Modern history

16

Panic

You are going to have the fever,
Yellow eyes!

—JAMES STANLEY GILBERT

I

Later, in his own defense, Chief Engineer John Findley Wallace would say that he was denied the free hand promised at the time he accepted the job. He would complain of red tape—“System gone to seed”—and of the mad clamor to “make the dirt fly.”

How much autonomy, if any, he may have been assured is impossible to know. But the red tape was quite as horrendous as he said it was and in that regard he was wholly blameless. What began in Washington as a conscientious concern over possible misuse of funds, anything that might nurture graft, rapidly became an obsessive fear of the least extravagance. Each member of the seven-headed Isthmian Canal Commission considered himself personally responsible for every step taken, every dollar expended. An elaborate, insanely deliberate system of forms and regulations was handed down and every detail of procedure had to be cleared by the seven who sat two thousand miles from the scene. The well-meaning but intractable Walker and his commissioners had to pass with due formality on virtually every purchase voucher, irrespective of importance, with the inevitable result that delivery of equipment and material took months instead of weeks to reach Colón. One shipment of urgently needed water pipe ordered in August would not arrive until January, and then by sailing schooner. When Wallace, like Gorgas, cabled Washington in despair, he too was “delicately informed” of the high cost of telegraphic communication.

The appointment of any employee at a salary exceeding $1,800 required the approval of the full commission. The commissioners very often had trouble agreeing with one another, while Walker’s insistence on his prerogatives as chairman had an increasingly stultifying effect. When he departed from office later, no less than 160 requisitions would be found unopened in his desk, many of them months old.

On the Isthmus, to hire a single handcart for an hour required six separate vouchers. Carpenters were forbidden to saw boards over ten feet in length without a signed permit. The clerical work required for each fortnightly payroll was amazing: by September, with 1,800 workers on the books, payment took six and a half hours and involved the filling out of 7,500 separate sheets of paper weighing in all 103 pounds.

In anticipation of long delays in Washington, department heads would order material in excessive quantity and well in advance of need, only to see more shipments arrive than there were men enough to unload, or a staggering oversupply of some odd item for which there was no real or immediate demand. Wallace’s chief architect, as an illustration, determined that fifteen thousand new doors would be required eventually, for which he would need fifteen thousand pairs of hinges. Consequently, twelve thousand doors were shipped to Colón without delay, but because someone in the Washington office decided that fifteen thousand pairs of hinges would be insufficient, and because the architect’s original order appears also to have been inadvertently duplicated by someone else in Washington, the order of doors was accompanied by 240,000 pairs of hinges.

If Philippe Bunau-Varilla, as he told his admiring American audiences, never knew a single day of despair in Panama despite the most crushing setbacks, John Findley Wallace seems to have known little else but despair. From the time of his initial reconnaissance in July, he had been openly incredulous and discouraged. He had seen only “jungle and chaos from one end of the Isthmus to the other.” Yet in fact there was comparatively little jungle to face along the actual canal line; in contrast to the French in 1880, he and his engineers began with the decided advantage of being able to see the problems before them along the length of the fifty-mile corridor. The only chaos, when Wallace first arrived, was in the forlorn wreckage left in the path—the millions of dollars’ worth of French equipment lying in huge scrap heaps, the silent lines of rusted locomotives overgrown with vines and brush. Within a mile radius of Cristobal (the former Christophe-Colomb) there were eighty French dredging machines toppled over or sunk in the shallows. Shiploads of beautifully machined and tooled castings for the Eiffel locks had been dumped in the same vicinity, and for miles along the canal line the discarded rails and pipes, the enormous gears and axles and hundreds of nameless parts and pieces strewn everywhere, gave the look of bitterly contested ground in some titanic battle of machines.

Most of the French buildings, unoccupied for years, were in sad disrepair. Floor joists and roof beams had rotted; mold, rats, and termites had all taken their toll. Some of the work camps had become so overgrown by vines and bamboo scrub as to be nearly impossible to find. Several years later, while studying one of the old French maps, George Goethals would note a camp marked Caimito Mulato that did not appear on the American maps. He sent some men to look into it and they found an entire village built by the French completely buried in the jungle.

The Panama Railroad was also in deplorable condition, service slow and unpredictable, equipment worn out, coaches ramshackle and filthy, freight cars in short supply and ridiculously undersized. The entire line was virtually without signals or siding. Bridges were in dangerously poor repair.

But the French had left their successors a canal, a navigable water passage upward of twenty-five feet deep and seventy feet wide, running inland from Colón to Bohio, a distance of eleven miles. At Bohio, across the river from the railroad, was a vast excavation in solid rock, where the Eiffel locks were to have been built. For the next thirty miles, as far as Miraflores, there was evidence of excavation along the entire route, except for one seven-mile stretch just before the summit at Culebra. At Culebra itself the ground had been cut to a depth of 163 feet below its original surface; and beyond Miraflores, through the salt marshes of the lower Rio Grande on out to the Bay of Panama, ran another open channel. Indeed, to most new arrivals “the first surprise” of Panama was the “magnificence of the French failure.” “One cannot spend much time on the Isthmus without discovering in himself a mighty respect for the French” was the grudging conclusion of a writer for Everybody’s magazine. “They showed skill in every part of their work,” wrote a correspondent in The Outlook, “and the excellence of all their material is the wonder of every practical man who tests it.” A third man declared, “One appreciated more and more the wonderful amount those French had really accomplished. It is vastly more than the popular impression . . . It touches from ocean to ocean.”

