For a long while the momentum was with the proponents of an American sea-level canal. In June 1905 Roosevelt had appointed a board of consulting engineers, composed, as in the old French days, of international engineers of undisputed eminence. Of the thirteen members of the board, five were European. The eight Americans included General Davis, erstwhile governor of the Canal Zone (between attacks of malaria), along with old hands from the various U.S. canal bodies, and one engineer who had helped draft the New Company plans of 1898. The most significant of the three newcomers was Joseph Ripley who was then working as chief engineer of the Sault Sainte Marie Canals, better known as the Soo Canals.
The board did not meet until September 1905, when they were entertained by Roosevelt at Oyster Bay. “I hope that ultimately it will prove possible to build a sea-level canal,” the president told the assembled engineering grandees. “Such a canal would undoubtedly be the best in the end if feasible; and I feel,” he added, echoing the late Mark Hanna's arguments during the “Battle of the Routes,” “that one of the chief advantages of the Panama route is that ultimately a sea-level canal will be a possibility.” But at the same time the president demanded a canal “in the shortest possible time.”
In the meantime, the engineering leadership on the canal could only speculate about what would be decided. There were plenty of proposals, however, to fill the official vacuum of ideas. According to Stevens, all sorts of plans were “showered” on him during 1905: “One genius proposed to wash the entire cut into the oceans by forcing water from a plant on Panama Bay; another to erect a big compressed air plant at Culebra to blow all the material through pipes out to sea [both technologies were seen, at the time, as the coming thing] … such schemes provided plenty of amusement to afford relaxation,” Stevens wrote.
There were blasts, as it were, from the past as well. Soon after the Oyster Bay meeting, Roosevelt received a letter from Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who, like Cromwell, had clearly been unable to let go of his Panama baby. The great Frenchman announced to the president that he had “discovered an unknown way through this mysterious labyrinth” that was the finding of the best plan for the canal. It was a repetition of his much-cherished “excavating in the wet” theory, whereby the canal could be operative on a locks basis while being lowered to an open, sea-level channel, the old de Lesseps dream. The sending of the letter coincided with Bunau-Varilla's usual careful attention to publicity.
Getting nothing but polite brush-offs from the president, Bunau-Varilla focused his attention on one of the newcomers among the Board's experts, Isham Randolph, who had been chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, completed in 1900. But Bunau-Varilla's plan came with estimates of cost and time whose optimism rated with the finest moments of the old de Lesseps propaganda sheet, the Bulletin. Bunau-Varilla continued to pester away in his own inimitable style, but on November 7 he received back from Randolph his latest missive with the following note attached: “Mr. Randolph … advises M. P. Buneau Varilla [sic] that he is not seeking professional advice from him: and further that he deprecates the persistent generosity with which that advice is being urged. He returns herewith unread, the treatise which accompanied M. Varilla's note of the 6th inst.”
Aside from distractions, the sea-level plan seems to have made the early running. Wallace, interviewed by the board, was a firm proponent. Taft, too, had pronounced himself in favor of a sea-level canal while on the Isthmus at the end of 1904. Stevens, also, he said, had taken on the job expecting it to mean digging all the way down. On October 4, the board of engineers arrived in Panama. It was unusually pleasant weather for the week they spent there, dry with blue skies.
Three months later, the results of the board's deliberations, an enormous report, was handed in to the Isthmian Canal Commission. The Engineering Record called it “the most important document in the engineering history of the Panama Canal to date.” The experts had failed to agree unanimously, but had voted 8–5 in favor of the sea-level plan. In the majority group were all the Europeans, along with ex-governor Davis and two other Americans.
To comply with the instruction of the Spooner Act that the canal had to accommodate the largest ships then afloat or being planned would need locks of such size, they argued, as to be “beyond the limits of prudent design [and] safe and efficient administration.” Even so, however big the locks, they were bound to become obsolete at some time in the future. A sea-level canal, on the other hand, would be “easily expandable” in the future, and thus would “endure for all time.”
The plan put forward is close to that of the Old French Company of the early 1880s, with a tidal lock at Ancón and a large dam at Gamboa to regulate the flow of the Chagres, along with some nineteen miles of permanent diversion channels to restrict rivers that would otherwise flow into the canal prism. Even with the numerous levees and embankments envisaged, it was accepted that most of the volume of the Chagres would still have to use the canal to get to the sea: “The de Lesseps idea of a still water canal is thus replaced by a regulated river.” To build this canal, it was estimated, would cost $250 million and take twelve to thirteen years.
Virtually every element of this plan was sharply criticized by the proponents of the minority report, submitted to the ICC at the same time. Because of the immense depth of excavation needed at the Continental Divide, even with the steep sides the sea-level plan envisaged, the waterway at the bottom of the great gorge would be only 150 feet wide at its surface. Ships would be unable to pass each other, but would have to moor, as at Suez.
Some eighteen streams or rivers, it was calculated, would pour their waters into this deep and narrow chasm, creating currents of some 2.6 miles an hour as well as eroding banks and depositing silt. Even without the crosscurrents, the “narrow gorge” would be “tortuous.” For nineteen miles, a large ship would have to be continuously changing direction in channel with a width only from one quarter to one-fifth her own length. “Such a waterway,” wrote one of the minority report authors, “is far from meeting the conception of free and unobstructed passage popularly associated with a sea-level canal.” The danger of landslides—with hindsight the unconquerable obstacle to a sea-level plan—was alluded to, but not stressed. The nightmare of slides in the Cut was still largely to come for the Americans.
The minority report, largely the work of Joseph Ripley and distinguished U.S. engineer Alfred Noble (who had helped build the Weitzel Lock on the Soo Canals), was in favor of a lock canal. To satisfy the requirements of the Spooner Act, the locks would be 900 feet long and 95 feet wide, big enough to handle “the largest ships now existing or under construction”—the Mauritania and the ill-fated Lusitania, of the Cunard Line, both over 760 feet long with a beam of 88 feet. In comparison, Eiffel's locks had been under 600 feet long and about 60 feet wide. These new locks might be bigger than anything so far attempted, but they were not, Ripley and Noble argued, “beyond the limits of prudent design.” The example of Ripley's Soo Canal, where a huge volume of traffic between Lake Huron and Lake Superior had been handled without mishap since the 1850s, gave them confidence that such locks could provide “safe and efficient administration.”
