Modern history

6

Soldiers Under Fire

“We are, gentlemen, soldiers under fire; let us salute the comrade who falls in the battle, but let us think only of the fight of tomorrow and of victory.”

—PHILIPPE BUNAU-VARILLA

I

Jules Isidore Dingler—pronounced Danglay in French—was not impressive-looking. In his mid-forties, he was short and bald. He had small, round shoulders, a soft, round face, soft blue eyes, and a drooping mahogany-colored mustache. He might have been a bank clerk or a provincial wine merchant. The appearance suggested neither initiative nor resolution and the appearance was deceiving.

In his student days at the Polytechnique he had been a shining star, finishing near the top of his class and going on to the Ponts et Chaussées. As an engineer for the state he had risen rapidly to become a chef des Ponts et Chaussées, a very thorough professional accustomed to the multitudinous demands of large-scale public works. To Charles de Lesseps and his father, he seemed as qualified as anyone could be for the task at Panama; and unlike the three or four others whom they had approached with an offer, he alone had been willing to go. Concerning his own final decision in this regard, it would be said that he had an ambitious wife, that hers had been the deciding voice.

For the next two years, from early 1883 until the summer of 1885, he was to direct the largest, most ambitious engineering effort the world had as yet seen. His decisions were not to be the best always. Before sailing from France he also made the unfortunate declaration that once on the Isthmus he would prove that “only drunkards and the dissipated take the yellow fever and die there.” Still it would be a long time before a more effective chief engineer would be dispatched to Panama—not until Theodore Roosevelt sent John Stevens in 1905—and Jules Dingler was to pay a dreadful price for his devotion to the work.

Yet subsequent histories of the canal would have little to say for Dingler. Quite unjustly, his memorial in most accounts would be the big frame villa built for him on Ancon Hill—“la folie Dingler.”

•   •

Charles and Director General Dingler reached the Isthmus on March 1, 1883, and were occasion for the predictable round of banquets and spirited oratory. The work was entering its “Second Great Stage”— “The Period of Construction” had begun. Champagne corks popped and Charles, sounding remarkably like his father, promised progress on all fronts. Ferdinand de Lesseps himself, declared the son, would return to oversee the work and a hundred chairs were shoved back in the dining room of the Grand Hotel as everyone rose to drink to the health of Le Grand Français some four thousand miles away in Paris.

Charles stayed on for another month. Dingler got directly to business in the office upstairs in the hotel, where by now the effects of the earthquake had been largely mended. He would begin by restoring order and confidence, both sadly lacking since the departure of Couvreux, Hersent. Paper work was in disarray. To date, one French writer observed, it had been an enterprise of passionate pioneers and mediocre accountants. Dingler was an organizer. Responsibilities needed clarifying; the work load had to be distributed. So at the outset a number of individuals accustomed to the comparative ease and convenience of the head office found themselves arbitrarily reassigned to one of the camps in the jungle. The word spread that the new man had no aversion to stepping on toes and at first chance several of those individuals most offended would take their revenge by spreading stories of the royal comforts Dingler had arranged for himself at company expense.

Dingler was not merely contemptuous of laggards and incompetents, but regarded them as cowardly, disloyal, less than true Frenchmen. “The purge continues,” he would inform Charles nearly a year later. “I can well imagine that in Paris you are getting echoes of the complaints of the victims . . . [but] I never [act] until I am sure of facts.” Later, again to Charles: “It was put into [their heads] that I had come to the Isthmus to martyrize them. Today they must realize that I have hatred towards no one except the idlers and the traitors.”

Having inspected the entire line, having examined all completed surveys, reports on soundings, he prepared a master plan for the canal, the first that had been made in all this time and in fact the only one ever made by the French.

Like all their surveys and maps, the plan was in the metric system. The line from Colón to Panama was 74 kilometers, including a deepwater channel into the Bay of Panama ending near the island of Naos. The bottom width of the canal was to be 22 meters (72 feet); the depth, 9 meters (291/2 feet).

To confine the Chagres, a tremendous earth dam, one of the largest ever built, possibly 48 meters (157½ feet) high, was to be stretched across the river valley at Gamboa, several miles above the Barbacoas bridge. The river was the heart of the matter, Dingler wrote; it was “the great unknown.” He also had no doubt of success—“it only requires that we quadruple our efforts, which is absolutely possible.” The incoming tides from the Pacific could be handled by a tidal lock that would maintain a constant water level in the canal from Colón to Panama.

His most important change was to reduce the slope of the cutting—that is, he declared that the sides of the canal would have to be sloped back far more than previously foreseen, a change of tremendous consequence since it increased the so-called “cube” of the total excavation by 60 percent.

His estimate was that the final amount of earth and rock to be removed would amount to 120,000,000 cubic meters. This was 45,000,000 cubic meters more than the Technical Commission had estimated, 74,000,000 cubic meters more than what had been prognosticated at Paris in 1879. Indeed, the difference between Dingler’s estimate and that made at the beginning in Paris was equal to the total amount of excavation required for the entire Suez Canal. Yet when, in the early fall of 1883, he returned to Paris to review the plan with de Lesseps and the advisory board, it was calmly approved in total. Notwithstanding so radical a reassessment of the task, de Lesseps declared no change either for the completion date or the projected cost. Everything was proceeding quite smoothly as planned, he said.

In May alone Dingler signed seventeen new contracts for excavation. Orders for equipment went out to Belgium, France, the United States. The numbers of steam shovels, locomotives, and flatcars in use were to be more than doubled, even tripled, in less than two years’ time. Warehouses were built, machine shops, locomotive roundhouses, coal depots, a half mile of new docks. He was spending big money now. By September of 1883 the work force was increased to ten thousand men. By the end of the year there were thirteen thousand on the payroll. The harbor at Colón had become so crowded that inbound freighters sometimes had to wait weeks for a turn to unload.

Before he was finished, Dingler would sign up nearly thirty contractors, but the most impressive show was put on by Huerne, Slaven & Company, later known as the American Contracting and Dredging Company. The firm’s association with the canal predated Dingler, but it was in April 1883, about the time he was getting things in rein, that the monstrous Slaven dredges arrived.

Prosper Huerne, one of the partners, was a San Francisco architect who had contracted to build some of the French work camps and supervised repairs on the Grand Hotel. Slaven was the galvanizing force in the organization and a fascinating sample of the sort of individual such an undertaking could attract. Actually there were two Slavens, Moses and his brother, H. B. (Henry Bartholomew). They were Canadians who had settled in San Francisco, where H. B. established a drugstore. Moses, we are told, was a “mechanical engineer,” which could have meant any number of things. But H. B., the druggist, was the one in charge, and it was he who carried on at Panama, gathering in a fortune, after Moses died.

Neither of the Slavens nor Prosper Huerne knew the first thing about building a canal, and they never let that bother them. Hearing of the enormous contracts being let out by the French “and determined to have a finger in the canal pie,” H. B. had sent off bids for several miles of excavation and the bids were accepted. He found a financial backer in New York, a banker named Eugene Kelly, who had never met H. B. and knew nothing about him until H. B. walked into his office. Kelly put up $200,000.

