Common section

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“THE ARMY OF PANAMA”

To an extent, then, the project had come full circle. After all, the military needs of the United States had been of primary importance in starting the American canal. It was as a conduit for a sea power that the canal's supporters had successfully sold the idea to the U.S. Congress and public. But the all-new Isthmian Canal Commission, ordered to take over on April 1, 1907, was not entirely military. Its new chairman was Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) George Washington Goethals, one of the army's finest engineers, with particular expertise in lock construction. There were two further Engineer Corps officers, a Navy man, and Colonel Gorgas was given a seat on the Commission for the first time. But there were also two civilians— an ex-senator from Kentucky and Jackson “Square-foot” Smith, like Gorgas promoted to the Commission. Furthermore, the military men were detached from their usual chains of command, reporting to Goethals, who himself dealt directly with Taft. All the Commission members were required to live on the Isthmus, where they would work as heads of departments.

There was no question, however, of the seven commissioners having equal say, as envisaged by the Spooner Act. Each man was summoned before Roosevelt and told in no uncertain terms that there would be only one boss. “Colonel Goethals here is to be chairman,” said the president. “He is to have complete authority. If at any time you do not agree with his policies, do not bother to tell me about it—your disagreement with him will constitute your resignation.” As well as chairman, Goethals was appointed chief engineer, head of the PRR, and would wield total control over the government of the Canal Zone. The new arrangement made Goethals, in the words of his biographer, “most absolute despot in the world… [who] could command the removal of a mountain from the landscape, or of a man from his dominions, or of a salt-cellar from that man's table.” It was the “one-man proposition” demanded by Stevens, and there would be only one end in view. As Goethals himself explained: “It was asserted that the Department of Government, generally, regarded the construction of the canal as of secondary importance and seemed to consider that the main purpose and object of the work on the Isthmus was to set up a model of American government in the heart of Central America as an object lesson to the South and Central American republics.” Governor Magoon had left the Isthmus the previous September to help out with the crisis in Cuba and was now told that he would not be returning to Panama. Henceforth, as Goethals wrote, “everything should be subordinated to the construction of the canal, even the government.”

Goethals himself told a New York friend that his taking the job was “a case of just plain straight duty. I am ordered down—there was no alternative.” He landed on the Isthmus in mid-March, for a two-week handover period with John Stevens. It was an awkward time for the new man. Stevens's popularity was everywhere apparent, along with deep unease among the civilian engineers about the nature of the new army regime and the inevitable changes in personnel that the new leadership would bring. On March 18 there was a reception in Goethals's honor at Corozal. Stevens was not there, but every time his name was mentioned in a speech a loud cheer rang out. When it was Goethals's turn to speak, he tried to reassure the men. There would be no military uniforms or saluting on the Isthmus, he said. “I expect to be chief of the division of engineers, while the heads of the various departments are going to be the colonels, the foremen are going to be the captains, and the men who do the labour are going to be the privates … I am no longer a commander in the United States Army. I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama, and the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the canal, and any man here on the work who does his duty will never have any cause to complain of militarism.”

Goethals had been on the Isthmus before. In November 1905, early in the Stevens regime, he had accompanied Taft to Panama as part of a group of army experts looking at the fortification requirements for the canal. At the time he had commented on the chaos and hysteria, but now, starting to look around, he was agreeably surprised. “The magnitude of the work grows and grows on me; it seems to get bigger all the time,” he wrote to his son on March 17. “But Mr. Stevens has perfected such an organization so far as the RR [railroad] part of the proposition is concerned, that there is nothing left for us to do but to just have the organization continue in the good work it has done and is doing.” The Stevens system was operating well. In March over 800,000 cubic yards had been excavated, and the following month would see this rise again to nearly 900,000, with five hundred trainloads of spoil being dumped every day. Eighty percent of the necessary machinery was in place, and, although there were still nearly four thousand men employed on building work, 70 percent of the required Gold Roll accommodations were completed. About a fifth of the workforce of nearly thirty thousand was off sick at any one time, but infection rates for malaria were falling as Gorgas's two thousand sanitarians continued and extended their campaign against the Anopheles mosquito, meticulously draining hundreds of square miles of swampland.

Goethals's main concern was the more technical parts of the project, the locks and dams, areas outside Stevens's expertise. “The hydraulic part of the propositions is not so good and is a way behind,” he wrote to his son on March 22. Goethals quickly judged that some of the department heads did not have the necessary experience for the new tasks ahead. Maltby for instance, although “an excellent man at dredging,” “had no work on foundations and locks and is therefore of no account.” Reorganization was needed, “and yet not to demoralize the other branches of the work we have to be careful in making changes.” Such was the new man's confidence in Stevens's system for the Cut that he judged that the canal's completion date now depended not on la grande tranchée as everybody had always assumed, but on the creation of Gatún Dam and Lake, and the necessary prior relocation of large parts of the railway. That said, excavation in the Cut was still in its infancy—it had been widened by over a hundred feet but hardly lowered at all. The terrible setbacks that would accompany deeper excavation were still, for now, in the future and unanticipated.

