Modern history

20

Life and Times

For a while we tramped on in silence, till Umbopa, who was marching in front, broke into a Zulu chant about how brave men, tired of life and the tameness of things, started off into a great wilderness to find new things or die, and how, lo, and behold! when they had got far into the wilderness, they found it was not a wilderness at all, but a beautiful place full of young wives and fat cattle.

—H. RIDER HAGGARD

King Solomon’s Mines

And this on the slope of the death-dealing Chagres!

—CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS

I

There were six passenger trains daily on the Panama Railroad, three in each direction, and since the railroad was still the one way to get back and forth, the trains were always crowded and the crowds were always interesting to look at. Especially in the cool of the evening every little station platform would be thronged with people, and to anyone newly arrived on the Isthmus it was astonishing to see American women and children in such numbers and all looking so very healthy, clean, and perfectly at home. They were not merely surviving in such alien—and once deadly—soil, but plainly thriving, and this to many visitors was as impressive, as great a source of patriotic pride, as anything to be seen.

One grew tired of hearing of “the largest dam, the highest locks, the greatest artificial lake, the deepest cut,” wrote a correspondent for The Outlook, in an effort to explain the thrill he experienced watching a simple, unimportant scene on the platform at Empire. A man returning from work, grimy and wringing with perspiration, was being met by his wife, a woman of perhaps thirty dressed all in white, who held a baby, and by a still younger woman, apparently her sister, who stood “like a Gibson summer girl,” holding the hand of a blond little boy with bare legs and wearing an immaculate white Russian tunic. To the correspondent, watching from the train window, there was something quite miraculous about this “New Jersey group,” as he called them, and the way the father, holding his greasy hands stiffly behind, bent forward and kissed his wife and children.

Old Charles Francis Adams—brother of Henry Adams, railroad expert, historian—had a similar experience. In 1911, in his seventy-sixth year, Adams had come to Panama for no other purpose than to see the construction in progress. One evening while waiting for the train at Culebra, his eyes fell on a group of American girls, about ten in number and anywhere from ten to fifteen years of age. Each was nicely dressed in a thin white frock and the sight of them in such a setting affected him profoundly. “A more healthy, well-to-do and companionable group of children could not under similar conditions have been met at any station within twenty miles of Boston,” he would report to his fellow members of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Several of the girls had come to take the train, the others to see them off. They were chatting and laughing under the glare of the station lights, oblivious of everything but themselves, without chaperons and wholly without fear—of yellow fever, of malaria, of anything whatever as near as he could surmise. “The material, social and meteorological conditions would in every respect have compared favorably with those to which we are accustomed to during the midsummer season; the single noticeable difference was the more complete absence of insect life . . . . And this on the slope of the death-dealing Chagres!”

Gatun Dam, the locks, Culebra Cut, were all tremendously impressive, he affirmed, but dams and waterways had been built before; the majesty of these was largely a question of degree. But this “vanquishing of pestilence,” this clean, prosperous, flourishing Anglo-Saxon civilization in the very heart of the jungle, was, he insisted, unlike anything before in history.

•   •

Those resident bystanders who remembered the Isthmus from times past were no less incredulous over the transformation. To any of Adams’ own generation, those old enough to remember the hell-roaring days of the gold rush, the change was almost inconceivable. Even the French era seemed part of another time, another world. Tracy Robinson, who had been the sole resident American present at the arrival of Le Grand Français in 1880, and who was still a familiar figure in Colón, had lived, he said, to see the confirmation of his lifelong conviction concerning the tropics. The tropics had been “set apart for great things,” he had said to de Lesseps. And he said it again now with greater faith in his memoirs, an inscribed copy of which he presented to George Goethals: “It seems to me that Design may be clearly traced in this tendency. The evolution of mankind toward a higher destiny is involved.”

The enormous discrepancy between white and black society along this same jungle corridor, the point that the Canal Zone was in actuality a rigid caste society, was barely even implied by such observers (which, of course, was in itself another facet of the life and times). And neither did any but a very few question the kind of white community that had evolved, other than to point out, somewhat apologetically, that it was indeed “a sort of socialism.” The statement that the Canal Zone was “a narrow ribbon of standardized buildings and standardized men working at standardized jobs” stands almost alone in all to be found in published or private accounts. To William Franklin Sands, an American diplomat, this new civilization created by his countrymen was simply awful, “a drearily efficient state,” “a mechanization of human society.” “Every American looked and behaved exactly like every other—to the vast bewilderment of the natives, who had previously thought of us as a race of extreme individualists. . . .” To Sands the view from the train window was cause for despair, as he wrote years later:

From a railway car one could tell by the type of mission furniture and the color of the hammock swings on the back porches the salaries and social standings of the occupants of all the houses that one passed. In some ways the Canal Zone of the early 1900’s was a foretaste of those New Jersey and Long Island suburbs of the 1920’s where social ratings were according to the number and cost of one’s automobiles. . . .

To those who lived in such houses, however, to the individual men and women like those seen by The Outlook correspondent, Panama seems to have been the experience of a lifetime, almost without exception. The work, the way of life, the sense of being part of a creative undertaking so much larger and so much more important than oneself, were like nothing they had known, as they openly and cheerfully expressed then and for the rest of their lives. “It is as if each were individually proud of being one of the chosen people and builders of the greatest work of the modern age,” noted a thoughtful young rookie on the Zone police force, an aspiring writer named Harry Franck who had been assigned to take a census. Families returning by ship from home leave invariably spoke of their eagerness to get back. “Not one but was ready and even glad to go back,” Charles Francis Adams observed of the group he met during the voyage to Colón; “all looked forward to remaining there for the end—till, as the expression went, they ‘saw the thing through.’ ”

“We felt like pioneers,” numbers of them would recall a lifetime afterward. Far from home, they were rolling back the wilderness, serving the cause of progress, serving their country in one of its grandest moments. They were building large and building to last. It was to be a “monument for the world.” Every day was a story for the grandchildren.

No one could quite see himself as a soldier under fire any longer, far too much was being provided in the way of creature comforts. There were scarcely even inconveniences any more, let alone real hardships to face. There were never “hard times” in the Zone, as Harry Franck observed, “no hurried, worried faces.” Morale was amazing.

Very little if any time was spent worrying over the possible detrimental effects of so structured and paternalistic an order. Their days were too busy, for one thing. Furthermore, there was never any question as to the finite nature of their circumstances. If this was an entirely novel social experiment, it was also to be a brief one, they knew. Vestiges of their way of life would survive—some to the present day—but their own particular era would end abruptly just as soon as the canal was built. The houses they lived in, their schools, offices, whole communities, would disappear with the advance of Gatun Lake. Other towns on higher ground would also be struck like stage sets and carried away, leaving not a trace.

They themselves would depart by the thousands, and for the relative few who would decide to stay on, life would become something quite different. Another era would begin once “Big Job” was no longer the common, galvanizing cause.

The work was everything. “Pride and joy in the work,” wrote Bishop, “constituted the magic bond which held the canal colony together . . .” There was no one who was not associated with the work. No one could live within the Zone unless he or she was a worker on the canal or a member of a worker’s family. The entire social order existed solely for the work and it rewarded its members according to their importance to the work. Indeed, on a small and limited scale, there existed within the American Zone in Panama between, roughly, 1907 and 1914 something very like what Claude de Rouvroy, the Comte de Saint-Simon, had envisioned for the world a century before. All were caught up in a noble effort that was to benefit humanity: the canal he had also envisioned. Society was controlled by a gifted technician, as he had espoused. His famous maxim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work,” could well have been the motto of the Isthmian Canal Commission.

Joseph Pennell, an artist who came to do a series of lithographs showing the final heroic stages of construction, called the canal “The Wonder of Work” and said the devotion it inspired, the spirit it engendered among the Americans, were of a quality he had never encountered.

Even the animosity or ill-concealed disdain felt by many Americans toward the Panamanians seems to have stemmed in large measure, if not chiefly, from what the Americans took to be a disgraceful lack of regard for “honest work” on the part of the Panamanians. It was not so much that the Panamanian was lazy, that he had done nothing for centuries, or even that he refused now to take a hand with the canal, but that he appeared to sneer at the fundamental belief that hard work could be good in itself, an ennobling act of faith. To large numbers of young American technicians such contempt was little short of blasphemous.

The fundamental problem with the Panamanian, noted census-taker Harry Franck, was that he could not “rid himself of his racial conviction that a man in an old khaki jacket who is building a canal must be inferior clay to a hotel loafer in a frock coat . . . . Even with seven years of American example about him the Panamanian had not yet grasped the divinity of labor. Perhaps he will eons hence when he has grown nearer true civilization.”