The main difference between this lock-canal plan and everything that went before it was not just the scale of the locks, but the location of the “controlling feature” of the scheme, the great dam for the Chagres. This the minority reported shifted from Bohío to Gatún. It had been accepted that neither offered ideal situations for a dam, with their bedrock in places far below sea level. But Gatún had several important advantages, in spite of the fact that the dam there would need to be immense—a mile and a half long and 100 feet high, an unprecedented size. Because Gatún was downstream of Bohío, and rivers tend to deposit large and coarse material upstream and finer and denser material near the river mouth, the alluvial deposits that sat above the bedrock at Gatún would, it was hoped, be less permeable. But more important was the site of the dam. A far bigger expanse of water would be created than by blocking the river at Bohío—a new lake of some 164 square miles was envisaged stretching all the way through the Cut, drowning several villages and settlements as well as much of the existing Panama Railroad. It would be, if completed, bigger than any man-made lake before. And this additional size was the key: not only would the lake provide simple navigation for a large part of the transcontinental route and, because of its size, nullify problems of silting and currents; it would also tame forever the volatile Chagres. Unlike the previously mooted Lake Bohío, Lake Gatún would be wide enough so that the greatest floods would only raise its level a few inches, easily coped with by a spillway, whereby the Chagres would resume its route to the sea at San Lorenzo. At the same time, the proposed lake would provide, even in the dry season, enough water for the huge locks for twenty-six transits a day, or some 30 to 40 million tons of traffic annually. When and if this limit was reached, further control could be imposed on the water supply by the construction of a second dam upriver above Gamboa.
The ICC spent just under a month considering these two different proposals, then, on February 5, they opted to give their backing to the minority lock-canal plan. Stevens's influence seems to have been important. Although initially in favor of a sea-level canal, by October 1905 and the consulting board's trip to Panama, he had declared himself undecided. The following month, having carried out a “personal study of the conditions,” he was urging the ICC not to back the “impractical futility” of a canal à niveau.According to Stevens, he also talked round President Roosevelt, during a trip to Washington in January 1906. So when the matter was handed over to Congress to decide, the pro-sea-level board majority report was accompanied by the ICC's decision for locks, as well as a letter from the president backing up this decision. Taft had also changed his mind since the year before. So there was a letter from him in the package as well, in which he upped the time and money estimate of the majority report considerably, as well as warning of “the difficulties and dangers of navigation” the sea-level plan threatened. “We may well concede that if we could have a sea-level canal with a prism from 300 to 400 feet wide,” he wrote, “with the curves that must now exist reduced, it would be preferable to the plan of the minority. But the time and the cost of constructing such a canal are in effect prohibitory.”
To the frustration of everyone, especially those on the Isthmus, the decision was tied up in committee for several months. Almost anyone ever connected with the canal was wheeled out to give their opinion. Then, on May 17 the committee chose, by the margin of just one vote, to reject the advice of the ICC, Roosevelt, and Taft, and recommed to the Senate that they adopt the sea-level plan.
Drastic action was called for. Stevens was summoned again from Panama, to endure once more the sea-crossing and the machinations of political Washington. He had seen the Chagres in flood that month, and was more convinced than ever that the river would wreck a sea-level canal within a year. He hammered away at the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce about the problem of the Chagres, and put together a compelling speech in favor of the lock canal to be made in the Senate. This was delivered on June 19, by Philander Knox, previously Roosevelt's attorney general and now a senator from Pittsburgh, where, happily for his constituents, the massive steel lock structures would most likely be built.
But it was a good speech, well delivered, and just enough to do the job. Two days later the Senate voted 36 to 31 to back Stevens's judgment and on June 27, the House followed suit. Thus only a handful of votes determined the United States’ choice between a lock canal and a sea-level attempt that, in all likelihood, would have ended in failure.
So at last the decision was made, and the aimed-for canal had a definite shape for the first time. Starting at Limón Bay, a ship would take a short sea-level passage to Gatún, where it would find three tiers of double locks. These would raise the ship to the level of the new lake—85 feet above sea level. The vessel would cross the lake, which continued, like the spout of a funnel, through the Culebra Cut to Pedro Miguel. There, a much smaller dam would be encountered, containing a single tier of locks that would lower the boat to a small, intermediate lake at 55 feet above sea level. This would continue through to the gap between Ancón and Sosa Hills, where another small dam would hold two locks to lower the ship back to sea level and out into the Pacific. As the locks were to be in tandem, simultaneous two-way traffic would be possible. With some modification, this was the plan followed to the very end. Thus in place of de Lesseps's dream of an “Ocean Bosporus,” the Panama Canal would be instead a “bridge of water” between the two oceans. Instead of requiring the moving of the mountain, the waterway would go over it. And with the drowning of much of the French diggings in the Chagres valley under the new lake, millions of cubic yards of excavation, for which so many engineers and workers had suffered and died, were at a cruel stroke rendered irrelevant.
As soon as the decision was announced, the critics swung into action. The majority report of the board of consulting engineers had judged that a dam at Gatún would be a “vast and doubtful experiment.” “It is nothing short of monstrous to jauntily rest this national enterprise upon untried methods vastly beyond the range of experience and past success,” they had argued. Subsequent criticism remained focused on the dam, a “simply preposterous piece of work,” wrote one expert. In 1889 a large dam at Johnstown in Pennsylvania, similar in design to that mooted at Gatún, had collapsed; an entire city had been washed away and over two thousand lives lost. There were no proper foundations at the chosen site, argued a contributor to the North American Review: “To base any scheme on a work like the Gatún Dam, is to build a house on sand.”
Next in the firing line were the plans for the massive locks, the safety of which one engineer, Lindon Bates, called “the greatest engineering conflict of the canal.” The terrible danger was that a ship would ram the Gatún lock gates and thus cause the entire lake to pour out through the breach. “Every vessel in the waiting basin and every building and structure between Gatún and the sea in its path would be swept to utter annihilation,” wrote Bates in late June 1906. “The damage to the canal and locks could not be repaired for years. To refill Lake Gatún would consume nearly a year of itself. The adoption of the lock flight arrangement, which puts so fearful a premium upon an accident, cannot be characterized as other than a most colossal and disastrous mistake.”
Just before the time of Bates's writing, there had been a bad accident on the Manchester Ship Canal when a ship had failed to slow down and broken through a lock. As the Manchester Guardian reported on June 22: “In the Irlam lock the water is sixteen feet below the normal level; the muddy bottom is in many places exposed; and an abominable stench fills the air.” Bates concluded that “accidents are therefore at the Isthmus certain and inevitable,” particularly under tropical conditions where, he wrote, “the vitality of men is reduced, alertness and initiative are at their lowest.”