Goethals took official charge on April 1, 1907. He immediately threw himself into the job, spending the mornings on office work and the afternoons inspecting the line, propelled along the railroad in a gasoline-driven railway car, known as the “brain wagon” or the “Yellow Peril.” He would frequently dismount to talk to a foreman or manager. He was, a contemporary writes, “a tall, long-legged man with a rounded, bronzed face and snow-white hair. His moustache was also white, but stained with nicotine, for he smoked many cigarettes … He wore civilian clothes with the usual awkwardness of a man who has spent most of his lifetime clothed in the uniform of his country.” Every day the role of “Czar of Panama,” which included leadership of civil government, courts, schools, post offices, the police, and the battalion of U.S. marines in addition to the canal work, seemed to grow in size. “The strenuous existence of the past seems like mere child's play to the 5 past days,” he wrote to his son on April 4.

There was no mass purging of the Railroad-era men, but changes were inevitable. Soon after Goethals's arrival, Frank Maltby left Panama, although he would return as a private contractor later. The excellent head of the railway, W G. Bierd, the inventor of the track-shifter, resigned as well, supposedly because of ill health, but, Goethals noticed, he cropped up soon after working for Stevens in the latter's new job as head of the New Haven Railroad. Then, at the beginning of May, the steam-shovel men decided to test out their new boss, requesting a steep pay increase with the threat of a strike if their demands were not met. As one of the new commissioners, Major William Sibert commented, “the President, in his talks, praised the men for their patriotism and enlarged upon their hardships to such an extent that… after the visit the steam-shovel men asked for a rise in wages.”

Goethals, still finding his feet and assessing the extent of his power on the Isthmus, acted cautiously, referring the matter to Taft, who was paying a visit to the Isthmus. Taft heard the men's demands, and then consulted with Roosevelt in Washington. “Things are unsettled here,” wrote Goethals in a private letter on May 7. In Washington, it was decided that as the steam-shovel men, on $210 a month, were already the best paid of the mechanics, their hoped-for $300 a month could not be granted. Instead Taft offered a 5 percent pay increase. But the steam-shovel men remained determined. The increase was rejected and the men came out. The next day all but thirteen of the sixty-eight shovels were idle. It was the most serious strike on the canal so far.

But Goethals did not panic, even as the stoppage continued, reducing excavation to a quarter of its previous level. Handling it slowly, he gradually recruited strikebreakers until he had replaced the original workers. When the strikers gave in and asked for their jobs back, they were told that they would have to start again at the most junior level. By July, all the shovels were back in action, and excavation was once again at full tilt, with just over a million cubic yards extracted, a new record. It was an unmistakable victory for Goethals, and for the rest of the construction period there would be no stoppage on anything like the same scale. And the “Czar of Panama” had not even had to use the most potent weapon at his disposal. Under the original terms of Roosevelt's Executive Order setting up the first Commission, the chairman had the right to expel from the Zone anybody, who, in his opinion, “was not necessary to the work of building the canal, or was objectionable for any reason.” With his power enhanced by his defeat of the steam-shovel men, Goethals dealt ruthlessly with a small stoppage in November by boilermakers at two large machine shops. Replacement workers were quickly in place and the strikers found themselves deported on steamers back to the United States. Thereafter, his response to any strike threat was simple: be back at work tomorrow morning or be expelled instantly from the country.

The European Silver Roll workers were dealt with even more firmly. They were continuing to leave the Isthmus for better work opportunities elsewhere, thus depriving the ICC of the repayment of their steamer fare. In response, Goethals banned the solicitation of labor within the Zone, and placed guards at the ports to prevent contracted workers from leaving. “I have no complaint of any kind against the Isthmian Canal Commission,” stated Spanish worker F. Olario when hauled off a Chile-bound steamer in May 1907. “I was always well treated, liked the wages I used to get, but could not understand the orders of the foreman, and besides, I was most of the time sick, out of the four months that I have been a laborer on the Isthmus.”

Early in his tenure, Goethals had set up a routine that he would hear complaints from Gold Roll employees every Sunday morning, just as Stevens had done. Silver Roll employees had the same chance to air their grievances, but only with Joseph Bucklin Bishop, the unctuous secretary to the Commission, who, among other things, acted as Roosevelt's eyes and ears on the Isthmus. Bishop recruited a Spanish-speaking Italian, Joseph Garibaldi, grandson of the famous independence leader, to deal with the southern Europeans. In a 1907 labor report Garibaldi explained the genesis of the problems the Spanish labor seemed to be presenting. “Supposed ill treatment in most cases was simply due to a misunderstanding between the men and the employees in charge, because of different languages,” he wrote. Hardly any of the Americans spoke Spanish. “In some cases the laborer,” Garibaldi continued, “failing to understand the order and not complying with it immediately, has been discharged. If the discharged man resented this action and made some comment in his native language, accompanying his remarks with gestures—as most Europeans do—the foreman, failing to understand the man, and thinking himself insulted, would in some cases use violence. The result of this would be a strike by the whole gang, and sometimes by the entire camp.”

