Modern history

18

The Man with the Sun in His Eyes

And never did a President before so reflect the quality of his time.

—H. G. WELLS

I

Theodore Roosevelt had taken a great liking to John Stevens. Stevens, in addition to his other attributes, was a reader of books, Roosevelt had discovered—“and . . . he has the same trick that I have of reading over and over again books for which he really cares.” Stevens’ favorite of all was Huckleberry Finn, which he read “continually,” and this to Roosevelt was the mark of the finest literary discernment.

Roosevelt’s one reservation about Stevens was his obvious insensitivity to the fact that the canal was an undertaking of the United States government. Stevens, Roosevelt complained to Taft, seemed incapable of understanding that he was no longer working for James J. Hill. Stevens had painfully little patience with congressmen, or with the Panamanians, and none at all with labor unions. When a delegation of steam-shovel engineers came to his office threatening to strike unless paid more, Stevens reportedly told them:“You all know damn well that strikes do not get you anywhere. Now, get the hell out of this office and back to work . . .” The men had returned to their machines and the story, when it got around, raised Stevens’ standing even higher in the eyes of most other Americans on the Isthmus. But the steam-shovel men had sent angry protests to their union leaders at home, who very quickly took the matter to Washington where it wound up on Roosevelt’s desk.

But it was the technical executive ability of Stevens and Shonts that Roosevelt valued most. They were “the very best men we could get for actually digging the canal,” he told Taft; their administrative abilities were “phenomenal.” And so it was in that spirit in the summer of 1906 that Roosevelt addressed himself to two propositions that would greatly change the execution of the work.

Stevens and Shonts wanted to build the canal by contract, as the French had tried, and as the transcontinental railroads had been built. It was the system to which they, as railroad men, were accustomed. Stevens envisioned a powerful syndicate of railroad contractors who “by combining their strength and influence” could bring to Panama the best people in the world to do the job. Taft was certain the plan meant trouble, and especially if selection of the contractors was to be determined by Stevens, which was what Stevens wanted, rather than by open bidding. Stevens was insistent, but Taft held his ground, and in the end Roosevelt agreed to put the work out to contract on a trial basis but only on the condition that there be open bidding.

The second and more important proposition concerned the manner in which the work was being administered. Shonts and Stevens wanted things greatly streamlined. To Shonts it would be “suicidal” to continue with the work without a “clear-cut organization with centralized power.” Stevens, in a long letter from Panama dated August 5, 1906, told Roosevelt that “from now on, everything should be made subordinate to construction . . .”

“I believe that the power and responsibility should be concentrated,” Stevens wrote, “ . . . that the commission, constituted in whatever way it may be . . . must resolve itself into what will amount to a one-man proposition.”

More correspondence followed and several meetings, and consequently a new executive order was prepared. The present three-man commission was to be abolished. Authority was to be vested in a single head, the chairman, and he in turn would report to the Secretary of War. On the Isthmus, heads of the major departments—engineering, sanitation, labor—would become members of the commission, reporting to and receiving instructions from the chairman. But since 90 percent of the employees on the Isthmus worked for the engineering department, it was really the chief engineer who had the power.

The chain of command had thus become a straight line, from Roosevelt to Taft to Shonts to Stevens. The office of governor of the Zone no longer existed. Stevens, the chief beneficiary of the change, was to be supreme commander in the field. Governor Magoon, never a favorite of either Shonts or Stevens, happened to be absent from the Isthmus on an emergency legal mission in Cuba. He would be quietly informed that he was not to return to Panama.

Since the administration of so large, complex, and distant an undertaking was a new experience for the United States government, or more specifically for the executive branch, this refinement of the commission was in itself something of a pioneering process, for which Roosevelt was ultimately responsible, although Stevens, perhaps justifiably, would later say he was the one who had mapped it all out. In less than three years’ time the commission had gone from a seven-headed board that oversaw all decisions, to the three-man executive body (wherein chairman, governor, and chief engineer each had his own specific responsibilities), to the present arrangement. Had Elihu Root or even Henry Clay Frick agreed to run things earlier, possibly something of the kind would have been arrived at in much less time. Shonts and Stevens had been given exactly the power they wanted.

The order, it was agreed, would be signed when Roosevelt got to Panama.

•   •

The trip to Panama to see the canal was one of those small, luminous events that light up an era. No President had ever before left the country during his time in office and so from the day of the first advance announcement in June the journey became the talk of the country. In much of the press, serious apprehensions were expressed, even though it had been stressed that he would be in constant communication with Washington by wireless and that every possible precaution would be taken to insure his physical safety. But by and large the idea of Teddy Roosevelt going personally to Panama, like a general to the front, had tremendous appeal, and on the eve of his departure in November, even the cautious Washington Star lent its support. Perhaps it was a good thing after all for a President to get out and see something of the world, the paper declared; conceivably future occupants of the office might even undertake European journeys.

He sailed on November 9, 1906, on the new 16,000-ton Louisiana, largest battleship in the fleet, escorted by two cruisers, Tennessee and Washington. He took Mrs. Roosevelt with him, and Navy doctor Presley Rixey, his personal physician, and three Secret Service men, but no reporters. The ships traveled south at fourteen knots through quiet seas and by the time they reached the Caribbean the weather was ideal.

Mother and I walk briskly up and down the deck together or else sit aft under the awning or in the aftercabin, with the gun ports open and ready . . . [he wrote to their son Kermit]. Mother, very pretty and dainty in white summer clothes, came up on Sunday morning to see inspection and review, or whatever they call it . . . I usually spend half an hour on deck before Mother is dressed. Then we breakfast together alone . . .

Their quarters were those of the admiral of the fleet, only somewhat enlarged, several walls having been removed for the occasion. Pictures of the rooms, with their wicker chairs and big brass beds and Oriental rugs, had already appeared in the illustrated magazines.

