What we needed was a fighter. And we got one.
John Stevens was picked to build the Panama Canal on the recommendation of James J. Hill—Hill, who had never had any use for the project and whose personal distaste for Theodore Roosevelt was monumental. Roosevelt, the “Empire Builder” once complained, had never done anything but “pose and draw a salary.”
Hill considered Stevens the best construction engineer in the country, if not the world, and apparently he told Roosevelt as much during a visit to Washington in June 1905. “Mr. Hill told the President that he knew a man who could build the Panama Canal,” Stevens’ son would recall, “and when the President showed much interest he spoke of my father . . . and said he would see him in Chicago and report the President’s interest in him. He did so, talking the matter over in detail. . . .”
As it also happens, Stevens was about to leave with Secretary Taft for the Philippines, as a new special adviser on railroad construction. So Taft too called Stevens in Chicago about taking the Panama post instead, just as soon as he, Taft, discovered why Wallace was coming on from Colón. The Monday following the Sunday of Taft’s confrontation with Wallace, Stevens was told the job was his if he wanted it. The salary was $30,000.
His immediate impulse, he later wrote, was to say no. Wallace by then was back at his home outside Chicago. Stevens sent a note asking him to meet him at the Union League Club and discuss the matter, but Wallace refused. So Stevens boarded a night train to New York, where he met with Cromwell, who persuaded him to accept. And all things considered, this was probably the most valuable service yet rendered by the clever, “silver-tongued” attorney. More active than ever as an all-purpose troubleshooter for the Republican Party, Cromwell had become greatly concerned—as had others—over what a failure at Panama might mean to the party’s fortunes.
At home again in Chicago, Stevens talked things over with his wife, who told him his whole career had been in preparation for this greatest of engineering projects and that of course he should go. “ . . . I allowed arguments as to what was my duty to override my own feelings, and . . . my better judgment,” Stevens remembered. He wired his acceptance on June 30. Roosevelt and Taft had little time to give the matter further attention. John Hay was ill and Taft, in addition to everything else, was looking after the State Department. Roosevelt was absorbed in preparations for the historic meeting at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at which he would bring an end to the Russo-Japanese War. On July 1, John Hay suddenly died; there was a funeral to be attended, a new Secretary of State (Elihu Root) to be installed; and the Russian and Japanese delegations were arriving meantime. When Stevens and Shonts went to Oyster Bay so that Roosevelt could meet his new chief engineer, one of the other guests at lunch was the Japanese minister.
Stevens was fifty-two years old, powerfully built, heavy-shouldered, five foot ten, with black hair and black mustache and a hard, weather-beaten, handsome face. Roosevelt wrote of him admiringly as a “backwoods boy,” “a rough and tumble westerner,” “a big fellow, a man of daring and good sense, and burly power.”
Like Gorgas—and unlike Wallace—he had spent most of his life surviving frontier conditions. Born on a small farm in Maine, he had had little formal education, but learned surveying, and in 1873, at the age of twenty, went west to work on surveys for the new city of Minneapolis. He had come up the hard way since—as a track hand in Texas, as a junior engineer locating and building railroads in New Mexico, Minnesota, and British Columbia. In 1886, at thirty-three, as principal assistant engineer for the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway, he had been charged with building a line of nearly four hundred miles through the swamp and pine forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie. By the time he went to work for James J. Hill in 1889, he had survived Mexican fevers, Indian attack, Upper Michigan mosquitoes, and Canadian blizzards. He had been treed by wolves on one occasion; he had learned to sleep sitting up while crossing the prairie in a buckboard; with surveying gear, tent, and provisions packed on his back he had traveled hundreds of miles into the Rockies on snowshoes. “. . . I became tough and hard physically,” he would write. “I learned to sleep under wet skies . . . rolled only in a single blanket . . . to adapt myself . . . under the most primitive conditions. And I loved it!”
His personal faith was in the strides ordinary men might achieve. “With respect to supermen, it has probably been my misfortune, but I have never chanced to meet any of them.” Hard work, he often said, was the only “open sesame” he had had any experience with. By studying on his own at night, he learned mathematics, physics, chemistry. And for all his rather rough, often profane, frontier manner, his exceptional ability was unmistakable.
Working for Hill was the turning point. In 1889 he had started as one of Hill’s locating engineers, assigned to explore a route west from Havre, Montana. Hill had decided to build a railroad to the Pacific; the Great Northern was to be his own personal path of empire; and in the dead of winter, 1889, Stevens found the Marias Pass, Hill’s passage over the Continental Divide. The Marias Pass saved more than a hundred miles and, at an elevation of 5,215 feet, gave the Great Northern the lowest grade of any railroad to the Pacific. Stevens became something of a legend in the Northwest, “The Hero of Marias Pass.” He had made the discovery on foot and alone, his Indian guide having given up. At night, with no wood for a fire, and the temperature at 40° below zero, he had kept from freezing to death by tramping back and forth in the snow until dawn.
In the Cascades, on the western slope, he found another key pass (later named Stevens Pass). Hill made him his chief engineer in 1895 and ultimately his general manager. Stevens built bridges, tunnels (including the two-and-a-half-mile Cascade Tunnel), and more than a thousand miles of railroad, as much as had been built by any one man in the world. He built exceedingly well and Hill never intervened.
Hill was fiercely independent (the Great Northern was the only western road built without government subsidy); he was blunt, tough, a pioneer and a fighter. He had the common touch; with his physical bearing alone he exuded power. And much of what Hill was had rubbed off on Stevens, who for the rest of his life would talk of Hill as the finest man he had ever known. Of Stevens, Hill once remarked, “He is always in the right place at the right time and does the right thing without asking about it.”
But Stevens was also restless, often temperamental, and in 1903 he had left Hill to become chief engineer (and eventually vice-president) of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. His reason, he later explained, was that Hill had had a still higher position in mind for him, one that called for “a diplomacy which I was temperamentally unfit to exercise.” Then in 1905 he turned around and accepted the Philippines assignment, because, he said, he needed a change.
In the course of conversation during the lunch at Oyster Bay, Roosevelt told Stevens to take charge and report to him directly if need be. Things at Panama were in a “devil of a mess,” Roosevelt conceded. He was reminded, he continued, of the man who engaged a butler and set him to work by saying, “I don’t know in the least what you are to do, but . . . you get busy and buttle like hell!”
Afterward, when Shonts and Stevens met with reporters at the Oyster Bay railroad station, it was Shonts who did the talking. Stevens would have “no one to blame if the work is not done right,” Shonts said, “for he will be supreme in the engineering department.” Stevens, sitting on a stone post off to one side, merely nodded in agreement.
Shonts and Stevens landed at Colón without ceremony on July 26, 1905. Neither man had ever been to Panama before.
“Shonts and Stevens will soon be with you, and the mountains will move,” Taft had cabled Magoon. But whether dirt would fly or mountains move was no longer the question. The question was whether the entire American venture in Panama could be rescued from humiliating defeat. The unavoidable fact was that it had been a wretched beginning and already $128,000,000 had been spent, as The New York Times emphasized. For all the deprecating talk of French inefficiency, French failure, for all the proud claims of American know-how and resolve, the United States had performed with less efficiency, less purpose, and markedly less courage than had the French at any time during their ordeal. A whole year had been lost and the situation on the Isthmus was an utter shambles.
Recalling his own first impressions, Stevens wrote, “I believe I faced about as discouraging a proposition as was ever presented to a construction engineer.” Accommodations on returning ships were still at a premium. Upwards of five hundred white technicians and skilled workers had evacuated. Those left behind were frightened—“scared out of their boots,” Stevens said—and had every reason to despair. Some of the freight piled up at Colón had been there for more than a year. “I found no organization . . . no answerable head who could delegate authority . . . no cooperation existing between what might charitably be called the departments. . . .”
