Roosevelt's visit to the Isthmus can only really be compared with the two much-celebrated visits of “the Presiding Genius of the Nineteenth Century,” Ferdinand de Lesseps. The authorities in Panama had heard about the impending presidential descent back in July, and from that moment on thousands of workers had beavered away preparing the Isthmus for Roosevelt's November inspection. According to Mallet, Panama had never before been so thoroughly scrubbed, swept, and cleaned. A wing of the new hotel, the Tivoli, was rapidly completed to house the honored guest, and a new railway station built nearby. An elaborate schedule was prepared, replete with ceremonies, speeches, and dinners.
Roosevelt sailed on November 9 on board the 16,000-ton Louisiana, the largest battleship of the now rapidly growing U.S. fleet, with two cruisers in attendance. It was an unprecedented moment. Never before had a serving U.S. president left the country. Of course, there were some on the Isthmus who were cynical about the “momentous visit.” Mary Chatfield had written home in September: “There is much talk about the anticipated visit of the president. All agree that if he wants to find out how things are he will have to come in disguise.”
To be fair to Roosevelt, from the moment of his arrival he went to great pains to throw the canal leadership on the Isthmus off balance, to dig beneath the prepared façade. Frank Maltby wrote that Roosevelt “seemed obsessed with the idea that someone was trying to hide something from him.” For his landing on November 15, schoolchildren had been lined up to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a cannon procured for an official salute. But the president arrived onshore an hour early, much to the consternation of the official greeting party, which included the president of Panama, who were still at breakfast in the Washington Hotel.
On the first of his three days in Panama, Roosevelt excused himself after lunch at the new Tivoli Hotel, saying he was retiring to his room. “Instead,” writes Maltby, “he bolted out the back door, rushed up the hill to Ancón Hospital and into the wards, where he began talking to the patients as to their treatment and care.” Thereafter, Roosevelt continually evaded his official schedule to drop in on mess-rooms and kitchens, to interview passing workers, or to ferret around in ICC barracks and lodgings. Canal officials were thrown into confusion. Mary Chatfield reports that “when the president was at Cristóbal they were in a panic at the Cristóbal Hotel, hurrying off the filthy table clothes and replacing them with clean ones, fearful he might come bounding in.”
Roosevelt, in contrast to de Lesseps, deliberately came to Panama at the height of the rainy season. He wanted to see conditions at their worst. And it rained. On the second day of his visit, three inches fell in two hours, a new record even for Panama. Roosevelt took it all in his stride, rushing about or posing in a downpour sitting at the controls of one of the huge Bucyrus steam shovels, all the time making what a Washington Post headline called “A Strenuous Exhibition on the Isthmus.” “He was intensely energetic,” remembered Frank Maltby. “He seemed to be able to carry on a conversation with me and dictate a cablegram to his secretary at the same time. He reveled in the publicity and commotion his visit created. He would make a speech at the slightest opportunity and without any preliminaries.” Everywhere he went, addressing the white workers as “the pick of American manhood,” he urged them to “play their part like men among men.”
After two days, Stevens was exhausted. “I have blisters on both my feet and am worn out,” he told Maltby. “Shonts is knocked out completely.” On the last day, Maltby showed the president the site of the controversial Gatún dam. To get a better overall view it was suggested they climb a nearby hill. “We, together with three or four Secret Service men, charged up the hill as if we were taking a fort by storm,” Maltby reports.
On the evening of his departure, a mass reception for President Roosevelt was held in the great building that covered the largest wharf of the Commission at Cristóbal. Virtually the entire American canal force was present, crowding the immense structure, which was decorated with flags and lanterns. Roosevelt then made an impromptu speech, which captures the martial heroism of his vision of the great enterprise: “Whoever you are, if you are doing your duty, the balance of the country is placed under obligation to you, just as it is to a soldier in a great war,” he proclaimed. “As I have looked at you and seen you work, seen what you have done and are doing, I have felt just exactly as I would feel to see the big men of our country carrying on a great war.”