Garibaldi tactfully pointed out that the foreman “was not always to blame, this owing to the rather turbulent character of the imported laborer,” but in July and August 1907 such small-scale strikes were happening all along the line among the European laborers. The ICC response was to try to identify the “ring-leaders” and swiftly deport them as “professional agitators.”

Although the measure brought success on the Isthmus—strikes fell away from the end of 1907—the reluctant returnees further fueled to the clamor in the Spanish press to outlaw the ICC recruitment agents. After a spate of newspaper stories detailing the violence of the “Yankee police,” the arrival of a liberal government in Madrid in early 1909 saw the representatives of the canal finally banned from Spain. The Italian government followed suit, even though their official investigator had found very few of his countrymen still at work on the Isthmus when he visited in late 1908.

Goethals was unconcerned. The attitude was: we do not want you anyway. “At the present time all of our superintendents and foremen are unanimously of the opinion that the efficiency of our 20-cent (40 cents silver) contract labor is much less now than it was a year ago,” he wrote to the Spanish chargé d'affaires in Panama City. “In addition, several instances have been reported to me which indicate that the conduct of our contract laborers, as a whole, verges on insubordination; that the orders of foremen and others in authority are not received with respect and executed as the necessities of the work require.” Thereafter, although there were still some twenty-five hundred Spaniards working on the canal at the end of the construction period, the numbers steadily dwindled. For various reasons, Stevens's experiment had failed. In the main, then, it would still be British West Indians who would do the bulk of the work building the American Panama Canal.

n spite of the problems with the Spanish laborers, the work continued steadily through 1907. Surveying parties were hacking through the jungle to map the contours of the new lake basin. In July work started on digging the lock basins on the Pacific side, and August saw a new, fresh record for excavation. By the end of the year, the workforce had grown by 15,000 to nearly 46,000, twice the peak number under de Lesseps. The year delivered a total excavation figure of nearly 16 million cubic yards, more than the entire American total up to December 1906.

Goethals divided the work into three divisions, as the French had done. The Atlantic Division stretched from Limón Bay to Gatún. To protect the entrance of the canal from “northers,” the French had dug their canal in the shelter of the bay's eastern shore. The Americans opted to head directly into the center of the bay, and protect the entrance to the waterway from storms and silting through the construction of breakwaters out into the harbor. While these were being planned, dredges were scooping and sucking out a channel 41 feet deep and 500 feet wide from deep water three and a half miles offshore to the site of the planned dam, three and a half miles inland. This key structure was also the responsibility of this division. By the end of the year the dam site was clear of vegetation and the lock basin excavation proceeding well.

The Central Division ran from Gatún to Pedro Miguel and included the preparation of the new lake basin as well as the excavation in the Cut. The Pacific Division ran from deep water in Panama Bay up the valley of the Río Grande to the foot of the mountains of the Continental Divide at Pedro Miguel. As on the Atlantic side, dredges and steam shovels worked their way upward from the coast.

Inevitably, there were some changes to the original plan. After 2 million cubic yards of spoil had already been removed from the site of the Sosa locks, it was decided in December 1907, for a variety of reasons, to move them three miles inland to Miraflores. For one thing, Miraflores offered a more stable site for locks and dam, but, most important, it was safe from naval bombardment.

In line with the military requirements of the canal, and prompted by the U.S. Navy, the width of the locks was increased from 100 to 110 feet, in part because of the extra compartments around naval vessels’ hulls needed to combat the new threat of submarine attack. The largest Navy battleship on the drawing boards, the Pennsylvanian, had a beam of 98 feet. (The Titanic, then under construction, was 94 feet wide.) The locks designed by Eiffel, when de Lesseps finally conceded to the lock plan, were little more than half this size. The width of the rest of the canal was increased as well from 200 to 300 feet at the bottom, making it four times as broad as the projected French canal. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the de Lesseps canal, had it been completed, would have been almost immediately obsolete.

These changes obviously increased the massive excavation still ahead for Goethals and his army regime. But for now this held no fear. By the beginning of 1908, the majority of the workforce was at last engaged in actual excavation, rather than building or sanitation work. “The biggest boss is King Yardage,” wrote an American journalist who visited in February 1908. “A toiling, moiling, delving potentate to whom all make obeisance, and who imperiously demands results every minute of the day.” And the results were spectacular. In 1908, 37 million cubic yards were removed, more than double the previous record year and about half of what the two French companies had achieved in seventeen years. The era of the “solid inevitability” of the American canal seemed at last to have arrived.

ut the turnover of skilled American staff, still running at a rate of nearly 100 percent a year, remained a concern of the canal leadership. During 1907, more than three thousand new skilled workers had to be recruited in the States to keep up a Gold Roll force that in the middle of the year numbered only 4,400. The response was to accelerate the process, started by Stevens and Magoon, of providing for the white workers every possible convenience and luxury.