In fact, on the Isthmus, Stevens and his engineers had shown considerable initiative. Gambling on the lock-canal version being adopted, they had laid plans to start right away. Twenty-four hours after the decision, work began on clearing the site at Gatún and laying rails to bring spoil from Culebra to start the process of building the biggest dam ever seen.
f the metaphorical clouds cleared when the final plan for the canal was at last decided, on the Isthmus the wet season in mid-1906 was all too real. “Heavy rain day and night,” remembered one West Indian. Every worker recalls his clothes permanently soaked. “Hard rains had set in by this time,” wrote Rose van Hardeveld. “Everything smelled of mold and decay. Water fell from the sky in great drenching sheets. The house and everything in it was sticky and wet.” Her husband, working with his friend Jantje in the Cut, seldom had a dry shirt or a pair of dry shoes. Every night, exhausted, he would come home with mud and water squishing in his shoes and his shirt and trousers wringing wet. Rose's iron cookstove and kerosene lamps were little help in getting the clothes dry.
“Never patient, Jan was now decidedly irritable,” remembered Rose. “His thin face grew thinner, his prominent nose larger, it seemed to me. His cheeks were gaunt and hollow. He ate very little, and I felt sure he had malaria … All he thought of night and day was the Canal.” Then, in mid-May 1906, Jantje “came bounding up the steps three at a time one evening, shouting that his wife and baby were coming on the boat tomorrow morning!” The next day, before they had even had a chance to unpack, Jantje, carrying his baby boy on his shoulder, brought the new arrivals to meet Rose, Jan, and the girls. It seems to have given Rose a great lift. “I looked upon her at once as a close friend—closer than I could ever hope to feel to any of the native women,” she wrote of Jantje's “pretty young wife,” Martina. The young couple, as they moved into Las Cascadas House Number Seven, were full of plans for saving their money, and moving to the United States, “so that their boy might grow up in America.” Above all, “they were very happy just to be together.”
All the while, everyday life seemed to be slowly improving for the white workforce, or at least for those who remained healthy. Las Cascadas was expanding as new homes were being erected nearby. There was ice aplenty, and better food was reaching the new commissaries. In late June, Jantje made a trip to Panama City and came back with “something wonderful.” In a wholesale importers he had found them unpacking the first consignment of Edison phonographs to arrive on the Isthmus. He bought two and a half dozen records for each. “We had not realized how starved we were for music and entertainment until we heard the first strains of ‘Silver Threads Among the Gold’ floating from the big tin horn,” remembered Rose. They all sat entranced, playing the records over and over, and then Jantje—or “Teddy” as he was called by his wife (his middle name, fittingly, was Theodore)—took his son Jack in his arms and danced around to the music of “Hungarian Rhapsody.” “Supper, rain, canal, everything was forgotten for the time being,” Rose remembered fondly.
ven after the decision on the canal finally came through, Stevens still had the majority of his workforce assembling and repairing buildings—quarters, clubhouses, hotels, warehouses, schools, churches, or commissaries. In two years, 85 million feet of board was used on new buildings, and by June 1906 over a thousand—nearly half—of the old French quarters were in use.
For John Meehan, who had arrived back in 1904, a turning point had been reached when, in late 1905, a new hotel opened that had different sections for those wearing coats and those not. “The rule,” he wrote, “marked the first definite break in the community of interest that had existed up to this time among construction men, engineers, artisans, and office men.”
In other ways, too, the white community became more stratified as the facilities improved. A policy was adopted by the new head of the Quarters and Labor Department, Jackson Smith, whereby white workers were assigned homes exactly linked to their position in the canal hierarchy—one square foot of floor space for each dollar of monthly salary. This, according to Stevens, “proved a strong incentive to encourage individual ambition. A promotion in rank meant not only a better wage, but more commodious living accommodations, and a certain rise in the social scale. Distinctive social lines were drawn on the Isthmus,” he went on, “as sharply as they are elsewhere.”
Not everyone was happy. It was widely believed that Jackson “Square-foot” Smith, as he became known, tended still to give the best accommodations to his own friends. Mary Chatfield was living in one of the resurrected French dwellings. She complained that the large verandas let the rain in, and, sleeping up near the roof, she would be awakened by the storms, which “sounded as though some one was throwing boulders and trying to tear the boards off of the roof.”
Her fiercest criticism was for the food served by the new ICC hotels. “The meat served is almost always beef, and such beef! It does not taste like anything,” she wrote to her literary ladies in June. “Tho’ the waters abound in fish, there is never any fish served … the vegetables are all canned and very poor quality. The soup always tasteless as hot water.” She concludes that part of the problem must be widespread pilfering. Her letters do, however, give evidence of the increasing amount of organized activity available to the U.S. workforce. For the July 4 celebrations, she reports, there were tug-of-wars, obstacle races, horse and mule races, pole vaulting, and dancing competitions, with first prizes of $25. There were a couple of sour notes, however. The food served “was worse than usual, which was only just possible,” and another incident upset her: “A few colored people tried to watch the games at Cristóbal and were chased off by mounted policemen. A very unpleasant sight.”
Mary Chatfield was also less than impressed with the typical American attitude to the Panamanians, whom many referred to dismissively as “Spiggoties,” from the familiar cry of Panama City peddlers and pimps: “Speak de English?” While working in the Hydrography Department, Chatfield actually had a Panamanian boss, a Mr. Arango, the only local to occupy a senior position in the canal setup. “I was angry at first to find that I had been placed under a Panamanian engineer,” she writes. “But presently discovered him to be a gentleman, and an educated man, which I hear cannot be said of many from the States.”
In the many bars and gambling dens of the terminal cities there was constant tension between locals and Americans, particularly the seemingly ever-present U.S. military personnel. In early June 1906, an incident in Colón's red-light district led to the arrest by Panamanian police of two U.S. Marine Corps officers and a midshipman from a gunboat in the bay. They were subsequently “severely manhandled” by the Panamanians. Magoon blamed both sides. The U.S. citizenry encountered by the Panamanians were largely from the South, he explained in a letter to Taft on June 5, “and [made] no distinction between Panamanians and negroes.” The Latin Americans, for their part, were “liable to these quick and furious exhibitions of uncontrollable rage.”
Aside from cultural or racial friction, there were also political and economic issues that were giving the locals cause for complaint. Panamanians remained wary of American intentions, particularly toward the anarchic terminal cities, seen by Zone authorities as a threat to the increasingly orderly nature of life in the U.S. enclave. Local merchants, who had hoped for a return of the glory days of the de Lesseps era, were furious about the rapid expansion of ICC commissaries and restaurants.
The Americans, for their part, were concerned above all with political stability and the rule of law. The volatile history of the Isthmus had been a powerful argument against Panama being selected as the canal's location. The project's backers, such as Roosevelt and Cromwell, did not need telling how damaging headlines in U.S. newspapers about political violence in Panama would be to the canal effort.