The visit went down well with the press at home, even among those papers that were most critical of the canal, and provided a significant morale boost on the Isthmus. Rose van Hardeveld remembers the effect it had on her. “We saw him once, on the end of a train,” she wrote. Jan had got hold of small flags for the children, and told them when the president would be passing their house, “so we were standing on the steps. Mr. Roosevelt flashed us one of his well-known toothy smiles and waved his hat at the children as though he wanted to come up the hill and say ‘Hello!’ I caught some of Jan's confidence in the man. Maybe this ditch will get dug after all, I thought. And I was more certain than ever that we ourselves would not leave until it was finished.” Two months later a visiting English journalist noted the “energy” and “optimistic spirit” of the Americans working on the canal. “Every man,” he wrote, “seems animated with the idea that he is doing a necessary part of the canal, and a feeling of pride prevails everywhere.”
Roosevelt reported back to Congress on December 17. There was impressive progress to outline. In spite of the rainy season, and the thousands of men still employed putting up buildings, the month before his visit had seen a new record for excavation—325,000 cubic yards. The long period of preparation was at last coming to an end, and the actual digging was under way. At Gatún over a hundred new borings had been made on the dam site and excavation had started on the lock basins. At Cristóbal he had seen the new bakery in action, churning out 24,000 loaves a day, as well as the nearly completed coal depot and cold storage plant. The workforce had topped twenty thousand, and the supply from the West Indies and Spain seemed secure.
But the bulk of his message to Congress concerned what he must have judged to be the two interlinked problems that posed the greatest threat to the success of the canal: the high turnover of skilled men (still running at nearly 100 percent a year) and negative publicity at home. A new reward for long service—the Roosevelt medal—was announced. And the canal effort was described in unmistakably patriotic terms—”something which will redound immeasurably to the credit of America.” The sanitation effort of Gorgas was praised to the rooftops. Among the Americans, including dependents, there had not been a single death from disease in three months, a very impressive record, Roosevelt pointed out, even by mainland United States standards. On numerous occasions direct reference was made to Poultney Bigelow and his report rubbished, which gives an indication of the great and lasting effect it had had. It was almost as though Roosevelt went to Panama specifically to erase the stain that his law school classmate had put on the enterprise. It was simply unpatriotic to criticize the canal effort, the president exclaimed. For detractors, he said, he felt “the heartiest contempt and indignation; because, in a spirit of wanton dishonesty and malice, they are trying to interfere with, and hamper the execution of, the greatest work of the kind ever attempted, and are seeking to bring to naught the efforts of their countrymen to put to the credit of America one of the giant feats of the ages.”
However, Roosevelt himself had seen that all was not rosy on the Isthmus. On his return to Washington he wrote to Shonts: “The least satisfactory feature of the entire work to my mind was the arrangement for feeding the Negroes. Those cooking sheds with their muddy floors and with the unclean pot which each man had in which he cooked everything, are certainly not what they should be.” And while the health of the white workers was indeed impressive, “the very large sick rates among the negroes, compared with the whites,” was alarming. In fact, as Roosevelt's own figures acknowledge, the black workers were three times as likely to die of disease. In the ten months of 1906 before the presidential visit, thirty-four white workers had died, compared with nearly seven hundred West Indians. Roosevelt suggested that “a resolute effort should be made to teach the negro some of the principles of personal hygiene.”
Gorgas had concluded, in his health report of July 1906, that the black workers were dying at three times the rate of the whites because, contrary to the earlier belief, their race could not stand the climate as well as their American employers. “We do not agree with the doctor,” countered the Colón Independent angrily. “The higher death rate is, in our opinion, due to circumstances. The white employers are better housed, better paid, and therefore live better; they do the bossing while the blacks do the actual labor, such as work in mud, and water and rain. Change conditions with the two races and see if there would not be triple the amount of deaths.”