•   •

The full work force in the last years of construction numbered about 45,000 to 50,000, which was nearly equal to the combined populations of Colón and Panama City. But the total number of white North Americans was only about 6,000, of whom roughly 2,500 were women and children. In 1913 there were 5,362 gold-roll employees and dependents, practically all of whom were Americans. Their average pay was $150 a month. A nurse or teacher received $60 to start; clerks and bookkeepers, $100; a doctor, $150; steam-shovel engineers were by now getting $310. The number of women employed was never more than about 300 and the top salary for a woman was $125 (for a railroad telegraph operator).

A young graduate engineer with two or three years’ experience could expect to make $250 to start, which was about $25 more than he could make in the United States. And added to his salary was the host of free benefits and services (housing, hospital care) to which all employees were entitled. His annual vacation was forty-two days with pay (this in a day when two weeks was still the standard) and he was entitled to thirty days’ sick leave with pay.

If he was single he generally shared a room with another man in one of the bachelor hotels, as they were called, where the phonograph blared “seven kinds of ragtime” through the night and poker games, strictly forbidden by I.C.C. regulations, were carried on “in much the same spirit as Comanche warfare.” The buildings were seldom quiet until 4:30 A.M., when the first alarm clocks began going off.

Meals at this same hotel cost 30 cents each (comparable fare in the United States would have run about 75 cents), and since a man needed only work clothes and one or two light suits, his clothing expenses were minimal. For bowling, billiards, pool, a book or a current magazine and the comforts of a Morris chair, for a game of chess, a chocolate soda, the use of a gymnasium or a quiet place in which to write a letter, he could go to one of the Y.M.C.A. clubhouses, where his dues were $10 a year. (One glowing article about the Y.M.C.A. clubhouses written for home consumption was titled “Uncle Sam’s Fight with the Devil.”)

“In fact, everything is done to make it as pleasant as possible for the men,” one steam-shovel engineer wrote home, after getting settled at Culebra, “and I have not seen a man that was not satisfied. As for myself, I like it very much. This is a pretty town.”

For diversions or pleasures not provided at the Y.M.C.A. clubhouses, one could take the train to Colón or to Panama City.

An enormous amount of scrubbing and sanitizing had gone on in the two cities. Yet there remained a sharp division between them and the Zone, on the map and in the mind. On Saturday nights, even on an hour’s pass, men would rush over the line like sailors on shore leave, eagerly forsaking the unrelieved wholesomeness of the Zone and very often to do nothing more licentious than stroll about Cathedral Plaza or take in a movie at the Electric Theater.

The cities, observed Harry Franck, “serve as a sort of safety valve, where a man can . . . blow off steam; get rid of the bad eternal vapors that might cause an explosion in a ventless society.” There were very few saloons within the Zone itself—half a dozen perhaps—and they were small, rough stand-up bars where, as one writer remarked, “the glitter of mirrors and of cut glass was notably absent,” and closing time was eleven sharp. The saloons in the cities, however, were “many, varied, and largely disreputable.” According to the Canal Zone Pilot, a guidebook that first appeared in 1908, there were 131 saloons in Colón, 40 on Bolívar Street alone. In Panama City there was a total of 220 to choose from. And after dark, things could get pretty rough. Prostitution, if not so gaudy or open as in the French era, was commonplace. Coco Grove, the notorious red-light district in Panama City, was a regular stop for the little horse-drawn coaches, or carimettas, that stood waiting at the railroad station as each train pulled in.

Most notable of the brothels was the Navajo, on I Street, run by one of the best known of all Americans on the Isthmus, Mamie Lee Kelly, of New Orleans, who would be remembered vividly by one man more than half a century later as “lusty, large, voluptuous, very profane and very capable.” Since all such establishments were known locally as “American houses” and their occupants, irrespective of nationality, were known as “American women,” a local ordinance was put through making it unlawful for American women to be on the streets after dark, a rule that not surprisingly gave rise to a number of unfortunate misunderstandings.

If a canal employee were to get married, his entire status changed immediately. If he was earning less than $200 a month, he and his bride moved into a furnished, rent-free, four-room apartment, with a broad screened porch (really a fifth room) and a bath. The apartment would be one of four in what was known as a Type 14 house, the model in which the majority of American families was quartered during the construction years. If the employee was making from $200 to $300 a month, then he was eligible for a Type 17 house (two families) or a small individual cottage. Any American earning $300 to $400 lived in a Type 10: two stories, living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and bath, porches on both levels, while those in the over $400-a-month bracket were given “large houses of a type distinguished by spaciousness and artistic design.”

Whatever the husband’s rank, his wife would shop at one of the eighteen I.C.C. commissary stores, each essentially a big department store (and forerunner of the military post exchange), which stocked everything from work pants (“Battleship” brand) to lamb chops to finger bowls and at prices nearly always lower than in the States. (The pants were $1.25; the lamb chops, 24 cents a pound; the finger bowls, 10 cents each.) Moreover, as the purchasing department in Washington grew more proficient, the prices kept going down while prices at home were rising. In early 1909, for example, a porterhouse steak was 29 cents a pound in the commissaries, but a year later it was down to 21 cents, which was less than half what it would have cost in New York.

The I.C.C. bakery produced a different fruit pie fresh daily (Monday, apple; Tuesday, mince; Wednesday, peach; etc.). The garbage was collected, lawns were cut, and a black serving girl could be hired for $10 a month. If she did not work out satisfactorily there was always a dozen eager to take her place.

The whole system was in fact quite intentionally designed to favor the married employee, to provide every inducement for matrimony, to bring stability to the skilled white segment of the community.

Books from the best-seller list and recordings of the newest hit tunes were no less current than at home. Indeed, with several ships a week arriving from New York, with thousands of tourists pouring through full of news and wearing the latest fashions, many residents of the Zone felt more in touch and up to date than ever before in their lives. For a very large number of the Americans living and working in Panama, perhaps even the majority, the initial voyage to Colón had been their first experience with salt water. Many had never been away from their hometowns. “Lord, yes, I liked it here,” recalled Mrs. Winifred Ewing, a schoolteacher at Empire. “I didn’t know anything else but the hills of West Virginia.”

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox, Jr., and The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Wright, were popular reading along the diggings in the years 1907–1914, as were When a Man Marries, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. In On the Spanish Main, by John Masefield, a young American engineer relaxing on his screened porch at the end of the day, the light of an electric lamp falling over his shoulder, could imagine himself accompanying Henry Morgan on the trek up the Chagres to sack Old Panama. (“ . . . They rowed all day, suffering much from mosquitoes, but made little progress . . . . To each side of them were stretches of black, alluvial mud, already springing green with shrubs and water plants. Every now and then as they rowed on, on the dim, sluggish, silent, steaming river, they butted a sleeping alligator as he sunned in the shallows. . . .”)

Whether anyone was reading Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (“Harmony, not discord. Cooperation, not individualism.”) after it appeared in 1911, or Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1913, cannot be determined.

In the evenings after dinner, with the soft night air stirring the jungle, couples sat with coffee talking of much the same news being talked of at home—the return of Halley’s Comet, the women’s suffrage movement, the income-tax amendment. The most-talked-of story in 1912 was the same as everywhere, the sinking of the Titanic.

A clerk from the Ancon post office, a Mr. S. C. Russel, walked across the Isthmus in fourteen hours, and that too was news. On April 27, 1913, an aviator from California, Robert G. Fowler, flew a small single-engine hydroplane from the Bay of Panama to Limon Bay, the first trancontinental flight, ocean to ocean in an hour and thirty-five minutes. Four others had attempted the flight before but had failed because of the turbulence of the air. Fowler, who had taken a photographer along for the ride, had banked in a big, slow circle over Culebra Cut to get the first aerial views. Far below, at the bottom of the gaping chasm, men were looking up and wildly waving to him.

The biggest social occasions, year in, year out, were the Saturday-night dances at the Tivoli Hotel, where the band played such favorites of the moment as “Moonlight Bay” and “Wait ’til the Sun Shines, Nellie.” Probably the tune danced to more than any other was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it was with special zest that everyone sang “Under the Bamboo Tree.” A better-looking crowd of young people would be hard to find, wrote the correspondent for The Outlook. “Hot water and grit soap had been busy on the men, and the scene, except that some of the men were in white, looked like a college dance.”

Besides the dances there were band concerts every Sunday, performed by a “very creditable” thirty-six-piece I.C.C. band. There were lectures, Halloween parties, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. July fourth was the biggest day of the year. Once the Battle of Lexington was staged at Colón in Colonial costume.

The number of clubs and fraternal organizations was simply astonishing. There were camera clubs, bowling clubs, literary clubs, debating clubs, dramatic clubs. The Texans had a club. There were nine women’s clubs in nine different towns led by a full-time professional women’s club director, Miss Helen Varick Boswell, who was a paid employee of the I.C.C. There was a Strangers Club at Colón and a Century Club in Panama City. There was a club for Spanish-American War veterans, another for college men, and another for college men who were members of national fraternities. The Isthmian Canal Pioneers Association was reserved for those who had been on the work from the start.