This was all about to get much more difficult. In July there were to be two important elections in the new Republic—for the municipal councils and the National Assembly. Tension between the two opposing parties, the incumbent Conservatives and the opposition Liberals, had been growing for some months. In October 1905, Ma-goon, at the request of Amador, had put marines and Zone police on alert when a Liberal rally in Panama City had threatened to turn violent. The following month, when Taft was on the Isthmus, the Liberals had presented him with a “Memorial.” In it they asked whether during the forthcoming elections U.S. forces would be used to “guarantee public order and constitutional succession in the Republic.” If so, did this include supervising the polling stations and ensuring a fair election?
The role that the United States would play was of vital importance to the opposition. They knew that without American intervention in the polling process, government leaders, who controlled all the electoral machinery, would not allow themselves to lose a national vote, however small their real popular support. This was, of course, long established: the way real political change came to Panama was through intrigue or revolution, rarely the ballot box. So if the poll was going to go ahead without U.S. supervision, wondered the Liberals, and thus deliver an inevitable Conservative victory, how would the United States react if they took the traditional step and tried to gain power through a coup?
The response from Elihu Root, now U.S. secretary of state, communicated to Magoon at the beginning of December, was a careful exercise in tact. The United States earnestly wished for “fair, free and honest” elections, he said, but would not take direct control of the voting process. Root knew how that would look to other already fearful Latin American countries and he had his hands full dealing with problems in Cuba. The United States, said Root, would exercise its rights to maintain order in the terminal cities and the Zone, or “in that territory [in] which [disorder] can be prevented by the exercise of its treaty rights, and will not go beyond those treaty rights.”
The Liberals pronounced themselves satisfied, but interpreting Root's response to mean that U.S. troops would not intervene in Panama's rural areas (in fact, treaty rights and the Constitution permitted intervention anywhere), they started preparing for an armed uprising in the countryside, their traditional stronghold.
Two days after the receipt of the Root reply, Amador reported to Magoon that armed bands were assembling in the interior, with red ribbons around their hats, the traditional symbol of revolution, warning that without U.S. intervention he would be forced to re-form the army, something neither man wanted. Magoon reported to Washington that “party feeling is very bitter, and serious disorder during the elections in June and July should constitute no cause for surprise.” The Conservatives were accused by their domestic enemies of being traitors and sellouts. The official Liberal newspaper the Diario de Panama described the choice for the voters as between electing the Liberal Party or seeing Panama being annexed by the United States. In reply, a senior Conservative declared that he would sooner see the nation under U.S. control than have it fall into the hands of the “niggers.”
On the urging of Magoon, at the end of April came the clarification of Root's reply: the United States would move to “suppress any insurrection in any part of the Republic.” The uprising was dead in the water, and the continuance of the rule of Amador and the Conservatives was assured. As Mallet explained to his superiors in London, because it was “customary” for government candidates to win elections, the defeat of the opposition was a safe prediction. At the same time he passed on a report from the Star and Herald that “explicit directions have been given to the police to prevent by every means in their power the success of the Liberals, who, in a fair election, would overthrow the Amador government by one hundred to one.”
Thus by refusing to supervise the elections and at the same time banning revolution from the Isthmus, the United States’ actions were decisive in maintaining in power an unrepresentative, undemocratic government. Mallet put this down to American dislike for the Liberals’ racially mixed constituency. Certainly, for now, the United States felt more at ease with the Conservative faction. Taft had reported to Roosevelt after his trip to the Isthmus that the Liberals were much less trustworthy and that if they came to power they would bring an injection of unwanted “Negro influence” into Panamanian politics.
Amador's party, as predicted, won both elections with ease, but not before requesting, and receiving, a cache of arms from the Americans, as well as the deployment of three hundred marines just outside Panama City. During the municipal voting on June 24 there was sporadic violence leading to four dead and over twenty injured. Widespread fraud was evident: thousands of Liberals arrived to vote only to find that their names had disappeared from the list. William Sands, the U.S. chargé d'affaires, reported, “The police [who owed their jobs to the ruling government] voted the first time in uniform and the second time in civilian clothing, returning again to the polls with their rifles ‘to preserve order.’” There was a week until the National Assembly elections, during which Magoon hauled the party leaders before him and appealed for calm. With the Marine presence and U.S. gunboats in the harbors at both ends of the line, the election went off peacefully with the result never in doubt. Therefore, as in the defeat of the Huertas coup plot, Amador was in power thanks to American support, and the United States found itself by the end of 1906, as much through events as by design, in almost complete control of Panamanian affairs.
s the painstaking work to prepare the “canal-digging machine” continued, the leadership of the project sought to take control in other ways as well, to create the best, the most efficient environment for the enormous task undertaken. Stevens's argument with West Indian workers was not just that they were slow and incompetent but also that they were part of a “prevailing clannishness” that needed to be broken up. In fact, the black workers—usually lumped together as “Jamaicans”—were far from being the homogeneous body that Stevens feared, consisting instead of a great variety of nationalities and cultures. And even among the British West Indians, as opposed to those from French-, Dutch-, or Spanish-speaking areas, there was little fellow feeling among the nationals from the various islands; instead there was competitiveness and distrust. One of the complaints of the “Jamaican Carpenter” about the ICC barracks was the mixing they had to put up with: “There is no sense in putting so many different races together—Jamaicans and Bims [Barbadians] and Martiniques in the same room. It is not right.”
But to the American leadership they were all just a collective black mass, and one, furthermore, that felt itself indispensable to the canal effort. According to Stevens, “some sort of hazy idea had gotten into their heads” that they “controlled the labor market.” To put them in their place (as well as to find better-working men), Stevens decided to carry through his idea, mooted at the end of 1905, to bring in “laborers of other races and different characteristics.” In February 1906, nearly three hundred Galicians and other Spaniards were shipped to Panama from Cuba, where they had been working on railway construction. Thus they brought the track-laying skills that were vital for Stevens's transport revolution on the Isthmus. The chief engineer monitored the new men carefully, deciding that “one of them will do and is doing, as much work as three of our West Indian negro laborers.” So, although Karner was to keep his work going in Barbados as well as in other islands, in mid-1906 the ICC set up recruiting agencies in Madrid and Rome and started importing European laborers. Spaniards were the first preference, but Stevens had decided that he wanted at least “three separate nationalities of laborers … so that none of them will get the idea that they are the sole source of supply on earth.”
Over the next two years, some 12,000 Europeans were brought in on ICC contracts: 8,200 from Spain, 2,000 from Italy (largely from impoverished Sicily and Sardinia), and 1,100 from Greece, where another agency was set up in 1907. Typically, the men were contracted for three-year tours. Unlike the West Indians, the Europeans were expected to pay their own passage. The fare—a whopping $45—was deducted from their pay and there was no guaranteed repatriation. However, they were offered twenty cents an hour, as opposed to the ten-cent rate of the Karner contract. The reasoning went that it was worth paying twice as much for workers who were three times more productive.