Mary Chatfield, soon to leave the Isthmus having, she felt, “done one citizen's duty towards the building of the Panama Canal,” gives a vivid description of what conditions were like for the black workers. Riding on a train near Mount Hope, she spotted some laborers’ quarters near the railroad:
Wretched little houses rest on stilts, and now during the rainy season the water is constantly on the level with the floors … When I left the office at 5 o'clock the negro laborers were returning to their quarters and were getting their suppers on little charcoal braziers outdoors. It was a sad sight to me … How could they get their suppers with rain pouring in torrents for an hour? They are not allowed to cook in their quarters for fear of fire and no covered place is provided for them in which to cook, so these poor men exist under difficulties. Consider the brilliant criticisms some of the authors of magazine articles make on “The lazy, worthless, Jamaican laborer.” They sleep all night on a strip of canvas but little wider than their bodies, they must get up in the morning and cook their breakfasts out of doors in the tropical rain or shine, as it happens. They must be at work at 7 o'clock A.M., they get their noon meals under the same weather conditions as other meals. They receive the splendid wage of 10 cents, U.S. currency, an hour. They are obliged to pay at the government commissary as high prices for food as are charged at the grocery stores in the City of New York, whose proprietors have high rents to pay and are doing business for profit.
The West Indians, often unfamiliar with modern machinery, and given the most dangerous jobs, were also suffering from accidents at twice the rate of the white employees. At Ancón hospital, detailed autopsies were carried out on West Indians, which included the measurement of brain weight, skull thickness, and skull shape. The doctors’ conclusion was that the large number of accidents befalling the black workers indicated “a striking lack of appreciation for a dangerous environment [in] the negro's mental processes.”
If accidents and disease were deemed to be the West Indians’ own fault, or as a result of their inherent weaknesses, this reflects deeply held ideas about race. These, in turn, would shape every aspect of life in the Canal Zone, and nowhere more so than in the division of the workforce into the Gold and Silver Rolls, described by one canal historian as a “notorious” example of “racial and ethnic discrimination by the U.S. Government.” Harry Franck, a travel writer who worked in the Zone as a policeman for three months in 1912, remembers his surprise at seeing notices everywhere stipulating whether a shop, railway car, toilet, or drinking fountain was for Gold or Silver Roll employees. But he quickly worked it out. “The ICC has very dexterously dodged the necessity of lining the Zone with the offensive signs ‘Black’ and ‘White,’” he wrote. “Hence the line has been drawn between ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ employees. The first division, paid in gold coin, is made up, with a few exceptions, of white American citizens. To the second belong any of the darker shade, and all common laborers of whatever color, these receiving their wages in Panamanian silver. ‘Tis a deep and sharp-drawn line.” For Franck, there was little doubt as to the model being followed. “Panama is below the Mason and Dixon Line,” he concluded.
It has often been noted that U.S. imperialist expansion went hand in hand with rising racism. Influential thinkers such as Alfred Mahan and politicians such as Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana had used a social Darwinist doctrine of Anglo-Saxon superiority and the “civilizing mission” to justify U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Cuba. It was not long before people started applying this theory to race issues closer to home. “If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon ‘new-caught sullen people’ on the other side of the globe,” asked the Atlantic Monthly, “why not in South Carolina and Mississippi?”
Indeed, the closing years of the nineteenth century saw the abandonment of the Southern blacks by Northern liberals, and as the “white man's burden” was shouldered overseas, the Southern states began a process of disenfranchisement and officially sanctioned discrimination against their black populations. In 1896 Louisiana had contained 130,000 black voters. Four years later, there were only 13,000. And what became known as Jim Crow laws spread across the South, officially segregating whites and blacks, with the best facilities always reserved for the former. What had previously been unspoken and unenforced was, by the time of the beginning of the U.S. canal effort, rigid and backed up by the law.