The review board appointed by Roosevelt to decide whether it should be a canal at sea level, as urged by Wallace, had not even convened as yet. So there was still no final plan to go by and everyone was waiting to be told what to do. Most of the Americans Stevens encountered seemed to believe that Shonts and he had come to order them to abandon everything and sail for home.
Theodore Shonts, with his pince-nez, mustache, and bulldog expression, looked like an older, more sedate version of Theodore Roosevelt. He was also very much the man in charge so long as he remained on the Isthmus, which was not long; with his abrupt, authoritative manner he rubbed nearly everybody the wrong way.
“Governor, what’s the matter down here?” Shonts demanded over cigars the first night, as he, Magoon, Gorgas, and Stevens sat on Magoon’s veranda at Ancon. Magoon was easy in manner, but very proper and highly polished—a friend likened him to a Roman cardinal—and he believed that keeping peace with the Panamanians was chief among his duties. The most pressing problem, he explained to Shonts, was food for the work force. The local merchants kept pushing prices higher and higher, until it had become nearly impossible for the men to survive on what they earned. Some workers, verging on starvation, had taken to foraging like buccaneers.
Shonts said commissaries must be established immediately, and when Magoon explained that this would be in violation of an agreement with Panama whereby all foodstuffs were to be bought from local merchants, Shonts responded, “ . . . it’s evident that you haven’t heard the news . . . . I’ve come down here to build the Canal . . .” The Isthmian Canal Commission would feed the men at cost beginning immediately.
It was also Magoon’s ambition to establish a model government within the American Zone, as an “edifying” example for Panama and the rest of Central America. Shonts told him to forget that. There would be no more government than was necessary to preserve order. “Our sole purpose . . . is to build the Canal, so ‘keep your eye on the ball.’ ”
Turning to Gorgas he remarked, “We are not here to demonstrate any theories in medicine, either.” He was wholly unimpressed by what Gorgas had accomplished and put him on notice that he had four months to rid Panama of yellow fever.
Stevens, as at Oyster Bay, said very little, and when Shonts departed a few weeks later, Stevens continued to say very little. Yet in manner, appearance, in the way he treated people, he was plainly a different sort than his predecessor. He was seen out on the line daily, whatever the weather, hiking about in rubber boots and overalls, wearing a battered old hat and puffing steadily on a black cigar. “He was [seen] climbing about in the mud of the ditch, catching a switch engine, pausing among machinery,” wrote a magazine correspondent. “ . . . He had very little to say except to ask questions. He was very quiet, very business-like. The men were not certain at first, mostly because they could detect no pose.”
Anybody could talk to him, it was discovered, and with a few terse observations he began putting spirit into the work for the first time.
“There are three diseases in Panama,” he told the men. “They are yellow fever, malaria, and cold feet; and the greatest of these is cold feet.” There was lost time to be made up for; there was much to learn. When it was pointed out to him that no collisions had occurred on the Panama Railroad in more than a year, he remarked, “A collision has its good points as well as its bad ones—it indicates there is something moving on the railroad.”
He wanted the engineering offices moved from the Administration Building in Panama City to Culebra Cut as quickly as possible. Shown plans for an elaborate new residence for the chief engineer scheduled to be built at Ancon, he cancelled the plans. He would live at Culebra and specified an inexpensive one-story bungalow with a corrugated-iron roof. Until the house was ready he would be content with a small place on the hospital grounds.
Privately he was appalled by what he saw of Wallace’s work and by the antiquated equipment in use. Once, standing on a point overlooking Culebra Cut, he counted seven trains off their tracks. Every steam shovel in view was standing idle because the crews, along with the entire labor force, were struggling to get the trains back on the tracks—“an unwise proceeding,” he noted acidly, “for they [the trains] were of more value where they were.”
While the public and the press at home speculated on what progress the new chief might effect, Stevens, on August 1, ordered a complete stop of all work in Culebra Cut. Excavation would not be resumed, he informed his staff, until he had everything ready. Steam-shovel engineers and cranemen were sent back to the United States. They would hear from him later.
“The digging is the least thing of all,” he declared. Starting at once, Dr. Gorgas was to have whatever men and supplies he needed. Panama City and Colón were to be cleaned up and paved. Warehouses, machine shops, and piers were to be built. Entire communities were to be planned and built from scratch—houses, mess halls, barracks, more hospitals, a visitors’ hotel, schools, churches, clubhouses, cold-storage facilities, laundries, sewage systems, reservoirs. He was determined, as he said in a letter to Taft, to prepare well before beginning construction, “regardless of clamor of criticism . . . as long as I am in charge of the work . . . and I am confident that if this policy is adhered to, the future will show its absolute wisdom.”
Working twelve, sometimes eighteen hours a day, he saw no reason why others should not too. In the first few months, as he made his daily rounds, he walked the line from Colón to Panama. The melting heat, the rain, the terrible mud, appeared neither to discomfort nor distress him. His own health remained perfect.
He and Gorgas got on extremely well from the start. With his backing, Gorgas’ real work began in earnest. Through the summer, disease of all kinds continued to cut through the ranks of the labor force. Yellow fever had abated somewhat, but only somewhat—forty-two cases in July, thirteen deaths; twenty-seven cases in August, nine deaths. But malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and intestinal diseases were still rampant and taking many more lives than yellow fever, while at the same time debilitating two or three times as many as were killed, facts the public at home would never quite comprehend. Between May 1 and August 31, 1905, the time of the so-called yellow-fever epidemic, yellow fever took forty-seven lives. In this same period nearly twice as many people died of malaria, forty-nine of pneumonia, fifty-seven of chronic diarrhea, forty-six of dysentery. Black workers were hardest hit by malaria and pneumonia. When bubonic plague struck a second time at La Boca, the victim again was a Barbadian.
But while a drastic reduction of all disease was considered essential in the long run, yellow fever had to be the immediate objective. To rid the Isthmus of yellow fever, Gorgas remarked, would be to rid it of fear.
He now found himself leading the most costly, concentrated health campaign the world had yet seen. Stevens, as he later boasted, “threw all the weight of the engineering department” to his aid. Gorgas henceforth had first call for labor. His requisitions had priority over all others. By November there were four thousand men working solely on Gorgas’ projects. Until then, for all expenses and supplies, Gorgas had been limited to an annual budget of $50,000. Stevens would sign requisitions for $90,000 for wire screening alone. Gorgas now got all the supplies he needed and with a minimum of red tape—120 tons of pyrethrum powder (instead of 8 tons), 300 tons of sulphur, 50,000 gallons of kerosene oil per month. Orders were put through for 3,000 garbage cans, 4,000 buckets, 1,000 brooms, 500 scrub brushes; for carbolic acid and sulphur powder, wood alcohol, mercurial chloride; for 5,000 pounds of “common soap”; for padlocks, lanterns, machetes, lawn mowers, 1,200 fumigation pots; for 240 rat traps for the hospital grounds alone.
The city of Panama was fumigated house by house, some sections several times over. The same was done at Colón. Fumigation brigades—hundreds of men carrying ladders, paste pots, buckets, rolls of brown paper, old newspaper—trailed through the streets in the early morning like some strange ragtag army of occupation. And by nightfall, when they had gone, strips of paper fluttered from windows and doorways on hundreds of houses.
The persistency with which new yellow-fever cases were tracked down is shown in this example taken from an official report:
. . . a man was reported ill at a hotel . . . . When search was made for him he had disappeared. The next day he was found drunk on the street and sent to the hospital, where, after his case had been diagnosed as yellow fever, he became delirious and died. He had stated that he had been at the hotel all the time, but since this house was full of non-immunes and no other cases appeared there it became evident that he had contracted the fever elsewhere. The man was dead, nobody knew him, and apparently no information was obtainable. It was known, however, that other men of the same nationality as the deceased were in the habit of visiting a certain cafe. Every one of his countrymen in this establishment was questioned. At last a man was found who stated that he had seen him with an Italian. Then every Italian who could be found in town was interviewed, and finally one was discovered who said he had seen the deceased with the bartender of the theater on two occasions. The bartender was looked for and could not be found. After a hard search he was located the following day. He was in bed and had yellow fever. He stated that the man who died of yellow fever, although registered at the hotel, had been sleeping all the time in the same room as himself in the theater. It appeared probable that the theater had been the center of infection, and it was accordingly fumigated. A few days later a third case was discovered, that of a little girl, who had been in the theater every evening with her mother, thus confirming the indications which had already been acted upon.