Each morning a supply train of twelve cars left Cristóbal for the line, containing five of ice and cold storage provisions, two of bread, one of vegetables, and four of staple commissary supplies. Starting in April 1908 the bakery started producing pies and pastry in huge quantities, and the cold storage facility was expanded to include an ice-cream factory and a coffee-grinding plant. Laundries and drying rooms were constructed for the Gold Roll employees. More and more stores were opened, to the dismay of the Panamanian merchants and the delight of house-and-home runners like Rose van Hardeveld. When a commissary at last opened in Las Cascadas the vegetables might have been thin on the ground, she reports, but the staples were plentiful. And if you got there at eight in the morning, as most tried to do, you might even find something new to break the monotony. Rose felt that a corner had been turned: “I realized… that the last vestige of fear and uncertainty seemed to have left us when our children were able to buy ice cream cones and soda pop at the clubhouse … we now felt thoroughly at home, truly, now, a transplanted bit of the United States.” Jessie Murdoch, the Ancón nurse who had arrived back in 1904, expressed a similar sentiment. By mid-1908, she wrote, “we were surrounded by all the modern comforts and conveniences. Telephones buzzed, electric lights were flashed on, and we recognized ourselves as a part of an ideal community.”

For Rose van Hardeveld, even more important than home comforts was the growing number of families in the Zone. Roosevelt's visit had helped improve the image of Panama, and the ICC offered strong inducements, mainly in the form of superior housing for married workers. By May 1908 there were well over a thousand families in the Zone, and a riot of weddings. On one steamer ten brides arrived from the United States and were all married on the dock within twelve minutes of disembarking. The bachelors on the Isthmus who could not persuade their sweethearts to join them had to look closer to home. This meant the nurses of Ancón hospital, who consequently could take their pick.

Once assigned married quarters, the young couples found that virtually everything was provided free by the ICC, including rent, light, janitor service, ice, distilled water, and fuel, as well as hospital and medical care. All the bride and groom need buy was bedclothes and china. As the Zone policeman Harry Franck pointed out, “It is doubtful, to be sure, whether one-fourth of the ‘Zoners’ of any class ever lived as well before or since. The shovelman's wife who gives five-o'clock teas and keeps two servants will find life different when the canal is opened and she moves back to the smoky little factory cottage and learns again to do her own washing.”

In the summer of 1908 the van Hardevelds were told that a new house was ready for them nearby. Before moving out of House Number One, they took a holiday back in Nebraska, returning in November with a new addition to the family, a son. Their new dwelling was “one of the brand new cottages over the hill… painted battleship grey.” Although the mold and insects soon moved in as well, Rose professed herself very pleased. The house had modern plumbing and electric light, and was “clean and comfortable, just about the type of home a man in the States would try to provide for his family.”

There were now nearly forty families in Las Cascadas, a far cry from how it was when the van Hardevelds first arrived. Families had been encouraged, of course, to give stability to the workforce, and as a way of keeping the men on the straight and narrow. According to Rose, this was working. With the arrival of the wives, “attendance in the saloons fell off to a considerable degree, and normal social patterns became possible.”

“Our friendships with neighbours deepened,” Rose wrote. “We drew together in a sort of compact clique. How we worried together and laughed together.” The main meeting place was their old House Number One. This had been taken over by their friend Charley Swinehart. His father had died, and so his mother and two teenage sisters had come out to join him and his brother in Panama. Dakota, or “Cote,” Swinehart seems to have become something of a matriarch of the Las Cascadas community. Rose described her as “a fragile little person who suffered a great deal from the heat and humidity, but who maintained a cheerful outlook and a brisk efficiency that inspired and reassured us younger women.”

Jan remained obsessed with the canal and would spend his evenings talking to Charley Swinehart about yardage excavated, the best dynamiting techniques, and the challenges still ahead. The shared canal-building task—vast, historic, epic—united and inspired many of the Americans on the Zone. “Nothing else seemed quite so important as this immense project moving gradually and steadily to completion,” wrote Rose. “Nearly all the women and children felt the same way … This was our life. All other things were subordinate.”

But not everyone was so motivated. According to an official report it was “not until the business depression … in the United States, in the winter of 1907–1908, [that] was there a lessening of the numbers leaving the Isthmus for the States.” Even in 1909–10 the turnover of skilled workers was nearly 60 percent. “Anyone who stays here through a year of it becomes depressed,” wrote an engineer on the project, “and visions of the home country, with its bracing weather, its familiar scenes and its fond ties, begin to float out on the curling wreaths of smoke from pipe or cigarette.” A journalist who visited in early 1909 found a few Americans who unreservedly loved the country and climate, but in most he discovered “a certain pathetic note of exile from all that is dear.”