Joseph Bucklin Bishop gave the activities of all such organizations full play in a regular column in the Canal Record called “Social Life on the Zone.” The launching of an Ancon Art Society in 1911 was reported thus:

The art section of the Ancon Woman’s Club, organized under the title of the Ancon Art Society, will hold its first monthly meeting on the evening of January 29, at the residence of Mrs. Herbert G. Squires, the American Legation, Panama, from eight to ten o’clock. In accordance with the regular plan of the society, the evening will consist of music given during the hour’s sketching; an exhibit and judgment of work by the critic appointed by the society, and a social half hour during which refreshments will be served. The program of work during the month of January has been figure, landscape, still life, genre and applied design.

“The whole Zone was friendly,” remembered Robert Worsley, a stenographer from North Carolina. “People were always willing to help, it was easy to get to know people.”

“I just thought I was something . . . . Everybody was so friendly,” Winifred Ewing said.

Locomotive engineers, train conductors, and steam-shovel men had their respective “brotherhoods.” Fraternal and secret orders abounded. The Masons, the Patriotic Sons of America, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Modern Woodmen of the World, the Knights of Pythias, and the Knights of Malta had chapters and every chapter was extremely active. The Improved Order of Red Men, “the pioneer of all secret, or fraternal orders and societies in the Canal Zone,” had six “tribes,” and for special functions, members turned out in full Indian regalia, war bonnets, war paint. But the organization—“largest and strongest”—was the Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos (motto: Optimus est qui optima facit—He is best who does best), founded in 1906 when a number of Americans for their own amusement began staging mock trials, or kangaroo courts, in a boxcar in the yards at Empire. Within a few years, membership had reached a thousand.

Everyone belonged to something. Everyone was someone’s “brother” in some fashion, and for large numbers of men their standings in these various organizations were vitally important. In 1911, for example, a large, costly illustrated volume much like a college yearbook, The Makers of the Panama Canal, was sold by subscription to American employees, so that by paying the price, any clerk, teacher, or mechanic could have his or her picture, as well as a brief biographical sketch, included along with those of Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, with Goethals, Gorgas, and Panama’s prominent political leaders. In nearly all these biographical sketches the orders and brotherhoods figure quite prominently.

Most men listed three or four affiliations. Harvey C. Dew, for example, was an “Assistant Chief Clerk” from Dillon County, South Carolina, who had been on the Isthmus since 1906. He belonged to the Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Pythias, as well as the University Club of Panama and the Strangers Club of Colón. John L. Davis, a steam-shovel engineer from Indiana, belonged to the Masons, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Odd Fellows, and the Junior Order of American Mechanics. Charles Montague, a railroad conductor from Allegan County, Michigan, who worked on a dirt train at Las Cascadas, was “Chancellor Commander of Balboa Lodge, K. of P.” (Knights of Pythias), as well as a member of the B.R.T. (Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen), O.I.T. (Order of Isthmian Trainmen), the Modern Woodmen of the World, and the Kangaroos. The complete entry for Joseph H. Painter reads as follows:

JOSEPH H. PAINTER

Steam Shovel Engineer, was born in Cincinnati, Missouri. He arrived on the Isthmus in March, 1908. Mr. Painter has taken about all the upright, regular steps in Masonry, having gone up through blue lodge, Royal Arch chapter and Knights Templar commandery on the York Rite side and to the thirty-second degree in the Scottish Rite. He is also a noble of the Mystic Shrine and belongs to the Kangaroos. He is married.

By 1910 there were also thirty-nine churches within the Zone, twenty-six of which, like the Y.M.C.A clubhouses, were built and owned by the I.C.C. Fifteen full-time chaplains were employed—three Catholic, four Episcopal, four Baptist, two Methodist, one Wesleyan, one Presbyterian—their salaries and living expenses being charged off, as someone in Goethals’ office decided, to the Sanitary Department.

The cost to the I.C.C. of all these various “privileges and perquisites” was something over $2,500,000 a year.

But neither were the possibilities for unorganized activities limited or ignored. On Sundays, the one day off in the week, hundreds of employees with their wives, girl friends, or families joined the swarms of tourists sight-seeing at Culebra. There were day-long excursions to the beach at Toro Point, across Limon Bay from Colón, and to the old Spanish fort of San Lorenzo, looking down on the mouth of the Chagres.

Taboga Island, in the Bay of Panama, was the most popular of all Sunday destinations. It seldom rained heavily at Taboga, the air was cooler, and while there was also no overabundance of things to do once one arrived, the three-hour boat trip across the glassy bay imparted a sense of getting far away. The one village on the steep little island stood beside a sheltered crescent of bathing beach. Excursionists in their Sunday clothes trailed up and down narrow paths of crushed shells and spread their picnics under the trees near the brown sand. Families went swimming. They took snapshots of themselves grouped in twos and threes beside a lime tree, or in the hard white sunshine in front of a tiny, ancient church at the head of a miniature plaza in the village. In old photograph albums brought back from the Isthmus, they stand arm in arm, their beaming faces half shadowed by hat brims.

They bought pineapples and cold Coca-Cola and a good, crusty bread sold in a pink bakery shop overhung with a filigreed balcony painted an electric blue. On the slope just beyond the village stood the old French sanitarium, the former Hotel Aspinwall, which was still used for convalescents from Ancon Hospital, but took paying guests as well. The view from its long verandas was lovely. For many young couples it seemed very near to paradise.

Numbers of people became keenly interested in Panama’s history. Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard, for example, bought and read every book he could find on the subject, and Gorgas’ favorite Sunday pastime was to lead day-long excursions on horseback to the ruins of Old Panama. When it was learned that gemstones—sapphires, opals, garnets—as well as fossil shark’s teeth could be found in and around the canal diggings, many men spent their Sundays that way, and with considerable success. Mrs. William Sibert raised a dozen or more varieties of orchids on her front porch. Lieutenant Colonel Sibert, among others, sent to the States for a pack of hounds, organized hunting parties in the jungle (for deer mostly), and kept a pet eleven-foot boa constrictor which he fed live possums.

To some visitors it seemed that perhaps everyone was having too good a time, that a little too much was being done at government expense. Others worried more over what the future effect might be of so efficient and apparently so successful a demonstration of socialism. In this largest of all modern enterprises, reporters were writing, not one man at the top, no one at any level, was working for profit. Visiting bankers and business people went home to report that the government-run Panama Railroad was a “model of efficiency and economy in every department.” No railroad in the United States was better equipped with safety devices. No private contractor in the world was feeding laborers so well as the I.C.C. In every phase of employer-employee relations the I.C.C. was more liberal than any private concern of the day, as several publications had already emphasized. The government ran the Tivoli Hotel, very well and at a profit. The steamship line between New York and Colón, also government-run, was earning a profit of some $150,000 a year.

What were to be the consequences when the canal workers, spoiled by such paternalism, came home again?

When these well paid, lightly worked, well and cheaply fed men return to their native land [warned a New York banker], they will form a powerful addition to the Socialist party . . . . By their votes and the enormous following they can rally to their standard they will force the government to take over the public utilities, if not all the large corporations, of the country. They will force the adoption of government standards of work, wages and cost of living as exemplified in the work on the Canal.

Yet how could it be socialism, some pondered, when those in charge were all technical men and “little interested in political philosophy,” as one reporter commented. “The marvel is,” wrote this same man, “that even under administrators unfriendly or indifferent to Socialism, these socialistic experiments have succeeded—without exception.”

A member of the Socialist Party was found on the payroll, a mechanic who had been on the job almost from the start, and he declared that by no means was it socialism. “First of all, there ain’t any democracy down here. It’s a Bureaucracy that’s got Russia backed off the map . . . . Government ownership don’t mean anything to us working men unless we own the Government. We don’t here—this is the sort of thing Bismarck dreamed of.”

II

To Harry Franck, who was to record his experiences in a book titled Zone Policeman 88, one of the most candid and perceptive of published reminiscences, a more fitting analogy was the caste society of India. “The Brahmins,” he wrote, “are the gold employees, white American citizens with all the advantages and privileges thereto appertaining.” But this Brahmin caste itself, he emphasized, was divided and subdivided into numerous gradations, each very clearly defined. The ultimate Brahmin was “His Brahmin Highness the Colonel.” Immediately below him were the “high priests” of the canal commission—Sibert, Gaillard, Hodges, Gorgas, Rousseau, and the portly former Senator, J. C. S. Blackburn, who was officially Chief of Civil Administration, a job and title that meant almost nothing. (Blackburn’s duties were once described unofficially as attending commission meetings, signing cab licenses, and drawing $14,000 a year.)

Down the scale, grade by grade, were the assistant division heads, the highest-paid civil and electrical engineers, the supervisors of construction, the assistant supervisors of construction, heads of machine shops, accountants, paymasters, storekeepers, yardmasters, sanitary inspectors, locomotive engineers, beneath which were the “roughnecks”—steam-shovel men, boilermakers, plumbers, ordinary mechanics, and so forth. (A roughneck, by Franck’s description, was a “bull-necked, wholehearted, cast-iron fellow” who was both admirable and likable, but only to a point: “a fine fellow in his way, but you can sometimes wish his way branched off from yours for a few hours.”)