Cisterns and cesspools were oiled once a week. Most critically, Panama City, Colón, Cristobal, Ancon, La Boca, Empire, Culebra, were all provided with running water, thus dispensing—after centuries—with the need for domestic water containers.
Stevens made no public declaration of faith in Gorgas or the mosquito theory. “Like probably many others I had gained some little idea of the mosquito theory,” he would recall, “ . . . but, like most laymen, I had little faith in its effectiveness, nor even dreamed of its tremendous importance.” Still, Gorgas’ presence seemed “simply an act of Providence” and Stevens’ own instinct was that the only way to back Gorgas was to back him to the fullest. When a movement began in Washington to have Gorgas removed, a movement initiated by Shonts and supported by Taft, Stevens fought back. Taft thought Gorgas had “no executive ability at all.” Shonts, who seems to have liked Gorgas well enough, had little confidence in the mosquito theory and was no less insistent than his predecessor, Admiral Walker, that “cleaning up” Panama must be made the priority task. Shonts had found a replacement for Gorgas, moreover, a Johns Hopkins man named Hamilton Wright, and went to Oyster Bay to tell Roosevelt what he intended to do. But Stevens in correspondence from Panama insisted that Gorgas be kept on, and so it became a test issue, the decision being left ultimately to Roosevelt, who again consulted Dr. Welch as well as a friend and hunting companion, Dr. Alexander Lambert.
Welch was actually asked for a recommendation for his Hopkins colleague, Wright, rather than for a comment on Gorgas and his relative progress at Panama. But while testifying to Wright’s ability, Welch insisted that no one was better equipped for the work than Gorgas. The best man was already on the job, that was the implicit message. “Would to God,” wrote Roosevelt to Welch in reply, “there were more men in America who had the moral courage to write honest letters of recommendation such as yours . . .”
Dr. Lambert expressed his views in private conversation in the study of Sagamore Hill. “Smells and filth, Mr. President, have nothing to do with either the malaria or the yellow fever,” Lambert said. “You are facing one of the greatest decisions of your career. You must choose between Shonts and Gorgas. If you fall back upon the old methods of sanitation, you will fail, just as the French failed. If you back up Gorgas and his ideas and let him pursue his campaign against the mosquitoes, you will get your canal.”
Roosevelt, according to Lambert’s version of the conversation, decided then and there that Gorgas would stay. Shonts was called to the White House soon afterward and was told to “get back of Gorgas.” And to his great credit, Shonts accepted the decision and saw to it that the Sanitary Department became what it should have been from the start, an independent bureau reporting directly to the chairman. Shonts, as Gorgas later wrote, was a man “who thought and acted in millions [of dollars] where we army and navy officers did in thousands . . . I would never have dared even to make an application for the immense amounts of money he authorized me to spend . . .”
But the real hero, in Gorgas’ view, was Stevens. “The moral effect of so high an official taking such a stand at this period . . . was very great,” Gorgas wrote, “and it is hard to estimate how much sanitation on the Isthmus owes to this gentleman for its subsequent success.” To Stevens, years later, he wrote privately, “The fact is that you are the only one of the higher officials on the Isthmus who always supported the Sanitary Department . . . both before and after your time. So you can understand that our relations, yours and mine, stand out in my memory . . . as a green and pleasant oasis.”
The eradication of yellow fever at Havana had taken eight months. At Panama it took nearly a year and a half. But had it not been for Stevens it would have taken considerably longer. Had Stevens been chief engineer from the beginning, doubtless many lives would have been spared; there would have been far less grief and no panic. Once Gorgas’ program was under way, incidence of yellow fever fell off with the same dramatic suddenness as at Havana. The epidemic was over by September, when there were only seven cases and four deaths. On an afternoon some weeks later, Gorgas and several of his staff gathered in the dissecting room at Ancon to perform an autopsy. Gorgas told them to “take a good look at this man,” for he was the last yellow-fever cadaver they would see. By December the disease had disappeared from the Isthmus.
John Stevens ushered in what was to be known on the Isthmus as the Railroad Era. And it is one of the ironies of the story that the unseen guiding spirit as the canal got under way was James J. Hill. Stevens was not only Hill’s man, but he would run the work the way Hill ran the Great Northern. Indeed, the building of the Panama Canal was among other things one of the greatest of all triumphs in American railroad engineering.
At the Great Northern the “best-fitted” men were given tremendous authority, then held strictly accountable for results. Familiarity with details was stressed at every level, but obligatory for operating officers. “Intelligent management,” according to the familiarHill dictum, “ . . . must be based on exact knowledge of facts. Guesswork will not do.” How many best-fitted men might be found among the holdovers from the Wallace fiasco seemed questionable at first. Losses from disease, the pell-mell rush to get away, the very serious difficulty in recruiting replacements, had inevitably meant the advancement to key positions of young men who under normal conditions would probably never have been considered. “Personally, I have always felt grateful to the yellow fever for my first great opportunity in life,” wrote Robert E. Wood nearly sixty years later. As a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant he had had “no idea of getting the fever, and did not . . . Anyone who stayed was promoted.” Straight, clean-shaven, as square-jawed and forthright as a Charles Dana Gibson hero, Wood was among the first spotted by Stevens as part of his reorganization. Assigned to the Department of Labor and Quarters, Wood was later to become Chief Quartermaster of the Zone; later still he would become General Wood and ultimately the commanding genius of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Frank Maltby, Wallace’s division head at Colón, was summoned to Panama City soon after Stevens got settled. “We sat on the veranda under a full tropical moon . . . . Everyone else disappeared,” Maltby would write, recalling the interview. “Mr. Stevens did not talk much but asked questions—and could that man ask questions! He found out everything I knew. He turned me inside out and shook out the last drop of information . . . . At 1 A.M. we retired.” The following day Stevens cabled Washington to say that the man he had in mind for the position at Colón was no longer needed; Maltby would do. Maltby, long-legged and sallow, was given the following guideline: “You won’t get fired if you do something, you will if you don’t do anything. Do something if it is wrong, for you can correct that, but there is no way to correct nothing.”
Wallace’s ranking engineer at Culebra, a glum, scowling man named W. E. Dauchy, was also kept on, but he would last only a short time longer and with few exceptions all the rest of the new regime would be composed of experienced railroad men brought in by Stevens. Whereas Ferdinand de Lesseps had failed to see the project as fundamentally a railroad problem and neglected to send a single railroad specialist to Panama, Stevens never saw it as anything other than that, and he recruited railroad men only. Jackson Smith, young, ill-mannered, efficient, had been in railroad construction for five years in Mexico and Ecuador; he was put over Lieutenant Wood as head of Labor and Quarters. William Belding, the new chief of building construction, had been in charge of much the same thing on the Illinois Central. Edward J. Williams, the new disbursing officer, had been paymaster of the Chicago and North Western. A former general auditor of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company became the new head of accounting. A general storekeeper for the Great Northern became the new chief of Materials and Supplies. William Grant Bierd, brought in to run the Panama Railroad, had been with Stevens at the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. He replaced the illustrious Colonel Shaler, who was quietly banished to permanent retirement.