To be sure, there was much that could deceive the novice. The channel at the Pacific end was scarcely a third as deep as it would have to be; even the terraced cut at Culebra, by far the most dramatic evidence of the French assault, was a bare beginning compared to the canyon that would have to be created before a ship passed through.

What is more, a large part, something over half of the French work, would be of little or no use to a canal of the kind planned by the Walker Commission, as had been pointed out in the commission’s own report. For instance, the huge network of diversion channels built by the French as a last-resort answer to the problem of the Chagres River would be of only marginal value to a lock-and-lake canal, and those channels alone ran to more than thirty-three miles.

Still, the useful portions of the French work amounted to approximately 30,000,000 cubic yards of excavation; that was 30,000,000 cubic yards of Panama that no longer stood in the path of the canal, a volume equal to about a third of the excavation of the Suez Canal.

Locomotives and dump cars and two French excavators were still in service at Culebra, where the Compagnie Nouvelle had been scratching away, however slowly, since 1895. Quantities of French tools, machines, stationary engines, carloads of spare parts, were still safely under cover. Six large machine shops and a power plant were in working order. Furthermore, a surprising percentage of the equipment abandoned by the wayside, despite its appearance, could be put back in running order, as Wallace would soon determine. By December of 1904 there would be six of the old French excavators in use in Culebra Cut. By 1905 a hundred of the boxy little Belgian locomotives would be in service and two thousand French dump cars. Wrecked dredges and sunken tugboats would be raised, floated, rebuilt. Of the 2,149 buildings left by the French, a total of 1,500 would be refurbished as time went on.

The real problem, as much nearly as with the bureaucracy in Washington, was with Wallace himself.

Wallace was a competent enough technician and someone who worked well with men of large affairs. The son of a Presbyterian clergyman, equable and intelligent-looking, he had built railroads, and a number of impressive terminals for the Illinois Central (at Chicago, New Orleans, Memphis); he had devised the system for transporting the crowds in and out of the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 and few American engineers had attained such professional honors. At fifty-one, he was a past president of the Western Society of Engineers, past president of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, and a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Great Britain. But at Panama he never displayed the least enthusiasm for the work. He was tentative, withdrawn, wholly uninspirational. Men who served under him would have nothing particularly derogatory to say about him afterward, nor anything very complimentary. Most seriously he appeared to have no clear idea how he would build the canal.

He said he wanted a year at least to experiment with the French equipment—to test it against modern American equipment—and to experiment with various kinds of American equipment. And though he would insist later on that he had a “regular system” in mind the whole while, his assistants were never given the slightest hint as to what it might be.

He had started digging at Culebra without delay, or rather he simply continued on with the machines and token force of the Compagnie Nouvelle. By early November he had managed to install a new American steam shovel—a ninety-five-ton Bucyrus, a machine three times the size of the American shovels used by the French—and on November 12 it clanked into motion and began gouging away at the brick-red slope of Gold Hill, on the east bank of the Cut. The impression at home was that the American canal was under way. It was one of the year’s outstanding developments, in company with the Russo-Japanese War and Theodore Roosevelt’s victory over the hapless Democratic candidate for President, Judge Alton B. Parker. But the effort at Culebra was entirely random. For all practical purposes it meant nothing. The laborers who had to put down the track for the new shovel and dirt trains did not even have the right tools. Railroad spikes were being driven with axes.

Like those in Washington with whom he felt at such cross-purposes, Wallace insisted on putting second things first. Had George Morison been alive and serving as head of the Isthmian Canal Commission or as chief engineer, this would not have happened. (“It is a piece of work that reminds me of what a teacher said . . . that if he had five minutes in which to solve a problem he would spend three deciding the best way to do it.”) Wallace failed to see that his primary responsibility, the priority task, was not to dig but to prepare the way—to formulate a comprehensive plan, to assemble the necessary equipment, to provide facilities for feeding and housing the army of laborers who would do the work, to put the railroad in order, to settle the problems of yellow fever and malaria in the quickest, most effective manner possible. And he failed to see that it was his duty to make all this plain to the commission. The call to make the dirt fly was as naïve and misguided as the cry of “On to Richmond” before the First Battle of Bull Run, and would look equally silly in the light of subsequent events.

A charitable assessment of Wallace by his successor, John Stevens, was that he failed because he was not sufficiently aggressive, that a more demanding approach with his superiors would have straightened things out. (There were times, Stevens wrote, “whenfighting becomes a righteous duty.”) When the commissioners came on their inspection tour in August, daily conferences were held at Ancon for nearly a month. In September Wallace returned to Washington to confer at still greater length. So it was not that he had no opportunity to make his case.