There was, however, still one lower level within the white community, that of the regular enlisted man, either Army or Marines, for whom Corporal Jack Fitzgerald, of Boston, may serve as an example. Eighteen years old, single, Corporal Fitzgerald was one of some eight hundred regular Army troops based in the Zone at Camp Otis, near Las Cascadas, beside the western edge of Culebra Cut. Being neither an officer nor an employee of the canal commission, he had no entrée into the social life of the Army elite or among the canal workers. He had no access to the clubhouses, to the mess halls, to anything maintained or put on for the comfort or amusement of the workers. His pay was $18 a month, or considerably less than that of the lowest-paid unskilled laborer. When he went to town in his uniform—and his uniform was all he was permitted to wear—he was an easy target for the Panamanian police, who had no liking for Americans at best, but who could be vicious when dealing with American servicemen.1

It was a very different Panama that Corporal Fitzgerald knew from the one seen, or perhaps even imagined, by his fellow Bostonian Charles Francis Adams, as different nearly as the two Bostons they came from. Later, when the locks were nearing completion, Corporal Fitzgerald would stand guard at Miraflores; but most of his three-year hitch in Panama was taken up with map duty in the jungle and with endless routine chores in camp. Still: “The natives had stills in the jungle and plenty of sugar cane available,” he would recall happily. “So a lot of us boys got off to a bad start. No ice, no mixing, just right out of a bottle, ninety proof!” Paydays “you took your turn” at one of the dollar houses in Coco Grove. “There was a few [other] places that were closed to the general run, private like, they were for those high up with the canal, engineers and such.”

Corporal Fitzgerald was like those countless others in history who could say in later life that they had been present at some momentous event but who in fact saw almost nothing of it. In his three years he saw little of the excavation going on and took practically no interest in it. He never laid eyes on Goethals, as near as he could recall, but once he did see Taft. His only brush with anything like the glamour or historic grandeur that the rest of the world associated with the work at Panama was to stand at attention for nearly three hours one broiling-hot morning at the side of a little spur on the railroad.

. . . I think it was in 1912, I’m pretty sure it was in the spring. . . . The President was coming—Taft! William Howard Taft!—and, gee, they got us out there about nine o’clock in the morning, standing, standing, waiting, waiting, waiting, Christ, the sun kept coming up, and it—boy! You know, that place when it rains, it’s just like throwing water on a stove, everything steams. And we waited. Finally the damn train came by. And here’s Taft with a big white suit on—he weighed about three hundred pounds, a big belly on him—standing on the observation platform. And, well, he just . . . he just waved. That was all there was. That was all there was to it.

On another occasion, on a Sunday when he was looking about among the exposed rock down in the Cut, Corporal Fitzgerald saw a fossil print of a fish (“not the meat, just the bones”) and still another of a fern, “proving,” he would recall, “that millions of years ago it was all in the sea. It all makes you feel very insignificant.”

•   •

To Charles Francis Adams, as to others, the “innate force” of the entire order was very plainly derived from one man. “The individuality and character of Colonel Goethals today permeate, and permeate visibly, the entire Zone—unconsciously on his part, unconscious on the part of others, his influence is pervasive.”

Praise at home for Goethals was boundless. Collier’s called him “The Solomon of the Isthmus.” He received standing ovations when he appeared before congressional committees. Yale, Columbia, and Harvard conferred honorary degrees. Newspapers were full of speculation about his prospects as a dark-horse candidate for the Presidency. “Goethals has created a wonderful, smooth-as-oil, 100 percent efficient machine that is getting results every working day in the year,” the Atlanta Constitution declared. Everyone returning from the Isthmus spoke of his ability. “Congressmen and senators, civilians, administrators, newspaper and engineering experts, united in the verdict that the digging of the big ditch has developed one of the greatest figures in contemporaneous American life in the person of Colonel Goethals.”

To Harry Franck, he was simply “Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent.”

The omnipresence had become legendary almost from the moment he began making his daily tour of the line in an extraordinary self-propelled private car. It was bright yellow, heavily lacquered, shined, spotless, and looked like a dreadful cross between a small locomotive and a stagecoach. Powered with a gasoline engine and run by a uniformed driver, it was known as “The Yellow Peril” and the sight of it rounding a bend in the tracks was an instant warning to look sharp, that the “Old Man” was coming. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who toured the canal with her husband, Congressman Nicholas Longworth, and who shocked everyone by smoking in public, wrote that “nothing was ever pleasanter than riding along in his track motor, ‘The Yellow Peril,’ and seeing the big job and hearing him talk about it.” “It rattled by at all hours of the day,” wrote Rose van Hardeveld of the strange-looking contrivance, “this official car of the I.C.C . . . . The Old Man was so constantly on the job that we never thought of him as being at home or eating or sleeping.”

Except for the times he was called to Washington, a few brief vacations, and one official trip to Germany, he was on the Isthmus the entire seven years until the canal was finished.2 He seldom entertained, seldom accepted invitations. Only a select coterie appears to have known him on anything more than the most formal working basis—Hodges, with whom he seems to have had the most direct day-to-day rapport; Bishop; Williamson; Major Chester Harding, who was one of Sibert’s ablest assistants; Dr. W. E. Deeks, a Canadian on Gorgas’ staff; and Father Collins, the Catholic priest at Culebra, whose company he appears to have enjoyed above all others.

Mrs. Goethals—Effie Rodman Goethals—tall, vain, a member of an old New Bedford whaling family, was in residence most of the time, but seemed little pleased with the life or ever very comfortable in her role as the first lady of the Zone. It had been arranged also that their older son, George, now a second lieutenant in the Engineers, be assigned to duty on the canal and he brought with him his bride, who, to judge from her photograph, must have been one of the prettiest young women on the Isthmus. Still, to the rank and file Goethals remained a solitary and enigmatic figure and an endless subject for gossip. Stories of supposed romances with the wives of subordinates would persist through all his years in Panama and on into the succeeding generation of canal employees. One especially vivacious young woman named Henrietta Otis, when asked by a close friend and neighbor to confide whether there was any truth to the gossip that she and the Colonel were “very close,” affirmed that there was. But according to other stories still told on the Isthmus, the Colonel’s lady was someone else entirely.

Intensely partisan factions formed within that small but all-important segment categorized by Harry Franck as the Brahmin high priests. There were the Goethals people, the largest faction, and there were the others, chief of whom were Sibert, Gaillard, Gorgas, and Marie Gorgas. Sibert and Goethals all through the final years of the work were barely speaking to each other.

“Colonel Sibert and my father felt sure he was trying to get rid of them,” recalled Gaillard’s son, Pierre, then a young M.I.T. graduate who had been employed as a junior engineer on the locks at Pedro Miguel. “He’d give them the silent treatment. Only my father refused to let him get away with that. My father talked to him the same as always. We’d been great friends of the Goethals for years. Our houses at Culebra were right next door to one another . . . . He [Goethals] did a damn good job, but he got delusions of grandeur.”

In Washington, reporters quoted an unnamed southern Democrat, a recent visitor to the Isthmus, who said Goethals’ “keen dislike” of Gaillard, Sibert, and Gorgas, all three of whom were from the Old South, had been very apparent to him. The Southerners, he said, were “outraged” because Goethals was attempting to freeze them out of their share of the glory.

Marie Gorgas, the only one of the group ever to say anything in print on such matters, wrote that it was Goethals’ “passion for dominating everything and everybody” that made him such a trial. He had become, by her account, a man virtually without feeling, except for power. Power was “the relish and the sweetness of his life.” And indeed, one evening while escorting Mrs. Gaillard across the way to her door, Goethals said that he cared very much for the power he exercised. The salary, the title, the prestige, he said, were of but small satisfaction compared to the feeling of such power.3

The Goethals-Gorgas rift came to a head over a difference of views about who should cut the grass. Goethals was concerned with cost efficiency in every department and in the Sanitary Department no less than any other, and, like Taft, his private estimate ofGorgas as an administrator was very low. He wanted the mechanical tasks of cutting grass and clearing brush, a substantial part of Gorgas’ operation, put under the quartermaster, where they would normally fall, and he saw no reason why Gorgas should object since such work required no special sanitary knowledge or training. Gorgas did object, however, on the grounds that any change in his campaign against Anopheles mosquitoes would jeopardize his success in reducing malaria (and jeopardize thereby the lives of the workers). But they were grounds Goethals refused to accept. So for six months the grass was cut under the direction of the quartermaster, over a larger area than under the old system and, as it turned out, at appreciably less cost. And since the incidence of malaria continued to decline during this same trial period, Goethals felt that he had proved his case and refused to turn the work back to Gorgas.