It is a beautiful sight, these three great war vessels steaming southward in close column [his letter continued], and almost as beautiful at night when we see not only the lights but the loom through the darkness of the ships astern . . . . I have thought a good deal of the time over eight years ago when I was sailing to Santiago in the fleet of warships and transports. It seems a strange thing to think of my now being President, going to visit the work of the Panama Canal which I have made possible.

All together, with the voyage down and back, he was away two weeks. The most memorable part of the visit was the rain. He had picked November because it was the height of the rainy season. He wished to see Panama at its absolute worst, he said, and he was not disappointed. “It would have been impossible to see the work going on under more unfavorable weather conditions,” he would report enthusiastically to Congress. It was raining the morning he landed. It was raining as he and President Amador rode through the streets of Panama City in an open carriage, Roosevelt waving a top hat to sodden but exuberant crowds. The deluge the second day was the worst in fifteen years. Three inches of rain fell in less than two hours. He saw the Chagres surge a hundred yards beyond its banks. The railroad was under water in several places. Villages were “knee-deep in water.” There was even a small landslide on the railroad cut at Paraíso. The contrast between the Panama he saw and the sunny, benign land toured by Ferdinand de Lesseps could not have been much greater. “I tramped everywhere through the mud,” he wrote with satisfaction.

Advance preparations had involved the efforts of thousands of people. As in de Lesseps’ day, streets were scrubbed, houses were painted or whitewashed, flags were hung from windows and balconies. Programs were printed; schoolchildren were rehearsed in patriotic airs. The Republic of Panama declared his day of arrival a national day of “joy and exalted enthusiasm” and instructed the populace to behave, since “all thinkers, sociologists and philosophers of the universe [will] have their eyes upon us in penetrating scrutiny.”

At Ancon, construction of a big three-story frame hotel called the Tivoli, a structure begun the year before but still far from finished, was rushed ahead with all speed as soon as Stevens learned of the visit. One wing of the building was finished and furnished in six weeks, because Roosevelt insisted upon living on shore and in the Zone.

Predictably, perhaps inevitably, Roosevelt did almost nothing by the comparatively relaxed schedule planned by Stevens. (In a cable from Washington, Taft had advised a full tour but without “overdoing matters.”) The white battleship appeared in Limon Bay on November 14, a day before she was supposed to. When Amador, Shonts, Stevens, and their wives rushed by train to Cristobal that afternoon, it was only to learn that Roosevelt would stay on board through the night so as not to disrupt any of their arrangements. At 7:30 the next morning, the appointed hour, as the official welcoming party stood at the end of the pier, all eyes searching for signs of life on the big ship, an amazing figure called “Good morning” from shore. He advanced into their midst. He was wearing a white suit and a seaman’s sou’wester, the brim of which reached his shoulders. The pince-nez glistened with fine raindrops. He had been rowed ashore two hours earlier, he explained, and had been having a grand time “exploring” the waterfront.

At Tivoli Crossing, a station stop built especially for his arrival at the new hotel, his immediate move was to disappear. Perhaps a hundred Zone police had been waiting to protect him. Their captain, a big, picturesque figure named George Shanton, was a former Rough Rider whom Roosevelt had personally recruited to organize the Panama force and the uniform Shanton had chosen was the same as that of the Rough Riders. So with Shanton and his men prancing about on horseback, the reception, when the train pulled in, looked very much like those staged during political campaigns.

In the confusion of the rain and the crowds, Roosevelt spotted William Gorgas and pulled him into a closed carriage. But when the carriage arrived at the hotel, escorted by the galloping Shanton, neither Roosevelt nor Gorgas was inside. Before leaving the station, they had slipped out the other door of the carriage and Roosevelt had Gorgas take him directly to Ancon Hospital for an inspection tour, two hours before he was expected.

By noon he had toured the bay in a seagoing tug and had walked unannounced into one of the employees’ mess halls at La Boca, where, with several hundred “gold roll” men, he and Mrs. Roosevelt sat down to a 30-cent lunch of soup, beef, mashed potatoes, peas, beets, chili con carne, plum pudding, and coffee. According to the official schedule, he was supposed to have attended a large luncheon in his honor at the Tivoli Hotel.

The American President, said Manuel Amador in a speech from the steps of the cathedral that afternoon, was the commander in chief in the great struggle for progress. “To harmonize the various elements that had to be united . . . to reorganize the great work, to grasp, in a word, its immense magnitude, a superior man was necessary, and you were this man,” said Amador. Panama and the United States, Roosevelt responded, were partners in the “giant engineering feat of the ages.”

Meantime, some two hundred prominent, rain-soaked Panamanians had paraded by on horseback, all dressed as Rough Riders.

The visit lasted all of three days, which, he later stressed to Congress, was insufficient time for an “exhaustive investigation of the minutiae of the work . . . still less to pass judgment on the engineering problems.” But according to the Star & Herald, no one in the four hundred years of Panama’s history had ever seen so much in so little time.

“He seemed obsessed with the idea that someone was trying to hide something from him,” Frank Maltby would recall. “ . . . He was continually pointing to some feature and asking, ‘What’s that? . . . Well, I want to see it.’ . . . he was continuously stopping some black man and asking if he had any complaint or grievance.”

Everyone who tried to maintain his pace wound up exhausted and half-drowned.

He walked railroad ties in Culebra Cut, leaped ditches, splashed through work camps, made impromptu speeches in the driving rain. “You are doing the biggest thing of the kind that has ever been done,” he said, “and I wanted to see how you are doing it.”

He inspected the quarters for both white and black workers, poked about in kitchens and meat lockers. On the morning of the third day, John Stevens told Maltby that it was his turn to lead the procession. “I have blisters on both feet and am worn out,” Stevens said. At Gatun, Roosevelt said he needed an overall view of the dam site and pointed to a nearby hill. In Maltby’s recollection, “ . . . we, together with three or four secret service men, charged up the hill as if we were taking a fort by storm.”

At home the papers reported his every move. “ROOSEVELT IS THERE” proclaimed the Washington Post. “A STRENUOUS EXHIBITION ON THE ISTHMUS” read another headline. “THE PRESIDENT CLIMBS A CANAL STEAM-SHOVEL” The New York Times announced on its front page.