The men on the line seldom ever saw him. To his office staff in the old French headquarters on Cathedral Plaza, it seemed his strongest views too often centered on trifles. When an assistant, William Karner, kept him posted with weekly reports during his time in Washington, reports that Karner wrote in longhand by lamplight after hours and amid swarms of flying insects, Wallace, in one reply dated October 16, commended him for the penmanship but added peevishly that he did not like to read reports written in longhand.

Instructions were constantly changed. Men were abruptly shifted from one job to another, seldom with explanation.

“Send forth the best ye breed”, Kipling wrote in his ironic poem “The White Man’s Burden.” But those being sent forth by Washington were seldom even second-best. “One young man came down with an appointment as a rodman,” William Karner recalled. “On the supposition that he was a graduate of some technical school, I asked him where he graduated. He said he was not a graduate. I then asked him where he got his engineering education. He replied he had none. I then asked him if he knew the difference between a level and a transit and he frankly replied he did not . . . . He lived in one of the southern states and said his member of Congress wrote him if he wanted a position on the work he could get him appointed.”

Of some two dozen supposedly experienced track hands recruited by the Washington office none had ever worked on a railroad. Lieutenant Robert E. Wood, one of the few Army officers sent by the Isthmian Canal Commission, would recall, “The beginnings of the force recruited in 1904 . . . were largely Americans who had left the United States for this country’s good—railroad men who were blacklisted on the American railroads, drunks, and what we called tropical tramps, American drifters in Latin America.”

Even the best of the new men were young and inexperienced as a rule, and yet often found themselves thrust into positions of critical importance knowing little or nothing of what was expected of them. Frank B. Maltby, an engineer from Pittsburgh, was told on arrival to report to Wallace, who, after the usual observations concerning the heat and rain, plunged into the subject of what was being done and what should be done in the immediate future.

Nothing was said as to how I came to be there [Maltby wrote afterward], my appointment, my rank or salary, and I do not recall that anything was said about dredging, except in a very general way. He then said, “I want you to take charge of the Atlantic and Pacific divisions. You will make your headquarters at Cristobal, as that is the much more important end of the canal at present. You can live in house No. 1 [the old de Lesseps’ Palace]. There is a resident engineer in charge there now, who will give you information as to what is to be done. I want you to build up an organization so complete and efficient that you won’t have to do anything but sit on the veranda and smoke good cigars.”

By November there were 3,500 men at work. New recruits from the States who had been promised clean, furnished quarters were fortunate to find space to put a canvas cot in an unfurnished, often miserably small room with five or six others. Many of the old French quarters were put in service before repairs had been made. While two new “hotels” were under construction, the majority of the men were left to find what they could in Colón or Panama City, where decent rooms rented for three to four times what they would have at home. For unskilled black workers—that is, for about two out of every three—there was practically nothing to choose from, with the result that they crowded into the foul native side of Colón or whatever shacks could be found or improvised in villages beside the railroad.

The food available was meager, monotonous, high-priced, and as detrimental to morale as nearly all other troubles combined. There was no ice, no fresh milk, rarely a fresh vegetable; the local bread was tasteless and dirty. No one dared trust the water. Men went for weeks on a diet of canned sardines, canned Danish butter, and crackers. Nearly everyone was disheartened; a few had already packed up and left for home.

•   •   •

Wallace was not oblivious to the situation. He had decided at the outset, for example, to provide Panama City and Colón with their own water system (which was the reason for the order of pipe) and to install sewage facilities in both cities. There is even in his organizational headings a basic appreciation of the diversity of tasks to be met other than digging dirt: Supplies, Personnel and Quarters, Buildings and Architecture, Machinery, Maps and Printing, Climatic Conditions and River Hydraulics, Communications. His thoughts, nonetheless, were tied up with the work at Culebra. Only by digging could he train the men, only by digging could he determine his unit cost—“the cost of explosives, cost of loosening and excavating material, cost of loading, cost of transportation, cost of disposition, and the cost of all the various elements of supervision and the maintenance of equipment, track and appliances, on the basis of the cubic yard.” Only by digging could he satisfy Washington with monthly progress reports.

To his credit it can also be said that, as a result of his experiments, he had settled on the Bucyrus shovel as the machine to dig the canal. It was altogether a sound decision of far-reaching consequences. When in October, specifications for eleven shovels were put out for bids in Washington, they were those of the Bucyrus machine and Bucyrus, which was also low bidder, got the entire order. In the spring Wallace would order a dozen more.1

But it happens that Wallace was also stalling for time. He was in no rush to present a comprehensive plan because he had privately concluded that the canal as conceived by the earlier Walker Commission was a vast mistake. A series of recent test borings made along the site of the proposed Bohio dam indicated bedrock at not less than 168 feet below sea level, a revelation he kept to himself prior to the visit of Secretary Taft at the end of November.

Taft had been sent to straighten out certain complications with the new Republic of Panama, in particular the tariff policy and postal rates within the American Zone, and to convey the personal assurance of the President (now that he was embarking on his first full term in office) that the United States had no imperialistic designs on Panama, that the Americans were there for no purpose other than to build the canal. Taft, who weighed approximately three hundred pounds, was credited by one admiring reporter with “dominating the whole scene.” With the official entourage also was William Nelson Cromwell, the American counsel for the new republic, who kept very close to Taft the entire time, which had the effect of making Taft look even larger.