This system—with the euphemisms “Gold” for Anglo-Saxon whites and “Silver” for everyone else—was imported into the Canal Zone in Panama by the U.S. authorities and would survive in various forms for nearly a hundred years. But it was not imposed, as is often believed, en bloc, but was rather a gradual and complex process that parallels the other ways in which the Commission sought to impose itself on the lives of the canal builders of all backgrounds. It started with the decision made at the outset of the project to pay some workers in U.S. gold currency and others with local silver money. Attached to the Gold Roll from the beginning were privileges such as paid sick leave and holidays and better accommodation (basically the generous deal needed to lure workers from the United States). Who got what was decided by an amalgam of precedents—the PRR had always paid its U.S. workers in gold and the rest in silver, while the French companies had paid almost everyone in local currency but had divided its workers from all backgrounds into skilled and unskilled grades. The early Gold-Silver system merged these two approaches (a U.S. government report in 1908 would describe the distinction in terms of skills, but noted that the Gold Roll was “nearly all Americans”). Either way, white American citizens in the Zone, all in theory skilled workers, were almost always on the Gold Roll, and as the vast majority of the earliest unskilled workers were West Indians, the terms “Gold” and “Silver” quickly took on racial connotations.
Initially, however, it was not that simple—a relatively large number of West Indians, approaching a thousand, were put on the Gold Roll as skilled workers. These included foremen, office clerks, and teachers. This was considered a good way to co-opt potential leaders of the “Jamaican” community, and also to incentivize workers to train in useful skills and thus gain promotion to the higher-status Gold Roll.
Then, with the arrival of Stevens and the building of Commission hotels, restaurants, additional hospital facilities, and shops, it was discovered that by limiting access to parts of these establishments to Gold Roll employees, it was possible to keep undesirables away from the elite white sector of the workforce. Supposedly, it all began with a pay car. When two separate windows were used, one marked “Silver” the other “Gold,” it was found to provide the “solution to troubles growing out of the intermingling of the races.” Thereafter this practice was widely adopted, and no commissary or post office was built without separate sections for Gold and Silver. In everything, there was a premium service for the Gold employees.
But with the distinction now being used to prevent “intermingling of the races” on the Zone, the blacks on the Gold Roll presented a problem. In September 1905 Stevens closed the door to the Gold Roll for West Indians by ending both direct recruitment to the Gold Roll and promotion from the Silver Roll. At the end of the following year he started removing blacks from the Gold Roll, even if they were skilled and valuable employees. There was the occasional protest. The manager of the commissary at Cristóbal wrote to Stevens, “It would, I think, be very impolitic to separate all of the Commissary employees by color putting all the colored men on the silver roll. They would naturally feel it to be in a measure a humiliation. We have a number of colored men in charge of Departments … We also have two or three colored clerks in our Shipping office, who are very valuable men and draw larger salaries than some of our white clerks.” Nevertheless by mid-1907 only a tiny handful of blacks, mainly postmasters and teachers, remained on the Gold Roll, and they would be gone by the following year.
The arrival of the Spanish and other southern European workers from mid-1906 onward might have had an unsettling effect on this rapidly solidifying racial system. But although southern Europeans were thought higher up the evolutionary pecking order than the blacks, they were certainly beneath the Anglo-Saxons and were in coloring, it was suggested, somewhere in between white and black. Thus they formed an intermediate layer—paid in Silver, but with better food, accommodation, and general treatment along with some Gold Roll privileges.
The education system in the Zone provides a microcosm of the development of this system of inequality based on race. Some of the earliest Canal Zone schools had a mixed intake of West Indians, Panamanians, and a few whites. As more families came out from the United States and the West Indies to live, the classrooms were segregated, and then the white and black children were separated into entirely different schools. Light-skinned Panamanian children from good families as well as the children of white European laborers enrolled in the white schools, the latter only under sufferance.
The white schools, housed in new buildings and well staffed and equipped, performed at a level at least equal to that back at home in the States. The nonwhite schools, however, were less than second-class. In 1909 there were about seventeen children per teacher in the white schools; in the others, it was 115 pupils per teacher, an astonishing disparity. Furthermore, the black schools were usually housed in dilapidated buildings, staffed by less well trained teachers and had to make do with textbooks discarded by the white schools. There was no question of pretending to provide separate but equal facilities.
The West Indian children were taught American history, discipline, orations, manners, the three Rs, and subjects such as carpentry and gardening that would equip them for unskilled work on the Zone. In 1911 a secondary school was opened for white children, but for the black students there were only advanced classes in agriculture, sewing, and domestic service.
