isthmus at the end of April 1906, and, considering the press coverage he had seen, was agreeably surprised by what had been achieved. “Many of the prominent American newspapers have sent representatives to Panama to inquire into the true state of affairs there,” he reported to the British Foreign Office. “Some of these men have been imbued with an honest desire to tell the truth, but the majority would seem to have realized that criticism of weak spots is more likely to attract readers and increase the demand for their paper than an impartial setting forth of all that has been accomplished. This carping newspaper attitude is beginning to make an impression on public opinion.”
There was one more serious problem identified by Townley, however. In January 1906 Stevens had complained to Morgan about how his efforts were being held back by the lack of a definite plan for the canal. The “principal elements of uncertainty” in the “project as a whole,” complained of by Wallace over a year earlier, were still painfully unresolved. It was as if, Stevens explained, “I had been told to build a house without being informed whether it was a tollhouse or a capital.” As Townley reported on May 3, 1906, “At the present moment the hesitation of Congress to finally decide upon the type of canal to be constructed is hampering the entire labour organization on the isthmus.” Before Ferdinand de Lesseps had even been to Panama, his 1879 Congress had opted for a sea-level canal, with disastrous consequences. Two years into their canal building effort, it was now time for the Americans, in turn, to make their own “fatal decision.”