The famous moment on the steam shovel occurred early on his second day, en route to the Cut. It was about eight in the morning and again the rain was coming down hard. At the site of the Pedro Miguel locks, Roosevelt spotted several shovels at work and ordered that the train be stopped. He jumped down, marched through the mud, and was soon sitting up in the driver’s seat, engineer A. H. Grey having happily moved over to make a place for him.

He was fascinated by the huge machine and insisted on knowing exactly how it worked; he asked that it be moved back and forth on its tracks. He had to see how everything was done. “All his questions, like his movements, were deliberate and emphatic to a noticeable degree,” a reporter noted; “he would stand for no ceremony. . . .”

He was at the controls for perhaps twenty minutes, during which a small crowd gathered and the photographers were extremely busy. Presidents of the United States had been photographed at their desks and on the rear platforms of Pullman cars; Chester A. Arthur had consented once to pose in a canoe. But not in 117 years had a President posed on a steam shovel. He was wearing a big Panama hat and another of his white suits. And the marvelous incongruity of the outfit, the huge, homely machine and the rain pouring down, not to mention his own open delight in the moment, made it at once an event, an obvious and inevitable peak for the man who so adored having his picture taken and who so plainly intended to see success at Panama. One of the photographs would quickly become part of American folklore, and as an expression of a man and his era, there are few that can surpass it.

The shovel was a ninety-five-ton Bucyrus, mainstay of the work. Going at full capacity it could dig three to five times as much as one of the old French excavators, none of which was any longer in use. It could take up five cubic yards—roughly eight tons of rock and earth—with a single scoop. Under ideal conditions it could load a dirt car in about eight minutes.

Ten men were needed to run such a machine. In addition to the engineer, there was a craneman, who handled the dumping, two coal stokers, and a “move-up” crew of six whose job it was to level the ground and place the track so that the shovel could be advanced as it worked, always keeping its nose to the bank. The engineer earned $210 a month, which was as much as the best-paid office workers received, more even than some doctors. But unlike the locomotive engineers, they got no overtime, as engineer Grey told Roosevelt in no uncertain terms.

The rain was descending in wild silver sheets when Roosevelt entered Culebra Cut for the first time, riding along the bottom of the Cut in a special train. Water was pouring from the red clay slopes in “regular rivers.” But there was a great blowing of locomotive whistles and cheering as he came into view. On the side of one shovel was stretched a big, hand-lettered banner that pleased him enormously: “WE’LL HELP YOU DIG IT.”

The shovels were working along the sides of the Cut on extended terraces, or benches, as in surface mining. They were advancing from either end of the Cut toward the middle, or summit, all of them digging on the upgrade, and it was thus that the loaded dirt trains rolled out of the Cut—north and south—on the downgrade. The spur tracks for the shovels ran side by side with those for the trains, the shovels working on the lower level. The area to be excavated was drilled and blasted, then the shovel moved up to begin the heavy work of swinging the debris, much of it rock, into the dirt cars. As each shovel progressed, it made a cut approximately fifty feet wide by twelve feet deep.

Very few of the old French dump cars were in use in the Cut any longer. The spoil was being hauled out on long trains of much larger American-built cars pulled by full-sized American-built locomotives. Most of the cars Roosevelt saw were wooden flat cars that were used in conjunction with a rather crude but amazingly effective unloading device, the Lidgerwood system, as it was called. The cars had only one side and steel aprons bridged the spaces between them. The dirt was piled on, high up against the one side; then at the dumping grounds a three-ton steel plow was brought up to the last car and hitched by a long cable to a huge winchlike device mounted on a flatcar at the head of the train. The winch took its power from the locomotive. At a signal the plow was hauled rapidly forward and the whole twenty-car train was unloaded with a single sweep, all in about ten minutes. One such machine, Stevens told Roosevelt, could do the work of three hundred men under the old method of unloading by hand.

In another letter to his son Kermit, written on the Louisiana on the way home, Roosevelt would give this description of Culebra Cut:

Now we have taken hold of the job . . . . There the huge steam shovels are hard at it; scooping huge masses of rock and gravel and dirt previously loosened by the drillers and dynamite blasters, loading it on trains which take it away to some dump, either in the jungle or where the dams are to be built. They are eating steadily into the mountain cutting it down and down. Little tracks are laid on the side hills, rocks blasted out, and the great ninety-five ton steam shovels work up like mountain howitzers until they come to where they can with advantage begin their work of eating into and destroying the mountainside. With intense energy men and machines do their task, the white men supervising matters and handling the machines, while the tens of thousands of black men do the rough manual labor where it is not worthwhile to have machines do it. It is an epic feat, and one of immense significance.

He had seen the Cut from above, from the rim, following lunch and a change of clothes at John Stevens’ house. The excavation was still only in its early stages and because of the rain there were only about twenty-five shovels at work. Even so, it was the largest cavern yet made in the earth’s surface and the noise and commotion from below were like nothing to be experienced anywhere. It was a scene, we are told in other accounts, that might only have come from the mind of H. G. Wells.

Once, earlier in the year, H. G. Wells had called at the White House. It was a bright spring afternoon and he and Roosevelt had talked at length in the garden, much as Jules Verne and Ferdinand de Lesseps had conversed in the library of the Société de Géographie. Wells was in America, he said, to search for the future and “question the certitudes of progress,” for unlike Verne, he had grave misgivings about the long-range human consequences of science and technology.

Whether Roosevelt had any such thoughts as he looked down into Culebra Cut for the first and only time in his life is impossible to say. More likely it was a supreme and ineffable moment. Wells, in his travels, had seen a hall of dynamos at the Niagara Falls Power Company that evoked something verging on religious awe. They were, he wrote, the creations of “serene and speculative, foreseeing and endeavoring minds.” The hall itself was a sanctuary; there had been no clatter, no dirt, no tumult, still the outer rim of the big generators traveled at the speed of 100,000 miles an hour. He had been moved to the depths of his soul by the vision of such vast power in the hands of man.

