CHAPTER XIX

THE SOCIETY OF THE CHAGRES

"Caramba," exclaims the native Panamanian as the torrential rains soak them through and through, and he wonders what reason Providence has in the prodigal tropical showers.  He watches the river Chagres rise under the stimulation of the rainy season from a puny creek, fordable almost anywhere, to a stream as masterful almost as the Mississippi on a rampage.

Balboa saw the same thing, and so did the pirate Morgan, and many Spanish seekers after El Dorado.  It was not until the engineering mind began figuring on a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that the tremendous rainfall began to possess utility, and then the river Chagres assumed a significance, and the heavy precipitation a beneficence, which causes orators nowadays to see the hand of God in the forming of the natural conditions of the Isthmus.  Thus does man change his conceptions of Deity to suit his needs?

In a lock-type canal, such as the Americans are completing, the river Chagres absolutely is indispensable.  Without this river only a sea-level canal could have been built at Panama.  For the engineers have harnessed this stream so as to form the great Gatun Lake, comprising all but fifteen miles of the Panama Canal.  The floods, which for centuries have emptied unrestrained into the Caribbean Sea, will lave the impregnable Gatun dam, or be spilled, at the pleasure of the Americans, through turbine engines to generate power, or flow at their will through the locks to lift or lower the commerce of the world across the Isthmus.

It is not hyperbole, therefore, to say that the Chagres River is the greatest single factor in the success of the Panama Canal.  The locks and the Culebra cut are no more than preparations for the utilization of the river.

When the time came for selecting a name for a society which should embrace in its membership the canal workers who had been with the job at least six years, the object of which should be to keep alive the memories of those years in the future, it seemed peculiarly appropriate to name such an organization THE SOCIETY OF THE CHAGRES.

The idea of an organization of this kind first was exploited in December, 1909, when a "Panama Canal Service Medal Association" was organized, with membership limited to employees who had earned the Roosevelt Canal Medal, and having an insurance feature.  This movement failed.  In August, 1911, William F. Shipley, of the Subsistence Department, initiated a new movement, which reached a head on October 7, 1911, with the organization of the Society of the Chagres and the selection of Col. W.C. Gorgas as the first President.  Tom M. Cooke, a canal veteran, and head of the division of posts, customs and revenues, is now President.

The Society is thoroughly democratic in its membership, any employee, of either sex, who is white and an American citizen, and who has worked for six years continuously on the canal, being eligible.  An applicant must have earned the Roosevelt medal and two Commission service bars, and thereby hangs a tale.

Col. Roosevelt, in a speech to the canal employees at Colon, on November 16, 1906, said:  "I shall see if it is not possible to provide for some little memorial, some mark, some badge, which will always distinguish the man who, for a certain space of time, has done his work well on the Isthmus, just as the button of the Grand Army distinguishes the man who did his work well in the Civil War."

The idea here expressed did not reach fruition until October, 1908, when a ton of copper, bronze, and tin taken from old French locomotives and excavators, was shipped to the Philadelphia Mint to be made into medals.  Victor D. Brenner was the designer, the medal showing on one side a likeness of President Roosevelt, and on the reverse side a ship in the Culebra cut.  They are about the size of a dollar.  The first order was for 5,000 medals, and by January 1, 1911, 4,487 had been earned.  By the time the canal is finished more than 6,000 will have been earned, every employee who has worked for two years on the canal being entitled to a medal.

For each successive two years the employee works he receives a bar, made from the same material and presented by the Commission.  Thus, a Roosevelt medal and two bars mean an employee has worked for six years on the canal, and is eligible to membership in the Society of the Chagres.

Col. George W. Goethals' eligibility dates from April 1, 1913, from which date he will have completed the sixth year of his connection with the project.  It undoubtedly is true that this medal, which intrinsically is of little value, has held many a man to two years in Panama from a sentimental desire to have something officially attesting his connection with the great task.

There has been much more changing in the personnel of the American force than the public knows, and to have been six years an employee means that one came when conditions literally were rotten and stuck it out until today, when they are nearly ideal.   The Constitution provides for an annual meeting on the Isthmus until 1915, and then in some American city, or the Canal Zone, as may be elected.  On January 12, 1912, the first annual banquet was held at the Tivoli Hotel.

The emblem of the Society is a circular button, nine sixteenths of an inch in diameter, showing on a black background, surrounded by a narrow gold border, six horizontal bars in gold.