Taft stood with Mrs. Taft in receiving lines; he waltzed “light as a feather” with Señora Amador; he perspired mightily; and in the open, judicious manner that had made him so effective in the Philippines, he conferred at length with Amador and Arango. Panamanian goods, it was agreed, would enter the Zone duty-free; postage rates in the Zone and in Panama would be the same.

But Taft also returned to Washington convinced that the Isthmian Canal Commission must not continue as constituted, that virtually all problems with the work could be traced directly to the office of Admiral Walker, that the canal was a far larger, more bewildering task than anyone at home yet grasped, and that it must be a canal at sea level.

The futility of mounting the largest overseas effort in the country’s history, the largest public work ever attempted anywhere, by placing its fate in the hands of seven men in Washington had already occurred to Taft, as to Roosevelt. But not until Taft had been to Panama, not until he had listened to Wallace expound on his problems, was he sufficiently convinced to make a move. Like many men of decisive mind, Taft prided himself in recognizing the same quality in others. During their ten days on the Isthmus, he and Mrs.Taft stayed with Wallace and his wife. Wallace had impressed Taft with his “earnestness and interest in the work, his ability, his facility of expression. . . .” (Wallace, the engineer, had also had the forethought to have one large dining-room chair taken to a blacksmith shop and thoroughly bolted and braced to bear the weight of the distinguished visitor, a courtesy Taft particularly appreciated, since, as he told Wallace, it gave him a great feeling of security throughout his stay.)

Wallace had become a frequent correspondent thereafter and because of Roosevelt’s boundless respect for Taft the repercussions were not long in coming. On January 13, Roosevelt asked Congress to reduce the seven-man commission to a group of three, a solution specifically urged by Wallace. A sea-level passage became a common topic once again and an issue of controversy in the newspapers.

So while Congress debated what to do about the canal commission and Roosevelt toyed with the idea of still another blue-ribbon technical board to tell him which kind of canal it ought to be, Wallace continued with his “experiments” at Culebra. By January of the new year there were two Bucyrus shovels at work in the Cut and 1,500 men; but the shovels could not operate at even a quarter of their theoretical efficiency because there were too few trains to haul the spoil away and because what trains there were kept running off the tracks. And without an overall plan the whole effort was no less pointless than before.

The possibility of replacing Wallace had been considered, but not seriously. He was, Governor Davis reported, a “very superior man, and he ought to be retained,” thus confirming what Taft already knew.

•   •

John Wallace had one further problem. He lived in mortal terror of disease.

Detesting Panama—this “God-forsaken country” he called it in one letter to Taft—he appears to have been haunted by the fate of his French predecessors. The official residence of the chief engineer was the same as it had been for the French, the old Casa Dingler on the Avenida Central, where for the first several months, until the arrival of Mrs. Wallace, he lived with his assistant, William Karner. Even the servants were holdovers from the French regime—a French butler named Benoit, a French-speaking black cook from Martinique, a Panamanian houseboy, and a personal valet who apparently was descended from one of the Irish “navvies” who built the Panama Railroad. So Wallace had heard soon enough and in detail of all that had befallen the Dingler family. To the mental burden of unit costs and endless vouchers in triplicate, to the strange night sounds of the crumbling old city, was added a vision of stark tragedy within his own walls. Under such circumstances even a trained technical mind might begin to imagine things.

Before September and his return to Washington, he saw Karner taken ill with malaria and removed to Ancon Hospital. His valet was stricken and carried from the house, only to be followed by the cook. Wallace departed filled with morbid premonitions. When he returned in November, his wife came with him, a sign of confidence it appeared, but in no time the story was all over the Isthmus that he had also taken the precaution to bring back two expensive metal caskets.

II

The first case of yellow fever was brought into the Santo Tomás Hospital in Panama City on November 21. The patient, an unemployed Italian laborer, had been found in a restaurant near the center of town. He was isolated at once in a screened ward and he eventually recovered. Little was said of the matter.

Of six more cases in December none was a canal employee and none was fatal. In January eight more cases were reported, including three on board a steamship at Colón, of whom two died. But again the victims, members of a touring Italian opera company, had no connection with the canal enterprise. It was not until later in the month when the disease broke out on the cruiser Boston, anchored in Panama Bay, that official notice could no longer be avoided. The ship was immediately ordered north to Puget Sound and there was but one fatality, the ship’s doctor. The story, however, was out: YELLOW JACK IN PANAMA.

The mosquito specialists, meantime, had divided Panama City into eleven districts. Inspectors were assigned and a record was kept on every house, exactly as at Havana. The objective was an inventory of every essential well, water tank, cistern, water barrel, or water jar in the city. All that were unessential would be disposed of. But progress was maddeningly slow and the influx of new population increased steadily. The inspectors, mostly local men, had to be taught what to do. Frequently careless or indifferent, they had to be checked and double-checked, and a large segment of the native populace saw it all as some kind of nonsensical Yankee game played chiefly for their inconvenience.