For Roosevelt at Culebra, with the rain hammering down, there had to have been something of the same sensation, though for him the noise and tumult would be the better part of it.

In their talk in the White House garden Wells had asked if the creative energies of modern civilization had any permanent value, and Roosevelt’s answer had been immediate. He had no way of disproving a pessimistic interpretation of the future, Roosevelt declared. But he chose not to live as if that was so. He referred specifically to The Time Machine, Wells’s most despairing vision of the future.

“He became gesticulatory,” Wells recalled, “and his straining voice a note higher in denying the pessimism of that book. . . .” Gripping the back of a garden chair with his left hand, Roosevelt had stabbed the air with his right, the familiar platform gesture.

“Suppose after all that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn’t matter now. The effort’s real. It’s worth going on with. It’s worth it—even then.”

“I can see him now,” Wells remembered, “ . . . and the gesture of the clenched hand and the—how can I describe it? the friendly peering snarl of his face, like a man with the sun in his eyes. He sticks in my mind as that, as a very symbol of the creative will in man, in its limitations, its doubtful adequacy, its valiant persistence. . . .”

In the long letter to Kermit written on the homeward voyage, Roosevelt said the Panama wilderness had made him wish he had more time. “It is a real tropic forest, palms and bananas, breadfruit trees, bamboos, lofty ceibas, and gorgeous butterflies and brilliant colored birds fluttering among the orchids . . . . All my old enthusiasm for natural history seemed to revive, and I would have given a good deal to have stayed and tried to collect specimens.” But there was no apparent conflict between such splendors and what went on in Culebra Cut, between orchids and steam shovels. “Panama was a great sight,” he told his son Ted, by which he meant everything in Panama.

•   •

To the majority of those on the job his presence had been magical. Years afterward, the wife of one of the steam-shovel engineers, Mrs. Rose van Hardeveld, would recall, “We saw him . . . on the end of the train. Jan got small flags for the children, and told us about when the train would pass . . . Mr. Roosevelt flashed us one of his well-known toothy smiles and waved his hat at the children . . .” In an instant, she said, she understood her husband’s faith in the man. “And I was more certain than ever that we ourselves would not leave until it [the canal] was finished.” Two years before, they had been living in Wyoming on a lonely stop on the Union Pacific. When her husband heard of the work at Panama, he had immediately wanted to go, because, he told her, “With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible.” At the time neither of them had known quite where Panama was located.

II

His “Special Message Concerning the Panama Canal,” the first message to Congress to be illustrated with photographs, was released on December 17, 1906. He sketched the progress being made. He praised the French for what they had achieved; he praised Congress for having had the sense to refuse to attempt a passage at sea level. He described the hospitals, living quarters, his meal in the mess hall at La Boca. He wrote of the rain. Only on the last morning had he caught a glimpse of the sun, and then only for a few minutes.

He did his best to depict the size of the work and urged Congress and the nation to take notice. “It is a stupendous work upon which our fellow countrymen are engaged in down there on the Isthmus,” he declared. At present, he could report, there were nearly six thousand Americans on the job. “No man can see these young, vigorous men energetically doing their duty without a thrill of pride. . . .”

A very large part of the message was given over to the progress made in health and sanitation and in praise for Gorgas. The message, Gorgas wrote privately, was “indeed a corker. I had not expected anything of the kind. I do not think that an army medical officer ever had such recognition in a Presidential message. It probably marks the acme of my career.”

Roosevelt called the medical progress astounding in view of Panama’s past; and yet, oddly, the statistical tables included at the conclusion of the report, transcriptions from the actual hospital records, gave a very different picture and a disquieting one. The specific strides he cited were quite unprecedented and indisputable: yellow fever had disappeared, there was no more cholera, there was no plague. Among the Americans, including dependents, there had not been a single death from disease in three months, an almost unbelievable record for Panama and very impressive, as Roosevelt stressed, even by North American standards.1

Medical care and services on the Isthmus were in fact “as good as that which could be obtained in our first-class hospitals at home.” The Sanitary Department was currently spending $2,000,000 a year; Ancon Hospital had a staff of 470. More than a dozen new hospitals and dispensaries had been built along the line. All hospital care was free for all employees, white and black.

Nearly a thousand laborers were kept constantly at work digging drainage ditches, cutting grass, burning brush, hauling garbage, pouring or spraying oil on streams and swamps.

But to anyone who bothered to study the records at the back of the report it was at once apparent that the success of the health crusade was really quite relative. It depended on which segment of the work force one was talking about. The white worker and his family were indeed faring extremely well; otherwise, for the vast black majority, the picture was alarming.

For the first ten months of 1906 the actual death rate among white employees was seventeen per thousand. But among the black West Indians it was fifty-nine per thousand! Black laborers, those understood to be so ideally suited to withstand the poisonous climate, were dying three times as fast as the white workers. If Panama was no longer a white man’s graveyard, it was little less deadly than it had ever been for the black man. And since the black workers outnumbered the white workers by three to one, the disparity in the numbers of fatalities among the black workers was even more shocking.

In the previous ten months a total of thirty-four Americans had died, whereas the toll among men and women from Barbados alone was 362, ten times greater; 197 Jamaicans had died, 68 from Martinique, 29 from St. Lucia, 27 from Grenada.

The causes of death as listed—among all workers, irrespective of color—included everything from railroad accidents to alcoholism to dysentery, suicide, syphilis, and tuberculosis. The chief killer among black people, however, and therefore the most fatal disease on the Isthmus at the moment, was pneumonia. Since the start of the year 390 employees had died of pneumonia. Of those, 375 were black. In October alone, as Roosevelt had been informed, 86 workers had died of pneumonia.

Malaria, the second worst killer, had taken 186 lives, all but 12 of whom were West Indian Negroes.