To address this homesickness, it was decided to try to keep the men occupied as much as possible. Two and a half million dollars were allocated each year to entertainments and recreation, some $750 per white employee. Churches and Sunday schools were constructed, and more playing fields laid out. Most important, however, were the Gold Roll clubs, run by the YMCA. By late 1907, there were four in operation, at Cristóbal, Culebra, Empire, and Gorgona. Each had bowling alleys, a billiard room, a library, and a gymnasium. They also provided the location or focus for a bewildering array of organized activities: sponsored hikes and horse rides through the jungle, amateur theatricals, boat trips to Portobelo, athletic competitions, sightseeing trips on labor trains to the Cut or the locks areas. Lecturers and professional entertainers were also brought in. There were numerous clubs for games including chess, checkers, and bridge. Orchestras, bands, and glee clubs were formed, and lessons offered in everything from Spanish to first aid to Bible study. Over two thousand books were provided in the libraries, where more than eighty U.S. newspapers and periodicals were also available. When the clubs were inspected in early 1908, the visitors were impressed, commending the clubs “without reservation.” “They fill a necessary place in the somewhat artificial life on the canal zone,” it was concluded, “where a body of loyal Americans, far removed from the uplifting influence of home and friends, are performing with genuine enthusiasm a work of great importance to their country, in a climate demoralizing to the white man.”

The white community also had its own ICC-produced newspaper, the Canal Record, first published in September 1907, and free to anyone on the Gold Roll. It was determined that this should not replicate the French Bulletin—praise of department heads was expressly forbidden—but the Record charted the excavation and building work week by week, keeping the community abreast of progress and making people feel involved. By printing the excavation figures of particular divisions or even steam shovels, the paper helped fuel competition among the shovel men and train drivers, thereby increasing productivity. But the Record was also the social “notice board” of the Gold Roll Americans, and as such offers a fascinating glimpse of community life. “Zonians” seem to have been, on the whole, great “joiners.” By this time there was a plethora of societies, many based on place of origin or trade. One issue in mid-September 1907 mentions a new baseball team organized at Culebra composed entirely of men from Georgia. There is a notice about a forthcoming entertainment “to be furnished by Sidney Landon, character delineator.” The results of a recent bowling competition between teams from Empire and Culebra are printed. Chess, checkers, and billiard tournaments were, it appears, in progress at two of the clubs.

It was all wonderfully wholesome, just as American domestic opinion demanded. To many it seemed that the impossible had been achieved—proper society had been created two thousand miles from home in the middle of jungle and depraved natives. In early 1909 Rose van Hardeveld's family moved to Empire. She was impressed. There was “a really active American community … Here were nicely dressed, pretty young teachers and office workers. Clean, fine-looking, bronze-faced young chaps escorted them in the evenings to a dance or to the band concerts.”

One such office worker was Courtney Lindsay, whose long and detailed letters home have survived and offer a picture of everyday life on the Isthmus during the Goethals era. Lindsay arrived at the beginning of June 1907, about a month after Goethals took over. He was just short of his twentieth birthday. He had been working in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, for the local railway company when he met someone recently returned from the Isthmus on holiday. “He says it is not home, but on the order of a boarding school,” he wrote to his mother about the encounter. “The fare is not Del-monico's, but he says it is eatable and that if you want you can save half your salary.”

Thus encouraged, Lindsay secured a position in Panama paying $125 a month. His mother was a friend of Major David Gaillard, ICC commissioner and head of the Central Division, so this might have helped. Lindsay's job was the same as Mary Chatfield's first position—stenographer in Arango's department of meteorology and river hydraulics, based in Panama City. So like Chatfield, Lindsay would be part of the “B-echelon” of canal personnel, working far from the construction and excavation “front line.” He wouldn't even see the canal, apart from the view from the train, until eighteen months after his arrival. His letters show none of the heroic motivation of someone like Jan van Hardeveld.

His first impressions were favorable, however. “Every day I am better pleased that I came,” he wrote to his mother a week after his landing. He had quickly judged the ICC-provided food—”things are not always very clean”—and made alternative arrangements, eating lunch at the house of a Jamaican woman. “I have adapted myself pretty well to the climate and conditions,” he wrote home a week later. He had even put on weight, and was, he reported, taking three grains of quinine every morning.

He was also agreeably surprised by the social life in the city. His boss tended to hand on invitations to gala occasions to his employees. “The Tivoli is giving a reception and dance tonight to the Vice-President,” he wrote home excitedly at the beginning of July. “So I am having my dress suit pressed for the occasion. This is the second time I had used it in the month I have been here. I never wore it once in Savannah.” His younger sister wrote to him, asking about the pineapples and her brother's romantic prospects.

Pineapples are only fifteen cents “spickity,” he wrote back. “Yes, there are a great many American ladies, not so many girls. This is a very ‘marrying’ place, and nearly all the good looking girls are Mrs. There are a few exception among the nurses however.”

But it did not take long for Lindsay to adopt some of Chatfield's cynicism about the actual work. Less than a month in, he wrote that as the department boss was away, “things have already begun to slack up. This job is like plenty of Gov't places in the States. There are one and a half men to do one man's work.” His immediate superior was an Englishman, Vince, “who seems to have caught the ‘manana fever.’” He was dismissive, too, of the endless congressional committes visiting the Isthmus, assessing the works while being treated to a round of dances and parties. “Now what can they tell about it?” he asked in a letter in November. “Seems to me it is a trip on Uncle Sam.” The following month he reported that “the novelty has worn off and nothing ever happens.” There was a friend of his, Hugh Wills, due out soon to join him, but for now he felt homesick, left out of his life at home (“I'm doomed to bachelor hood”), and sad about being away for Christmas.