The one man ever urged upon Stevens by Washington—by both Taft and Shonts—was of no interest to Stevens because he was not a railroad man. Taft thought he had found the perfect assistant engineer, someone “exceedingly able,” as he told Roosevelt, who could in fact replace Stevens, should Stevens ever take it into his head to do what Wallace had. This was Major George Goethals. Shonts described him in a letter to Stevens as the top construction engineer in the Army, suitable in every way—“direct, resourceful, energetic, and a worker of the most pleasant personality.” Taft even brought Goethals to the Isthmus on another of his inspection tours. But Stevens would have none of it, and so Major Goethals returned to Washington.
Stevens saw at once, as the French had not, that the Panama Railroad was the lifeline along which not only men, food, supplies, everything needed to sustain the work, would have to move freely and efficiently, but the Culebra dirt trains as well. He also saw that there was no sense in working with anything less than the biggest, heaviest equipment possible. The French had tried to improve their output by continuously modifying their “plant,” using different kinds of equipment in different combinations; but generally it was all too small, too light for the size of the task. “Now I would liken that [French] plant to a modern one as baby carriages to automobiles,” Stevens observed. “This is no reflection on the French, but I cannot conceive how they did the work they did with the plant they had.”
The track itself, to begin with, was too light. By his standards the railroad as it stood was a pathetic toy. Equipment on the Great Northern was four times the size of that used on the little jungle line. (Hill had been the first railroad baron to equip his road with large-capacity freight cars and monster locomotives.) So within a year the line was completely overhauled and double-tracked with heavier rails. Bridges were strengthened, signals and sidings were improved upon, equipment was rehabilitated or replaced. A new telegraph and telephone system was installed, using old rails for poles. Warehouses and repair shops were built and enormous locomotive sheds were put up at Matachín. Orders were placed for freight cars, dump cars, refrigerator cars, more than a hundred locomotives, all to be shipped “knocked down,” then reassembled on arrival in the new shops.
To run the line an entirely new force was brought in—yard and train masters, superintendents, dispatchers, master mechanics, and what Stevens described as “an army of conductors, engineers, and switchmen.”
Until Colón’s new water system was completed, he used the railroad to run trainloads of clean water into the city night and day. The railroad fed the work force, it ran the commissaries and it ran the Panama Steamship Company by which the food was shipped from New York. A tremendous cold-storage plant was built in conjunction with new terminal facilities at Cristobal. Perishable foods were soon being delivered on a regular schedule along the line every morning.
The men rebuilding the railroad, those building the new towns beside the railroad, began enjoying such luxuries as fresh eggs, lettuce, dressed meats—ice. A bakery was built capable of producing forty thousand loaves of bread per day.
There was no building construction, no construction enterprise of any kind not associated with the railroad. It was as if all the activity of the usual large-scale railroad project, activity normally strung across vast open space, had been compressed into this one narrow fifty-mile corridor, with the result that everything seemed tremendously intensified. The size of the labor force was tripled in six months after Stevens took over. By the end of 1906 there were nearly twenty-four thousand men at work, more than there had been working on the Union Pacific in the final race to finish at Promontory, Utah, more than there had been at any time during the French years at Panama. For several months he had twelve thousand men doing nothing but putting up buildings.
Again, as during the French effort, the labor force came from every part of the world—ninety-seven countries according to the records—but again the unskilled pick-and-shovel workers were nearly all black men and this time it was Barbados, rather than Jamaica, that supplied the majority. Because of the suffering experienced by those Jamaicans left stranded on the Isthmus when the de Lesseps venture collapsed, the Jamaican government refused to allow any recruiting on the island and imposed a tax on anyone desiring to leave to work on the canal. As a result those Jamaicans who immigrated to Panama did so of their own volition and were mostly skilled artisans—those who could afford the tax.
On those islands where recruiting was permitted, all workers were given a contract by which they received free passage to Colón and were guaranteed free repatriation, if they so chose, after five hundred working days (roughly a year and eight months). Martinique and Guadeloupe accounted for some 7,500 men all told, but the total from Barbados was to be nearly 20,000.
Wages were ten cents an hour, ten hours a day, six days a week. Segregation by color, long an unwritten rule on the railroad, as well as in Panamanian society in general, became established policy. There were separate mess halls for blacks. Housing, schools, hospitalization, were separate and by no means equal. And it remained a “Jim Crow” railroad, though restrictions were never hard-and-fast or enforced. Travel on the line was either first or second class, and while most whites rode first class and most blacks second, low-paid white laborers frequently chose second class, just as higher-paid skilled blacks sometimes traveled in the first-class cars.
In all official rules and documents, on signs in post offices and other public places, the color line was expressed in “gold” and “silver” rather than black and white, these designations having been derived from the pay system. Pay for the unskilled work force was in Panamanian silver—balboas, as the standard coins were called. Pay for Americans, on the other hand, was in gold, that still being the monetary standard of the United States. And since nearly all the unskilled workers were black and since virtually all the Americans recruited were skilled workers and white, the terms “gold roll” (gold payroll) and “silver roll” came to be used more or less synonymously for skilled whites from the United States (who might be anything from a steam-shovel engineer to a postal clerk to a nurse to a division engineer) and for black unskilled British subjects (most likely from Barbados and most likely illiterate; but who could also be an educated, French-speaking artisan from Martinique, a Swiss surveyor, or an illiterate Spaniard or Italian).
Recruiting offices were opened in New York and New Orleans and recruiting agents were sent out from Washington to rove the country in search of men. The variety of skills and trades suddenly in demand was enormous. Stevens’ own estimate for the upcoming year was for 4,892 American workers skilled in some forty different specialties—bricklayers, blacksmiths, boilermakers, conductors, cooks, car inspectors, car repairers, ship captains, carpenters (1,710 carpenters was the specific request), coppersmiths, calkers, dredge operators, hand-drill operators, steam-drill operators, helpers for the steam-drill operators, engine dispatchers and their helpers, firemen, ironworkers, lithographers, locomotive engineers, locomotive foremen, molders, masons, marine engineers, machinists, plumbers, plasterers, patternmakers, painters, pipe fitters, riggers, shipwrights, steam-shovel engineers, steam-shovel cranemen, steam-shovel firemen, stationary engineers, timers, watchmen, waiters.
Free transportation to the Isthmus was offered; free housing and medical treatment were part of the enticement. The average pay per month was $87.
The results, however, were disappointing. Too often applicants were those unable to hold a job. These were prosperous years at home and the bad publicity attending the yellow-fever scare had greatly undermined whatever patriotic or romantic appeal Panama might otherwise have had. Instead of 4,892 skilled workers, Stevens got 3,243, and within a year or so, more than half of these would find life in Panama more than they had bargained for and would quit and go home.
Though the idea of building the canal entirely with American labor, unskilled as well as skilled, received some consideration in the early stages and was described by the press as the proper course idealistically, it was never taken seriously. Unskilled white workers, even those at the very bottom end of the pay scale, had no desire to go to Panama. Union leaders strenuously opposed any wholesale shipment of men to “that deathtrap” and particularly after an inspection team from Japan, representatives of large contractors of Japanese labor, reported the Isthmus too unsafe to risk the lives of their men.
What was needed for the heavy physical work, according to the accepted doctrine, were battalions of men who by nature and habit could withstand the punishing climate: black men from the West Indies. That black North Americans might also serve—as General Ben Butler once proposed to Abraham Lincoln—was taken into account, but this too met with strenuous opposition from southern congressmen who foresaw their home states suddenly drained of their natural supply of cheap labor.
The comparative inefficiency and technical ignorance of the West Indian became a source of terrible aggravation for the American engineers and foremen, not a few of whom were naturally prone to scoff at any black man and particularly if he had a singsong British accent. By Stevens’ own estimate the efficiency of the average West Indian was about one-third that of an American laborer, white or black.