This official sanction of racism nourished and legitimized racist behavior on a day-to-day basis. Harry Franck commented that a “new amalgamated” national “type” was being created in the Zone: “Any northerner can say ‘nigger’ as glibly as a Carolinian, and growl if any of them steps on his shadow,” he wrote. So prevalent were the attitudes associated with “South of the Mason-Dixon line” that newcomers assumed that most of the Americans were Southerners, although in fact Northerners were in the majority. Even the nursing staff, who mostly cared very well for their black patients, were not immune to prejudice. Among three nurses arriving in November 1905 was Miss Emma M. Jeffries, a black American. On the steamer from the States, Miss Jeffries, according to the Colón Independent, “was made to feel the prejudice against her color, as one of the white nurses refused to occupy the same state room with her.” It got worse when she was taken to Ancón hospital. “Miss Jeffries was informed at the nurses’ reception room that she had made a great mistake in coming here, as all of the other nurses were white and had decided to go on strike if forced to work with a Negro. They even refused to sit with her at the same table for meals.” Jeffries returned to New York in disgust.
Others also found the way color dominated life in the Zone too odious to cope with. “My father read of Panama and thought it a wonderful place to come to because he saw progress in Panama,” an Antiguan lady told a researcher in the 1970s. But he did not work for long in the Zone. “He just could not take it—the life was so different. We were not accustomed to be told so much about your colour or to have to think about it often, black and white. He couldn't stand it so he left the Canal Zone and came to Panama [City].”
For black laborers out on the works, “some of the foremen were very polite, while some were very rough and impolite,” as one West Indian recalled. Edward White, from Jamaica, remembered being very lonely when he first reached Panama, but found himself made to feel part of a family by his American foreman and timekeeper. “The lonely feeling started to leave me, as these men treated me like their own. Mr Arthur, Mr Chambers, and I were so knitted together, I felt as if I was their own son.”
This tone tends to be the exception in the West Indian accounts, however. Most are at best mixed about their treatment. Jeremiah Waisome was born in Nicaragua, but had lived in Panama since he was a baby. When he was twelve or thirteen, proud of his ability to read and write, he applied for work on the canal: “Unknown to my mother one morning instead of going to school, I went to Balboa to look myself a job. I approach a boss one morning for a water boy job. ‘Good Morning, boss.’ I said. ‘Good morning, boy,’ he retorted. At this time he was chewing a big wad of tobacco. I ask him if he needs a water boy, he said yes. He ask me ‘What is your name?’ I told him. Then I noticed that my name did not spell correctly, so I said, ‘Excuse me, boss, my name do not spell that way.’ He gave me a cow look, and spit and big splash, and look back at me and said: ‘You little nigger! You need a job?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘You never try to dictate to a white man.’”
An American journalist sympathetic to the U.S. canal authorities reported in 1906 that he had “often seen the threat of the slave-driver in the foreman's eye—the menace of brute force.” Occasionally, this was more than a threat. “Among the white employees on the ‘gold roll’ some times an employee would use his hands or foot on one of the ‘silver employees,’” admitted a steam shovel engineer. On March 23, 1906, the Colón Independent ran a story about how a man at Bas Matachín Machine Shop “by the name of Bryan was thoroughly clubbed and kicked by Master Mechanic Cummings because he refused to lift up a bucket of metal which was beyond his strength.” When the accusation was taken to court, it was the victim Bryan in the dock, with his attacker Cummings demanding that the West Indian be punished for insolence.