For some in Madrid it was an illustration of how far the nation's fortunes had fallen that Spanish men were to return as lowly workers to a country once the crossroads of their great empire. The indignity was almost too much to bear: “If America needed common laborers, let her seek [them] among her own people,” wrote one national newspaper. “The American is too proud to work with his hands! He must work with his head, and Spain must be her hands! Spain refuses to be the hands of an American head!”
Nonetheless, there were plenty of takers for the chance of leaving Spain behind. The country had seen some of the worst anarchist violence in Europe, and with industry and agriculture depressed, there were widespread unemployment and hardship, made worse by a string of influenza epidemics. There had been large-scale recent emigration from Spain to Cuba and elsewhere, and now, the stories went, the best money to be made was in Panama. Antonio Sanchez was different from the typical emigrant in that at thirty-five he was older than most, and had once been reasonably well off. He still owned a fruit and olive farm at Valero de la Sierra, in the province of Salamanca, but prices had fallen too low to make the business viable. When disease and famine carried away his wife and two daughters, Sanchez decided to leave his surviving nine-year-old son behind with grandparents and take his chances in Panama, where, he had heard, “everything was gold and all things were as sweet as honey.” “Everybody in his area was so scared of disease,” Sanchez's stepson explained. “His farm was worthless; he just had to try his luck somewhere else. He had to leave.” With about a dozen friends from Salamanca, Sanchez sailed from the port of Vigo; he would never return to Spain nor see his son again.
Sanchez's first impression of Panama was that he had exchanged one site of “peste” for another. “It was not a livable place,” he explained to his stepson years later. But the Americans, determined to avoid the problems they had suffered with the West Indians, had pulled out all the stops for the new arrivals. Relatively comfortable barracks had been built of similar size to the West Indians’ but housing only twenty-five people each, rather than seventy-two. Castilian Spanish were carefully kept separate from Galicians as, Sanchez explained, “they hated each other.” Special kitchens were constructed for them. Unlike the West Indians, the Europeans got chairs and tables. Most important, every effort had been made to provide familiar food such as potatoes and spicy Spanish sausage. They were even given wine at lunch in the European manner.
For now, all this looked justified, as the Americans assessed their new workers. “Not only are they more than twice as efficient as the negroes, but they cope better with the climate,” gushed the 1906 ICC annual report. “The Spaniard is certainly the more intelligent and better worker,” wrote a visiting journalist. Furthermore, the influx seemed to have fulfilled its other purpose as well: “It did exactly what was expected in changing the self-confidence of the negroes,” Stevens later wrote. “From an amusing but embarrassing attitude of self-complacency, they soon exhibited the aspect of men who were afraid of losing their jobs, and their value increased accordingly.”
According to Antonio Sanchez there was mutual respect and affection between the Americans and the Europeans during the construction period. Relations with the blacks, however, were strained from the outset. “The Europeans hated them,” Sanchez remembered. It was partly the language problem: “Every time one of them said something the other would take it as an insult, and vice versa. There were a lot of fights. With fists, shovels …” Stevens's plan to divide and rule the workforce seems to have succeeded.
n May 1906, an American journalist, told of the decision to recruit Europeans based on the success of the first shipment from Cuba in early February, went to investigate these paragons of efficiency himself. Assigned to track work in the Cut, the Spaniards had been quartered nearby in unscreened barracks close to marshland. “Toward the end of the first fortnight, they began to fall ill,” the journalist discovered. After four weeks, 165 of the 270 had been hospitalized, over 60 percent, “practically all with malaria.”
During the headline-grabbing yellow fever epidemic of May to August 1905, 48 people had died of the disease. But during the same period twice as many had died of malaria, 49 from pneumonia, 57 from chronic diarrhea, and 46 from dysentery. The mortality rate for the year, not including accidents, was 24.3 per thousand. In 1906, this number would jump to 39.29, the highest level of the U.S. construction era. This is nothing like the 70-per-thousand rate suffered by the French during their annus horribilis of 1885, but it is still higher than anything under the New Company in the 1890s.
The dry start to the year gave no indication of what was to come. But with the onset of the rains in mid-May, and the transformation once again of the Isthmus into, as Mary Chatfield wrote to a friend, “driving rain and muddy, muddy, much muddy, mud,” both malaria and pneumonia struck hard. In June, of the three hundred marines deployed near Panama City for the Panamanian election, more than half came down with malaria. By the end of the month, Ancón hospital was admitting seventy-five people a day with the disease. “This rainy season has been a heavy trial on the canal builders, the railroad and the sanitarians,” read a dispatch from Panama to the New York Daily Herald. “There has been a riot of malaria, all departments being hampered by having so many men in the hospital.” In July, the black workers suddenly started dying from pneumonia at a rate of eighty a month. By November, there had been nearly four hundred fatalities from the disease, along with two hundred from malaria.
But the number of deaths from malaria does not tell the whole story. Although debilitating, the disease was rarely fatal, at least on its first attack, but in 1906 the cases that came to the attention of the medical system numbered nearly twenty-two thousand. Joseph Le Prince estimated that an astonishing 80 percent of the overall workforce was hospitalized at some point during the one year for malaria alone. The fallout rate of the Spanish pioneers from Cuba was not so bad after all.
This sort of rate of attrition meant that life in the field, out on the mosquito-ridden works, was a desperate, bewildering struggle. “You turn up to work in the morning with a gang about 125 men and by Eleven clock you will find about 40 men all the others fall down with malaria,” remembered West Indian Rufus Forde. “They spin all around like a top before they fall and that get you so frighten that at some times you don't come back after dinner.” Benjamin Jordan, the Barbadian who had lied about his age to get selected for an ICC contract, contracted malaria within weeks of arriving on the Isthmus. “I can't describe them,” he says of the mosquitoes. “I hear ‘woo’ and they are into you.” Malaria, he says, “took me at night… in the morning when I woke I couldn't get out of bed. But I did manage it, I got out, and my neighbour advised me to go to hospital. When I was discharged was deaf as bat… Malaria and the mosquito brother were top.”
A number of the West Indian accounts are full of praise for the hospital care they received once they had, almost inevitably, come down with one of the prevalent diseases. Jamaican James Williams, in his early teens, worked in a kitchen at San Pablo, on the banks of the Chagres River, “where mosquitoes were frequent, especially at nights. Consequently I began to get fever.” The following day a doctor was visiting and someone told him that Williams was ill. “The doctor immediately advanced to me and felt my pulse. I could remember he said to me ‘You are going to be sick, boy, go up to the hospital right a way.’ He further asked me, ‘Are you a God fearing man?’ I replied, ‘Yes,’” recalled Williams. “He said to me ‘You are going to die.’”