The famous Slaven dredges were built and launched at Philadelphia, and getting them to Colón was a harrowing experience. Each machine resembled an immense wooden tank, square at both ends, about 120 feet long and 30 feet wide. At sea they had all the sailing qualities of a medium-sized barn. So long as the weather was calm, there was relatively little trouble, but towing one in a gale became a nightmare, especially for the men stationed on the dredge itself.

The first of the machines to arrive had been tied up at Colón only a week when it burned to the water’s edge, leaving nothing but a blackened hulk. After it were to come the Comte de Lesseps, the Prosper Huerne, the Nathan Appleton, the Jules Dingler, and miraculously none was lost en route. Once fitted out, with their booms and chains and iron buckets, they might have been fantastic war machines. Each dredge was powered by several steam engines, the largest to turn the great wheels by which an endless chain of iron buckets was kept in motion. The buckets, with a capacity of one cubic meter, ran to the top of a wooden tower, like a moving flight of stairs. At the top a blast of water washed the earth out through pipes, or “chutes,” four feet in diameter, that extended, like great dangling arms, 180 feet on both sides, or far enough to be clear of the working site.

The smaller engines were used to run the powerful force pump that sent the blast of water to the top of the tower, or to move the huge dredge forward, or to swing it from side to side, or to hoist or lower huge legs, or spuds, “by means of which she walked step by step into the material to be excavated.”

“The towers were from fifty to seventy feet high,” Tracy Robinson would recall, “and I often climbed one and another, and stood fascinated and thrilled upon the summit, watching what seemed more like some intelligent antediluvian monster revived.”

The Americans who ran the dredges—Crawford Douglas, Nathan Crowell, Captains Ward, Morton, Bardwell—were tough, independent men who lived on board, where they hung out their wash. A few had brought their wives with them, even children; a few had brought women who were merely listed as wives. Once everything was in order, smoke poured from stacks like those at a factory. The noisy bucket chains ran day and night.

For the new arrivals at Colón, the Slaven operation was the first and most impressive visible sign of actual canal construction, something Ferdinand de Lesseps had “very dextrously” considered (in the view of a correspondent for The Times of London). The gigantic American contrivances churning away at the front door, so to speak, were bound to have a favorable effect. De Lesseps had an abiding faith in machines and spoke often of how Alexandre Lavalley’s dredges had revolutionized the work at Suez. He had every confidence that at Panama still more extraordinary machines would work an even more astonishing success.

The wonderful thing was that the American dredges did make progress, and rapidly, starting inland from the mud flats of Limon Bay. Later, farther inland, difficulties would increase, the pace would slow as the ground became less easy to work, and of necessity the price would rise. All told the Slaven firm would be paid more than $14,000,000 for its efforts. What its profits were remained a secret, since the company’s books were kept in New York. Long afterward, a French investigating committee would conclude that the firm cleared $7,000,000. In any event, H. B. was never to return to his drugstore.

The Atlantic end was the easiest part of the work, and the progress there in the mud flats would have been the most conspicuous whichever firm had been fortunate enough to get that assignment. Still the Slaven firm alone, out of the two hundred-odd contractors that were ultimately involved, completed its allotted task on schedule and would account for as much of the total excavation as the five other largest contractors combined. Among the more curious facts about the French canal at Panama is that about a third of it was dug by Americans.

Excavation continued along the entire line, the work organized in three divisions: Limon Bay and the lower reaches of the Chagres represented the first division; the second took in the upper Chagres and the hills between Matachín and Culebra; the third ran from Culebra to the approaches to the Bay of Panama. At the head of each division was a French engineer and there were a dozen or more contractors at work under any one of these men. In the lower Chagres and in the channel on the Pacific side the work was done almost entirely by dredges. In the first division, for example, a Dutch firm, Artigue et Sonderegger, had twenty dredges at work. These too were ladder dredges, Belgian-made and not so large or powerful as the Slaven machines, but more efficient and extremely well built. The dredges used off Panama City were a self-propelling marine type, constructed like a ship. They had been built in Scotland and came out to the Isthmus under their own steam.

In the uplands the work was done by steam shovel, pick and shovel, and wheelbarrow. It was there the army of black workers were concentrated, where in these first years, progress was made largely by hand, as at Suez. Wages were regarded as extremely good, about $1 to $1.50 a day, more money than most of the men had ever dreamed of making. Each worker was required to do a specific amount in a day—so many buckets of earth—but he could work at his own speed and do more if he wished, his pay being computed by the bucket.

•   •

Lieutenant Raymond Rodgers, an officer from an American gunboat stationed offshore, made a tour of the work in 1883 and described the canal as “fairly begun.” He had watched the dredges in action; he had been to the top of the fluviograph at Gamboa, a picturesque, brightly painted tower where watch was kept of the temperamental Chagres and where, on a small platform enclosed by a fancy gingerbread railing, he had been able to look out over the treetops as his French hosts expounded on their plans. At Matachín he watched a force of men drill and blast through solid rock. He was astonished by the “immense amount of machinery and material now on hand” and by the courtesy he was shown. A special train was put at his disposal. He was given maps, statistics. At Culebra a barefoot gang of workers stopped long enough to pose beside the most conspicuous piece of American equipment in view, an Osgood & McNaughton steam shovel made at Albany, New York. But seen from a nearby hilltop where Lieutenant Rodgers climbed for a panoramic view, the same machine was a mere toy, the line of excavation nearly lost in the tossing green hills.

Visitors were told that the rate of progress would soon exceed 1,000,000 cubic meters a month, then 2,000,000 cubic meters. In fact, the present rate was considerably less than 200,000 cubic meters—146,000 in May, 156,000 in June. There was, moreover, one irrefutable cloud in the sky.

According to the company’s records 125 employees died in 1882, more than twice the number given for the first year. In 1883 there were 420 recorded deaths, or almost eight times the number given the first year. Yet such figures can be taken as only suggestive. Patients in the company hospitals were charged $1 a day, nearly a day’s wages. While the company covered this expense for its own employees, all but a fraction of the labor force worked for the contractors, not the company. Aware of what hospital expenses could amount to, familiar with the mortality rate inside the wards, the contractors were reluctant to finance such care and would even discharge a man at the first sign of illness to avoid the responsibility. Among the workers themselves the hospitals were regarded with abject horror, the common belief being that if a patient did not have malaria or yellow fever when he entered, he would very shortly. A hospital permit was considered little better than a ticket to the graveyard.1

So for all these reasons the majority of the sick never went near a hospital, and consequently, the majority of deaths never appeared in the record books. Dr. Gorgas would calculate that for every recorded death in the French hospitals there were at least two more outside that were not counted. In other words, the given casualty figures have to be multiplied by three: the toll in 1883 was closer to 1,300 than to 420.

•   •

It was the suffering and death of individuals, rather than aggregate numbers, that most affected those around them.

In the fall of 1883, when Dingler returned to the Isthmus after reviewing his plans with de Lesseps, he brought his family—Madame Dingler, a son, a daughter, and the daughter’s fiancé. This, stressed the Bulletin, was the best possible proof of the director general’s perfect confidence in Panama. They moved into a large, comfortable house on the Avenida Central, just off Cathedral Plaza, the Casa Dingler, as it would be known henceforth, which was supposed to serve temporarily until the more elaborate quarters were built. They were a family of avid equestrians and Dingler, who enjoyed a little show, had arranged that each be provided with magnificent mounts brought over from France. (The diminutive ponies used locally would never have satisfied any self-respecting European horseman.) It was the dry season and there were family excursions into the hills, accompanied by servants with enormous picnic hampers. One old photograph shows his daughter, a pretty, dark-haired girl who appears to be about eighteen, sitting sidesaddle in full skirt and a little Panama hat.