A determined effort was made to make Col. Roosevelt the only honorary member, but this has not been accomplished.  It would be necessary to amend the Constitution, and as every member, in whatever part of the world, has a vote by letter, the two-thirds vote possibly never will be registered.

The first year Book of the Society was published in January, 1912.  It is a volume of 145 pages and contains brief biographies of the members, the Constitution, speeches by presidents Roosevelt and Taft, in the Canal Zone, and by Chief Engineers Stevens and Goethals.  The six-year men all worked under Mr. Stevens and loved him well.

Forty States were represented in the membership of 304 in July, 1912.  The following States were not represented:  Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming.  As some members have not turned information as to their native States, the exceptions noted may be represented in the Society.  Members who are American citizens, but who were born abroad, represented the following countries:  Canada, England, Germany, Russia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and South Africa.

Among the biographies the one of Alexander A. Lundisheff perhaps is the most picturesque.  He was born in Russia, ran off to sea, joined a circus, became a sailor, crossed the Isthmus in 1888 as an American bluejacket, fought in Mexican revolutions, guarded convicts in Africa, enlisted in our Navy in the Spanish-American War, worked in the Alaska Coast Patrol, helped to fight the Panama revolutionists in 1902 and had his life saved by a beautiful Panamanian girl, whom he married, and when the Americans came to Panama went to work under Col. Gorgas, in the sanitary department, where he has since remained.  He had the unique record of working eight years for the Commission without being sick a day or losing a half hour from work, and had not taken a vacation in that period.  Other members, women as well as men, have seen service in all parts of the world.

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President Taft, in a speech to the employees in November, 1910, said of the older men:  "As the great creation, which was so clear to the professional men who designed it, opens itself in concrete mild to the observation of the layman, the eagerness with which we all look forward to the completion of the work grows apace, and we envy the record of the men to whose skill and courage and energy, persistence and foresight, the canal will forever form an enduring monument!"

The time of the departure of the canal workers is near at hand.  The old-timers feel that they have fought a good fight and that henceforth there is laid up for them the admiration which President Taft expressed.  In a space of time now measured in months all will have left except those who remain with the permanent operating force.  Already they are scattering to the four ends of the earth, whence they came.   The Society of the Chagres will become one of the historic organizations of the United States, along with the Grand Army of the Republic, the United Confederate Veterans, the Spanish-American War Veterans, and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.

THE INCA SOCIETY

This organization includes in its membership only those employees who came to the Canal Zone in 1904 and have been with the job ever since.  At the annual banquet at the Tivoli in May, 1912, the eighth anniversary of American occupation, there were found to be only 63 such employees in the Canal Zone.

I.O.P.K.

Recreation ever has been the least satisfactorily solved problem at Panama.   In 1904, 1905, and 1906 the employees did not have the Y.M.C.A. clubhouses which, after 1907, became the centers of social activities.  State Clubs and various social organizations were formed, but most of them passed out of existence, the University Club in Panama being a conspicuous exception.

One night, a few of the boys, who congregated in the box cars connected with the wrecking train, authorized several of their number to arrest an employee suspected of having some cash on his person.  He was brought to the cars and placed on trial, on trumped-up charges, before a Kangaroo Court.  He was fined the amount of money found in his pockets and the sum was invested in refreshments at the nearest saloon and grocery.

This proved to be so interesting that the events became weekly, no employee knowing when he might be arrested and fined to pay for the refreshments.  Out of this incident grew the Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos, the only original lodge started successfully among the white canal employees.

The first meeting was on October 10, 1906, and subsequently Kangaroo Courts were organized in Tabernilla, Gorgona, and other Canal Zone towns.  A Supreme Court was organized, with a supreme justice, two associate justices, prosecuting attorney, defendant attorney, chaplain, comptroller, clerk, and sheriff.  The order was incorporated under the laws of the State of Tennessee, and the Constitution, adopted on March 18, 1908, forbids membership to liquor dealers, gamblers, or procurers, and requires American citizenship, white color, legal age, a belief in a Supreme Being, and an honorable means of support in those accepted.  The first Sunday in December is Memorial Day.   Clinton O. Simmons was Chief Justice in 1912.

This order has done a great amount of charity work among members, or their families, and others who got in hard lines in the Canal Zone.  It is significant of the character of the employees in the sterling ideals maintained.  The membership is more than 800.