Williams was put on a train to Ancón hospital, where, fearing malaria, he was given two-hourly doses of quinine and an ice bed bath. He had never been in the hospital before, and it was a “fretting” and alarming experience. The next day, parched with thirst, he drank a bowl of water left out near his bed. This turned out to be poison to kill flies and mosquitoes and brought on severe vomiting in young Williams. That night his blood was tested and he was shortly afterward moved to the typhoid fever ward, where he made a slow but steady recovery. He remembered the staff who cared for him with great affection: “I can truthfully say those American nurses—my own dear mother could not be more kind and tender to me.” After a couple of weeks, Williams was eating again and being given “eggnog twice a day also real American Whiskey every day.”
But other accounts tell, as in the bad old French days, of men released from the hospital before fully well or able to return to work— and thus qualify for further free hospital care. Other men were sacked when they started to look ill. Saint Lucian Charles Thomas worked at the iron foundry at La Boca: “I was fired after two days,” he said. “I remember the foreman call to me & said to me you are fired, you are looking tired. I was not exactly tired but I was feeling quite sick & just trying to make a week so I could get a commissary book for $2.50 to get something to eat and drink.” As the West Indians, unlike the white Americans, had no paid sick leave, some, unwilling or unable to forfeit their wages, would work on to the point of dropping. One account, redolent of the worst horror stories of the railroad or French era, explains how men suffering the dysentery which often hit those weakened by malaria would sometimes just disappear, never to make it to the hospital (or onto the official casualty figures). Said Barbadian Clifford Hunt: “Men in my gang, tell the Boss I am going out to ease my bowels and they die in the bush and nobody look for you.”
Pneumonia may have been the biggest single killer in 1906, but malaria, it was judged, offered the greatest threat to the success and efficiency of the project. Pneumonia was almost unknown among the white workforce, and dead black workers were easily replaced, such was the glut of labor in the islands. Malaria, on the other hand, also affected the whites, and, because rarely fatal, usually resulted in expensive hospital treatment for the black worker. Virtually nothing would be done to counter pneumonia, while the campaign against malaria was on an undreamt-of scale, far surpassing even that against yellow fever.
he question of controlling malaria appeared at first sight to be utterly hopeless,” wrote Joseph Le Prince. Part of the reason that malaria was a greater challenge than yellow fever was in the different nature of the two diseases. Those unlucky enough to contract yellow fever either survived and were free of the virus and immune forever or were dead. Either way, they were no longer a source for the infection. If someone caught malaria, on the other hand, they were far more likely to live, but the disease seldom went away for good. Usually the patient would remain both a recurrent sufferer and, for about three years, an ongoing source for the continued propagation of the bacterial parasite. Gorgas's very earliest tests in 1904 had shown that some 70 percent of Panamanians carried the infection in some form. So the approach of keeping the mosquito away from the disease, successfully followed in the yellow fever campaign, was a nonstarter.
The only point of attack had to be the Anopheles mosquito itself. To an extent, the species was the same everywhere, and as such, it was accepted, was going to be a much more formidable enemy than its yellow fever–carrying cousin, the fastidious, house-dwelling Aëdes aegypti. The Anopheles was, in contrast, omnipresent in the deepest bush as well as the backyard. For Gorgas eradicating the A¨des aegypti was “making war on the family cat,” while a campaign against the malaria-carrying Anopheles was “like fighting all the beasts of the jungle.”
July 1904 had seen Joseph Le Prince, one day off the boat from New York, poking about in hoofprints below Ancón Hill looking for Anopheles larvae, and thereafter, although the yellow fever mosquito enemy had first priority, investigations continued into the “Isthmian Anopheles.” The researchers started by determining the local species most responsible for malaria transmission. Thousands of mosquitoes were captured and analyzed, and their behavior studied. Tests included getting human volunteers to sit in a mosquito-filled net. As Le Prince explained, “Very patient negroes were necessary… Conditions soon became unbearable even to those persons who were accustomed to be bitten frequently.”
By the end of the first year, it had been established that the insect most responsible for malaria on the Isthmus was the “white-footed” Anopheles albimanus. Unfortunately this was not only the most abundant, but also the species most determined to enter inhabited buildings. One of its tricks was to cling to dark clothing and thus gain entry to houses even if they were screened.
Thousands of eggs were collected, hatched, and observed at every stage. Adult specimens were dyed using an atomizer so that tests could be conducted on their flying distances and habits. When it was established that the mosquito could not fly far without alighting on some sort of vegetation, work started on clearing 200-yard-wide areas around where people lived and worked. Tests showed that Anopheles preferred to rest on a dark surface on the leeward side of buildings, so black bands 2 feet wide were painted on sheltered walls at a convenient height for mosquito catchers to collect them. When it was noticed that certain species of spiders and lizards started congregating there to feed, these were bred in great numbers and released to wage war on the enemy.
Analysis of the larval stage showed that, disappointingly, it was far hardier than that of Aêdes aegypti, able to survive in water only a fraction of an inch deep, or even in mud once the puddle had dried. It had no particular preference for clean or dirty water and would still be alive after up to two hours under a film of oil. Nevertheless, the larval stage was still the mosquito's most vulnerable time, so the challenge was to deal with the breeding grounds.
It was a massive, almost hopeless, task. During the wet season, when at Culebra, for example, it averaged twenty-four rainy days a month, there was simply water everywhere. But even during the short dry season, there were swamps, springs, or seepage outcrops near every settlement in the Zone. Fast-growing vegetation clogged streams, protecting the larva from its natural predators and providing still pools for egg laying. The ongoing engineering work made it difficult, too. Badly placed spoil dumps blocked natural drainage, and excavations constantly filled with water. Every time a railroad tie was moved, it left an indent in the ground that could collect water and therefore mosquito larvae.