The problem was that much of the labor force was particularly vulnerable to viral pneumonia. On Barbados the disease was unknown. And since so many black workers lived where they pleased and as they pleased, often in the jungle, often ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, nearly always without the benefit of wire screening, the chances of their contracting almost anything, and malaria in particular, were extremely high.

The ditch-digging, brush-burning, swamp-draining activities carried on by the Anopheles brigades, as they were known, had been highly effective within specified areas. Those earlier studies that had shown the Anopheles mosquitoes to be susceptible to strong sunshine and wind had produced a calculated program to create as much unshaded, unprotected clear space, as little shade or shelter for the insect, as possible. And thus the new towns along the line stood on open ground, everything neatly clipped and trimmed.Anopheles mosquitoes were rarely seen in the immediate vicinity any longer. Roosevelt noted “the extraordinary absence of mosquitoes.” He and his party had seen exactly one in three days and it was “not of the dangerous species.”

But by no means had every swamp been drained, every breeding ground destroyed. A very large swamp at Miraflores, for example, was especially prolific; the usual catch in a mosquito trap overnight there was about a thousand. The jungle was never much more than a stone’s throw from any point along the line and in the jungle the Anopheles were as plentiful as always.

Malaria would continue to take more lives, as William Gorgas allowed in his own reports, and the “amount of incapacity” caused by the disease was, as he said, very much greater than that due to all other diseases combined.

Nearly all of the patients Roosevelt saw in the hospitals at Panama had been black men, as he acknowledged. And privately he had been appalled by some of the things he had seen, as we know from his correspondence with Shonts. “The least satisfactory feature of the entire work to my mind was the arrangement for feeding the negroes,” he wrote as soon as he reached Washington. “Those cooking sheds with their muddy floors and with the unclean pot which each man had in which he cooked everything, are certainly not what they should be . . . . Moreover, the very large sick rates among the negroes, compared with the whites, seems to me to show that a resolute effort should be made to teach the negro some of the principles of personal hygiene . . .” Could not something be done to provide better housing, better health for these workers? he asked.

•   •

Overall, the trip had made him more exuberant than ever on the subject of the canal. Of its ultimate success, he was as “convinced as one can be of any enterprise that is human.” His faith in Stevens was implicit throughout the message to Congress, as no one appreciated more than Stevens, who called it an “unqualified endorsement” of his conduct of affairs.

The executive order had been signed at a meeting in the old de Lesseps’ Palace at Cristobal on November 17, Roosevelt’s last day on the Isthmus. Stevens’ authority, therefore, was now firmly fixed.

So it was both puzzling and extremely annoying to Roosevelt when, at the very moment he released his message, Stevens began making trouble. In Washington for a brief visit in December, Stevens was strangely irritable and caustic. He seemed inexplicably resentful of Gorgas and talked of having Gorgas fired. Roosevelt found it “well-nigh impossible to get on with him.”

What went sour for Stevens is a mystery that Stevens chose never to explain. With the return of the dry season, the work was rolling ahead as never before. Excavation in Culebra Cut exceeded 500,000 cubic yards in January, more than double the best monthly record of the French. In February the figure was more than 600,000 cubic yards and Stevens’ own popularity reached a new high.

In any event, the crisis followed Shonts’s resignation on January 22. Shonts was leaving to head the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in New York City, a decision Roosevelt and Stevens knew of in advance and that Roosevelt accepted with none of the fireworks that had attended the Wallace incident. Stevens was formally apprised of the news two days later in a letter from I.C.C. Secretary Joseph Bucklin Bishop.

Then on January 30, at Culebra, Stevens sent a letter to Roosevelt that reached the White House on February 12.

It was six pages in length and as devoid of cant or circumlocution as all his correspondence. It also revealed a very different man from the John Stevens of the previous year, an exhausted and embittered man. He complained of “enemies in the rear” and of the discomforts of being “continually subject to attack by a lot of people . . . that I would not wipe my boots on in the United States.” While some “wise lawmakers” might think his salary excessive, he wanted it known that by staying on at Panama he was depriving himself of not less than $100,000 a year. His home life was disrupted; he was separated from his family much of the year. And at his age he had little enough time left “to enjoy the pleasures and comforts of a civilized life.”

He wrote of the tremendous responsibility and strain put upon the man in his position, saying he doubted that he could bear up under them for another eight years. Technical problems were not the issue; it was “the immense amount of detail” one had to keep constantly in mind.

If there was to be glory attached to his role, he was uninterested. Nor in the final analysis did he see any special romance or meaning in the canal itself:

The “honor” which is continually being held up as an incentive for being connected with this work, appeals to me but slightly. To me the canal is only a big ditch, and its great utility when completed, has never been so apparent to me, as it seems to be to others. Possibly I lack imagination. The work itself . . . on the whole, I do not like . . . . There has never been a day since my connection with this enterprise that I could not have gone back to the United States and occupied positions that to me, were far more satisfactory. Some of them, I would prefer to hold, if you will pardon my candor, than the Presidency of the United States.

This was the passage that settled his fate. The letter was not a formal resignation. He never said specifically that he wanted out, only that he was not “anxious to continue in service.” He wanted a rest, and having assured Roosevelt of his high personal regard for him, he asked for his “calm and dispassionate” consideration of the matter.

A reporter who talked to someone who was with Roosevelt at the time Roosevelt received the letter wrote, “To say that the President was amazed at the tone and character of the communication is to describe the feelings mildly.” The letter was sent immediately to Taft with a covering note: “Stevens must get out at once.” Even if Stevens were to change his mind, it would make no difference “in view of the tone of his letter.”

After a brief meeting with Taft, Roosevelt cabled Stevens that his resignation was accepted.

Taft again told Roosevelt that Major Goethals (who was about to become Lieutenant Colonel Goethals) was the best-equipped man for the job, so on the night of February 18 Goethals was summoned to the White House. The change, however, was kept secret until the twenty-sixth, when, with the announcement, Roosevelt issued his widely quoted declaration—a remark made as much for the benefit of the work force on the Isthmus as for the general public—that he would put the canal in the charge of “men who will stay on the job until I get tired of having them there, or till I say they may abandon it. I shall turn it over to the Army.”