Anyone taken suddenly ill, whatever the cause, was rushed to the closest hospital, put immediately in isolation and watched. Frank Maltby, the division head at Cristobal, became violently sick in the middle of one night, but of common diarrhea only, with the result that he spent the next week in the old French hospital in Colón. “People came and looked at me through the screen as if I were a wild animal of some sort.”

A retired Army engineer, a Colonel Philip G. Eastwick, a popular figure in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, arrived in Panama City to visit his son, a member of Wallace’s staff. He died of yellow fever the second week. A carpenter named Thomas Clark had been on the Isthmus only ten days when he died.

Most of Wallace’s people, some three hundred technicians and office help, worked in the headquarters building on the plaza where, during an earlier inspection, Gorgas had found mosquitoes breeding in almost every office, in certain small glass receptacles in which were kept the brushes used for copying letters. Yet even here his efforts were met with little or no cooperation. Wallace was “distrustful” of the mosquito program. He and his aides regarded Gorgas’ work as being largely experimental, like their own efforts at Culebra. The necessity for screening windows and doors in the building was brought repeatedly to Wallace’s attention and without effect. His chief architect, M. O. Johnson (the one who had ordered the doors and hinges), declared himself too busy with serious problems to start worrying about window screens. When Joseph Le Prince went to talk to him in his third-floor office, Johnson even joked about the fuss being made. He had, wrote Le Prince, “little faith in modern ideas pertaining to yellow fever transmission.”

To quell rumors about his own health, Wallace took time out to ride around town with his wife in an open carriage. Governor Davis cabled Washington to discount the stories in the press, which he categorized as “cruelly exaggerated.” Conditions were actually improving, Davis insisted. But then he also was suddenly so ill with malaria that he was unable to carry on with his duties.

•   •

Meantime, Congress having failed to do anything about the Spooner Act so that a more effective commission could be organized, Roosevelt simply asked for the resignations of the present commission, Admiral Walker as well, and the chief engineer was summoned to Washington to assist in organizing a new commission along the lines he had sketched for Secretary Taft.

Again seven members were appointed, since the Spooner Act still applied, but this time Roosevelt ingeniously arranged to have just three members serve as an executive committee. Control of the work was thus placed in the hands of three, not seven, and two of the three made a quorum. The other four, three of whom fulfilled the necessary military representation, were figureheads only. The new arrangement went into effect April 1, 1905.

So the first commission had lasted less than a year. Its members retired or returned to whatever they had been doing before, with the exception of Benjamin Harrod, who stayed on as one of the figureheads.2

Under the new system the real power was not simply vested in three men, but each of the three was to head a particular administrative department. The chairman, based in Washington, would look after the purchase of supplies and serve as liaison between the commission and the government. The chief engineer, for the first time, was to have full charge of the actual work on the Isthmus, while the governor would oversee health and sanitary conditions, besides the political administration of the American Zone.

Roosevelt’s first choice for chairman was former Secretary of War Elihu Root, who had succeeded brilliantly—and against bitter opposition—in giving the Army the greatest shake-up in its history. Privately Roosevelt expressed a willingness to pay Root almost any salary to take charge of the canal. If not Root, then he wanted the steel baron Henry Clay Frick. But neither man was at all interested in Panama, which Root referred to as “that graveyard of reputations.”

So the man chosen to head the second Isthmian Canal Commission, or I.C.C., was Theodore Perry Shonts, an Iowa lawyer turned railroad executive. Wallace had been among those who recommended Shonts for the job. Wallace would stay on as chief engineer. The new governor was Charles E. Magoon, a portly War Department lawyer whose specialty was colonial administration.

Taft announced the changes on April 3, but it was not until May 24 that Magoon and Wallace reached Colón. Taft, greatly concerned over increasingly grim accounts of sickness and chaos on the Isthmus, had urged Wallace to leave at once, not to wait for Magoon, who had other War Department affairs to wind up. But Wallace had wanted a vacation, and so spent another several weeks at his home in Illinois. His absence from the work was again stretched to nearly two months.

Newspapers around the country were carrying letters from embittered local citizens who had gone to Panama to build the canal. A file clerk from Cincinnati, Taft’s hometown, informed readers of the Enquirer that at the rate things were going the canal would not be finished for fifty years. A young man named Will Schaefer, declaring that he spoke for all the Americans in Panama, wrote to the New York Herald, “There is not a bit of amusement or pleasure of the remotest kind here . . . . It is a case of work, work, work, all day long, and infrequently all night long, with no reward in view.” Things were “altogether different” from what he had been led to believe.

“Tell the boys to stay home if they get only a dollar a day,” wrote Charles Carroll to his mother in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He was sick to death of the Panama Canal, he said in a letter picked up by the Pittsburgh papers. “Everybody is afflicted with running sores . . . . The meals would sicken a dog.”