But in January the daughter contracted yellow fever and died within a few days. Dingler was overcome with grief. “My poor husband is in a despair which is painful to see,” his wife wrote to Charles de Lesseps. “My first desire was to flee as fast as possible and carry far from this murderous country those who are left to me. But my husband is a man of duty and tries to make me understand that his honor is to the trust you have placed in him and that he cannot fail in his task without failing himself. Our dear daughter was our pride and joy.”

The death of the young woman had a profound effect on everyone, canal officials, workers, the local citizenry. Bishop Paul presided over the funeral in the crowded cathedral, and with the cathedral’s great discordant bells tolling, Dingler and the fiancé rode at the head of a long procession to the cemetery.

A month later Dingler’s son, age twenty-one, showed signs of the dreaded disease. In three days he too was dead. Some weeks after, it was Dingler who wrote to Charles:

I cannot thank you enough for your kind and affectionate letter. Mme. Dingler who [knows] that she is for me the only source of affection in this world, controls herself with courage, but she is deeply shaken. . . . We attach ourselves to life in making the canal our only occupation; I say “we” because Mme. Dingler accompanies me in all my excursions and follows with interest the progress of the work.

Presently the fiancé died, also of yellow fever. By summer, forty-eight officers of the canal company had died of yellow fever alone, and according to one American naval officer, laborers were dying at a rate of about two hundred a month.

Still the work went ahead. Travelers crossing by train were amazed by the spectacle. It was true, they wrote; a canal really was being built at Panama. Buildings were going up almost everywhere one looked. Hundreds of acres of jungle were being chopped back to make room for more. Millions of dollars’ worth of equipment was being unloaded at Colón. More and more young French recruits were arriving, more engineers, more doctors, nurses, more boats from Jamaica, their decks solid with black men. By May upwards of nineteen thousand people were at work and the payroll was running to 200,000 francs ($40,000) a day.

In Paris the fearful death toll was no longer secret, despite the uniform silence of the press on the matter. Too many parents had been informed of the death of their sons. Among professional engineers the tragedies of the Dingler family were taken especially to heart. Older faculty members at the École des Ponts et Chaussées were now privately advising graduates not to go to Panama, saying it would be suicidal. Still there was never a shortage of able volunteers. Indeed, the young men who came over the sea to Colón were the pick of the best-trained technicians. For them the canal was a stirring opportunity, a “Cause”—grand in scale, glorious in concept, French—and they sailed as if to battle, as they themselves said repeatedly. They were warriors bearing the banner of France. Discomforts, dangers, the likelihood of a miserable death on the wrong side of the world, these, wrote Philippe Bunau-Varilla, only “exalted the energy of those who were filled with a sincere love for the great task undertaken. To its irradiating influence was joined the heroic joy of self-sacrifice for the greatness of France.”

Philippe Bunau-Varilla merits a great deal of attention. Everything considered, he is one of the most fascinating figures in the entire Panama story, as important and controversial as Ferdinand de Lesseps, as time would tell. And it is fair to say, as his admirers have, that without him there would have been no canal at Panama. Because he survived the so-called French years and wrote extensively, drawing on his experiences, he also provided the fullest account we have of the French effort seen from the point of view of the elite young French technician, the man upon whom, presumably, the fate of the enterprise, not to mention the national honor, rested. And though his declarations of faith in the task, his ardor for the historic civilizing mission of France, would seem foolishly high-blown in another later age, more like lines from a melodrama of his time, they appear to have been both sincere and representative.

In his last year at the Polytechnique the young man had sat spellbound in the front row when de Lesseps, newly returned from his triumphant Panama tour, came to lecture on the great task ahead. In 1884, having finished at the École des Ponts et Chausées, and having served briefly in North Africa, he sailed for Colón on the Washington (sister ship of the Lafayette) at the same time Jules and Madame Dingler were returning from a home leave.

He was a small man. He stood only five feet four, which was shorter even than Dingler, and probably weighed no more than 130 pounds. However, he had a square, high brow, a good chin, extremely pale blue eyes, a luxuriant dark-red mustache, and his posture was always perfect. He was, as well, proud, ambitious, phenomenally energetic, blatantly self-confident, and, for all that, quite likable, in an eager and direct way. His age was twenty-six, a fact even the mustache failed to camouflage.

When he became a celebrity in the United States years later, it would be said that he was from a prominent, wealthy Paris family. But according to his registration records at the École Polytechnique he was the son of Pamela Caroline Bunau and of a père inconnu, unknown father, which can only mean that he was an illegitimate child. He was registered, moreover, as plain Philippe Jean Bunau. His mother, the records show, was the widow of someone named Varilla, but apparently Philippe was born well after Varilla’s death, or at least long enough so that she was obliged to give her son her maiden name. The widow Varilla is also recorded as rentière, meaning she had some kind of income or pension of her own. However, it could not have amounted to very much, since Philippe is listed as a scholarship student. In addition, he is registered as a Protestant and by the time he finished the Polytechnique he had added Varilla to his own name.

No sooner had he reached the Isthmus than he was made a division engineer in charge of operations at Culebra and the Pacific end, which immediately set him off as somebody to watch. (Dingler appears to have been as impressed by him on the voyage out as was he by Dingler.) The advance thereafter was to be remarkable.

Why in the name of God would he want to go to Panama? the old librarian at the École des Ponts et Chaussées had asked in Paris. “As an officer runs to it when he hastens to the battlefield,” Bunau-Varilla answered, “and not as the coward who flees from the sorrows of life.” Once there, seeing one compatriot die after another, he would exhort the living that they were soldiers under fire who think only of the victory to be won. Disdain of peril was the surest safeguard. There was nothing good men and true could not accomplish when committed to a Noble Task. He saw them all as figures in a romance, embarked on what he was to call The Great Adventure of Panama. They were more themselves, better men, in this wild field of combat.

For Bunau-Varilla, for all the younger engineers, Dingler remained an inspirational figure. Dingler was “bold, loyal, scientific, and stimulating.” Dingler bore his suffering with grave dignity and courage. Dingler was determined to succeed. The exorbitant salary he was supposedly receiving, the various trappings of position he fancied, seem never to have offended the sensibilities of any of them.

Liveried servants were in attendance at the offices on Cathedral Plaza. Elaborate stables had been built. Horses and expensive carriages had been imported from New York for staff use. The stablemaster was a full-fledged baron. For inspection tours back and forth on the railroad there was a special Pullman car that supposedly cost $42,000. And on Ancon Hill stood the famous private villa, nearly completed, an imposing structure with mansard roofs and spacious verandas.

Wolfred Nelson reported Dingler’s salary to be $50,000, that one French engineer had a pigeon house put up at a cost to the stockholders of $1,500, that another official had a private bathhouse built for $40,000, again at company expense.