The very worst foremen were dismissed, and treatment improved as the Americans learned that shouting and hitting were not the best ways to get results from their gangs. However, actual physical aggression against the blacks continued. After the death of Jantje Milliery, Rose and Jan van Hardeveld had made a new best friend, Charles Swinehart, the mining engineer given a job through his father's connections with the local Republican Party at Steamboat Springs, Colorado. According to Rose, Swinehart was very much “the he-man type” and one evening at dinner a “troublesome” West Indian discharged from his gang “elected to place himself under the veranda and shout abuses at the house and Americans in general. He cursed and swore, while everyone at the table tried to act as though nothing were happening. Suddenly Charley, his lips set and his face white, politely excused himself. He left the table, went into the bedroom, and then we heard him go down the steps. In a moment there was silence below. We heard the young man coming back up the steps. He entered the bedroom, came out, and reseated himself at the table. The conversation and the meal continued. A few days later Charley was summoned to appear before the judge at Empire to answer the charge of knocking a British subject over the head with the butt of a revolver. He pleaded guilty, and was fined twenty-five dollars. ‘Was it worth the money?’ asked the judge with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Yes, indeed, sir,’ answered the aggressor gravely.”
A journalist visiting the Isthmus in 1908 was advised that “it cost twenty-five dollars to lick a Jamaican negro and if I did it be sure and get my money's worth.”
he standard response of the black worker to bullying or abuse, according to virtually every American account of the construction period, was to “straighten himself up and say to the foreman ‘I wish you to understand, sir, that I am a British subject, and if we can not arrange this matter amicably we will talk to our Consul about it.’” In fact, Mallet had his work cut out caring for those denied wages or hospital care and utterly desperate. There was no way he could deal with complaints from over twenty thousand British citizens on the Isthmus, as he frequently pointed out to the unresponsive Foreign Office. Nevertheless, pride in being British seems to have sustained the self-respect of the West Indian workers in often very difficult circumstances. Guyanese novelist Eric Walrond, who moved to Panama as a fourteen-year-old in 1911, would write in 1935, by that stage a committed Garveyite, that the West Indians had “developed an excessive regard for the English.” But in his 1926 short story “Panama Gold,” the protagonist, returned from the Isthmus to Barbados, triumphantly explains how he came to be given compensation for a lost leg: “‘Pay me,’ I says, ‘or I'll stick de British bulldog on all yo’ Omer-icans!’… Man, I wuz ready to stick Nelson heself ‘pon dem … I let dem understand quick enough dat I wuz a Englishman and not a bleddy American nigger!”
“As British subjects,” William Karner wrote of the Barbadians he recruited, “they think they are close to royalty and quite superior to white laborers from the United States.” In fact, the West Indians did consider themselves superior to Americans. After all the British Empire was still the most powerful in the world, as they would point out, and they were as much a part of it as anyone. The Americans thought this was hilarious.
In other ways, too, the West Indians resisted the Commission's attempts to dehumanize and control them. In early 1907 there were nearly 12,500 workers in the ICC's austere, heavily regimented military-style barracks. Two years later there were less than 3,500. The others preferred to pay the exorbitant rents of the terminal cities or simply put up a hut of flattened tin cans and old dynamite boxes in the bush. Either way, the move reclaimed independence and dignity. In the same way the attendance at the ICC-run kitchens collapsed, with 80 percent making their own arrangements by the end of 1909.
In the workplace there was little point in complaining. “You couldn't talk back,” remembered Constantine Parkinson. “It would get you fired if you talked back.” Young Jules LeCurrieux, who had done a variety of jobs since starting work on dynamiting Gold Hill, protested on behalf of his gang when they found work unloading cement impossible because of the choking dust. He was promptly fired. So the workers simply voted with their feet, walking away from the worst jobs or the worst bosses. On other occasions, as in the French days, they would move about the line looking for the best pay or to be with their friends, taking on a new name each time so that they could be reemployed. In both cases it was bad news for the efficiency of the canal effort: the dispersal of the workforce in “private” accommodations made the control of malaria and other diseases much more difficult, and the moving about of the workers from job to job caused frequent delays to the construction program.
The Spanish workers were always treated better than the West Indians, but by the beginning of 1907 they too were beginning to cause difficulties for the authorities. For one thing, their impressive initial energy and zeal had not lasted. If they did not succumb to disease, they soon adjusted their work rate to a more realistic tropical pace. By the middle of 1907 a divisional engineer at Culebra was even requesting that his Spanish workers be replaced by West Indians. The Europeans, he argued, were “little better than the West Indian negro,” and as they were paid twice as much they were a waste of money. Even Stevens was forced to admit that while the introduction of the Europeans might have improved the work rate of the blacks, “the efficiency of the Spaniards did not hold up to the standard first developed.”