Thus Gorgas was never going to defeat malaria in the way he had yellow fever. But he believed he could control it by reducing the Anopheles population of the Zone. Swamps were drained using hundreds of miles of ditches, or filled with spoil from the works. Elsewhere, further natural predators were encouraged or introduced, including a top-feeding minnow from Barbados. According to Le Prince, “larvae of dragon flies and water beetles were of great value.” But above all, vast quantities of poison and oil were deployed across the Isthmus. A special plant was built at Ancón to manufacture a larvicide consisting of carbolic acid, resin, and caustic soda. Some two hundred barrels were applied monthly around the edges of pools and streams. Vegetation that clogged up running water was cleared by burning or with phenol or copper sulphate. To smother the “wrigglers,” crude oil, mixed with kerosene to increase its spreading qualities, was sprayed everywhere. At its peak in early 1907, the campaign was getting through sixty-five thousand gallons of crude in a month. Unsurprisingly, visitors to the Isthmus started commenting on the pervasive smell of petroleum.
esults would come, but for the men in the field, particularly those near the jungle, work at the end of 1906 meant swarms of mosquitoes. Some took to rubbing exposed parts of their bodies with a mixture of kerosene and coconut oil, but they still got bitten and they still got malaria. The only treatment was quinine, either in a pill—”the size of a quarter and twice as thick”—or as a sickeningly bitter liquid. Mallet reckoned that quinine was “the cause of many break downs in the constitution, it ruins the stomach and digestive organs.” John Prescod, who arrived from Barbados in June 1906, described another nasty side effect: “Malaria fever have me so bad I has to drink plenty of quine tonic tell I heard singing in my ears murder murder going to quits drinking quine was getting me deaf.”
“The prevailing illness is malaria,” wrote Mary Chatfield in a letter home dated June 30, 1906. “Many and many are the corpses I see carried past the office … the majority of the victims of malaria are the negro laborers.” “I went to the Cristóbal dispensary this morning to get some tonic,” she wrote a month later. “It was a pitiful sight to see the sick coloured laborers. Many of them were so weak they could not sit up while their medicine was being prepared, but lay on the benches and the floor.”
Albert Peters, who reached the Isthmus in August that year, “eager for some adventure and experience,” caught malaria within a week. He survived, but there was a daily reminder of those who did not. “Every evening around 4:30,” he wrote, “one could see No. 5 engine with a box car and the rough brown coffins stacked one upon the other bound for Mt. Hope [cemetery] which was called Monkey Hill in those days. The death rate was high … If you had a friend that you always see and missed him for a week or two, don't wonder, he's either in the hospital or at Monkey Hill resting in peace.”
“That's the reason we all used to go to Church more regular than today,” said Barbadian Amos Parks, “because in those days, you see today and tomorrow you are a dead man. You had to pray everyday for God to carry you safe, and bring you back.”
Rose van Hardeveld had from the outset found “the horrible and unfamiliar noise at night” in Panama more nerve-racking than any other “trials and tribulations.” As well as the strange, unearthly sounds made by alligators, bats, night birds, or insects, “the very worst of all was the wailing for the dead that came from the labor camp below us.” “When one of their number died,” she continued, “the friends and kindred of the deceased would gather in the room where the corpse lay. All night long they would drink rum and wail and sing Old English Gospel hymns in the flattest, most unmusical way imaginable … These tones would sway and swing in the air like the dance of witches.” It would leave her sleepless and “utterly unnerved and filled with a vague, mounting dread.”
By July 1906, as malaria and pneumonia hit hard, “The wailing and singing at the labor camp went on so often that there was hardly a night when the camp was silent… Slowly but surely my natural fortitude was giving way, and I was becoming a nervous, fearful woman. I believe it was the consciousness of what would happen to the children that kept me from going to pieces.”
But then their youngest daughter, Sister, fell seriously ill with a combination of malaria and dysentery. She became, Rose wrote, “a limp, feverish little bundle, crying night and day.” She was told to give her quinine, but the young girl could not keep it down. “All the time I was becoming lower in spirits and less able to cope,” Rose remembered. “The thought of putting my baby in a strange hospital was the last straw. That night I gave way to old-fashioned screaming hysterics, outside beside the roaring cataract. Poor little Janey clung to me, her frightened eyes searching mine for the cause of such carryings on! After that when I sat through the long nights, comforting my whimpering child in my arms, the howling and moaning from the labor camp no longer grated so shatteringly on my nerves. I knew what it was to seek relief in wailing. Though for me, such yielding to hysterics was a matter for private shame, never to be regarded as an accepted social custom, I could concede to the black people whatever gratification they might find that way.”
Sister recovered and Rose found that she could now sleep through the nightly din from the labor camp. Martina Milliery's improved English meant that she was a real support and help for her friend. Rose's spirits were also lifted when she started helping out her husband by writing out Sunday passes for his team of Spanish workers. “With this little job to do for my husband, for the Canal Commission, for President Teddy Roosevelt, and for my country, I was in my glory,” she wrote. “I sometime had difficulty writing those strange Spanish names, but still I liked doing it for these black-eyed and very deferential men.”
ost of the new Spanish arrivals, like van Hardeveld and Jantje Milliery's gang, had been put to work on track construction and repair. The basic work on the Panama Railroad main line had been slow going. It was not entirely double-tracked until well into 1907, but a maze of sidings, branch, and service lines had been constructed—some 350 miles by June 1906. Most of this track, however, was in the Cut. Here, readying completion by late that year, in spite of all the prevailing sickness, was Stevens's great digging machine, perhaps his era's most important contribution to the American canal.
The lock-canal plan adopted that summer would still require, it was originally (underestimated, the digging out and removal of more than 50 million cubic yards of rock and soil. For this to be achieved as quickly and cheaply as possible would require, first, the greatest possible number of steam shovels in operation in the space available. Therefore the excavation was planned to proceed along a series of horizontal benches, or terraces across the valley in the making, each wide enough to carry two parallel rail tracks. Thus, in places, up to seven shovels could work on the same hillside almost stacked on top of each other up the terraced slope. Next, it was crucial that the shovels be working at maximum efficiency. Under normal conditions, tests had shown, it took about a minute and a half (seven bucket loads) for a shovel to fill a single spoil car; about forty-five minutes for an entire train. In the case of the smaller French trains and cars, it was much less. Thus, Stevens calculated, if it were never to be idle, each shovel required the service of a virtual conveyor belt of three to five entire spoil trains so that there would be at least one in attendance at all times. To run this sort of traffic in the narrow confines of the Cut required an enormous and highly intricate track system the likes of which probably no one else in the United States had the expertise to design and build.
But Stevens went further. To put it simply, by starting the work at the two ends of the nine-mile Cut and working inward toward its highest point, the site could, in the main, be organized so that there was a small but significant upward gradient on the terraces. This meant that empty spoil trains would be climbing up to their shovels, but then, when fully loaded, had a downhill journey to the dump sites. The scheme had the added advantage that water in the ditch, a constant annoyance for the French, naturally flowed away to both ends where it was easily disposed of with giant pumps. If Stevens's track system was fantastically skillful and intricate, like the assembly line in one of the new mechanized U.S. factories, the use of the gradient— whereby nature was made a helper rather than an enemy—was engineering at its simplest and most brilliant.