At this point in the test of wills, according to Marie Gorgas, Goethals exclaimed, “Do you know, Gorgas, that every mosquito you kill costs the United States Government ten dollars?”

“But just think,” Gorgas replied, “one of those ten-dollar mosquitoes might bite you, and what a loss that would be to the country.”

By Goethals’ account, however, no such exchange ever occurred. Like Marie Gorgas’ other uncomplimentary remarks and recollections, the story appeared in her biography of her husband in 1924, all of which Goethals chose to ignore. But when Mark Sullivan repeated the story two years later in his popular Our Times, Goethals presented his version in a letter to Sullivan. “No further discussion of the matter ever occurred and the sick rate continued to decrease.”

What he may have felt privately about Gorgas, Sibert, or Gaillard is less than clear, since he kept most of his feelings very much to himself. Apparently, from remarks he made to the unidentified southern Democrat, he thought seriously of firing Sibert. Sibert was known to regard himself as a better man than Goethals and better qualified for the top job. Goethals sensed this and naturally resented it. Sibert, moreover, at least by Goethals’ lights, was a bit too openly ambitious, too political. Primarily the problem seems to have been one of clashing personalities, and though this made the tasks of both no easier, nothing of serious consequence ever came of it. In answer to the charges that he was interested only in the glory his role would bring him, Goethals told one reporter that he intended to resign before the opening of the canal because “I couldn’t stand the glamour.” But Taft would insist that he stay and in the end Goethals would publicly commend Sibert, Gorgas, all his subordinates, for their professional ability and continued loyalty to the work.

Richard Whitehead, always one of Goethals’ staunchest allies among the young engineers, as well as a lifelong friend and admirer afterward, would concede that possibly Goethals “wasn’t quite human enough for everyone.” But, he added, “None of the others had the responsibilities he did.”

The only real scars were those left by the Gaillard tragedy. In the summer of 1913, following the tremendous slides at Culebra, Gaillard appeared suddenly to have cracked under the mental and physical strain of his responsibilities. He left the Isthmus and did not return. The stories were that he had gone crazy. What actually happened was this:

He was sitting at lunch with his wife and son, looking and acting entirely as usual, when he broke off in the middle of a sentence and began to talk rapidly and incoherently of his childhood at his grandmother’s house in South Carolina. From that point on he remained in a state of terrible confusion. “Poor Gaillard . . . went completely to pieces,” Goethals wrote privately in August, his diagnosis being the same as that of everyone else. “It is a nervous breakdown. His memory seems to have gone and [Dr.] Deeks doesn’t believe he will ever be able to return. He, accompanied by Mrs. Gaillard and Pierre, sailed for the States . . . accompanied by [Dr.] Mason. . . .”

But Gaillard had not broken under stress. He was suffering from a tumor on the brain, “an infiltrating tumor in the brain,” according to the records of the case, and an operation performed at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and subsequent treatment at Johns Hopkins were to no avail. Gaillard died at Baltimore, December 5, 1913.

His work at Panama had no correlation with the tragedy. The tumor would have killed him had he been serving still at his desk in Washington. However, to his family and numbers of those who had worked with him at Panama, he had been worked to death. At the hospital in Boston, Goethals’ son Tom, a medical student at Harvard, had been invited to observe the operation on Gaillard, which was performed by the famous Harvey Cushing, and afterward he had encountered Mrs. Gaillard. “Your father has killed my husband,” she told him. Once in Washington, years later, Pierre Gaillard and Colonel (by then General) Goethals passed each other in the street. Each looked directly at the other and neither spoke.

III

In the popular picture of life in the Canal Zone as it emerged in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, that vast force of black men and women who were doing the heaviest, most difficult physical labor—some twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand human beings—could be but very faintly seen. As individuals they had no delineation whatsoever. They were there only as part of the workaday landscape. That they too were making a new life in an alien land, that they too were raising families, experiencing homesickness, fear, illness, or exhilaration in the success of the work, was almost never even inferred. In the United States the public had little if any conception of the part played in Panama by “pioneers” who were neither American nor white, or how very small numerically the white American force was by contrast. To judge by many published accounts, the whole enormous black underside of the caste system simply did not exist. Cartoons in the newspapers depicted the canal being dug by cheerful white Americans with picks and shovels and many came to Panama expecting to see just that. Harry Franck would write that he had arrived actually believing he could take up a shovel and descend into the canal with other workmen, “that I might someday solemnly raise my hand and boast, ‘I helped dig IT.’ But that was in the callow days before I . . . learned the awful gulf that separates the sacred white American from the rest of the Canal Zone world.”

Official visitors, congressmen on so-called tours of inspection, writers gathering material for books, could not help but be amazed, even astounded, at the degree to which the entire system, not simply the construction, depended on black labor. There were not only thousands of West Indians down amid the turmoil of Culebra Cut or at the lock sites but black waiters in every hotel, black stevedores, teamsters, porters, hospital orderlies, cooks, laundresses, nursemaids, janitors, delivery boys, coachmen, icemen, garbage men, yardmen, mail clerks, police, plumbers, house painters, gravediggers. A black man walking along spraying oil on still water, a metal tank on his back, was one of the most familiar of all sights in the Canal Zone. Whenever a mosquito was seen in a white household, the Sanitary Department was notified and immediately a black man came with chloroform and a glass vial to catch the insect and take it back to a laboratory for analysis.

Yet little official notice would ever be paid to such contributions. In that official journal of Zone life, the Canal Record—-a reliable, admirable publication in most other respects—the black employee went unrecognized, except in death, and then only in a line or two, his tag number invariably appended, as if he were not quite human. It would be reported that Joshua Steele, of Barbados, Number 23646, was killed in an explosion in the Cut or that Samuel Thomas, of Montserrat, Number 456185, was crushed to death in the pulleys of a mud scow. But no obituaries appeared in the paper, any more than notices of black weddings, social affairs, or the birth of a black child.

As a consequence, the popular mental picture of what life was like in the Canal Zone, and popular pride in the kind of society that had been created there, were founded on a very limited and erroneous view of reality. The measure of Utopia achieved through American know-how and largess was again relative, like the success of the medical crusade. And as a consequence of such distortion, most all of what would be written in the way of a social history of these years contains but part of the story.

•   •

In truth, the color line, of which almost nothing was said in print, cut through every facet of daily life in the Zone, and it was as clearly drawn and as closely observed as anywhere in the Deep South or the most rigid colonial enclaves in Africa. This, some observers later speculated, was the fault of the many Southerners among the skilled workers and among the military officers. Others, including the Southerners, attributed the practices to the upper-class Panamanians, who were notably color conscious, and to the long-established policies of the Panama Railroad. Harry Franck, who as census taker spent the better part of his time among the black workers, wrote acidly, “Even New Englanders grow almost human here among their broader-minded fellow-countrymen. Any northerner can say ‘nigger’ as glibly as a Carolinian, and growl if one of them steps on his shadow.”

The “gold” and “silver” system had become the established practice throughout the Zone; it applied everywhere and nobody misunderstood its purpose. Black West Indians and white North Americans not only stood in different lines when the pay train arrived, but at the post office and the commissary. There were black wards at the hospitals (on the side away from the best views and breezes) and black schools for black children. (Although the number of black children enrolled in Zone schools was twice that of the white children, there were less than half as many black teachers employed.) Black men served on the Zone police force—ninety some out of a force of three hundred were West Indians—but they drew half pay and were not eligible for promotion.

The Y.M.C.A. clubhouses, gold-roll hotels and churches, were all off limits to a West Indian, unless he or she was employed there. “As for the man whose skin is a bit dull,” recalled Harry Franck, “he might sit on the steps of an I.C.C. hotel with dollars dribbling out of his pockets until he starved to death—and he would be duly buried in the particular grave to which his color entitled him.”

Most conspicuous was the contrast between the black and white living quarters. To much of the white populace—employees, tourists—it was easier not to think about such things, easier to put the black people out of mind except for the services they performed. But in fact the living conditions for the black people were deplorable and the I.C.C. did practically nothing to set things right.

The greatest source of discontent and despair in the early years, for black and white workers alike, had not been the difficulty of the work or the unpleasant climate so much as the prospect of a life almost wholly devoid of women; and just as the I.C.C. had initiated a campaign to bring American women to Panama and thereby establish something approaching normal domestic life within the white community, so it also took steps to bring in large numbers of black women, from all over the West Indies. The first black women to arrive were from Martinique and were listed officially as laundresses; and while some may have been prostitutes, as charged, the accusation that they were all prostitutes, or that they were being shipped in at government expense solely for purposes of prostitution, was absurd and manifestly unfair.4 As time went on, as the laborers sent word back to all the islands, several thousand black women came to Panama to join their husbands, a brother, a father, to find a husband, but mainly to find what the men had come for: steady work at better pay than they could ever hope to get at home. “Most of us came from our homelands in search of work and improvements,” said John Butcher, of Barbados. “We turned out to be pioneers in a foreign land.”