The most colorful source for the supposed extravagances perpetrated under Dingler was a little book published by an embittered stockholder named Henri Maréchal, who visited the Isthmus the winter of 1884 and who enjoyed spreading nonsense.

In one part of the jungle he had seen men at work building beautiful avenues and ornamental clearings, “a kind of miniature Bois de Boulogne, where the officials entertain at charming picnic parties and make daily pleasure excursions on the company’s horses . . . . Ladies, possibly somewhat too swarthy but not too strictly virtuous, render these jaunts more agreeable and are repaid for their services by being carried on the company’s payrolls as laborers.” He declared that since the dump cars sent from Europe proved to be too high for the average workman to reach, the company, at great expense, had sent a delegation to Mexico to investigate a tribe of giants whose existence had been reported by some practical joker.

The truth was considerably less sensational. The Pullman car, though hardly a necessity, was not the sumptuous affair pictured in later accounts and seems to have been little used. The horses too were seldom used and were soon sold off. The house, though very grand by Panama standards, probably cost about $100,000—not $1,000,000, as later claimed—and because of the tragedies in the Dingler family it was never lived in. Dingler’s salary was $20,000, not $50,000.

That some ladies “not too strictly virtuous” may have been carried on the payroll is certainly possible. Simple mismanagement was conspicuous enough, according to dozens of reports; the company was swindled repeatedly in small ways. One common deception concerned the delivery of coal at Colón. When a coal ship arrived, only part of the cargo would be landed, but vouchers were made for the full amount. The ship then departed, to return again with what supposedly was another load, for which another voucher would be given, the result being that the company paid for the same shipment twice, even three times.

And certainly money was wasted on needless, even foolish material comforts. But for those then struggling against the jungle and the heat, life was never easy and often extremely grim. In retrospect there is even something pathetic about Dingler’s gestures toward a semblance of civilization as he knew it. How grand could one Pullman car have been on a railroad forty-seven and a half miles long?

The intensity of the boredom these men faced after hours, the longing for home, can be imagined. There were no restaurants or cafés of quality, no theaters in the city, no galleries, no libraries, never a concert. A walk on the old seawall, as one of them recalled, was as pleasant as could be expected, “but after one has strolled up and down it every day . . . for several months . . . it ceases to provide more than mild diversion.” Even to sit and read at night could be a misery, since the smallest lamp or candle drew swarms of insects.

What praise and respect they did get would be a long time coming— from the American engineers who were to follow years later, none of whom ever deprecated the French work, despite all that appeared in the papers, all that had been long since fixed in the public mind. Among critics of the work, as an American naval officer observed, not one in a hundred would have the courage to go out and stay in such a place. The French engineers, he said, were “young, zealous, and energetic . . . and no one can appreciate more than these men the difficulties that lie in their path. Instead of censure and detraction, they deserve the highest praise and respect.”

But the image of vain, spendthrift, immoral officials squandering company funds, heedless of the misery of others, blind to the handwriting on the wall, was to be too useful an image later, in France no less than in the United States.

II

The task to be faced daily in the field grew ever more horrendous. Presumably the work would go more smoothly with time and experience, but not so. Hard as the engineers pushed, as seasoned as many of them became to the sweltering climate, the incessant rains, the going was always more difficult than before, the technical problems ever larger and more perplexing. Maddeningly, some problems seemed quite insoluble.

The river remained the worst of these. Success, as the best of the French engineers understood perfectly, depended on somehow containing and controlling the Chagres, yet it remained, in Dingler’s phrase, “the great unknown.” The dam he proposed to throw in its path at Gamboa was a reasonable solution, but only in the abstract. No adequate rock formation had been located upon which to found such an enormous structure. Nobody had devised a realistic means for handling the tremendous overflow there would be when the river was in flood. After one storm in May of 1884, the fluviograph at Gamboa had recorded a rise of ten feet in twenty-four hours. On July 18 and 19 of the same year, the river came up fourteen feet.

Visitors were told that plans for the dam were not available as of the moment. One French engineer privately declared that the whole idea was hopeless. As the work went bravely on, as the river responded to the turn of the seasons, as the elder de Lesseps kept insisting in Paris, Micawber-fashion, that something would turn up—his man of genius with the perfect answer—nobody on the Isthmus honestly knew what in the world might be done. So this most vexatious of problems was simply put aside.

More immediate and much more discouraging were the slides in the cut through Culebra, which grew steadily worse the further the excavation progressed. For those in charge, they were the most infuriating part of the entire undertaking. Nearly twenty years later an American named S. W. Plume, an old man by then, would shake his head in dismay as he tried to describe for a Senate committee the troubles the French had encountered at Culebra. He had spent a lifetime building railroads and canals throughout Central and South America, but never had he seen anything like Panama “in the French time.” He had been employed by the Panama Railroad and kept an eye, he said, on just about everything that went on. Once Dingler had asked him to make a personal inspection of the operation at Culebra.

“The whole top of the hill, sir, is covered with boiling springs,” he would recall. “It is composed of a clay that is utterly impossible for a man to throw off his shovel once he gets it on. He had to have a little scraper to shove it off.” Nothing they had tried had kept the hill from sliding. “It won’t stay there . . .”

Why? he was asked.

“The rainy season will saturate the earth and it will slough off.”

“Did it do so while you were there?”

“Yes, we had a cut right alongside of where the canal was going to be built and it sloughed off, not only over the top of our track, but we found it was going to be so expensive to move it that I cut the track away there and laid another one. And a year or so afterwards the same thing took place and I laid another track, and where the present track is there are two underneath.

“ . . . when I was there at Culebra that week, my house was up on the hill about four hundred to five hundred feet from the canal and I got up one morning and come out and the land had gone off and left a crack there two to three feet wide, and I did not say anything, but I knew what it was . . . . The whole side of that mountain is going down into that canal . . . . Every rainy season, whenever it rains a little, the earth becomes saturated and it slides right off on this strata of blue clay.”

“It slides on the blue clay?”

“It slides on the blue clay.”

In somewhat more precise terms the Culebra uplands can be described as a disorderly combination of several geological formations, some sedimentary, others volcanic in origin—a generally unstable combination that was bound to mean a great deal of trouble. The oldest of these formations dated from the geological time period known as the Oligocene, making them roughly thirty million years old. Probably the Isthmus had its beginnings in the Oligocene as a string of islands in a shallow sea. A land bridge formed, and in the long geological periods that followed, this land bridge sank back below the sea at least four different times. In the late Pleistocene, the epoch of the glaciers—yesterday in geological time—the land was elevated to several hundred feet above its present level, then subsided again to perhaps thirty feet below the present level. The uplifting that followed began within a thousand years of the arrival of the canal builders (as evidenced by freshly raised old sea beaches) and the uplifting was still going on.

The whole history of the ground underfoot, wherever one went on the Isthmus, was of change and instability. Within the forty-plus miles between Colón and Panama City was a total of seventeen different rock formations, six major geologic faults, five major cores of volcanic rock.