A surprising number of the “moving” parts of this system were still from the French era. At the end of 1906, over half the locomotives in the Cut were old Belgian machines, able, in dry weather, to pull about thirteen small 9-cubic-yard cars. But as fast as the new American models arrived, they replaced the old plant. The U.S. locomotives could haul four or five times the volume of dirt. In the same way, the new American spoil cars were also on a different scale, of a different age, immensely strong and able to hold at least three times more weight than the old French models. On one occasion a single rock weighing some thirty-four tons was loaded onto a single one of these new cars without mishap.
There was another important innovation: instead of individual cars self-tipping when wet soil or clay stuck and had to be removed by shovel, the American cars were one-sided only and linked together with panels, making a single long surface, like a giant conveyor belt. This not only meant a greater area was available, but also brought into play at the dump sites an ingenious invention. At the end of each of the new trains was a wagon holding what looked like a giant, onesided snowplow, linked to the locomotive at the other end by a thick chain. When the spoil arrived at the dumping site—whether it be a marsh fill, a dam, or a causeway—the open side of the cars faced where the soil was required, and the plow, its blade at an angle of about forty-five degrees, was pulled from one end of the “belt” to the other, scraping the mud and rocks over the side. The empty spoil car departed, followed along the dumping site track by another specially adapted locomotive with armlike blades at ground level. These flattened the soil, making room for the next load. When a new and firm terrace had been thus created, the rails were simply moved across to the edge and the process repeated. The contrast with the French period, when much of the spoil had to be unloaded by hand, is sharp. The saving in man-hours was immense.
The most labor-intensive aspect of the process was now moving track, either at the dump sites or in the Cut, where teams would have to update the intricate system as the site constantly changed shape and dimensions. Then, at the end of 1906, the general manager of the Panama Railroad, W G. Bierd, came up with an ingenious invention, a swinging boom mounted on a flatcar that lifted extant track and moved it nearby without the need for disassembly. It was a slow process, but not nearly as slow as doing it by hand. Like the other innovations, it was just the sort of miracle machine that de Lesseps had hoped in vain would come to the rescue of his own canal effort.
As well as heavier, stronger, and cleverer machinery, the railroadera American canal builders had more useful experience than their French forebears. The railway boom in the United States had provided an invaluable training ground for hundreds of American engineers, whose expertise was far in excess of anything available to the de Lesseps effort. It was not just Stevens and Bierd, but a host of switchmen, signalmen, locomotive drivers and mechanics, electrical engineers, and railroad foremen. If transportation, the railway, was the key to building the canal, as Stevens had decided, then he had a depth of talent to call on.
The Americans also had the luxury of time. Stevens may have had a tightfisted Congress and, in parts, suspicious domestic press to contend with, but that was nothing compared to the pressure on a private company watching the bourse every day and with its life in the hands of volatile “confidence” and the “folly and gullibility of Capital.” It helped that Stevens was not easily thrown by advice or instructions from above. But, crucially, largely freed of direct money-raising concerns, he had the freedom to do what was right for the engineering of the canal rather than for its public relations. So instead of having to feed the Bulletin monthly excavation figures, he was able to concentrate on the painstaking, unglamorous preparatory work, without which the canal project would not have succeeded.
The long delay between the stopping of “making the dirt fly” in August 1905 and the resumption of excavation in earnest at the beginning of 1907 turned out to be time very well spent. In spite of the terrible rates of sickness among the workforce, the digging machine was now ready, and excavation records were about to be shattered.
he massively increased traffic on the railroad, serving not just the engineering part of the project but the houses, shops, and restaurants of the employees as well, did have its downside. There were virtually no roads on the Isthmus, and often the only way to get somewhere was to walk along the tracks. As the line got busier, it became more dangerous, and railroad accidents started becoming an almost daily fact of life. Often, amid the shouts, blasts, and din of the works, and partially deafened by the side effects of quinine, men simply did not hear the danger in time. In mid-August, after she had spent “a very pleasant day in Gorgona,” the train carrying Mary Chatfield back to Panama City “ran over a colored man, cutting off one leg far above his knee, and I think, killing him—I hope so—he was so mutilated. A fearful sight,” she wrote home. “The school teacher at Cristóbal and a nurse from Ancón were in the car with me. The nurse went right out to see what she could do, but I sat still and shuddered.”
Although West Indians were most at risk, especially soon after they arrived, due to their lack of familiarity with locomotives and track, the danger affected everyone, particularly in the Cut, where a bewildering network of tracks, in constant use, now covered almost every flat surface. On September 17, Jantje “Teddy” Milliery had lunch at home as usual, before returning to his work site just below their House Number Seven. He stepped over the first two tracks across his route, but then, just as he reached a third track, he turned to wave to his wife and baby son watching him from the doorway of their house. At that moment he was hit by ICC Locomotive No. 215, an empty spoil train that was reversing without the customary lookout in place on the end car. According to his official file, his “pelvis and both lower extremities [were] completely crushed.” “I saw the accident and reached Jantje before he died,” Jan would tell Rose. “I tried to tell him we would look after his wife and baby. I hope he understood me. He had such an awful time dying …”
During the weeks that followed, Rose spent her days with Martina, “helping her in any way I could to bear up under her grief and start planning her life anew.” But her nights she spent “pacing the floors of our little house atop the hill, wringing my hands and trying desperately, futilely, to unknot my nerves.” Martina was now no longer entitled to live in House Number Seven, and had to earn a living. For a couple of weeks she tried setting up a laundry, but then decided to return to Holland. “I went with her to the Dutch Consul in Panama,” wrote Rose, “to arrange for passport and passage. After a last sad pilgrimage to the damp grave of her husband, she went back across the ocean, a mournful figure in black.”*
With Martina no longer relying on her, Rose began to break down again. She talked with Jan about quitting Panama. He had been badly shaken, too, but responded by “hurling his energies with renewed determination into the job at hand.” Rose, however, found herself, she wrote, “drifting closer and closer to the yawning chasm of panic into which I had fallen once before, during the height of Sister's bout with the fever. And finally, much to my own disgust, I was put to bed with another spell of hysteria. The children haunted the bedside like frightened little shadows. I realized that I must pull myself together.”
Then there was a much-needed and very welcome boost: “news came to us of the expected arrival, soon, of a visitor who—-Jan triumphantly told us—had the welfare of all of us at heart: Theodore Roosevelt.” It appeared that the man for whom “anything was possible” was coming to see his canal.
*Martina Milliery, née Korver, remarried and had another child in about 1912. This son emigrated to South Africa in 1930 but the rest of the family moved to Dutch-controlled Indonesia. During the Second World War they were interned by the Japanese. Jantje's son Jack died in the camp in 1945, shortly after his stepfather. Martina survived, but was blind from malnutrition. She returned to Holland and died in 1958, impoverished, in a home for the blind.