But in the same breath, according to the New York Tribune, he also remarked, “Then if the man in charge suffers from an enlarged cranium or his nerves go to the bad, I can order him north for his health and fill his place without confusion.”

Privately Roosevelt was “utterly at sea” over Stevens’ behavior. When a friend who was visiting the Isthmus wrote in confidence that Stevens suffered from insomnia, Roosevelt seemed much relieved. “If he were a drinking man or one addicted to the use of drugs, the answer would be simple,” he wrote in reply. “As it is, I am inclined to think that it must have been insomnia or something of the kind, due to his tropical surroundings . . .” Then he added: “He has done admirably.”

On the Isthmus the announcement had a shattering effect. The Star & Herald, standing firmly behind Stevens, declared the top-heavy craniums were all in Washington and that the French must be laughing up their sleeves.

When Stevens’ own men appealed to him for some word of explanation, he answered, “Don’t talk, dig.”

As time passed, numerous theories were put forth. It was said that he had found the Gatun Dam plans to be unsound; that he was angry over a contract that had been agreed to in Washington without his say; that his wife did not like the looks of the contractor; that he had been offered another job; that he was crazy. One editor, exasperated by the absurdity of all that was appearing in print, declared that in fact the problem of green mold on his books was what finally broke the spirit of John Stevens.

The most common and in retrospect the most plausible explanation was that he was overworked and verging on a breakdown, which is what his own letter plainly implied. It was the explanation Taft gave to Congress in the course of later testimony and the conclusion Goethals would reach once he got to the Isthmus. “. . . I think he has broken down with the responsibilities and an evident desire to look after too many details himself,” Goethals wrote privately.

“He was not a quitter,” Frank Maltby would insist. “He could not have been driven off the canal with a club, if it was a question of fighting for what he thought was the right thing . . . . My own personal opinion . . . is that he disliked notoriety very much.”

A more intriguing but wholly unsubstantiated theory was offered some years later by Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. According to Daniels, Stevens had inadvertently come upon certain incriminating information concerning the activities of William Nelson Cromwell at the time of the sale of the Compagnie Nouvelle and its franchises. It was information, Daniels wrote, that if revealed “would blow up the Republican Party and disclose the most scandalous piece of corruption in the history of the country.”

An explanation that carried great weight on the Isthmus was that Stevens had been merely letting off steam in his letter to Roosevelt and he was as startled as anyone by the reaction it produced. A canal employee who claimed to have been with Stevens in his office when the letter was written said Stevens handed him a carbon, remarking jovially, “I’ve just been easing my mind to T.R. It’s a hot one, isn’t it?” When the man told Stevens it was a letter of resignation, Stevens laughed and said Roosevelt would know perfectly well that he did not mean to quit. But if Stevens truly understood Roosevelt, as he claimed, it is inconceivable that he could so misjudge the inevitable effect of belittling remarks concerning the canal, not to mention the decidedly unpleasant edge to his remark about the Presidency.

Stevens had thrived on change his whole career. He left Hill twice because he needed a change. He had accepted the Philippines assignment in 1905 because he was worn out and needed a change. Change, he was to write in an appeal to young men to enter engineering, was for him among the prime attractions of the profession. So possibly a resignation was bound to come sooner or later.

He himself was to assert that all alleged reasons for his sudden departure were alike in one respect: they were all false. “The reasons for the resignation were purely personal . . .” he wrote. “I have never declared these reasons, and probably never will. . . .” He never did.

•   •

His work had been outstanding. His railroad scheme in Culebra Cut was, according to George Goethals, beyond the competence of any Army engineer of the day. Others would contend—indeed argue passionately—that in fact it was Stevens who should go down in history as the builder of the canal. Never a modest man, Stevens had his own view about this. He had handed over to the Army engineers, he later said, a “well-planned and well-built machine,” which apart perhaps from a squeak or two would run perfectly. His replacement (Goethals) merely “turned the crank,” he wrote. “The hardest problems were solved, the Rubicon was crossed, the canal was being built. . . . Only gross mismanagement or a failure to supply the necessary funds, could militate against its triumphant accomplishment.”

But this was manifestly unfair. Closer to the truth was the picture he had implied in the letter to Roosevelt of an immense, complex task, a man-killing responsibility, extending for years to come. Goethals’ later tributes to Stevens, that Stevens was one of the greatest engineers who ever lived, that the canal was Stevens’ monument, were professional compliments of the highest order offered in all sincerity. But such remarks also say as much about Goethals as they do about Stevens.

Stevens’ railroad system would remain the fundamental operating procedure in the Cut until the excavation was finished. But excavation was only beginning in early 1907 and Stevens had not been confronted by major landslides. Surveys were still incomplete. The relocation of the Panama Railroad had not yet begun. The size of the locks had still to be determined. All the complex details of the locks had yet to be designed. Indeed, all the great construction work of the canal had still to begin—the building of Gatun Dam, the building of the locks—tasks of unprecedented magnitude requiring technical expertise that Stevens really did not possess.

Stevens’ primary tasks—the creation of a well-fed, well-housed, well-equipped, well-organized work force, the conception of a plan of attack—were over by 1907. As a railroad engineer he was inexperienced in the large-scale use of concrete; he knew very little about hydraulics; and these were the specialties of the Army engineers.

Stevens’ two-fisted, independent spirit had been exactly what was needed. The critical situation in 1905 had demanded, as he later said, “a kind of politic ‘roughneck,’ who did not possess too deep a veneration for the vagaries of constituted authority.” But ultimately the role called for a larger sense of mission than that.