Reporters were told of the West Indian’s “childish irresponsibility,” that he was “wasteful . . . stupid . . . possessed with unutterable hatred of exertion other than conversation.” And reporters from their own observations reached much the same conclusion. Awriter for the popular Outlook magazine declared that in all his weeks on the Isthmus he had never once seen a West Indian swing a pick properly, that “their dullness is almost beyond belief.”
It does not matter whether they are digging a drainage trench in Colon, or laying tracks at the very bottom of the Great Cut, or breaking up the ancient cobblestone pavements of Panama. Watch them work for but a single day and you are puzzling over the worst problem that faces our engineers. The only labor they can find in the Western Hemisphere for building the canal has less than one third the efficiency of our labor of the North. The West Indian’s every movement is slow and bungling; every small object a subject for debate; anything at all a sufficient excuse for all hands to stop work. A slow upward look from one or two of a gang is usually the only sign that they have heard the foreman’s yell, for there is no change in pace or manner of work.
Still, the same writer could see a “certain and unjustified cruelty” in forcing “poor half-fed fellows” to work eight to ten hours in such heat. “Until you have tried to do a good fifteen minutes’ work with a pick and shovel during the rainy season . . . you can have no idea of the exhaustion that tropical heat brings even to the laborer who is used to it.”
From his experience in the West, Stevens preferred contract Chinese labor gangs above all other choices and he wanted to bring Chinese to Panama in the shortest time possible. Consequently, bids were invited on contracts to furnish up to fifteen thousand Chinese at a pay scale the same as that of the West Indians. But the prospect of wholesale shipments of coolie labor into the Canal Zone by a government that had excluded the importation of such labor since 1882 was received at home with what Stevens called “the customary outcry.” The Panamanians protested even more strenuously. In reaction to the success of Chinese merchants in Colón and Panama City, many of them descendants of Chinese laborers left over from earlier projects, the new republic had enacted its own Chinese exclusion law. Moreover, the government of China protested as well, its view being the same as that of the Japanese contractors.
So the matter was dropped. Stevens, infuriated by the politics of the incident, failed to comprehend, he said, what difference it made whether a laborer was white or black or yellow; or why some people would rather spend millions on one variety rather than another, when the performance of the other was so plainly superior.
As an experiment, he had several hundred unskilled workers brought over from the Basque Provinces of Spain. The physical endurance of these men, their effectiveness whenever gang labor was called for (such as in moving railroad track), proved so exceptional that he imported nearly eight thousand more and paid them twice what the West Indians were getting, a policy he justified on the grounds that they worked three times as hard.
But recruitment at Barbados went ahead as rapidly as possible, under the direction of William Karner, Wallace’s former assistant. Work of any kind was extremely scarce on the vastly overpopulated island. The mass of the populace, black and desperately poor, survived primarily on a few months of planting and harvest on the sugar plantations, when an able-bodied man could earn about twenty cents a day, the same as he could earn in Panama in two hours. So for every man who was picked to go to Panama there were five or more others eager for the chance. On the days Karner opened his recruiting office off Trafalgar Square in Bridgetown, the police had to be on hand to keep the crowds in order.
Examinations were conducted in a large, bare loft. The men, in batches of a hundred-odd at a time, were formed in a line around the wall. Any who looked too old, too young, or too feeble were told to leave. The others were checked first for trachoma, then were told to strip, after which they were gone over for tuberculosis, heart trouble, and rupture. By the time the process was finished, only about twenty men would have passed. A correspondent who watched one such session wrote that he had never seen a more serious-looking body of men until the doctor told the remaining twenty they had been chosen to go. The change was immediate; they started to shout and dance about, clapping one another on the shoulders.
A flood of light came in through the window at the end, and many streaks shot down through the broken shingles on their naked bodies. It was a weird sight—something like a war dance—as they expressed their relief . . . It meant semi-starvation for themselves and their families if they were rejected, and untold wealth—a dollar a day—if they passed. They were all vaccinated . . . their contracts signed, and they went prancing down-stairs to spread the good news among their friends in the square.
Sailing days for Panama were occasions remembered for years afterward, with thousands of women gathered at the wharf to bid the men farewell. “I never saw so many Negro women in my life,” wrote the correspondent. “All of them in their gayest Sunday clothes, and all wailing at the top of their voices.” Royal Mail steamers sailed with every inch of space occupied, the number on board generally averaging seven or eight hundred. The nearly twenty thousand men recruited at Barbados during the years of construction represented 10 percent of the island’s population and approximately 40 percent of all the adult males. Virtually every able-bodied man went off to build the Panama Canal and the money they sent home to the island was something over $300,000 a year.
For the average West Indian the initial weeks at Panama—the constant movement of men and equipment, the rules, schedules, the confusion and noise—were unlike anything in his experience, often frightening, often highly unpleasant. Most of these men, it must be remembered, had never before seen or heard a locomotive. They were cane-field workers, wholly unfamiliar with modern machinery of any kind. Once, in October 1905, several hundred men inbound from Martinique were so terrified by the prospect of being vaccinated that they refused to leave the ship when it docked at Colón and so had to be put ashore by force. Fifty years later in Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua, Martinique, St. Vincent, old men would remember being herded aboard their first labor train (“ . . . when saying train, I don’t mean passenger train; it was a boxcar train”); or being put directly to work while still wearing their best suit or a new derby purchased especially for the trip.
They were marched out by the hundreds to dig ditches, to cut brush, to carry lumber, to unload boxcars of dynamite. “I load cement, I unload cement,” remembered one of them. “I carry lumber until my shoulder peel.” Previous training or trade skills were generally ignored, former schoolteachers, and skilled craftsmen were made messengers and waiters, experienced carpenters were put to work cutting points on the ends of stakes for the engineers. Rarely did a black man ever rise to a supervisory level and never over white men.
At the camps each man was assigned to a tent or to one of the new barracks and was given a tin plate, tin cup and spoon, and a brass number tag. Fifty years later most of them would still be able to recite their number. The food provided would be recalled by some as sumptuous (“ . . . corn beef, bread, coffee which we enjoyed . . . bread, sardines, and ice cream . . . and never forget our ice cream, I am saying here it was refreshing”). But most of such declarations date from a later time. In fact, the food from the mess kitchens in the labor camps appears to have been quite dreadful to begin with, or at least bad enough that in 1906 some sixteen thousand of the labor force preferred to fend for themselves, cooking their own meals in iron pots. Indeed, so little did the West Indians care for the food and the housing provided, so great was their distaste for the regimentation of barracks life, that not more than one in five would stay on in the camps, while the rest crowded into the slums of Colón and Panama City or put up their own ramshackle huts in the bush, exactly as in the days of the French canal.
Shortly after his own arrival on the Isthmus, John Stevens had watched three West Indians at work with a wheelbarrow. When the wheelbarrow was full, two of them hoisted it onto the head of the third man who carried it away. The scene was one he would often use to depict the variety of problems he faced. But it was Stevens who also said the West Indian would learn rapidly if given the chance and who suggested that the West Indian’s diet might explain his comparative lassitude. On both counts Stevens was to prove correct. The West Indians did become increasingly proficient with tools and at working in unison and in association with heavy machinery, as many of them would recount afterward with pride. The replacement of their traditional high-starch, low-protein diet (chiefly rice and yams) with more nourishing meals did have an effect. Furthermore, while the output of the West Indians improved, that of the Spanish workers declined; they became gradually less industrious, less able to withstand the climate. In time there would be no appreciable difference in the efficiency of one group as compared to another. “The West Indian, while slow, has learned many of the trades and many of them have developed into first-class construction men,” Robert Wood was to write afterward in his final official report. “The bulk of the building work on the Canal has been done by West Indian carpenters, masons and painters . . . and toward the end of the construction period the West Indian remained on the job as steadily as the Spaniard or even the American.”