A formation at Culebra, one taking its name from the hill itself, was found to consist of beds of soft, dark shales, marls, and carbonaceous clays—the blue clays S. W. Plume remembered—of beds of limestone and sandstone, sandwiched among thin layers of lignite. Such material drilled and blasted readily enough, as the engineers discovered, but then other formations were composed largely of volcanic or igneous rock—of dark, fine-grained basalt, of andesite or diorite or the glassy rhyolite, all rocks much like granite. The great volcanic core of Culebra Hill, for example, was solid basalt.

It was endlessly fascinating terrain to a geologist, but for the engineer it was an unrelieved nightmare. The worst troubles were in what was called the Cucaracha formation, composed chiefly of dark-green and reddish clays, lava mud flows, gravel, some shales. The first of the Cucaracha slides occurred on the eastern side of the Culebra Cut, where the uppermost layers of porous clay, layers overlying relatively impervious rock stratum, were from ten to forty feet thick. In the rainy season these clays became thoroughly saturated, slick and heavy, with a consistency of soap left overnight in water. But the saturation stopped at the underlying rock, and the build-up of water created a slippery zone along the whole plane of contact. If that plane happened to be tilted toward the Cut, then it was merely a matter of time until the clay began to move, by simple force of gravity, down into the Cut. Tremendous masses of the upper stratum would let go with all the effect of an avalanche, carrying with them whole sections of track, steam shovels, anything caught in the way.

In the dry months the sides of the Cut remained reasonably stable. But always with the return of the rains the slides resumed. (And to grasp the magnitude of the problem, one must always keep in mind what those rains meant—thirteen inches in the month of June 1884, for instance, sixteen inches in August, ten inches in September, twenty-two inches in October.)

In an attempt to alleviate the problem, the French dug an extended system of drainage ditches parallel to the Cut to channel the rainwater away from the exposed slopes. But such efforts had little lasting effect. Year after year hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of mud and rock came thundering down into the open Cut, blotting out months of work. Everything that came down had to be laboriously cleared away. Progress slowed, or stopped; contractors’ estimates had to be drastically altered.

Removing the mud and debris was only part of it, for the one sure way to prevent further slides was to keep slicing the sides of the Cut back and back; that is, to stabilize the slopes by making them less steep, flattening them out until they had reached an angle of repose, the point at which the material would remain at rest of its own accord. Yet as far back as they cut the slopes, it was never enough. The amount of digging involved, furthermore, was always greater than one might imagine, for the reason that the canal was being dug through a saddle between steep hills. So as the Cut was made steadily broader at the top, its sides, against the bordering hills, rose steadily higher. Or to express it another way, every foot added to the width of the Cut at the top increased its depth as measured from the brow of the Cut.

This meant that the volume of excavation, the total cube, was being compounded steadily and enormously. The deeper the Cut was dug, the worse the slides were, and so the more the slopes had to be carved back. The more digging done, the more digging there was to do. It was a work of Sisyphus on a scale such as engineers had never before faced.

Simple mathematics made the prospects appear overwhelming. Prior to Dingler’s initial reappraisal of the situation, all estimates on the quantity of excavation to be done were figured on an angle for the sides of the canal of one on one—one meter back for every one meter deep—a slope of 45 degrees in other words. In actual practice it appeared as though the sides would have to be one on four—four back for every one deep. So if Culebra Hill was 339½ feet above sea level and the canal was to be 29½ feet deep, this would give a total depth to the Cut of 369 feet. The breadth of the bottom was to be 72 feet; the breadth at the water line, 90 feet. If from that point upwards, with sides sloped back at one on four, then the final Cut would have to be three quarters of a mile across!

To further complicate matters there remained the very basic problem of what to do with the mountains of rock and earth being excavated, and it was a problem the French failed to solve.

Their method of excavation at Culebra was first to carve off any intervening hilltops along the projected line, then start their giant steam excavators, their steam shovels, and their labor gangs working along in the direction of the line, digging down in a series of stepped terraces, each about sixteen feet wide and sixteen feet deep—the depth to which the excavators could reach. (These machines looked much like a big railroad car with tall smokestacks and long iron ladders that hung down on one side, each ladder supporting an endless chain of dirt buckets. They worked on the same principle as a dredge, but were borne by tracks rather than water.) The spoil was then hauled away by trains of little dump cars (Decauville dump cars with a carrying capacity of 41/2 cubic meters) to some convenient adjacent valley, where, from improvised tracks run along the brow of the valley, the spoil was dumped over the side until it built up sufficiently below to create a terrace. The track was then taken up and relaid below. So in time the dumping grounds, like the Culebra Cut, became a vast series of long, horizontal terraces of raw-looking mud.

As solutions went, this system was quick and economical, which was what the contractors wanted. And the contractors, as Bunau-Varilla noted, were “absolute masters when it came to choosing their method of work.”

The trouble was that the plan was fundamentally flawed. The terraced dumps were less stable even than the slopes of the Cut. When the torrential rains struck, whole terraces slipped out of line, track was dislodged, buried. The entire system broke down. Excavation would have to stop until things were back in order and the dirt trains could start running again, as hundreds of men with crowbars and shovels struggled knee-deep in the gummy morass.

Natural watercourses were blocked, water gathered in great pools, acres of new swamplands were formed—all perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The time lost, the effort wasted, grew to alarming proportions. But for some strange reason the French never figured a better way. It never dawned on them that digging the Cut was more a problem of transportation—of moving the spoil out of the way—than of actual excavation. They never saw that the Panama Railroad was the key, which is especially ironic considering the heavy price that had been paid to get control of the railroad. That de Lesseps had neglected to send to Panama a single specialist in railroads was among his gravest errors.

Predictably, as progress grew more difficult, contractors, and especially the smaller ones, grew obstinate, peevish, or quit outright. Invariably the next contractors to take on the same tasks wanted more advantageous terms. Since few of them could afford the kind of equipment needed, the canal company bought the machines, which were then rented out. And as much machinery as there was, it was never enough or, often, it was not exactly suited for the particular job at hand.

The canal company, in addition to the machines, was also obliged to furnish—that is, to deliver to the Isthmus—the necessary labor and to provide adequate housing. The contractors then had only to pay the men’s wages. Any failure on the part of the canal company to provide either men or machines could give a contractor excuse enough to back out of his contract if it was proving unprofitable, or to hold on to a profitable arrangement irrespective of his failure to perform as agreed. The large Anglo-Dutch Company—its formal name was Cutbill, de Longo, Watson, and Van Hattum—had the Culebra contract and was bound to remove 700,000 cubic meters a month. As yet it had managed to remove 100,000 cubic meters in a month. Still it hung on, subcontracting the most troublesome tasks to more and more small operators. One high hill on the western slope of the saddle soon had so many different contractors laboring away that it became known as Contractors Hill.

Across from this same hill, on the eastern side of the Cut, stood Gold Hill, so named and widely known because supposedly it was one of the canal company’s greatest assets—enough to offset all mounting costs. According to one prospectus issued in Paris, company officials had been informed that “this mountain is full of gold and it is believed that the ore from this place alone will be worth more than will be the total cost of the canal construction.”