For another thing, they were breaking their contracts and leaving in large numbers, mainly to move on to better-paid railway or mining work in South America. The Chilean consul was among those actively recruiting among the ICC's Spaniards, to the fury of the American authorities. Consul Mallet estimated that nearly half of those recruited during 1906 were gone by the beginning of the following year. The main impetus was money—although the Spaniards accepted that they were well paid by the Commission, the cost of living in Panama was such that they would struggle to earn the steamer fare home, let alone the riches they had anticipated. Antonio Sanchez tells of how his group “were deeply disappointed when they realized they would not be able to save enough money for the return trip to the land of their birth.” And if any of them “became a victim of misfortune,” he says, they were in real trouble.
In late January 1907, the thousand or more Spaniards working in the Cut went on strike demanding an increase in pay from $1.60 to $2.50 a day. The West Indian workers were not supportive, however, and had to be protected by the police. After a tense standoff, fighting erupted that led to several deaths and serious injuries among Spaniards and Zone police. The strike's ringleaders were rounded up and the protest quelled. Stevens later ascribed the violence of the repression to the need to give a “severe lesson” to prevent future demands endangering the project. But clashes between Spaniards and police continued for the rest of the year.
Around this time letters and articles started appearing in Madrid newspapers reporting that all was not well on the Isthmus for the expatriate workers. A letter from three workers, printed in El Socialista at the end of December 1906, complains about the high expenses in Panama, the retention of a proportion of their wages to repay their outward fare, and poor food and accommodations. Furthermore, the letter said, “People are falling ill the whole time … Many are leaving.” The letter ended by warning others not to be deceived by the “siren songs.” A Spanish journalist sent out to Panama noted, “The labourers’ lives are not highly valued, so there are frequent accidents.”
Toward the end of 1906 worrying news also began to reach Italy about the fate of the thousand or so workers recruited to work in Panama. It was said they had to labor eight hours a day in a swamp with water up to their knees, under the sun in torrid heat, exposed to torrential rain, and suffering from dreadful illnesses. A Naples paper claimed that most of the workers had died, and there were thousands of corpses on the streets. In both countries, the governments began to come under pressure to prevent further migration to the Isthmus.
To Stevens this was simply petulance. “My own private opinion,” he wrote to Shonts in mid-January 1907, “is that no European nation is favourable to the building of the Panama Canal: that they do not want it built; will do anything they can possibly short of open hostility in the shape of force to prevent the consummation of the project, and will, if the movement of laborers from their countries assumes large proportions, take steps directly or indirectly, to prevent such movements.” Stevens, however, was about to become yesterday's man.
he chief engineer was in Washington in December 1906 and those who saw him were shocked at how weary and sour he had become. It appears he had fallen out with Gorgas, whose starring role in Roosevelt's congressional message would have irked Stevens. The following month ICC chairman Theodore Shonts resigned to take up a lucrative post in New York, about which the president could have no complaint. Shonts had told Roosevelt that he would depart the project once the preparatory phase was completed. This resignation should have pleased Stevens. Relations between the two men, never good, had deteriorated of late, and Shonts's departure also cleared the way for Stevens to take absolute control over the project, on the Isthmus at least, as he had requested for so long.
In other ways Stevens had no cause for gloom. The heavy rains experienced by Roosevelt had continued, leading to flooding of the works in December, but in January, with the return of dry weather and the deployment of no less than sixty-three Bucyrus shovels, over half a million cubic yards had been excavated. This monthly figure would grow steadily thereafter, proving that Stevens's machine was working well.