The racket of hammers and saws could be heard from one end of the line to the other. Stevens remarked that there was not a half mile between Colón and Panama City that did not show signs of the “tremendous activities” of his building department, a claim that if not literally true certainly agreed with everyone’s impression. Under the previous chief engineer, in the one year John Wallace was in charge, a total of 336 old French structures had been renovated, 150 new buildings put up. In one year under Stevens, 1,200 structures were renovated, 1,250 new ones built.
Mountains of supplies were gathered; the worst of the old French wreckage was hauled off for scrap or dumped into swamps for fill. And while much of what went on seemed perfectly bewildering, even to the trained eye—to Major Goethals, for example, it had all looked like utter chaos—one new community after another gradually took shape, and Stevens behaved always as if everything was progressing in the smoothest and most orderly fashion.
“In his office, his desk was always clear,” Frank Maltby wrote, “and apparently he had nothing to do.” Reporters described him as “the type who . . . always has time on his hands,” who was never a day behind in his correspondence.
Concerned greatly about the morale of the skilled American workers, disturbed by the continuing turnover among them as men gave up and left, he had clubhouses built, arranged for weekly band concerts, established a baseball league, with each settlement along the line organizing its own team. When a young clerk informed him that no funds had been allocated for building baseball fields, Stevens said to charge them to sanitary expenses.
Married men on the gold roll were encouraged to send for their wives and families as soon as housing became available, or if not married, to find a wife at the earliest opportunity. To avoid disputes or rivalry over accommodations, it was decided that each man should get one square foot for every dollar of his monthly pay. The rule applied to bachelor and married quarters alike, but wives were also entitled to a square foot per dollar earned by their husbands.1 Devised and enforced by Jackson Smith, who was hence known thereafter as “Square-foot” Smith, the rule established a standard understood by everybody. It also provided a strong incentive for advancement and especially with the arrival of increasing numbers of wives.
Most of the new houses were two stories, with two or four apartments each, and were enclosed completely with screened verandas. They were big, plain, pine-clapboard buildings that stood well up off the ground and were painted gray with white trim. Roofs were of corrugated iron. They were not the least fancy, but with their high ceilings and long windows on all sides, they were suited perfectly to the climate.
Each apartment was equipped with modern plumbing and was furnished at government expense. Coal for cooking, ice for the “icebox,” water, electricity, garbage disposal, maintenance, grounds keeping, were all provided free of cost. The bachelor “hotels,” big, rambling affairs that looked like any medium-priced summer hotel on the New Jersey shore, were kept clean by full-time janitors, but married employees were “obliged” to look after themselves.
In the eyes of a professional engineer such as Stevens, the canal in certain respects was a simpler undertaking than other less conspicuous engineering projects of the era. There was plenty of space within which to work. There were no property rights to worry about along the line of construction, no possibility of damage to existing buildings, no outside traffic to contend with. The labor force was at hand; only the steam-shovel and locomotive engineers were unionized; there were no contracts to live up to, and never any question about the money supply.
Nor were any radical or untried technical concepts necessary to handle the excavation. Most of what needed to be done had been done before.
What made the undertaking so exceptional was its overwhelming scale. “There is no element of mystery involved in it,” Stevens reported to Washington, “ . . . the problem is one of magnitude and not miracles.”
Greatly compounding this problem of magnitude was, of course, the enormous primary task of approximating the conditions of a modern industrial community in an equatorial wilderness two thousand miles from the base of all supplies. When various of Stevens’ subordinates wrote afterward that he laid the foundations for the work, it was the startling advances in housing, health, supply, his dramatic marshaling of men and machines, that they had in mind.
In more abstract terms, in terms of pure professional problem solving, Stevens’ greatest contribution was the basic vision of the excavation of the canal as a large-scale problem in railroad freight. As conceived by Stevens, the Panama project was simply one of moving unprecedented tonnage—dirt—by railroad with the least possible wasted motion.
The “overshadowing” challenge would be Culebra Cut. In a letter to Shonts, with his own kind of blunt eloquence, Stevens said what no one had, but what had needed to be said for a very long time:
Yet we must reflect that at best, even with the backing and sentiment and finances of the most powerful nation on earth, that we are contending with Nature’s forces, and that while our wishes and ambition are of great assistance in a work of this magnitude, neither the inspiration of genius nor our optimism will build this canal. Nothing but dogged determination and steady, persistent, intelligent work will ever accomplish the result; and when we speak of a hundred million yards of a single cut not to exceed nine miles in length, we are facing a proposition greater than was ever undertaken in the engineering history of the world.
One recent proposal was to wash that whole section of the divide into the Pacific, using tremendous blasts of water, as in hydraulic mining. Another, equally fantastic, was to build a huge compressed-air plant in the Cut and blow all the spoil to the sea through vast pipes. Stevens’ objective was to create a system of dirt trains that would function like a colossal conveyor belt, rolling endlessly beside steam shovels working at several levels at once. And his success, he knew, would depend on how well things could be managed at the disposal end of the system.
He would haul the dirt to either coast, or to both, or to wherever it was needed for fill. If a high-lake lock canal was decided on, then Culebra could supply the material to build the necessary dams. By double-tracking the railroad he had provided open access in both directions without interrupting regular traffic on the line. The distance from the point of excavation to the dumping grounds was immaterial. It made no difference whether the dirt had to be moved ten feet or ten miles. The trick was to keep the dirt trains in constant motion in and out of the Cut, to and from the dumps.
As possibly no other engineer could have, he devised an elaborate, yet ingeniously elastic system of trackage within the Cut whereby loaded trains would roll out on a downgrade and trains of empty cars would be constantly available to serve the steam shovels. For a shovel to perform at maximum efficiency, the boom had to be swinging every possible minute; and this, as he stressed, could be accomplished only by maintaining a steady supply of empty cars.
By early 1906 he had his plans far enough along and had sufficient equipment in line to resume excavation. Day after day he trudged about among the men and machines, asking questions, observing, smoking cigars like Grant at the Wilderness, as a reporter noted. The men called him “Big Smoke.”
The summer before, when he first arrived in Panama, Stevens had assumed that he would be building a sea-level canal. He had come to the job, he later wrote, with a picture in mind of a “wide expanse of blue, rippling water and great ships plowing their way through it like the Straits of Magellan.” It was the age-old preconception, the dream of Columbus, the vision that had dominated at Paris in 1879 and that persisted still in both the popular and official imagination, irrespective of the French experience. Authorized by the previous commission to design an official seal for the Canal Zone, Tiffany & Company, after much historical research, had prepared a shield upon which a Spanish galleon under full sail could be seen traversing an open strait between steep embankments, on into the Pacific, the sky aglow with a tropical sunset. Beneath the shield was inscribed the motto: “The Land Divided—The World United.” And both design and inscription had been approved.
That the proper canal to build even remained an issue at so late a date was in itself a serious and immensely bothersome handicap for Stevens. In his position the French directors general had at least known what was wanted of them. There was of course much that he could do in the way of preparation, work that would be applicable regardless of the final decision, but only up to a point. As he would explain to John Tyler Morgan, it was “as though I had been told to build a house without being informed whether it was a tollhouse or a capitol.”
Now, in addition to everything else, he would be required to play a political role, a role he claimed to detest and for which he felt ill equipped. Yet in restrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone doing better than he did, and at the close of a long life, he himself would look back upon it as his greatest single service.
The special international board appointed by Roosevelt to consider the problem was composed of eight Americans and five Europeans. Chairman of the group was General Davis, the former Governor of the Canal Zone. Others included Professor Burr and William B. Parsons, from the first Isthmian Canal Commission; a former member of the Walker Commission, Alfred Noble; and General Henry Abbot, from the old Comité Technique. Joseph Ripley was chief engineer of the St. Marys Falls Ship Canal—the “Soo” Canal, as it was better known—at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Frederic P. Stearns was chief engineer of Boston’s Metropolitan Water Board; Isham Randolph was chief engineer of the Sanitary District of Chicago.