Wallace, in an interview in New York, assured reporters that conditions were no worse than to be expected. “Everything is now proceeding in harmony, with a well-defined general plan.” In an article for Harper’s Weekly, sounding very like Jules Dingler, he further observed that good health on the Isthmus was nothing more than a question of personal deportment. There were no climatic effects that a “clean, healthy, moral American” could not readily withstand.

•   •

In fact, the crisis was both real and very apparent. Charles Magoon, soon after his arrival, made no effort to conceal his astonishment at the situation, reporting to Shonts of unrest and insecurity everywhere he turned, of employees who were “ill-paid, over-worked, ill-housed, ill-fed, and subjected to the hazards yellow fever, malaria.”

In Wallace’s absence, yellow fever had broken out in the Administration Building and among the first to be stricken and to die was the architect Johnson. Gorgas had personally attended to the case and could do little or nothing. The only known treatment for yellow fever was the same as it had always been—to keep the patient as quiet and as comfortable as possible and hope for the best. It had been over in a few days. Johnson, who was twenty-nine, had given up his job with the Illinois Central and had come to Panama at Wallace’s personal bidding. It was, wrote Governor Davis, like the “ending of many a bright young man I have seen on the battlefield.” Since Wallace had been away, Johnson was buried in Wallace’s metal casket.

Wallace’s auditor, Robert West, had died, leaving a wife and five children back in the States. J. J. Slattery, an executive secretary in the building, had suffered the same fate. Mrs. John Seager, wife of Wallace’s secretary, died. She had come to Panama as a bride only months before.

Young engineers and their families, some sixty people, had been hurriedly moved out of the city to a vacant building at Ancon Hospital. But in less than two weeks some two hundred employees had resigned, including several of the hospital staff. One nurse, upon reaching New York, told reporters that contrary to all declarations of the chief engineer—and much to her own amazement—yellow fever was taking the lives of “well set-up, clean boys with good principles.” One could be neither decadent nor French, apparently, and still succumb. “A white man’s a fool to go there and a bigger fool to stay,” declared another returning worker, Harry Brainard, of Albany.

“A feeling of alarm, almost amounting to panic, spread among the Americans on the Isthmus,” Magoon would write with total candor in his official report. “Many resigned their positions to return to the United States, while those who remained became possessed with a feeling of lethargy or fatalism resulting from a conviction that no remedy existed for the peril. There was a disposition to partly ignore or openly condemn and abandon all preventive measures . . . . The gravity of the crisis was apparent to all . . .” The “rank and file of the men began to believe that they were doomed just as had been the French before them,” Gorgas would recall.

Orders were issued that all unscreened windows in the Administration Building be kept closed. The building was fumigated repeatedly. Houses in the immediate area were fumigated. Gorgas even had the holy water in the font at the cathedral changed daily after it was found that mosquitoes were breeding there, a gesture many Panamanians looked upon as possibly some subtle new form of religious persecution. But with his limited manpower and desperately limited supplies there was only so much that he could do. One critical shortage, for example, was ordinary newspaper—sufficient paper of any kind—for sealing buildings prior to fumigation. When he cabled Washington to send two tons of old newspapers on the next ship, Washington cabled back to question the request. It was thought that he was asking for reading matter for his hospital patients and that two tons seemed excessive. As a result, the ship sailed without the paper and further fumigation was delayed for ten days.

The fever wards were filling rapidly. The Star & Herald had introduced a regular yellow-fever report that included both obituaries and a listing of all new cases. In Colón, local undertakers, familiar with previous epidemics, had stacks of coffins standing ready in plain view at the depot.

It was the time of “The Great Scare,” during which fully three-quarters of the Americans on the Isthmus fled for home. It was an episode that need never have happened and that most people, whether they stayed or left, would prefer to forget when things quieted down again, since the level of panic was so out of proportion to the actual seriousness of the epidemic. Compared to past experiences with yellow fever on the Isthmus, this was really only a mild flare-up.

Older hands among the railroad staff, veterans of the French effort, urged others to stay calm, but then it was they who also provided lurid renditions of 1885 and ‘86, or of the epidemic of just three years earlier, in 1902, when more than two hundred had died. In one instance in June, thirty new recruits who landed at Colón heard enough of such talk in their first few hours ashore to get back on board ship and return to New York.

You are going to have the fever,

Yellow eyes!

In about ten days from now

Iron bands will clamp your brow;

Your tongue resemble curdled cream,

A rusty streak the center seam;

Your mouth will taste of untold things,

With claws and horns and fins and wings;

Your head will weigh a ton or more,

And forty gales within it roar!

The poem “Yellow Eyes” and others of much the same vein had just appeared in a little volume with a burgundy-colored binding, Panama Pathwork, published by the Star & Herald. The author, James Stanley Gilbert, an American resident of Colón for many years, had done for Panama something comparable to what Robert Service was to do for the Yukon. His themes—in “Funeral Train,” “The Isthmian Way,” “King Fever,” “Beyond the Chagres”—were disease, alcoholism, ever-encroaching death, and the futility of any and all human endeavor associated with the valley of the Chagres River.

Beyond the Chagres River

’Tis said—the story’s old—

Are paths that lead to mountains

Of purest virgin gold;

But ’tis my firm conviction,

Whatever tales they tell,

That beyond the Chagres River

All paths lead straight to hell!