By October 1884 there were 19,243 employees at work, of whom 16,249 were blacks. To order and distribute supplies, to keep watch on contractors, to keep the books and see to the needs of this labor force, naturally required a small army of clerks, paymasters, stenographers—six to seven hundred in office help—most of whom were French. And French bureaucracy, it was found, could flourish no less in the jungle than at home. File clerks were given the title of Keeper of the Archives. Among the supplies being landed at Colón were crates weighing hundreds of pounds filled with nothing but pen points. “There is,” wrote Wolfred Nelson, “enough bureaucratic work, and there are enough officers on the Isthmus to furnish at least one dozen first-class republics with officials for all their departments.”

Now, too, more seriously, observers with technical backgrounds had begun reporting that the actual work was not going so well as supposed. Completion of the canal according to present plans was highly doubtful, Navy Lieutenant Robert M. G. Brown informed his superiors in Washington. A writer for the American Engineer, after several months on the Isthmus, figured that at the present rate of progress twenty-four years would be needed to finish the canal and charged that the French press was being bribed to withhold the truth. In October 1884 a Captain Bedford Clapperton Pim, of the British Navy, reported in a confidential memorandum to the American Secretary of the Navy that de Lesseps’ dream of a canal at sea level was plainly impossible. Pim’s only praise, after an extended tour of the work, was for “the gallant employees who have struggled manfully to carry out the wishes of their chief . . .”

•   •

On New Year’s Eve, 1884, the last of Jules Dingler’s family, Madame Dingler, died of yellow fever. It is not known how long her agony lasted, but the morning following her death, though so grief-stricken he could barely speak, Dingler was at his desk at the customary hour. Later, following the funeral, he took all the family’s horses, including his own, up into one of the mountain ravines and shot them.

The toll in human lives was growing ever more ghastly, unlike anything anyone had foreseen, except possibly Godin de Lépinay. Eighteen eighty-five was to be the worst year. Probably more people died then than at any other time during the French regime. In the years to follow, the ravages of yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi, food poisoning, snakebite, sunstroke, were only a shade less appalling. Ordinarily on the Isthmus, yellow fever came and went in cycles of two to three years. Now, unaccountably, it never went away and there was not a thing anyone could do. Malaria, ever present as always, remained the deadliest killer.

New arrivals, unaccustomed to the climate, suffered worst. The files of the Panama Star & Herald carry the obituaries of individual French officials who had been on the Isthmus so brief a time as to be scarcely known. A new French consul, Paul Savalli, died on July 25, 1885, having only arrived at his post. Louis Frachen, a young engineer of the École Centrale who had come to do a special inventory of equipment in use, died miserably of yellow fever on August 10. Two division chiefs named Petit and Sordoiliet, who had sailed from France on the same ship, died of yellow fever on the same day. They had been on the Isthmus two weeks. There were scores of others. Of one dead engineer, Henri Berthaut, the Star & Herald could say only that at age twenty-six he “gave great promise of attaining distinction in his profession.”

Bunau-Varilla estimated that of every one hundred new arrivals at least twenty died, and of those who survived, only about twenty were physically strong enough to do any real work; “and many of that number had lost the best of their intellectual value.” (Whether he was speaking of all new arrivals, black as well as white, is not clear.) Others calculated that of every four people who came out from France at least two, often three, died of fever.

But these were neat mathematical averages, whereas numerous individual experiences recalled later were far more tragic. One French engineer told William Gorgas of sailing to Colón with a party of seventeen young Frenchmen. In a month he was the sole survivor. Of thirty-three Italian workers who arrived in 1885, twenty-seven were dead within three weeks. In October 1886, thirty French engineers arrived at Colón and in less than a month thirteen had died of what de Lesseps once called the “supposed deadliness” of Panama. There were times when the death toll from all causes ran to forty a day.

Bunau-Varilla would write of ships riding at anchor in Colón harbor without a soul on board. Their crews were all dead of yellow fever. Of the initial group of French nuns who had come to serve in the hospital at Ancon—twenty-four Daughters of Charity, wearing the big white, winged coifs that had earned their order the affectionate name “God’s geese”—only two had survived, one of whom, by great fortune, was the head nurse, or Mother Superior, Sister Marie Rouleau. A woman of extraordinary courage and stamina, Marie Joseph Louise Rouleau had entered the order in 1868, when still in her early twenties, at the hospital at Versailles; and in 1877, or several years in advance of the first French engineers, she had been sent to Panama. Throughout the worst of the yellow-fever years, indeed throughout all the French era in Panama, she would remain a leading figure, known to everyone.

A correspondent for the New York Tribune reported that the mortality rate in the hospital wards—roughly 75 percent—was a subject never discussed in the presence of a patient. There were “no long faces” at the Ancon hospital and Sister Marie was “one of those rare women whose personal zeal is contagious.” At the foot of each bed hung a card giving the patient’s name, his job, the nature of his illness. Rarely was the real disease listed if it was known to be fatal. Fièvre jaune was usually put down as gastritis.

So swiftly were patients dying, so desperate was the need for bed space, that in his final minutes of life, a dying man sometimes saw his own coffin brought in. It was even claimed that the bodies placed in the coffins and carried off were not always without life. When one exhausted chief physician on the staff was sent home to France for a rest, he was in such an unsettled mental state that he had to be locked in his cabin.

For the sick who never made it to the hospital—for the vast majority, that is—the end was frequently even more gruesome. The accusation that black workers were sometimes disposed of in the dumping grounds—simply rolled down an embankment, then buried beneath several tons of spoil—appears in several accounts and is undoubtedly based on fact.

The following account by the Tribune man, a guest in a Panama City hotel, is also a reliable one most likely, the buzzard and all:

 . . . Sitting on your veranda late at night you see the door of the little adobe house across the way open. The woman of the house, who lodges two or three canal employees, peers cautiously out into the street, re-enters the house, and when she comes out again drags something over the threshold, across the narrow sidewalk, and leaves it lying in the dirty street. When she closes the door again there is no noise but the splash of tide . . . . Soon it grows lighter. A buzzard drops lazily down from the roof of the cathedral and perches on something in the street. The outlines become more distinct. You walk down, drive away the bird who flies sullenly back to his watchtower, and stand looking in the quick dawn of the tropics at what was yesterday a man—a month before a hopeful man, sailing out of Havre. He is dead of yellow fever.

From Colón the Panama Railroad ran a regular funeral train out to Monkey Hill each morning. “Over to Panama,” S. W. Plume would recall in his memorable testimony, “it was the same way—bury, bury, bury, running two, three, and four trains a day with dead Jamaica niggers all the time. I never saw anything like it. It did not matter any difference whether they were black or white, to see the way they died there. They die[d] like animals.”

The rate of sickness throughout the French operations (as opposed to the mortality rate) would be as impossible to determine accurately from surviving records as the mortality rate; but it was extremely large. A conservative estimate made later by American physicians was not less than a third of the total force at any given time. So in a year such as 1884, with more than nineteen thousand at work, probably six thousand were sick.

Company doctors advised staying out of the hot sun and to avoid getting wet, which was about like advising an arctic explorer to avoid the cold. New arrivals were warned against the night air and were told not to eat fruit. A few doctors were frank to say that it did not matter greatly what a person did or ate or drank and that nobody understood the cause of the fevers anyway. With sardonic unanimity it was agreed among physicians and employees alike that the only safe course was to get out, to leave the Isthmus as quickly as possible.