The foreign members were a chef des Ponts et Chaussées, Adolphe Guérard; William Henry Hunter, chief engineer of the Manchester Canal, who also had served on the Comité Technique; a Prussian state engineer named Eugen Tincauzer; E. Quellenac, consulting engineer of the Suez Canal; and J. W. Welcker, director of all Dutch waterways.
It was another distinguished panel drawn from an international, professional upper crust, which for Stevens, with his lack of education, was something of a world apart. At its first meeting in the I.C.C. offices in Washington, September 1, 1905, the board was presented with numerous past reports, volumes of current data, as well as assorted proposals deemed deserving of attention (including one from Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who insisted still that the surest approach was to build a lock canal and by means of dredges take it down to sea level). Roosevelt gave a lunch for the group at Oyster Bay and told them he hoped it might be a sea-level passage, but warned that time and practicality must be kept in mind. It was his vital interest to “secure a Panama waterway” in the shortest time possible. The plan must be one that would work.
John Findley Wallace returned to Washington to argue that no plan should be approved that might prevent the ultimate creation of the “Straits of Panama.” And at the end of September the board went to the Isthmus to tour the line under abnormally sunny skies. In Limon Bay, in a stateroom on their ship, they interviewed Stevens, Maltby, and others from Stevens’ staff. By the time of their twenty-fifth meeting in Washington, November 18, they were prepared to cast their vote. The decision, by a margin of eight to five, was for a sea-level canal. Without exception the European members wanted it that way and they were joined by Chairman Davis, Professor Burr, and William B. Parsons.
In language and logic the case as presented by the majority had a very familiar ring: the setting might have been the grande salle of the Société de Géographie in 1879. Speaking for the majority, Chairman Davis declared that he had known since boyhood that Suez and Panama would be “overcome” one day; a passage at Suez had been declared impossible, a passage like that at Suez must be built in Panama. Again the issue was one of national pride and honor. Only in this instance the spokesman was an American official who knew Panama from personal experience and who no less than any of the others, presumably, should have had little difficulty understanding what had happened to the French and why. But the model was not the French canal at Panama; the model—again—was the French canal at Suez. To those in opposition, to anyone familiar with the history of the French experience on the Isthmus, the views of Chairman Davis seemed like the return of a bad dream.
The task that confronted the private company [at Suez] . . . measured by the difficulties they had to encounter, was many times greater, it seems to me, than the task which, measured by the standard of engineering methods and capabilities that exist today, confronts the United States at Panama; but the French company carried that work to completion at Suez thirty-six years ago, and it has yielded enormous profits. The many difficulties were overcome and an open waterway was made 100 miles long, affording unobstructed navigation. . . .
We know that at Panama to make a waterway similar to the Suez Canal we must construct a channel less than half as long . . . . Should the United States withdraw from the attempt to make at the American Isthmus a channel as open, free, and safe as already existing at Suez? Should they climb over the hill or remove it? . . . I think the dignity and power of this great nation . . . require that we should treat this matter not in a provisional but in a final, masterly way.
Control of the Chagres River—“the lion in the path,” Davis called it—could be easily attained.
A mountainous Report of the Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal was delivered to the White House on January 10, 1906. The recommended sea-level canal was to cost $247,000,000 and to be completed in twelve to thirteen years, which was approximately $100,000,000 more and three to four years longer than required for a lock canal of the kind proposed by the dissenting members.
This minority proposal was for a canal much like the one recommended by the Walker Commission; it was, that is, essentially the same canal for which the Spooner Act had been passed, a canal that would not divide the land, but bridge it with a high-level lake reached by flights of locks at either end. It had, however, one major difference. The site of the Chagres dam had been moved from Bohio downstream to Gatun, to within four miles of Limon Bay. What had been Lake Bohio in the earlier plan now became a much larger Gatun Lake. The span of the water bridge had been extended nine miles.
The elevation of the lake was to be eighty-five feet. At Gatun there would be a single flight of three locks built into the eastern end of the dam. A ship entering the locks would be lifted to the level of the lake, then proceed twenty-three miles across the lake, south to Culebra Cut, which, like the neck of a bottle, extended for nine miles through the divide and was capped by another small dam and one lock at Pedro Miguel. There the ship would be lowered thirty-one feet to a small terminal lake, another body of fresh water, this one being contained by a dam at La Boca, beside Sosa Hill, at the edge of the Pacific. Descending through two more locks, the ship would return to sea level and thus complete the ocean-to-ocean transit.
The model for the plan, its proponents stressed, was the Soo Canal, which for fifty years had been the gateway between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. There was no more heavily traveled canal in the world. By contrast to the 105-mile-long sea-level passage at Suez, the Soo was all of a mile and half from end to end. Yet the annual tonnage through the locks—44,000,000 tons in 1905—was more than three times that of the Suez Canal, even though the Soo was closed by ice during the winter. In season, huge Great Lakes ore boats moved through with an efficiency and safety that belied all the customary arguments against lock canals. No vessel had ever been seriously injured in the locks of the Soo, not in fifty years of constant traffic. “Danger to ships in a canal is not at the locks, where they are moving slowly and under control, but in the excavated channels . . . through which they pass at speed, and where if the width is insufficient, groundings are likely to happen.” The experience gained at the Soo was not only applicable to navigation at Panama, but of more value than any or all experience related to any other canal, according to the minority report, most of which was written by Alfred Noble, who in his earlier years had helped build the so-called Weitzel Lock on the Soo and who presently, at age sixty-one, was one of the two or three leading engineers in the country. (As chief engineer of the East River division of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1902 to 1909, Noble was responsible for tunnel construction under the river and for the foundations of Pennsylvania Station in New York City.)
Yet in its essentials this latest high-level lake plan for Panama was no different from that proposed by Godin de Lépinay in Paris twenty-seven years before. Gatun, it will be recalled, was the site specified by de Lépinay for the Chagres dam.
There had been others in the interval who had also seen Gatun as the most suitable place to check the river. Two interested Americans, C. D. Ward and Ashbel Welch, had each presented papers on the subject before the American Society of Civil Engineers. But because the breadth of the valley was far greater at Gatun than at Bohio, a much larger dam would have to be built at Gatun, thus making it an even more controversial project than the one at Bohio had been. This “controlling feature” in the new proposal was to be a mountain of earth nearly a mile and a half long (7,700 feet) and more than 100 feet high. And while earth dams of nearly the same size had been built with success elsewhere, this would be the highest on record and the Gatun site appeared to offer little if any bedrock upon which to found such a structure.
Stevens was chief among those who now backed the Gatun plan. Recalled to Washington to give his views, he met with Shonts, Taft, and Roosevelt and made a memorable appearance before the Senate canal committee. Stevens, however, was not the “architect” of the lock plan, as later claimed by some of his more ardent admirers. As recently as October, when appearing before the advisory board in Colón, he had in fact quite stubbornly refused to endorse any plan for the canal, saying he was too new to the work. The present lock plan was the work of Alfred Noble and Joseph Ripley, and was based largely on their experience on the Soo. Stevens, whose background was in railroad construction only, had no knowledge of lock construction or hydraulics. The real “architect” of the present plan, if such is an appropriate designation, remained Godin de Lépinay.
Still, Stevens had experienced a revelation since October. He had seen the effect of the rains; he had seen the Chagres in flood. In conversations with Maltby and others who had served under Wallace, he had found none who favored a sea-level canal. Stevens had once believed like others that a sea-level canal “meant simply digging a little more dirt.” Now he saw that the issue was one of the most momentous consequence and he could not have been more partisan. To his mind any sea-level plan for Panama was “an entirely untenable proposition,” “an impracticable futility.” The sea-level passage advocated by the majority of the board was to be only 150 feet wide for nearly half its length—“a narrow, tortuous ditch.” He foresaw endless landslides, a precarious transit under the best of conditions. Whenever two ships passed in so narrow a channel, one would have to make fast to mooring posts, as at Suez. Even if there were no difference in cost or time of construction, he would still prefer the lock plan.