The I.C.C., however, made no provision for housing black women. Only a few crude quarters were provided for black workers who were married. The rest of the quarters available to black workers were the same as they had been at the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s visit—the roughest kind of barracks with canvas transport bunks packed in as closely as in steerage. Many hundreds of laborers lived in converted boxcars that were shifted back and forth along the line, according to where the men were most needed. To the single men such accommodations appealed no more than they ever had, while men with wives and families had no choice but to fend for themselves. Furthermore, Gorgas, for several years now, had officially encouraged such dispersal as a way to reduce the spread of pneumonia.

As a result, no fewer than four out of five West Indians paid rent for wretched tenements in Colón or Panama City, where one room usually served an entire family. Or, more often, they settled in the jungle, building whole villages of dynamite boxes, flattened tin cans, any odd scraps of lumber or corrugated iron that could be scavenged. They lived where they pleased, as best they could, without benefit of screen doors or janitor service, growing small gardens, always a great many chickens pecking about their small shacks, and nobody of official importance cared very much about them one way or the other.

So it was not that the I.C.C. was providing its black labor force—that is, the overwhelming majority of its workers—with substandard quarters; the I.C.C. was providing them with no quarters at all. And in almost nothing that was published for popular consumption was this point ever made explicit; or if touched on at all, it was expressed as another act of generosity on the part of the canal officials, in that they were allowing the Negroes to live the way they were happiest. Yet as one observer did write, no visitor had to search very far to see what a wholly different life these people were subjected to. “The visitor who saw first the trim and really attractive houses and bachelor quarters assigned to the gold employees could hardly avoid a certain revulsion of opinion as to the sweetness and light of Isthmian life when he wandered into the Negro quarters across the railroad in front of the Tivoli Hotel . . . or in some of the back streets of Empire or Gorgona.”

A less dramatic but more specific index to the relative inequality of the system was the difference in benefits derived by white and black workers from the $2,500,000 being spent annually on employee entertainment and recreation. To the average skilled (white) worker who was married, this one I.C.C. expenditure meant in plain monetary value about $750 a year. But to the average unskilled (black) worker who was married, it meant $50. In other words, as the system was designed, the white American, who represented about one-fifth of the population, was being treated fifteen times better in the way of free social facilities, sports, and amusements than was the black West Indian, who represented as much as three-quarters of the population.

It could be very naturally assumed that this was all the most blatant kind of racial injustice. And in a very large measure, of course, it was; but not entirely. Simple problems of supply and demand also entered in, that is, experienced technicians (men to run and repair the machines), doctors, and competent clerical people were always in short supply and had to be kept satisfied if the canal was to be built; common unskilled laborers from the impoverished islands of the Caribbean were always available in abundance and expected no better than what they got, which for the most part was better than what they had known at home. And besides, there was the political factor: the labor force was not merely black, it was foreign; these were not United States citizens and in Washington therefore they represented no constituency.

Whether a West Indian working on the Panama Canal was better or worse off than a miner in the coal fields of Kentucky or an immigrant mill hand in Homestead, Pennsylvania, during these same years is debatable. But no coal miner or mill hand of the day received free medical care. As extremely hazardous as the work in Panama was for the black laborer, the safety regulations set down by the I.C.C. were far in advance of those of American industry. No company store could ever compare to the I.C.C. commissaries. Further, it can be said with certainty that no one in Panama went hungry.

The frequent claim was that no labor army in history had ever been so well paid, well fed, well cared for; and this, on balance, was unquestionably true, despite all the obvious inequities of the system, however one-sided or hypocritical other claims made for it may have been. Certainly the fellahin who built the Suez Canal or the West Indians who came to Panama during the French era had been far worse off than any black employee of the I.C.C.

•   •

Generally speaking, the West Indian worker on the Panama Canal was soft-spoken, courteous, sober, very religious, as nearly everyone associated with the work came to appreciate. John Stevens once remarked that he never knew such law-abiding people and the records show the crime rate, as well as the incidence of alcoholism and venereal disease, among the black employees to have been abnormally low throughout the construction years.

Approximately 80 percent of the black workers were illiterate. While it was official I.C.C. policy in Washington to hire no one under age twenty, a good many black workers were also little more than children. Joseph Brewster, of Barbados, went to work as a track hand, as he later wrote, at age sixteen; H. B. Clayton, a West Indian born and raised at Gorgona, began as “a young boy,” probably fifteen; Jules LeCurrieux, from French Guiana, had just turned seventeen; Alfred Mitchel, who had come from Jamaica with his mother, began as a water boy at fourteen; Jeremiah Waisome, who also had come to Panama with his mother, was twelve or thirteen and proud of his ability to both read and write. His account of the day he first applied for work reads as follows:

Unknown to my mother one morning instead of going to school, I went to Balboa to look myself a job . . . . I approach a boss . . . I said good morning boss, he retorted good morning boy. At this time he had a big wad of tobacco chewing. I ask him if he needs a water boy, he said yes, he ask what is your name, I told him. I notice that my name did not spell correctly as Jeremiah Waisome, so I said excuse me boss, my name do not spell that way. He gave me a cow look, and spit a big splash, and look back at me and said you little nigger you need a job? I said yes sir, he said you never try to dictate to a white man, take that bucket over there and bring water for those men over there.

Whatever his first job the black worker was not likely to stay with it very long, largely since the steady turnover or some chance turn in his own circumstances seemed always to lead to something more attractive elsewhere along the line. The experience of Clifford St. John was not exceptional. He began at age seventeen working with a steam-shovel gang in the Cut at Gold Hill. Injured by falling rock, he was sent to Ancon Hospital, where he was offered a job he liked better and so stayed there for two years. Next he strung telephone wire on the Panama Railroad, until stricken with typhoid fever. Then after a month of recovery in the hospital at Colón, he returned to the railroad, this time as a watchman. Presently he changed again, to work as a longshoreman at Cristobal, then again, to drive piles at Gatun Dam. When construction of the lock gates began, he was hired to bore holes for the rivets. This made seven different jobs in less than seven years.

Like others who were to reminisce in later life, recalling their “times on the canal,” black workers would talk repeatedly of incredible rains and “working all wet,” of bugs and mud and the smothering heat. (A waiter at the Tivoli Hotel recalled having to change his suit three times a day, so badly did he perspire.) They remembered the low cost of food and the trains rolling out of the Cut (“It was something marvelous to see”), a particular foreman or engineering officer, or even Goethals (“a great man . . . calm, principled, dignified”). But recurring again and again through all such accounts are memories of tremendous physical exertion and of the constant fear of being killed. “I tell you it was no bed of roses.” “It would not be surprising to say those were very rough days.” “We had to work very hard.” “I worked very hard . . . much danger . . . constant danger.” “I had a narrow escape of death.” “I had to jump for my life.” “I feel blessed to be still alive.” “You had to pray every day for God to carry you safe, and bring you back. Those days were horrible days to remember. Those were the times you go to bed at nights and the next day you may be a dead man.”

One extremely dangerous task in the last years of the work, for example, was the demolition of the giant trees that stood in what was to be the main channel through Gatun Lake. After the trees were cut down, dynamite crews—hundreds of West Indians—chopped holes in the huge trunks, sometimes as many as fifteen holes in a single tree. Two or three sticks of dynamite were put in each hole, with cap and fuse, then plastered over with mud. The blasting began once the workday had ended and the area was clear, just as dark came on.

“After the 5:15 passenger train pass for Panama, we start lighting,” remembered Edgar Simmons, another Barbadian. “Some of us has up to 65 or 72 holes to light and find our way out. So . . . you can judge the situation. . . .” Each man, torches in both hands, dashed from tree to tree, lighting fuses as fast as possible, then ran for cover. “Then it’s like Hell. Excuse me of this assertion, but it’s a fact . . . it was something to watch and see the pieces of trees flying in the air.” Afterward, the pieces were gathered up and piled and burned, a task that went on for months. Gigantic heaps of trees were doused with crude oil, then touched off—and “another Hell roar again.”

•   •

Sickness among the laborers remained a problem to the very end, the popular impression notwithstanding. Though the incidence of death from malaria and pneumonia was reduced dramatically from the level at the time of Roosevelt’s tour, both diseases persisted. Also, typhoid and tuberculosis were on the rise. The much-publicized picture of the Canal Zone as a veritable health resort was genuine so far as it applied to the white community, and medical progress over all in the Zone was far beyond anything ever before achieved in a tropical wilderness. But the hospital records show the situation to have been anything but ideal. And again, as in earlier years, it was the nonwhite, non-American labor force that suffered.

Reports for the fiscal year 1907–1908, the point at which Goethals replaced Stevens, show that 1,273 employees died of all causes. At the end of the construction era, that is, in fiscal year 1913–1914, deaths from all causes totaled 414, a phenomenal reduction. In 1907–1908 there had been 205 deaths from malaria; in the final year of construction, there were only 14. Deaths from pneumonia dropped from 466 to 50. As remarkable as any statistic was the average death rate in the final year among all employees—7.92 per thousand, which was much lower than the general death rate in the United States. Not even in Washington, Montana, or Nebraska, then the healthiest states in the country, was the death rate lower than it was in the Canal Zone.