Funeral processions were continually passing through the streets. Funeral trains ran daily to Monkey Hill, their bells clanging the length of Front Street in Colón—or “Coal-on,” as the Americans pronounced it. People feeling the least sign of illness were immediately certain that the end had come. Governor Magoon, seized with chills one afternoon, stood at his window at Ancon watching what he felt sure was his last sunset.

•   •

Then, at the very height of the panic, in mid-June, only three weeks after his return, Chief Engineer Wallace and wife packed and sailed for New York. To an editor of the Star & Herald and the others who came to see him off, Wallace would say only that he had “matters of importance” to take up with Secretary Taft. But almost from the moment the ship cast off, rumors were flying to the effect that even Wallace had now fled and that he had no intention of ever returning. The Star & Herald carried a prominent, if tentative, denial: “To say the least it does not seem plausible that a man of the type of Mr. Wallace would give up a position like the one he was occupying in the United States . . . to come to the Isthmus to engineer the canal . . . then leave . . . at this stage of the game, when the work was scarcely begun.”

On July 3, with as yet nothing further in the paper concerning Wallace, came the stunning news that a man had died at Ancon Hospital of bubonic plague. A Barbadian, a stevedore on the wharf at La Boca, had been brought to the hospital on June 20 with what looked alarmingly like plague, a diagnosis that was confirmed by the autopsy. Keeping the cause of death secret, Gorgas and his staff moved with all possible speed. The La Boca wharf was put under immediate quarantine. Hundreds of rat traps were set, poison was put out; the barracks where the man had taken ill was fumigated; two ships tied up at the wharf were towed into the bay and were fumigated—all in less than twenty-four hours. The following day La Boca was declared officially off-limits and a police cordon was positioned around the entire area, on land and water. Buildings were fumigated a second time. Walls, floors, and ceilings were sprayed with a solution of bichloride of mercury. Soiled clothes and dirty bedding were soaked in the same thing. Garbage was carried away. Chicken coops, animal pens, latrines, were torn down and burned, while in Panama City a bounty of ten cents was offered for all rats and mice. Among the hundreds of rats killed at La Boca—rats the size of guinea pigs, as one Panamanian recalled—several were found to be infected with plague.

In June, despite all Gorgas’ efforts, the incidence of yellow fever had been double what it was in May—62 known cases, 19 of which were fatal. There had been two or three cases of smallpox about which very little was said. For months malaria and pneumonia, tuberculosis and dysentery, had been taking a much heavier toll in life than had yellow fever, and especially among black workers, a fact no one had as yet faced up to. In all more than a thousand people had been admitted to the canal hospitals alone. But the news of one case of bubonic plague was like a scream in the night. In the language of one official report, the number of those who left the Isthmus was now “limited only by the ability of the outgoing boats to carry them away.”

•   •

Chief Engineer Wallace had secured permission for his return to the United States, his third such trip in a year, by cabling Taft that he had “complicated business” to discuss which could not be handled by correspondence. He gave no further explanation, which greatly irritated the Secretary, but after conferring with Roosevelt and Shonts, Taft had reluctantly cabled his consent.

From Magoon, however, Taft heard what was on Wallace’s mind. Wallace had unburdened himself to Magoon in the course of two lengthy conversations, saying that he had been offered a high-paying position with a private engineering firm and that he intended to quit. He could be induced to stay on, Wallace also said, but only if he were put in as chairman (instead of Shonts), given authority over the entire work, and granted a salary of perhaps $60,000. He would insist also, Wallace said, that he be free to come to the Isthmus “when he sees fit and depart as his discretion determines.”

He made a further statement [Magoon continued], to which I attached grave significance—that he left the Illinois Central twice without telling them, directly, what he wanted, and was sent for and given three times as much as would have induced him to remain at the time he left.

Evidently he considers himself essential to this enterprise, and, for the immediate present, he is. He has never secured an assistant engineer competent to take his place or keep the work going at a decent pace for sufficient time to enable a new chief engineer to master the situation. . . .

Speaking of his desire to be the head of the enterprise, he told me that he figured from the first that Admiral Walker would not last more than two years and he had intended to have things in such shape by that time that he would be made chairman; but the old commission went to pieces too quickly for him . . . . I cannot escape the conviction that he is trying to “pull off” a carefully contrived coup détat . . . . I hope I am doing him a grave injustice, for personally I like him . . . I can readily understand that from his point of view the action and motive I attribute to him are entirely justifiable. In railroad circles, as on the stock exchange, it is entirely justifiable and even commendable to “squeeze” friend or foe when you have the chance and can profit by it.

This letter from Magoon, dated June 11, was followed two days later by another, less harsh appraisal. As a result of talks with Wallace, Magoon now thought better of Wallace’s motives. “He seems to be fully prepared to quit, but willing to remain upon terms that seem to him justifiable . . . There is no difference in its effect on the public service, but there may be considerable difference between the two mental attitudes.”