But at the end of January, Stevens sat down and wrote an extraordinary letter to Roosevelt. Six pages long, it revealed the depths of his exhaustion and bitterness. Although he appreciated the support the president had given him, Stevens wrote, he had never sought the Panama job and did not like it. The “honour” of being the canal's builder meant nothing to him. He had been endlessly attacked by “enemies in the rear.” Even the level of his salary had been questioned, when, in fact, he could have returned to the States and secured any of a number of far more lucrative and less stressful jobs, some of which, he wrote, “I would prefer to hold, if you pardon my candor, than the Presidency of the United States.”
Roosevelt received the letter on February 12. He did not “pardon the candor.” Only two months before, he had told the canal workforce that they were like an army in the field. Now their general, to whom Roosevelt had given almost unqualified backing, was looking to desert his troops in a most unmartial way. The letter was sent on to Taft with a note from the president attached: “Stevens must get out at once.” Then he telegraphed Stevens to tell him that his resignation had been accepted, effective April 1.
Stevens never spoke or wrote about his real reasons for quitting, leaving the field open for a miasma of speculation. He had fallen out with the president, it was alleged; he had found that the Gatún dam plan was unworkable; he had discovered something about the role of Cromwell in the sale of the New Company so explosive that it would “blow up the Republican Party.”
Many felt that he had not actually meant to resign, but was either letting off steam or flexing his muscles. Mallet reported to London that Stevens's resignation was never formally tendered and that “an immoderate amount of adulation over the success of Mr. Stevens’ organization and management led him to imagine his services were indispensable to the successful prosecution of the works.”
Stevens, like Shonts, had secured on his hiring the promise that he would be allowed to leave the project once it was up and running. His career before and after Panama shows a succession of departures to take on new challenges, and perhaps Stevens felt that his job was done on the Isthmus. By his own reckoning he handed on a “well-planned and well-built machine.” Whoever came after him would merely have to “turn the crank,” he said. But perhaps he also realized that the nature of the task had fundamentally changed with the firm adoption of the lock-canal plan. From being an unprecedented but essentially low-tech canal, it had become an equally huge, but also technically complex project. There is little doubt that Stevens was the best man to design and build the transportation system for the excavation of the canal, but he had little experience of hydraulics, lock design, or dam construction. Perhaps he understood that it was time for a man with different skills to step up to the plate.
But probably the greatest factor leading to Stevens's departure was mental and physical exhaustion. Stevens once said to Maltby “I know you pretty well now and without raising the question of your competence, if you were chief engineer you wouldn't last thirty minutes.” Working twelve to fourteen hours a day, suffering from insomnia, endlessly dragged to Washington to be hauled before “idiotic” congressmen, he had had enough.
On the Isthmus the news came as a severe blow—”astonishing” wrote the Star and Herald on February 28. Over the following weeks the paper traces the surprise, sadness, and then anger of the canal workforce. “Unless this step has been forced upon Mr. Stevens, a supposition which is scarcely likely,” the paper wrote on March 2, “his action in retiring from the canal work looks suspiciously like an abandonment of a trust, and unless it be his desire to lay himself open to the same scathing rebuke which was heaped on Mr. Wallace his obvious course is to at once withdraw his resignation … we think that in his place a strong sense of loyalty, we might even say of devotion to an ideal, should have outweighed mere personal considerations.” No one really knew what these “personal considerations” were. When asked, Stevens merely growled back, “Don't talk, dig.”
A petition was organized, begging him to stay, and promising to work even harder for him in the future, but to no avail. After numerous farewell functions, the chief engineer sailed from the Isthmus for the last time at noon on Sunday, April 1. There was a huge crowd on the wharf to see him off. Other vessels in the harbor, reported the Star and Herald, “whistled their salutes, the crowd waved hats and handkerchiefs, and many shed tears while the I.C.C. band played Auld Lang Syne. Mr. Stevens stood at the rail, and as long as he could be recognized his face was pale and sad.”
Roosevelt had rated Stevens highly—he was his sort of “strenuous man”—and he was grieved as well as angered by his departure. He also knew full well that the canal would never be built if it kept losing its chief engineers. So he now decided to place the work “in the charge of men who will stay on the job until I get tired of having them there, or till I say they may abandon it… I shall turn it over to the army.”