However, in the 1907–1908 records typhoid fever was not even listed among causes of death, while in 1913–1914 typhoid killed 4 people. Tuberculosis, which in 1907–1908 took 7 lives, took 63 lives in 1913–1914. More astonishing is the fact that during the final year of construction not less than 24,723 employees were treated for illness or accidents, this is to say that nearly half of the work force had been in the hospital at one point during those twelve months. In the earlier report the number treated was 11,000. And while only 14 employees died of malaria in 1913–1914, more than 2,200 were hospitalized for the same disease.

Of the total 414 deaths for the final year, 30 were white Americans, 31 were white employees of other nationalities. All the rest, 353, were black. The death rate among all white employees from the United States was actually a mere 2.06 per thousand, an almost unbelievably low figure and deserving all the acclaim that ensued, but the death rate among black workers was 8.23. So, in fact, for all the medical progress that had been made, Panama was still four times more deadly for the black man than it was for the white.

Nor, it must also be emphasized, was the incidence of violent death any less than in years past. In 1907–1908 there were 104 such fatalities; in the final year of construction there were 138. Gorgas, in the earlier report, had called the number of violent fatalities “very excessive” and expressed particular concern that so many were caused by railroad accidents. In 1913–1914 there were 44 people killed in railroad accidents, more than in the earlier year.

Of the 138 who died by violence in the last year, 106 were listed as “colored.”

The black laborer who had not spent time in the hospital was the exception. Many were in and out three, four, five times. Nor do the records show the numbers of men who were permanently maimed. “Some of the costs of the canal are here,” wrote Harry Franck of the black hospital wards, “sturdy black men in a sort of bed-tick pajamas sitting on the verandas or in wheel chairs, some with one leg gone, some with both. One could not help but wonder how it feels to be hopelessly ruined in body early in life for helping to dig a ditch for a foreign power that, however well it may treat you materially, cares not a whistle-blast more for you than for its old worn-out locomotives rusting away in the jungle.”

Very few laborers had ever been inside a hospital until they came to Panama. Most of them had never in their lives been treated by a doctor, let alone a white doctor or a white nurse. So it was usually in a state of abject fear that sick or injured black workers arrived at the hospital the first time, fear, as much as anything, of what might befall them next, inside. To judge by available first-person accounts nothing in their experience made quite so lasting an impression.

James A. Williams, a Jamaican, was taken ill in 1910, when still in his teens. He was then working in a kitchen at one of the labor camps. His own account, written fifty years later, is among the most vivid in the canal archives. It is given here just as he wrote it:

One morning the Doctor making his usual visit to the kitchen some one reported to him that I am having fever. The Doctor immediately advanced to me and felt my pulse, I could remember he said to me “you are going to be sick boy,” go right over to the “Sick Camp” and tell the Clerk to write you up to the Hospital, right away. He further asked me, Are you a God fearing man? I replied yes. He said to me you are going to die. It was near time for the midday train and the Doctor ran over to the Sick Camp and assisted to write up the necessary papers and I was placed on the train to the Ancon hospital. Dr. Beard was the name of the Doctor in that section.

I was placed on a bed on the train to the hospital all the way and when the train arrived in the Panama Station, there were many horse drawn ambulances awaiting to receive the patients to the hospital. We then arrived in the big Ward 30 to be lined up and a very pleasant American nurse was right on the job and started to feel the pulses and assigned each patient to the different bed. As I noticed when she came to me and took my hand, she appeared to be frightened and she called the Orderly and said to him do not put this patient under the shower, give him a bed bath. I wondered to myself as to what is this bed bath. Because I had never been in an Hospital before. However, I was escorted to the Ward by the Orderly Mr. St. Hill and he turned me over to Mr. Norman Piercy right from my home in Partland, Jamaica, W.I. but we at that time did not recognize each other. St. Hill said to Piercy, Give this patient a bed bath. While I kept wondering in my mind what do they mean by this bedbath when I saw this Mr. Piercy placed a heavy waterproof Blanket in the bed and two buckets full of heavy crushed ice and several buckets of water and not even the courtesy as to consult me but stripped me naked and threw me in that cold deadly water. To be truthful, I thought I could not any longer live. However, he gave me a thorough bathing and took me out and dried me with a towel and placed me in a white clean bed. I felt cool for a moment but still fretting over the Iced bath as I had never heard or seen anything of that kind before. . . .

The next shock I had while I felt a little thirsty and when I saw some one coming with a wine glass of water I felt glad as I thought it was some cool water which I felt so much the need and the kindly Nurse handed it to me and said drink it. So thirsty for a drink of water, I hurried and as it reached my lips it was down my stomach. I tell you, I had never before tasted anything so terribly bitter. I always hearing about Quinine but I thought it was something tasty and nice. And every two hours I was dosed with that bitter liquid night and day and instead of getting rid of the fever it was growing worse.

Then the next thing that happened. I was placed in front of the Nurse’s desk and a basin with clean water was placed on the stand beside me, I then thought it was water placed there for me to drink. As I felt thirsty at the time I used my hand and took three hand full three times and swallow and when I heard the Nurse called to me and asked what, that you do drink it? I could not answer her but I saw when she picked up the Telephone I really did not know what happened until I discovered about five Doctors over me and find myself throwing up. And a few hours after I was settled I noticed they drew some blood from my arm. I then noticed from that time there no more of that bitter liquid. The hole night I was not bothered with that stuff.

The next morning two men came with a Stretcher and lifted me from the bed and placed me on the Stretcher and carried me off out of the Ward. I thought they were going to bury me as I was actually given over as dead. However, I was taken to Ward 24 . . . that was the place where typhoid patients were being treated. They found out that the fever I had was typhoid and not malaria.

What I can truthfull say Those American Nurses my own dear mother could not be more kind and tender to me. They did everything lies humanly even to let me take a little nourishment so to keep life in my body. I should right here tell of the incident with the water I drank from the basin on the stand beside my bed. It was poisoned water to kill flies that buzzed around when I thought it was placed there for me to drink as I had never before entered a hospital.

I could never, never in life forget the tender kindness those American Nurses administered to me especially in that Ward 24. I had no desire for nourishment of any kind, my life was ebbing out. But how they plead with me to take some nourishment. Not only that, but they closely watched the colored Orderlies how they handle the patients.

One night, the Nurse on duty came to me, she said to me now, bed 6, if you don’t take some nourishment you would never get well and the tone she spoke to me with her hand on my head I forced to swallow a little milk and from that I continued to take little by little and a few days past and she came on duty the night and took my temperature she said to me you are getting better “bed 6.” I began to feel a desire for the milk now, very fast. Then they started to give eggnog twice a day also real American Whiskey every day. I was not allowed to raise my head from the pillow even though I am feeling well. I began to feel real hungry but only liquid diet was give me for over three weeks after the fever left me. One mid day at breakfast I was given a toasted Potato. Oh. how I enjoyed it. Even that did not satisfied my starving apetite. I was therefore convinced by the Nurses and Doctors such starvation was for my good.

One morning in the month of May Dr. Connor the Night Doctor came in, that Ward were then run by himself and Dr. Bates. Dr. Connor came to my bed side with the Nurse and took up my Chart, asked me how you feeling James? I replied, ok. doctor. He asked me you hungry? I replied yes doctor. He turned and ordered her to give me light diet and pair of Pajamas.

The morning in question when I was given the Pajamas and was told to get out of bed and tried to walk, every step that tried I had to be supported. That morning I was given a bowl of porridge, two eggs, nice bread and butter, a lovely slice of melon. But they never ceased to give the Whiskey and Eggnog during the days, and a week later I was given “Full Diet.” I was then feeling happy and good as when at meal time when we are told that what ever we like having that’s no on the table just call.

I was discharged in May and the treatment had me so fat and robus that when I went home to San Pablo Aunt surprise to see how good I was looking.

I took sick in April and was in the Hospital until May 1910.5

Had the black labor force been housed in screened quarters comparable to those provided the white employees, in areas where the sanitary officers exercised control, malaria might possibly have been eradicated, as had yellow fever. As it was, the total loss from disease in the ten years it took to build the canal was less than five thousand people. But Gorgas later declared that if conditions had remained as they had been during the French era, the death toll would have been upward of seventy-eight thousand (figured on a death rate of two hundred out of every one thousand employees). That a man such as James Williams, or the many thousands of others who took sick, survived at all was regarded, by black laborers as much as by anyone, as a miracle of medical progress.