It will provide a safer and quicker passage for ships . . . . It will provide, beyond question, the best solution to the vital problem of how safely to care for the floodwaters of the Chagres . . . . Its cost of operation, maintenance and fixed charges will be much less than any sea-level canal.
The estimated time of completion for a lock canal was nine years. He thought it could be done in eight years, by January 1914. He doubted that a sea-level canal could be built in anything less than eighteen years, or not before 1924.
As a witness on Capitol Hill, he was particularly impressive, answering all questions with characteristic confidence. Predictably, much anxiety had been voiced in the press and in Congress over the prospect of risking everything on an earth dam. Still fresh was the memory of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, when an entire city had been wiped out and more than two thousand lives lost as a result of the failure of an earth dam.
Stevens assured the committee that if properly engineered an earth dam would serve perfectly and that such suggested reinforcements as a masonry core could be dispensed with.
“Yes, if it is absolutely safe,” one senator replied. “Here I suggest that that is a very positive opinion or conviction that you have.”
“Well, I am a positive man,” Stevens said.
His most persistent interrogator, and easily the most intelligent in his private opinion, was John Tyler Morgan, who at age eighty-one had a little more than a year to live, but who at this juncture was still going strong. At the close of the hearings, Morgan came up to Stevens and told him, “If we had [had] you on our side, the canal would be built at Nicaragua.”
In November, before Stevens reached Washington, the New York Tribune made front-page news with an unauthorized report that Roosevelt wanted a lock canal because that was Stevens’ choice. According to Stevens, however, it was only because he “talked to Teddy like a Dutch uncle” after arriving in Washington that Roosevelt swung around to favor the lock plan.
On February 5, in response to Stevens’ views, the Isthmian Canal Commission overrode the majority opinion of the advisory board and chose the lock canal. Two weeks later, when submitting the reports to Congress, Roosevelt gave the lock canal Presidential sanction. It was, he said, the canal the chief engineer wanted and of all men the chief engineer had “a peculiar personal interest in judging aright.”
No sooner had Stevens returned to Panama than he learned that he might be needed again to lobby further on Capitol Hill. He protested to Shonts by cable declaring that he had said all he could. As Shonts also knew, Stevens suffered severely from seasickness and dreaded every trip to or from Panama. By April the issue was still tied up in committee and Stevens, infuriated over the “vexatious manner” in which things were being handled in Washington, kept cabling Taft to do something. Professor Burr, William B. Parsons, and John Wallace had appeared before the Senate committee and denounced with notable conviction virtually every feature in the lock proposal. So Stevens was called back to Washington.
On May 17, by a margin of one vote, the Senate committee reported for the sea-level plan. Stevens, who was never known to complain of the heat at Panama, would remember the rest of his life how “for two blistering hot days” he “withstood the severest” questioning before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Determined to make Congress and the country understand the nature of the problem, he kept hammering at the same fundamental idea that de Lépinay had failed to put across before the gathering in Paris. “The one great problem in the construction of any canal down there is the control of the Chagres River,” he insisted. “That overshadows everything else.”
He talked to congressmen, assembled statistics, and prepared a large map for display in the Senate. Most important, he drafted large sections of what was to be the major speech in the Senate, an address by the bantam-sized Philander Knox, Roosevelt’s former Attorney General, who had since become senator from Pennsylvania.
In the speech, as in the lock plan itself, Gatun Dam was the focal point. Knox assured the Senate that the dam was safe. Interestingly, Knox had once been part-owner of the ill-fated dam at Johnstown, a connection that somehow eluded notice in 1906. Knox happened also to live in Pittsburgh and his personal fortune, as well as the influence of his law firm, had been built on legal services in behalf of the Pittsburgh steel empire and its leaders. In the plan as it presently stood, a total of six double locks was called for and these would require gigantic gates—gates that would be built of steel. This was a point neither Knox nor anyone else happened to raise publicly, and how strenuously the steel interests may also have been lobbying for the lock plan is impossible to determine. But the great lock gates for the Panama Canal would in fact be fabricated in Pittsburgh one day and they would be erected by a Pittsburgh contractor.
Again, as in the “Battle of the Routes,” the issue was resolved in the Senate and by the narrowest of margins.
Knox spoke on June 19. Two days later the Senate voted 36 to 31 for a lock canal. A difference of three votes would have caused the United States to attempt a sea-level canal, which in all probability would have ended in terrible failure. As further experience would demonstrate, the advisory board had been no less naïve than de Lesseps concerning the true cost of so vast an excavation in terms of both money and time. George Goethals was to remark at one critical point that there was not money enough in the world to construct a sea-level canal at Panama.
Still in the opinion of a very large number of people, including a great many technical and military specialists, a dreadful error had been committed. And it was a view that would persist for years to come. Roosevelt was to be told to his face by no less a figure of valor and resolution than Lord Kitchener that he had blundered shamefully, Kitchener’s contention—expressed in a very loud voice—being that a sea-level canal was the only proper canal, as any sensible person could perceive. When Roosevelt countered that there were too many technical difficulties involved, Kitchener answered, “I never regard difficulties, or pay heed to protests like that; all I would do in such a case would be to say, ‘I order that a sea-level canal be dug, and I wish to hear nothing more about it.’ ” Roosevelt responded by saying, “If you say so, I have no doubt you would have given such an order; but I wonder if you remember the conversation between Glendower and Hotspur, when Glendower says, ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep,’ and Hotspur answers, ‘So can I, and so can any man; but will they come?’ ”
For the engineers on the Isthmus the decision was a great parting of the clouds. They knew at last the canal they were to build. Plans prepared in expectation of the decision could immediately be put into effect. Stevens had left specific instructions. Though he did not get back to Colón again until July 4, construction of a new town at Gatun was started within twenty-four hours after the Senate vote. Clearing the site for Gatun Dam was begun; tracks were laid for the dirt trains from Culebra.
Residents of the old village of Gatun, hearing that the dam was to be built where the village stood, refused to concern themselves, let alone move to the new site that had been provided for them. Such impossible things had been spoken of by the French some twenty-five years before, they said. So it was not until later, when actual construction began on the dam—and rock being dumped for the foundations crashed over several houses—that they agreed to move out.
On Stevens’ return, after careful study of core samples, after much tramping back and forth, he and Maltby fixed the center line of the Gatun locks. Responsibility for the design of the locks and of the dam was put in the hands of Joseph Ripley, the chief engineer of the Soo Canal, whom Stevens had managed to recruit before leaving Washington. As Stevens wrote, “Things began to quicken everywhere.”
Surveying parties were sent into the jungle to map and locate the contour line—the perimeter—of what was to be the largest artificial lake in the world. Eventually five such parties were in the field and their work was carried on almost entirely through unbroken jungle. Nearly every foot of the way had to be cleared by heavy cutting by hand. Progress was extremely slow; some parties were out for a year.
The creation of Gatun Lake would mean that approximately 164 square miles of jungle, an area as large as the island of Barbados, would vanish under water. Every village between Gatun and Matachín would be covered over, a prospect that the native populace found impossible to imagine. Mile after mile of the Chagres River, the Panama Railroad, nearly everything along the path of the French, not to mention most of the new towns being built, would be lost beneath the lake. A new railroad would have to be built on higher ground to skirt the eastern shore of the projected lake.
The preparatory period was over. Stevens’ headquarters, the entire engineering department, had been moved from Panama City to Culebra, to a steep green bluff looking directly down into the Cut. It had been a year and three months since John Stevens had taken charge.
1 For dependents other than wives the rule became a bit more complicated: each child qualified for 5 percent of the father’s base allotment for each year of the child’s age (a ten-year-old thus rated 50 percent of the base allotment), while all adult members of the family other than the wife rated 75 percent.