One of the many who did was the painter Paul Gauguin, whose entrance and exit date from a later time, but whose feelings about the experience were no doubt shared by hundreds of others. Gauguin came out from France with another young painter, Charles Laval, in 1887. It was Gauguin’s first attempt to escape the atmosphere of Europe. The dream was to buy some land on Taboga and live “on fish and fruit for nothing . . . without anxiety for the day or for the morrow,” as he wrote. But he was broke by the time he reached Colón, and so like countless other drifters who wound up on the Isthmus—tropical tramps, as they were called—he took a job on the canal as a common laborer. (Though the vast majority of the labor force was black, the company would hire anyone who looked the least fit and willing.) The ordeal of swinging a pick all day in such heat was like nothing he had ever experienced. “I have to dig . . . from five-thirty in the morning to six in the evening, under tropical sun and rain,” he wrote to his wife. “At night I am devoured by mosquitoes.” His partner, Laval, had been making money doing portraits of canal officials, but Gauguin would have none of it, since only portraits done “in a special and very bad way” would sell.

Land on Taboga, he discovered, like land anywhere near the canal, was priced far beyond reach. He felt himself weakened—“poisoned”— by the wet heat and he took an ardent dislike to the Panamanians. At one point he was arrested for urinating in public in Panama City. His defense, that the street was nothing but an open sewer anyway, failed to sway the arresting policeman who marched him across town at gunpoint to pay a fine of one piastre (four francs). His one desire thereafter was to earn enough money to leave and in another month he was happily sailing for Martinique.

III

Central to the health problem all along, the French recognized, was their lack of jurisdiction over the two cities through which everything and everyone had to pass and wherein a sizable number of their employees lived and worked. Without jurisdiction, there could be no control over sanitation in either Colón or Panama City, and as things stood, sanitation at even the most primitive level was still virtually nonexistent in both places. Colón—port of entry for all new recruits from France, for the thousands of workers from Jamaica, for all shipments of food from New York, and where everybody took the train to Panama City or to points along the way—grew more vile by the year. Compared to Colón, wrote one French journalist, the ghettos of White Russia, the slums of Toulon or Naples, would appear models of cleanliness. There were still no proper sewers in Colón, no bathrooms. Garbage and dead cats and horses were dumped into the streets and the entire place was overrun with rats of phenomenal size. And since yellow fever was understood to be a filth disease, Colón was looked upon as its prime breeding ground.

Where the French did have control, the contrast was striking. Their town of Christophe-Colomb, side by side with Colón, was neat and clean, as different as if separated by a hundred miles.

Then early in 1885 tragedy struck, taking everyone by surprise and eliminating the sanitation problem at Colón in about the most thorough fashion possible. On March 31, with a strong wind blowing out of the north, the town went up in flames.

The fire was the climax of what was to be called the “Prestan Uprising,” a brief reign of terror that was set off by another bloody affair in Panama City, the work of the former Panamanian president, Rafael Aizpuru. Though the French had been uneasy from the beginning about the incendiary quality of Panamanian politics—it will be recalled that de Lesseps was warned his first day on the Isthmus about Aizpuru —the violence of what happened seems to have caught them completely off guard.

Pedro Prestan was a tiny Haitian mulatto with a deep-seated hatred for foreigners, white men and white North Americans most especially. It was a feeling shared by Aizpuru apparently. Still there appears to have been no direct connection between the two. As with most political upheavals on the Isthmus, the situation had its origins in the politics of distant Bogotá and was somewhat complicated. In essence, here is what happened.

Rafael Núñez, a major political figure for years, a former Liberal turned Conservative, had been elected to the presidency of Colombia and this had touched off insurrections in a number of places, including Cartagena and Buenaventura. Government troops stationed on the Isthmus were rushed off to Cartagena and Buenaventura, leaving at Colón only a token force of a few hundred men. With Panama City thus unguarded, Aizpuru, a Liberal who had been waiting his chance, led his “army” of some 250 men into the city and, after much destruction and loss of life, seized control. The loyal troops at Colón, under an officer named Gónima, then crossed by train to drive Aizpuru out. Aizpuru took refuge in the hills for the time being, but at Colón, with Gónima gone, Prestan went into action.

At this stage Prestan’s band probably did not number more than a dozen barefoot men armed with machetes and perhaps a pistol or two. Yet with the French all about and an American gunboat, Galena, sitting in the harbor, he commandeered the Colón prefecture and arranged substantial “loans” from several Front Street merchants. He moved swiftly, displaying, as most everyone had to concede later, considerable ability as a leader. Nobody did a thing to stop him.

On the morning of March 29 the Pacific Mail steamer Colon arrived from New York with a contraband shipment of arms consigned to “order.” Prestan and his men marched to the Pacific Mail wharf and demanded that the weapons be turned over. When the order was refused by the Pacific Mail superintendent, an American named William Connor, Prestan seized him and five other Americans—the general agent of the steamship line, the American consul, the superintendent of the Panama Railroad, and two officers from the Galena, one of whom was sent out to the ship to tell his commanding officer that no hostages would be released until Prestan got the guns. Should the American commander try to land any men, Prestan said, he would kill the hostages and every other American in Colón.

The ship’s commander, Theodore F. Kane, was in a difficult position. The presence of the Galena in the harbor was a routine matter (as part of the 1846 agreement with Colombia), but he was under instructions not to intercede in local matters without express orders from Washington or in the event that railroad property or services were plainly in jeopardy. Across the Isthmus, in the Bay of Panama, two more American ships stood by, Shenandoah and Wachusett, with similar instructions.

The American consul saw himself in a far more difficult position. Convinced that Prestan meant what he said, he ordered the Pacific Mail agent, a man named Dow, to surrender the arms. Hearing this, Prestan let the men go. Only now, before Prestan knew what was happening, Commander Kane brought the Galena up to the wharf, boarded the Colon, and towed her a safe distance out into the harbor. The incensed Prestan made Connor and Dow prisoners again, which is the way things stood by nightfall.

At first light the next day Kane landed a force of a hundred men. Yet to the aggravation of the French officials and the American railroad people, all of whom were in a great frenzy over what might happen to their property, he refused to take Prestan or to intervene in any fashion. Prestan’s force by now had increased to several hundred. Word of this reached Panama City, and by dark, Gónima’s troops were on their way back by train.

To avoid a pitched battle in Colón, the railroad superintendent, George Burt, required that Gónima disembark with his troops at Monkey Hill. So before dawn the morning of March 31, taking Connor and Dow along as a shield, Prestan marched out to Monkey Hill. A savage battle back and forth across the tracks lasted about an hour, during which the two American hostages managed to fade into the jungle. Then Prestan was on the run. Falling back on Colón, he set fire to the city and in a few hours there was little left but heaps of smoldering ashes. Only the brick offices of the railroad, the steamship offices, the stone church, and a fringe of buildings along the beach were still standing. Eighteen people had been killed. Perhaps eight thousand had been made homeless.

The seesaw effect continued. At the moment Prestan was being routed at Monkey Hill, Aizpuru was again on the rampage in Panama City at a cost of another twenty-five lives. Again triumphant, he declared himself Panama’s supreme authority.