For a long time now Roosevelt had spoken of building the canal as though it were a mighty battle in which the national honor was at stake, much as Ferdinand de Lesseps had so often spoken. Panama was a tumultuous assault for Progress, the only assault this most bellicose-sounding of American Presidents was ever to launch and lead. At the end of his last day at Cristobal, in an off-the-cuff speech to several hundred Americans, including John Stevens, he had said the canal was a larger, more important endeavor than anyone could as yet realize, and that by bringing it to successful completion they would stand like one of the famous armies of history. It was to be a long, arduous, uphill struggle, he said, one not unlike that of their fathers’ in the Civil War. (His own two-month Cuban war would never have served as an example.)

When your fathers were in the fighting, they thought a good deal of the fact that the blanket was too heavy by noon and not quite heavy enough by night, that the pork was not as good as it might be . . . and that they were not always satisfied with the way in which the regiments were led . . . . But when the war was done—when they came home, when they looked at what had been accomplished, all those things sank into insignificance, and the great fact remained that they had played their part like men among men; that they had borne themselves so that when people asked what they had done of worth in those great years all they had to say was that they had served decently and faithfully in the great armies . . . . I cannot overstate the intensity of the feeling I have . . . I feel that to each of you has come an opportunity such as is vouchsafed to but few in each generation . . . . Each man must have in him the feeling that, besides getting what he is rightfully entitled to for his work, that aside and above that must come the feeling of triumph at being associated in the work itself, must come the appreciation of what a tremendous work it is, of what a splendid opportunity is offered to any man who takes part in it.

By Roosevelt’s lights, Stevens had failed in the most profound and fundamental sense, scarcely less than Wallace had. To Roosevelt the triumph was in the task itself, in taking the dare; the test was in the capacity to keep “pegging away,” as he often stressed to his sons. Stevens was not merely giving up; Stevens saw it only as a “job”; there was no commitment of heart, not the slightest apparent sense of duty. To Roosevelt, Stevens was a commander abandoning his army.

He appears to have harbored no bitterness toward Stevens. (“You have done excellent work . . . and I am sorry to lose you,” he wrote a few days after receiving Stevens’ letter.) It was merely that if Stevens was the sort of man who looked upon the task as something to take or leave at will, then he was someone Roosevelt could quite readily do without and put from mind. In Roosevelt’s long essay on the canal in his Autobiography, there would be no mention of John Stevens.

III

With the appointment of George Washington Goethals, Roosevelt’s worries over the work at Panama came to an end. The canal would now be the “one-man proposition” John Stevens had called for, only the one man was to be an entirely different sort from Stevens.

At forty-eight Goethals was the same age as Roosevelt and of similar ancestry. His Flemish father and mother had arrived in New York with the great wave of immigration in 1848. The second of three children, he had been born in Brooklyn on June 29, 1858, and later, when he was eleven, moved with his family to a house on Avenue D in Manhattan, a block from the East River. But his family had been poor and struggling and unlike Roosevelt he had had to make his way “exclusively by his own exertions.” Starting at age fourteen he had worked his way through City College in New York, then went on to West Point, where he was elected president of his class and finished second in his class in 1880, the same year Roosevelt was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard.

Goethals’ career in the Corps of Engineers had been exemplary. In the Department of the Columbia in 1884, William Tecumseh Sherman had singled him out as the finest young officer in his command and predicted a “brilliant future.” He had worked on “improvements” in the Ohio River valley (1884–1885); as an instructor of civil and military engineering at West Point (1885–1889); on improvements on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and particularly on the Muscle Shoals Canal (1889–1894), where he designed and built a lock with the record lift of twenty-six feet; as assistant to the Chief of Engineers (1894–1898); and harbor works from Block Island to Nantucket (1900–1903). In 1903, the year of Elihu Root’s reorganization of the Army, he had been picked to serve on the new General Staff, a corps of forty-four officers who were relieved of all duties in order to assist the new Chief of Staff. And it was thus, as a specialist in coastal defenses, that he had come to Taft’s attention.

He was a model officer, but a soldier like many in the Corps of Engineers who had never fought in a war, never fired a shot except on a rifle range, and who seems in fact to have had little affection for conventional “soldiering.” Once on a parade ground in Panama, while watching some troops pass in review on a broiling-hot drill field, he would mutter to a civilian companion, “What a hell of a life.”

Cool in manner, capable, very correct, he was a man of natural dignity and rigorously high, demanding standards. He had had no experience with notoriety, nor apparently any craving for it. And it would be hard to imagine him losing himself in Huckleberry Finn or anything other than his work. Asked years later how “the Colonel” had amused himself, a member of the family would respond, “He did not amuse himself.”

A reporter wrote that “above everything he looks alert and fit.” Six feet tall, he was in fine physical trim. The salient features were his intent, violet-blue eyes—“rather savage eyes,” Alice Roosevelt Longworth would recall—and his close-cut, silvery hair, which he parted in the middle and washed daily. If a bit stiff socially, he was never pompous, largely because he was almost incapable of talking about himself. To pretty young women he could be especially gracious, in a rather fatherly fashion, and they considered him extremely attractive.

He was also a chain smoker and he detested fat people—with the one exception of William Howard Taft. Secretary Taft, Goethals was once heard to remark, was the only clean fat man he had ever known.

On the night that he was first summoned to the White House, Goethals and his wife had been entertaining an old friend, Colonel Gustav Fieberger, head of the engineering department at West Point, at their home on S Street. A messenger arrived with a note from William Loeb, Roosevelt’s secretary, asking if Goethals would be free to come by the first thing in the morning. Goethals had immediately telephoned Loeb, who told him not to wait until morning but to come over that night at twenty minutes after ten. So Goethals had excused himself from his guest, changed into dress uniform, and left the house having no idea whatever as to why he was being sent for. Nor had he ever met Theodore Roosevelt.

“He entered at once upon the subject of the Canal,” Goethals would recall. The canal commission was again to be reorganized and for the final time. Goethals was to be both chairman and chief engineer. Jackson Smith and Dr. Gorgas were to be members of the commission, along with four new men: a former senator from Kentucky named Joseph C. S. Blackburn, Rear Admiral Harry Harwood Rousseau, and Major David Du Bose Gaillard and Major William Sibert, both of the Corps of Engineers. Gaillard was the only one on the list with whom Goethals was personally acquainted—Gaillard, too, had been a member of the first General Staff—but he knew Sibert and Rousseau by reputation and agreed to their appointments.