His first Christmas Day on the Isthmus turned out to be all right. He went fishing in the Bay of Panama, had dinner at the Tivoli, and then went to a party at the Corrozal Club, where there was singing, stories, music, and boxing bouts. Soon after, he took a week's sick leave at the sanatorium on beautiful Taboga. All Gold Roll employees were entitled to fifteen days’ paid sick leave per six months of work. For many, this was just a nice extra holiday. Lindsay says that while he was on Taboga “I've never felt better in my life.” In the New Year his hometown friend arrived and Lindsay began to feel settled in. His bachelor residence was refurbished and electric lighting installed. There were trips to Portobelo and to Old Panama, the city up the coast destroyed by Sir Henry Morgan back in 1671, now a picturesque ruin. In March he reported that a show he had attended, the “Empire Lady Minstrels” was “the best amateur entertainment I've seen in a long while.” All the while he was learning Spanish, and was proud to report that he could now say, “I have neither one nor the other but I have the trunk which the sailor from the ship of the Captain gave me.”

In August 1908 he returned home for his annual leave, and when he came back he found himself posted to Culebra. It was a bit of a comedown after Panama City. “Nothing ever happens here,” he complained in a letter to his father. “The only thing worth mentioning since I came on the 20th of last month has been the repair of the YMCA phonograph.” But he soon adjusted. “Am beginning to like Culebra better,” he wrote home the following month. “The YMCA is an oasis in the desert. I enjoy the bowling, indoor baseball and gymnasium very much.” In January, he reported, he “broke into Culebra society” by attending a dance at the club. “The hall is small, and the floor not near so good. Still it is rather livelier than the Tivoli,—it's more like a country town where everybody knows everybody else.”

His only health scare came at the end of this year. He spent Christmas in the hospital, thinking he had malaria. But no “bugs” were found in his blood, and although he was given quinine “steadily,” he was discharged after a week. The following year saw the young American acting in a farce called Facing the Music and learning bridge; there were moments when he really felt in love with Panama. “It seems to me,” he wrote to his mother in October 1910, “that a dry season night down here, with a moon, is about as near perfection as this world ever gets.”

The following year, it would get even better. In May his friend Hugh became engaged to one of the Ancón nurses, a Miss Dequine. Before the end of the year, Lindsay had followed suit, having met an English nurse, Olive. “She's just about the nicest thing in the girl line there is,” he told his parents. As soon as family quarters became available, they married at the small Colón Episcopal Church, Christchurch-by-the-Sea, built back in the 1860s by the Panama Railroad.

he majority of Gold Roll employees accepted the way in which the canal authorities dominated and organized their lives. Visiting journalists, however, were fascinated by the white society that had been created. Everything, all the essentials of life, were supplied by the “state.” What was this system? they asked. Was it some form of “military paternalism”? Or “welfare socialism”? Certainly life in the Zone had little in common with the ideas of the capitalist democracy at home. No one was allowed to own meaningful property or vote for the Zone government. And it seemed to work. “The commissary is an assured success,” reported one journalist in early 1909. “It has shown the absurdity of the ancient superstition that organized society, the state, cannot attend to the needs of a people as economically and with as efficient service as can an individual or a corporation.”

American journalist Arthur Bullard, who had been in Barbados to watch Karner recruit laborers, actually tracked down a member of the U.S. Socialist Party among the Gold Roll workforce. He asked him whether he was living in his ideal state. “First of all, there ain't any democracy down here,” Bullard was told. “It's a Bureaucracy that's got Russia backed off the map … Government ownership don't mean anything to us working men unless we own the Government. We don't here—this is the sort of thing Bismarck dreamed of.”

The concentration of power in one man, the “Czar of Panama” George Goethals, had resulted, one journalist wrote, in “the establishment of an autocratic form of government for the Canal Zone … not in accord with the principles of democracy.” Zone policeman Harry Franck described the regime as “enlightened despotism.” According to him, it seems to have succeeded through the character of Goethals himself, whom he describes as “an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent ruler.” This is echoed in many other accounts. Rose van Hardeveld also calls Goethals “omnipresent.” “The Old Man” as he became known, “was so constantly on the job that we never thought of him as being at home or eating or sleeping.” “Goethals dominates over everybody and everything,” Mallet reported to London. To anyone in Panama, this was unmistakable. “You can't realize what the Chief Engineer is until you live on the Isthmus,” wrote Courtney Lindsay home. “His power is as near absolute as any man's can get.”

Goethals himself was uneasy about the nature of his regime but believed it was the only way to get the canal built. But there is more than a hint of Big Brother in some of his methods. Officials, known as “spotters,” toured the works and the terminal cities in disguise, not only to punish “loafing,” but also to weed out potential troublemakers. The spotters had the power to deport “undesirables.” “The system is one that would be very repugnant to Englishmen,” reported a London journalist. “Employés dismissed are given no notice nor granted any compensation.” “The men complain of the savage rigor with which even petty misdemeanours are punished all along the Zone,” wrote an American journalist in an article published in April 1909. Two men who attacked the Zone government in a New Orleans newspaper made the mistake of remaining on the Isthmus. They were arrested, prosecuted for criminal libel, and imprisoned. A watching journalist described the sentences as “judicial terrorism … the kind of justice dealt out in some, if not most, of the courts is not the sort that would be tolerated long in a democracy.”