Taft cared not the slightest about Wallace’s mental attitudes. The genial Taft, the man known for “the most infectious chuckle in the history of politics,” was in a towering rage. The new commission had been tailored specifically to Wallace’s wishes. Wallace had expressed unequivocal approval of the arrangement on several occasions since April and in writing. Wallace had been profuse in his praise of Shonts, full of gratitude for being able to serve under such a man.

Taft felt betrayed. To Taft so self-serving an ethic as Magoon depicted was neither understandable nor tolerable. If Wallace deemed himself essential to the enterprise, Taft now quite emphatically did not. Though Magoon’s letters reached the War Department on the eve of an important trip to the Philippines, Taft went directly to New York to confront Wallace in person three days after Wallace arrived from Panama.

Wallace was told to be at Taft’s room at the Manhattan Hotel at ten o’clock the morning of June 25. To Wallace’s immediate annoyance, he was ushered into the room by William Nelson Cromwell, who showed no signs of leaving. Wallace said he preferred to speak with the Secretary alone, but Taft, in what Wallace later described as a “rather peremptory manner,” told Cromwell to stay where he was. He wanted Cromwell present as a witness. “This action, of course, caused irritation and apprehension on my part that the interview would be unpleasant,” Wallace would recall, “ . . . and the irritation under which the Secretary was evidently laboring had a tendency to prevent that calm and dignified consideration of the question in all its bearings which should have been given it.”

Taft, who had spent most of his career as a judge, wished first, he said, to know what possible “complicated business” could warrant Wallace’s absence from Panama at so inopportune a moment? Wallace replied that he had received an attractive offer from a private firm and explained at some length why he could “not afford” to turn it down. The income, with salary and various opportunities for investments, would be equivalent to $60,000 a year Wallace said. Life at Panama, he remarked, was lonely and “accompanied by risk” to his health and to that of his wife. He proposed that he spend the summer winding up his duties from his home in Illinois. In the future he would be glad to serve on the commission in an advisory capacity.

“Mr. Wallace,” Taft began after a pause, “I am inexpressibly disappointed, not only because you have taken this step, but because you seem so utterly insensible of the significance of your conduct.”

There followed an angry but measured summation lasting half an hour. He reminded Wallace that when appointed by the commission the year before, his salary had been increased by $10,000 over what it had been under his former employer. He reminded Wallace that he had known of the risks when he accepted the position, that he had both recommended and approved the latest organizational changes made by the President. “For mere lucre you change your position overnight . . . You are influenced solely by your personal advantage. Great fame attached to your office, but also equal responsibility, and now you desert them in an hour.”

He demanded Wallace’s immediate resignation. When Wallace said that he would prefer to discuss the matter further, that perhaps some new and different arrangement might be worked out, Taft told him there could be no further talk.

“Mr. Secretary,” said Wallace, “while there is a difference between us as to the point of view we take concerning my duty, I consider that there can be no question that I have performed my full duty up to this hour.”

“Mr. Wallace,” Taft replied slowly, “I do not consider that any man can divide such a duty up to any one point where it suits him to stop . . . In my view a duty is an entirety, and is not fulfilled unless it is wholly fulfilled.”

The following day Taft took Wallace’s resignation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Roosevelt was attending a Harvard reunion. On June 28 the resignation was accepted by the President, to take effect immediately. On the twenty-ninth, back in Washington, Taft, as directed by Roosevelt, released to the press the full transcription of his exchange with Wallace, the text apparently being that recalled by Cromwell. John Wallace was finished.

The immediate response in the press was one of dire concern. Though a few papers suggested that it was now merely a question of finding somebody else, the majority saw the reputation of Roosevelt’s Administration suddenly at stake, not to mention that of the country, and found the outlook, in the words of the Louisville Courier-Journal, “not cheering.” In the London papers it was said that Roosevelt was paying the price for his rash “land-piracy” in Panama.

Wallace, who ultimately became president and chairman of the board of Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Company, as well as a board member of several other industrial firms, would spend the rest of his life trying to repair the damage done to his reputation. Monetary considerations, he would insist, had never entered into the decision to “disconnect” himself from Panama. He denied any personal fear of disease, claiming he had actually had a light attack of yellow fever while on the Isthmus and so thereafter had considered himself immune.

Privately he said that he heartily disliked Shonts and knew they could not work together. And appearing before the Senate canal committee he would delight John Tyler Morgan with the further admission that it was really Cromwell whom he hated most of all. The tragedy, said Wallace again and again, was that Taft never gave him a chance to express his real reason for resigning, which was that he had “become convinced some other men in my place could render better service to the enterprise.”

John Stevens, reflecting on the episode, would remark simply and without scorn that Wallace had had a “thorough case of fright.”


1 Chief sales representative for the Bucyrus Company, interestingly, was a young man named George A. Morison, who had left New England to join the Milwaukee firm on the advice of his Uncle George. For a young man interested in a business future, George S. Morison had said not long before his death, the then small steam-shovel manufacturer clearly had “possibilities.”

2 The three others were Rear Admiral Mordecai T. Endicott and two Army officers from former commissions, Brigadier General Peter C. Hains and Colonel Oswald Ernst.

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