The critical decision, however, concerned Goethals. “He [Roosevelt] expressed regret that the law required the work to be placed in charge of a commission or executive body of seven men,” Goethals remembered, “but . . . his various efforts to work under the law . . . were so unsuccessful that he resolved to assume powers which the law did not give him but which it did not forbid him to exercise.”

So while all members of the commission were to be on the Isthmus henceforth, Goethals was to wield supreme authority, an authority that would be backed by another new executive order the following year. Goethals was to be a virtual dictator—“Czar of the Zone”—responsible only to the Secretary of War and the President. In the words of his biographer, Goethals at once became one of the world’s absolute despots, who “could command the removal of a mountain from the landscape, or of a man from his dominions, or of a salt-cellar from that man’s table.”

This was a long way from the spirit of the Spooner Act, but by such means only, Roosevelt insisted, could the task ever be accomplished, a view with which Goethals concurred.

A common misconception later was that the canal was built by the Army, that it was the creation of the Corps of Engineers. It was not. Goethals and the other engineering officers were detached from the Army to serve in Panama. They did not report to the Chief of the Corps of Engineers; they, like the civilian engineers, reported to the canal commission—which was Goethals—and Goethals reported to Taft, exactly as Stevens had according to the previous reorganization.

The critical difference now was that an Army man could not and would not quit. For a West Point graduate to abandon his appointed task in the face of adversity or personal discomfort was all but inconceivable.

In the next several days, Blackburn, Rousseau, Gaillard, and Sibert appeared at the White House one by one to meet with the President and Goethals in the President’s office. The same scene was repeated in each instance. Having introduced Goethals, Roosevelt would ask the man to be seated, then would inform him that he was to be appointed to the commission. “It will be a position of ample remuneration and much honor,” Roosevelt said. “In appointing you I have only one qualification to make. Colonel Goethals here is to be chairman. He is to have complete authority. If at any time you do not agree with his policies, do not bother to tell me about it—your disagreement with him will constitute your resignation.”

Goethals’ salary, Roosevelt had decided, would be $15,000 a year, which was substantially more than he had been earning, but only half what Stevens had been paid.

A week or so after his new assignment had been announced in the papers, Goethals wrote in reply to the congratulations of a friend, “It’s a case of just plain straight duty. I am ordered down—there was no alternative.”

•   •

To a whole generation of Americans it was Theodore Roosevelt who built the Panama Canal. It was quite simply his personal creation. Yet the Panama Canal was built under three American Presidents, not one—Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson—and in fact, of the three, it was really Taft who gave the project the most time and personal attention. Taft made five trips to Panama as Secretary of War and he went twice again during the time he was President. It was Taft who fired Wallace and hired John Stevens, Taft who first spotted Goethals. When Taft replaced Roosevelt in the White House in 1909, the canal was only about half finished.

None of this made much difference, however. Nor ought there ever be any question as to the legitimacy of the Roosevelt stamp on the canal. His own emphatic position was that it would never have been built but for him and it was a position no one tried to dispute. To Goethals, “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.” It could not have been more Roosevelt’s triumph, Goethals wrote, “if he had personally lifted every shovelful of earth in its construction. . . .”

The work had not simply begun anew while Roosevelt held office; his leadership had been decisive—in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, the choice of the Panama route, the creation of an independent Panama, the defense and support of William Gorgas, the choice of a lock-and-lake plan.

Even with his Panama visit, however brief, he achieved at a stroke something that had never been done before: he made the canal a popular success.

And finally, he had entrusted command of the work to one extremely well-chosen man. “I believe in a strong executive,” he once wrote to a correspondent, “I believe in power. . . .”

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

High tea at Culebra (Colonel and Mrs. David D. Gaillard)

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FROM THE MAKERS OF THE PANAMA CANAL, 1911

Typical housing at Ancon for upper-echelon employees

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Typical dining room in middle-echelon dwelling

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COLLECTION OF J. W. D. COLLINS

Momentary pause at a Saturday-night dance at the Tivoli Hotel

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COLLECTION OF J. W. D. COLLINS

Bathers en route to Toro Point

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BOTH PHOTOS: PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

Bachelor quarters (bottle on the dresser is bay rum)

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Culebra Station as it looked in 1911

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FROM THE MAKERS OF THE PANAMA CANAL, 1911

Billiard room at one of the Y.M.C.A. clubhouses. Dues were $10 a year.

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

The steamer Ancon arriving at Cristobal from Barbados with 1,500 laborers

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

West Indian wedding party

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Typical housing for West Indian laborers

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COLLECTION OF D. P. GAILLARD

President and Mrs. William Howard Taft with Colonel Gaillard at Culebra

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

Aftermath of a slide in Culebra Cut

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

“Headquarters” at Mount Hope

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Interior of the pay car, which delivered 1,600 pounds of gold, 48,000 pounds of silver coin monthly

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Movie still of labor train

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

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The rise of Gatun Locks. Top: Aerial tramway delivers buckets of concrete to steel forms. Center: Giant bull wheel that opens and shuts a lock gate. Bottom: Gate leaves (double gates in foreground, intermediate gates beyond) near completion, 1912.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Approaches to Gatun Locks by Joseph Pennell

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

Shovel No. 222 and shovel No. 230 meet nose to nose on the bottom of the Cut, May 20, 1913.

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

A party of tourists views Culebra Cut and the Cucaracha slide early in 1914, after Goethals had filled the Cut with water and continued the work with dredges.

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

The tug Gatun approaches Gatun Locks for the first trial lockage.

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PANAMA CANAL COMPANY

Steamer Ancon starts into Culebra Cut on the official opening transit of the canal, August 15, 1914.


1 In an average city in the United States in 1906 the death toll from disease among an equal number of people would have been about thirty.

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