But on the whole, more subtle pressures were sufficient to keep criticism at bay. Those who complained were labeled “kickers.” As one perceptive American journalist explained: “there has grown up in Panama circles somewhat of a tendency to monopolize patriotism, and identify it with official designs, means, methods, and management. Dissent or a different viewpoint is too often hailed with cries of ‘Enemies of the Canal.’” To criticize the leadership, then, was un-American, as many Zonians believed. One of the first resolutions of the new Women's Club in Panama was “that every club-woman in the Canal Zone constitute herself a committee of one to foster favourable instead of adverse criticism of the conditions of the Zone and of the Isthmus of Panama.”

Goethals sat at the top of a rigid hierarchical structure. There was a racial “ladder,” of course, with the Americans and the hundred or so British at the top; next came the Panamanian and Spanish “almost-whites;” at the bottom were the blacks, with the West Indians beneath the locals in status. But within the small white community there was also an obvious pecking order. “Caste lines are as sharply drawn as in India,” wrote Harry Franck. “The Brahmins are the ‘gold’ employees … But—and herein we out-Hindu the Hindus—the Brahmin caste itself is divided and subdivided into infinitesimal gradations. Every rank and shade of man has a different salary, and exactly in accordance with that salary he is housed, furnished, and treated down to the least item,—number of electric lights, candle-power, size of bed, size of bookcase.” Such differences in status felt immensely important. “D, who is a quartermaster at $225, may be on ‘How-are-you-old-man?’ terms with G, who is a station agent and draws $175. But Mrs. D never thinks of calling on Mrs. G socially,” Franck continued.

But if the Zone had become, as the diplomat William Sands complained, a “drearily efficient state,” the terminal cities remained, in comparison, anarchic and chaotic. Panama City had more than 200 bars, Colón 131, including 40 in one street. Every Saturday night special trains were put into service, bringing in hundreds of canal workers. For Harry Franck, Panama and Colón acted “as a sort of safety valve, where a man can … blow off steam; get rid of the bad internal vapors that might cause explosion in a ventless society.”

It was, then, a less than ideal setting for the fostering of understanding and respect between Americans and their Panamanian hosts. The Americans “blowing off steam” seemed to the locals loud, rude, and drunk. Harry Franck describes an American “type” “grown so painfully prevalent”: “a chestless youth… whose proofs of manhood are cigarettes and impudence and discordant noise, and whose national superiority is demonstrated by the maltreating of all other races.” Clashes continued, often centered on the notorious Cocoa Grove brothel in Colón. In September 1908, in Panama City, an American was killed and another seriously wounded in an altercation between citizens and U.S. sailors. The Zone authorities demanded and received permission to patrol the terminal cities to prevent a recurrence of fighting, and the Panamanian government, protesting that the fault was with the drunkenness of the Americans, was forced to pay an indemnity of nearly half a million dollars to the United States.

Many Americans considered the Panamanians backward, deluded about their own importance, and lacking in gratitude for everything the United States had done for them. In March 1908 an article appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post entitled “Life in Spigotty Land: The Cohorts of King Yardage.” Its author, Samuel G. Blythe, described the “scores of clear-eyed, broad-shouldered and hard-headed Americans who are carrying out their part of the work without hope of fame, but as Americans, doing an American job in an American way.” Little heed was paid to the Panamanians, he wrote, “who are funny little people, vainglorious and, thinking they achieved their own liberty, have an idea the canal is being dug for their especial benefit.” In fact, the truth was “the republic was made for our convenience and it is held up by the scruff of its neck by this Government.”

Indeed, neither of the republic's political parties could afford to antagonize Uncle Sam. The Conservatives, many still favoring annexation by the United States, saw American power as the best defense of their interests. The Liberals needed the Americans as well. Unless the forthcoming 1908 presidential elections were supervised by the United States, there would be an inevitable repeat of the fixed municipal and National Assembly votes of two years previously. The government candidate, backed by the outgoing Amador, was Ricardo Arias, brother of Tomás, and an ultrarightist. The Liberal Party, thinking its own candidate would never stand a chance, backed José de Obaldía for the presidency. Obaldía had been a popular vice president and was also close to the Americans, having served as ambassador in Washington.

It proved a shrewd move. Taft considered Arias corrupt and utterly lacking in scruples, while Obaldía was seen as the best guarantee of a smooth succession. Predicting that Arias, with Amador's help, would so blatantly fix the vote that an uprising would result, he decided to acquiesce in Liberal demands that the United States supervise the election. In the meantime, William Nelson Cromwell popped up again helping run Obaldía's campaign. Realizing he was fatally out of favor with the Americans, Arias withdrew and Obaldía was elected unopposed.