In his ten days of dining at the Tivoli Hotel, Charles Francis Adams had seen exactly three houseflies; it was indeed a wondrous age. The correspondent for The Outlook, after a stiff climb in the hills behind Paraíso, was shown a galvanized ash can full of oil placed on a plank over a little stream, so that oil dripped slowly, constantly, onto the water as it flowed toward the canal line. So simple a solution to so large a problem, he wrote, was not the least of the “marvels” of Panama.

•   •

There seemed to be but one aspect of progress on the Isthmus over which one might reasonably express some skepticism or concern. Relations between the canal builders and the local populace, uneasy from the beginning, had deteriorated markedly. “In temperament and tradition we are miles away from the Panamanians,” noted The Outlook correspondent. “ . . . The age-old hostility to the ‘Gringo’ is deep-rooted. Differences in language, customs and religious practices keep the breach wide.”

To the average American, Panama was a land of dark, ignorant, undersized people who very obviously disliked him. (“It is hard to like people who have evidently made up their mind to dislike you.”) It was said that the whole country had a “chronic case of sulks.” The Panamanian—any Panamanian, regardless of position or social status—was a “Spiggotty” or “Spig,” terms supposedly derived in earlier years from the erroneous claim of Panama City hackmen that they could “speaks-da-English.”

It was thought that the Panamanian showed too little gratitude for all that was being done for him. When Robert Wood declared in a speech years afterward that the United States had created all the wealth in Panama, he was expressing the profound conviction of virtually every American who worked on the canal.

The Panamanian, not surprisingly, resented the Gringo’s power, his deprecation of the Panamanian way of life. The Americans were loud, arrogant, impolite, they drank too much. The canal that was to have brought such untold prosperity to everyone appeared to be doing no such thing. Commissaries within the Zone had deprived local merchants of a long-anticipated bonanza; and the Panamanian populace, unable to shop there themselves, resented that goods in such abundance and at such very low prices should be the exclusive privilege of the well-paid canal workers. Even Gorgas’ efforts were a source of resentment.

They hate us because we cleaned their towns and are keeping them clean [one writer surmised], not perhaps because they actually prefer the old filth and fatalities, but because their correction implies that they were not altogether perfect before we came. For the strongest quality of the Panamanian is his pride, and it is precisely that sentiment which we North Americans have either wantonly or necessarily outraged.

Seeing the poverty of those native Panamanians who lived in the old Chagres villages within the Zone, many Americans knew the feelings expressed by Rose van Hardeveld:

The poor we had literally all around us. I think each one of us found our wash women or fruit vendors always some one or two that were more wretchedly miserable than the others, and that seemed to cry personally for help, to us who had so much where they had nothing.

Much neglect and needless cruelty came to our notice every day. It seemed not so much to proceed from wishing to be cruel or neglectful as from the fact that they knew nothing better. . . .

All of our women felt deeply sorry for the sad-eyed children passing by every day, and yet there was little that we could do that would be of any lasting benefit.

If we gave them clothing it would only tend to make them dissatisfied with what they had, and money would usually go for rum or lottery tickets. We came to feel that charity was really not much good as just charity.

One American who had tried very hard to do something had been quickly removed. Rufus Lane, a former seaman from Massachusetts, had arrived looking for a position during the Stevens regime. He had no technical skills, but he had a letter of introduction from Henry Cabot Lodge and he spoke fluent Spanish, so it was decided to put him in charge of “Canal Zone municipalities in the jungle,” a wholly meaningless position but one that he took quite seriously. The “jungle Panamanians”—Indians, West Indians—soon began doing as he instructed. “They cleared the jungle around their huts,” the diplomat William Sands reported. “They joined their settlements by hard little foottrails . . . they learned how to dispose of disease-fostering refuse and how to set up simple first aid and sanitation centers. They held town meetings on the primitive New England plan . . . Lane’s job seemed to me one of the finest things Americans were doing in Panama.” But Lane and his work were abolished by a visiting congressional committee, one member of which told Sands, “These people are of no more use than mosquitoes and buzzards; they ought all to be exterminated together.”

With the advance of the waters of Gatun Lake, as thousands of villagers were dispossessed of their land and homes and were moved to new sites on higher ground, very few of them felt that they were given fair compensation and bitterly resented the arbitrary fashion in which their new locations were decided for them. “The Americans took awful advantage of the poor people, because they had no one to speak for them,” one woman would remark sadly, more than sixty years later, remembering the home her family had been forced to abandon.

Of the officers in charge of the work, only Gorgas seemed to know how not to alienate the Panamanians. Few officials spoke Spanish or made an effort to learn. Goethals spoke none at all. (“Oh, I suppose he knew how to say no,” recalled one American disapprovingly.) During his first year on the job, Goethals had written to one of his sons that a state dinner given by President and Señora Amador was “the most trying function that I have had anything to do with.” He had been placed between Señora Amador and Señora Obaldía, neither of whom spoke English.

Amador had died in 1909, not long after being succeeded in office by José de Obaldía. What Goethals thought of Obaldía is not known, but he had long before depicted Amador as “no great shakes,” and when Obaldía, after taking office, privately revealed some inside facts about the Amador regime, it was as if all the worst American beliefs regarding the high tone of Panamanian politics and politicians had been confirmed. What truth there was to the information is impossible to know; more important was the fact that the American officials believed every word of it.

The charge was that $200,000 to $300,000 had disappeared from the Panamanian treasury, the discovery having been made only when Obaldía took office. Goethals appears to have learned of it first on October 8, 1908, in a confidential letter from Admiral Rousseau written when Goethals was away from the Isthmus on official business. “It is said Amador gets half the loot himself,” Rousseau reported. “Not only that Amador charged up to the Panamanian Government all sorts of private entertainment, presents, etc. given President and Mrs. Roosevelt, Secretary Taft, Secretary and Mrs. Root, and also Miss Roosevelt’s wedding present. The pieces charged up are 5 to 10 times actual expenditures. Obaldía and his party are ‘mad’ all the way through and threaten to publish far and wide just what Amador has done.” But as Rousseau further explained it had been agreed to keep the story “bottled up,” out of respect to Roosevelt and his family.

Nor was any official alarm expressed over the larger animosities between the two peoples. If such feelings prevailed, the consensus seemed to be, they had always prevailed, from the time the first wave of gold prospectors came ashore in 1849. And doubtless there was no quick or ready solution.

To the average American at work on the canal, the aggrieved pride or “smoldering wrath” of the Panamanian (to use the words of one reporter) was of only marginal concern. There would be time enough later to resolve such difficulties. For now the work was going too well, morale was too high, the end was much too plainly in view to think much about anything else.


1 The diplomat William Sands, who spent much of his time settling American-Panamanian differences, wrote that the Panamanian police had “various . . . disconcerting habits, such as carving an American or hammering him unconscious before they arrested him.” When fights broke out in a Coco Grove brothel on a night in July 1912, the Panamanian police moved in, shot and killed three unarmed Marines, then rounded up a number of others, who were put in jail, to be beaten and tortured. That Goethals and the American minister refused to order American troops into the city was, according to one journalist present, the cause of “almost universal regret within the American Zone.”

2 The trip to Germany was to visit the new locks on the Kiel Canal. He went in the spring of 1912 and at one point was entertained by the Kaiser, whom he described as “Roosevelt toned down.”

3 This account is Mrs. Gaillard’s own, as related by her son to the author. Marie Gorgas, who considered the scene the key to Goethals’ character and who, of course, was not present, gave a rather more colorful version:

One beautiful moonlight night Goethals was walking on a little hill, overlooking the cut, with one of the best-known ladies of the Zone. His companion was much affected by the splendor of the tropical scene.

“Yes, it’s a beautiful spot,” the Colonel replied to her exclamations, “and I love it! But I love it for other reasons than its beauty or the things I get from it. Above all, I love it for the power.”

He was silent for a moment and then went on:

“I remember once visiting a monastery of Jesuit Fathers. I saw the wretched cells they lived in, the little rude cots they slept in, the rough tables at which they had their meals. And then I remembered the vast power that the men who lived like that had once exercised. It was worth living simply in order to have that.”

In his enthusiasm he raised his hand.

“That’s the only thing in life worth having. Wealth—salaries—these are nothing. It’s power, power, power!”

4 The issue had caused a brief sensation at home with the appearance of an article in The Independent magazine (March 22, 1906) titled “Our Mismanagement at Panama.” The author was Poultney Bigelow, son of John Bigelow, who had spent a few days in Colón and who wrote, “Prostitutes are not needed on the Isthmus—and if they were there is no call to send for them at the expense of the taxpayer.” The charge was shown to be based wholly on hearsay, as was virtually all of the article. But to quell the outcry numbers of black women were asked to swear before a duly appointed I.C.C. official that they were leading a moral life and that they were in Panama of their own free choice; and these affidavits were sent on to the appropriate congressional committee.

5 Afterward James Williams worked in one of the machine shops at Gorgona, then as a telephone operator on the railroad. At the time the canal was finished he was a sales clerk at the Corozal commissary. He retired from canal service in 1949.

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