A desperate George Burt called on the American naval officers to do something. Aizpuru’s men had been tampering with the railroad’s switches, he said, and they had boarded and robbed a train. Prestan had ripped up track, cut the telegraph lines, derailed an engine. So with this, men were landed from the Shenandoah and the Wachusett and order was quickly restored all along the railroad. On April 10, the Tennessee and the Swatara, under the command of Rear Admiral James Jouett, arrived at Colón with a battalion of Marines.

In Panama City, crowds gathered in Cathedral Plaza to watch the Americans parade about in their smart uniforms, wheeling a Gatling gun this way and that. Only once was there any real excitement. A fight broke out between some of the local citizens; the Gatling was fired across the plaza at an elevation to clear the tops of the buildings and the plaza was emptied in seconds.

Troops were sent across the Isthmus on improvised armored cars, flatcars fitted out with half-inch steel boiler plate and more Gatling guns. Marine guards in white sun helmets were posted at the Barbacoas bridge and at Matachín, but nothing more happened along the line. In Colón fifty-eight people were rounded up by government troops, tried for treason, and shot. Many, it would be said later, had been quite innocent.

In Panama City, Aizpuru claimed to have adequate force to maintain order on his own, but his invitations to the American officers to come to the Governor’s Palace to confer were ignored. He then offered to declare Panama independent if the United States would recognize his government, but this offer too was ignored. “You have no part to perform in the political or social disorder of Colombia,” Admiral Jouett had been explicitly instructed in a telegram from the Navy Department before landing, “and it will be your duty to see that no irritation or unfriendliness shall arise from your presence on the Isthmus.” He was to protect American interests without offense to the sovereign, Colombia.

On April 24 Aizpuru met with the American officers at the Central Hotel and surrendered. A few days later more Colombian troops arrived by ship and in another week most of the American forces had been withdrawn from the Isthmus.

Prestan, who had fled into the jungle after firing Colón, was captured and brought back to await trial. The grim job of cleaning up, of tending to the injured and homeless, the whole effort of rebuilding Colón from scratch—a job that would be accomplished with amazing speed—fell largely to the American railroad officials.

The canal company had suffered no physical damage to speak of. Close as it was to Colón, Christophe-Colomb had not been touched. When, during Aizpuru’s brief reign, a mob of looters swept up the road to the Ancon hospital, Sister Marie took a big umbrella, gathered up her skirts, and went out to meet them at the gate to the hospital grounds. “Listen to me, you,” she said. “Someday you will be sick yourselves, and if you trouble us now, do you think we will have you in the hospital? No! Now go!” And back down the road they had gone.

Dingler reported to Paris, “Our works have continued to function in the usual manner.” But the uprising had had its effects on the French enterprise, and some were quite serious. At Culebra, government troops had broken into a company barracks and slaughtered a number of Jamaicans, claiming afterward that the Jamaicans had fired on them first. A savage riot broke out among the black workers, more lives were lost, and hundreds of men walked off the job and took the next boat to Kingston, where the company’s recruitment efforts henceforth would be extremely hampered.

As for the blame for what happened at Colón, the French and the Americans agreed. Commander Kane, it was charged, could have averted the entire tragedy by simply grabbing Prestan the morning he started on his rampage, something the prudent Commander Kane understood he had had no right to do.

Prestan and Aizpuru were dealt with in due course. Wearing a black suit and derby, Prestan was marched to the tracks on Front Street and was hanged before one of the largest crowds ever seen in Colón. Aizpuru was more fortunate. He was taken to Bogotá, tried, fined, and sentenced to ten years in exile.

Politically, things quieted down. The crisis passed, and seemingly without significant aftereffects. But, in fact, the rebellions in Panama and the other provinces marked a critical turning point for Colombia. The long-range repercussions would be considerable. To strengthen his position, President Núñez would proclaim a new constitution, with all real power centered in Bogotá. The nine provinces of Colombia, Panama included, were to be headed hereafter by governors appointed by the federal government—by Bogotá.

Also of importance as time would tell was the presence through all that had happened on the Isthmus of three observant parties whose personal roles had been relatively minor, but who would not forget what they had seen and the lessons to be drawn. Philippe Bunau-Varilla was one. Another was Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, a physician employed by the railroad. The third was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, of the Wachusett, who had landed with one of the Marine guards to protect the railroad.

What most impressed Bunau-Varilla and Dr. Amador Guerrero was the degree to which events had been shaped by the mere presence of American naval strength. In back of everyone’s mind throughout had been those ships and the question of what their commanders might or might not do given the state of affairs ashore. And it was only a few months later that Captain Mahan, having been appointed to the faculty of the War College at Newport, Rhode Island, would commence to develop a series of lectures on the influence of sea power.

•   •

Things began coming apart now. In the office overlooking the plaza, his last reserves of strength nearly exhausted, Jules Dingler had become so short-tempered and abusive of his staff that several key people, including one division head, resigned. Late in August, close to physical and mental collapse, Dingler himself gave up and sailed for France, a lone and defeated man. He had left all his family buried in Panama. He was never to return again.

His place was filled by Maurice Hutin, the next in line. Hutin too was ill and worn out and in another month he quit. That left Philippe Bunau-Varilla. So, a year after his arrival, at age twenty-seven, Bunau-Varilla found himself acting head of the entire effort. For the next several months, until another director general was recruited, he would seldom have more than two hours’ sleep a night.

He moved into Dingler’s office, determined, as he later said, to be all de Lesseps had been at Suez. “Men’s energies are spontaneously influenced by a chief who is inspired by a sincere faith in the ultimate triumph of a difficult undertaking,” he would lecture later in one of his books. “They take their place in regular order, like particles of iron around the pole of a powerful magnet.” When a new French consul general was ushered into the office to meet him and expressed surprise at finding so young a man in a position of such vast responsibility, Bunau-Varilla suggested that the new consul general learn to judge men according to their ability.

Elsewhere along the line there was widespread bitterness. Failure was in the wind and people were looking for somebody to blame. Lieutenant William Kimball, an officer from the Tennessee who accompanied Bunau-Varilla on a tour of the work, wrote of rampant suspicion of Americans. Bunau-Varilla was unfailing in his courtesies, Kimball noted, but other French officials made little effort to disguise their feelings. American contracts, American machinery, American technicians, were no longer wanted. French mechanics accused their American counterparts of trying to sabotage equipment in order to stop the work so that the United States could take over. Lieutenant Kimball attributed such talk to the depression caused by malaria.

His remarks were contained in a special intelligence report transmitted to the chief of the Bureau of Navigation in Washington. It was an extremely interesting document. He estimated that not more than a tenth of the work had been accomplished, a perfectly accurate estimate as it happens. “Unforeseen and vexatious, as well as stupendous and apparently insuperable, difficulties are constantly occurring.” At Paraíso he saw a slide so large that it came down completely intact, the grass on top undisturbed, and with such force that it carried the entire distance across the Cut.

Hospital facilities, extensive as they were, were not enough. Food prices were high. Workers, black and white, were fearful of more political violence. Black workers were leaving faster than they were being replaced, going home to spend their money “before they are killed by the climate.” But, Kimball emphasized, loss of human life would never be a deterrent in itself. Money was what counted. Human life was “always cheap.”


1 Such fears were well founded. Physicians who were at Colón and Panama City during these years would later state that more than 75 percent of all hospital patients had malaria.

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