Clearly the Liberal Party no longer seemed a threat to American interests in Panama. Taft affirmed, “We have such control in Panama that no Government elected by them will feel a desire to antagonize the American Government.” Indebted to the United States for its 1908 election victory, the party under Obaldía's presidency would make no trouble for Goethals. But then, at the beginning of 1910, the president died. His successor as first designate was Carlos Mendoza, who had been a leader of the revolution in Colón back in November 1903. According to Mallet, Mendoza was “extremely tactful and friendly towards everybody,” but for the Americans there was a problem. Mendoza was a mulatto. Not only would having a nonwhite Panamanian president contrast a little too sharply with the racial hierarchy in the Zone, but Mendoza, according to Sands's replacement as U.S. chargé d'affaires, possessed “a racial inability to refrain long from abuse of power.”

Mallet reports that on the prompting of Goethals, a junior officer in the U.S. legation, Richard O. Marsh, “put it about to the most notorious babblers in the city that the United States Government would regard the election of Senor Mendoza as unconstitutional, and that if the National Assembly persisted in his election a military occupation of Panama would be the inevitable result.” Mendoza formally withdrew his candidacy and an elderly white Liberal patrician was installed as president. “It is really farcical to talk of Panama as an independent state,” wrote Mallet to the Foreign Office. “It is really simply an annex of the Canal Zone.” The United States’ grip on the republic would last until the end of the construction period (and, of course, beyond). Mallet reported in 1913, after the election the previous year of Belisario Porras, the erstwhile “notorious hater of foreigners,” that it was now impossible to be president without being “docile to American wishes.”

n the United States, the end of 1908 saw a presidential election campaign between Taft and William Jennings Bryan. Roosevelt had publicly backed his secretary of war. But then, a month before the vote, Panama was once again front-page news. The story had been reignited in September of the previous year when Cromwell's claim for payment from the New Company, being arbitrated in Paris, was leaked to the New York press. Undoubtedly the lawyer had put a favorable gloss on his description of work performed for his client, but the extent of influence he claimed in the heart of U.S. government was deeply unsettling. Then, in October 1908, the New York World published a story that accused Taft's influential brother Charles, and Roosevelt's brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson, of being members and beneficiaries of the syndicate supposedly set up to profit from the sale of the New Company to the U.S. government. Further allegations were made during the campaign as the Democrats saw a way to attack the Republicans. Cromwell, the World claimed, was “practically the Secretary of War as far as the Panama Canal was concerned,” and his “law offices at No. 41 Wall Street were even regarded by many as the real executive offices of the Panama Canal.”

Roosevelt, furious that what he considered to be the greatest foreign policy achievement of his administration was once again mired in scandal, brought a prosecution for criminal libel against Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the World, two of his editors, and two publishers of the Indianapolis News, which had picked up the story. To prepare his defense, Pulitzer sent two of his best investigative reporters to Washington, Paris, Panama, and Bogotá to get the “Untold Story of Panama.” Followed everywhere by Secret Service agents, they found obstruction at every turn. In Paris they were told that the details of shareholders were in a sealed vault. When their lawyers eventually got access, they found the records virtually nonexistent. The paper's British counsel commented, “I have never known in my lengthy experience in company matters any public corporation, much less one of such vast importance, having so completely disappeared and removed all traces of its existence as the New Panama Canal Company.” In Panama, the journalists found vital cable evidence destroyed and the “revolutionaries”—unwilling to lose the trust and support of the United States—good at keeping political secrets. They denied everything, even meeting Cromwell.

But by now the cases had become more about freedom of speech and federal versus state government than about specific allegations. When the trial started in 1909, it was deemed unconstitutional for the government to “drag citizens from distant States to the capital to be tried.” Judge Anderson dismissed the case, and the evidence of the syndicate and of United States collusion in the “revolution” was never put to the test. The judge did, however, have one final comment to make on the case: “There are many peculiar circumstances about the Panama canal business,” he said. “Rather suddenly it became known that it could be procured for $40,000,000. There were a number of people who thought there was something not just exactly right about that transaction, and I will say for myself that I have a curiosity to know what the real truth was … I am suspicious about it now.”

n the Isthmus, however, the “Army of Panama,” now numbering nearly fifty thousand, kept up 1908's high excavation total during the following year, as fatalities, particularly from disease, continued to fall. The largest cause of death, for the first time, was in 1909 from accidents on the works. On the Atlantic Division huge amounts of silt and sand were being sucked from the channel from coast to deep water, the old French canal from the bay to the site of the Gatún Dam and locks had been effectively redredged to carry materials to the construction side, and old French-era dredges, many twenty-five years old, were making progress in the channel from the bay to the locks.

On the Pacific Division there had also been steady progress, working in from the sea, shifting material with dredge, shovel, or hydraulic jet. In the harbor, an 11,000-foot-long breakwater was under construction to guard against submarines, and to prevent the channel from silting up. It was proving slow work as the dumped rock either disappeared into the mud of the bay or pushed up other sandbanks nearby. Eventually over ten times the originally estimated quantity of spoil would be required. But in the Central Division, the infamous Culebra Cut, la grande tranchée, had shown itself once more to be the biggest challenge of all.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!