Chapter XXVIII
The Canal Army


In all the history of the race, there is not to be found a more inspiring story of achievement that we find at Panama, and it is largely due to the splendid personnel and the wonderful esprit de corps of the men who made up the canal-digging force.   Whether it was the higher official in the service or the lowest switch tender in the ranks, the individual efficiency was remarkably high.

The canal was brought to a successful culmination in spite of the law of Congress providing for its construction.  That law provided that the canal should be dug by a commission of seven men.  The first commission was made up in such a way that there were conflicting powers in which the governor, the chief engineer, and the chief sanitary officer had independent sway, each in his particular field.  So seriously did this threaten to disrupt the whole work that President Roosevelt decided to ask for the resignation of the first commission and to appoint another in which authority should be centered in three of the seven members, these three being the chairman, the governor, and the chief engineer.

This scheme did not work much better than the one which preceded it.  When the resignations of the members of the second commission were asked for President Roosevelt appointed his final commission, concentrating the offices of chairman and chief engineer in one man, but leaving the power of control in the seven members of the commission.   The result was just about what one might expect if seven generals of equal authority were put in command of an army in the field.  Yet this was the plan Congress had laid out, and upon which it insisted.  Two commissions had split upon the rock of equal authority, two chief engineers had been driven away by it, and now a third commission was about to be split and a third chief engineer was about to be driven away.

President Roosevelt soon saw that it was not the fault of the men who made up the commission, for they were all men of high caliber and good qualifications.  Rather, it was the system, and the system he determined to revamp.  He ordered the concentration of authority in the chairman and chief engineer.   Congress had not repealed the law that threatened the third disruption of the canal organization, but President Roosevelt pulled the teeth of it by his executive order concentrating authority in one man.  This order aroused a bitter feeling in some quarters, but it built the Panama Canal.

The Americans who worked under the commission were as fine a lot of men as ever were banned together in a great constructive work.  Loyal to the core, each man was ready to make any sacrifice that the interests of the undertaking demanded.  Hence the work could not but move forward with a swinging stride under their direction.  They were the cream of a long process of elimination.  Thousands came and hundreds stayed.   It was a great place for trying out a man; the weakling soon lagged behind and was dropped out.  Only the upstanding, right thinking, energetic and industrious man could make good in a country where the climate bored itself into the very soul of every individual and put the acid test upon his nerves, where diversions were few and occasions for homesickness many.

In the course of a year or two of selection there was a body of picked Americans on the isthmus -- a log of men who could defy the climate, who found surcease from the pangs of homesickness through keen interest in their work, who served in the canal army without a backward look and with an "onward" spirit, just as they might be expected to serve in an army called to the defense of the American flag.

There were about 5,000 Americans on the job at Panama.  Every man among them worked as many hours and put himself to as many inconveniences as the exigencies of the situation demanded.  They were at it early and late.  The pay train, for example, had to be loaded early in order to get the force paid off in the three days scheduled, and that meant that the paymaster had too be up and at work at 4 o'clock in the morning.   During the trip across the isthmus in the pay train, sixteen hundred pounds of gold and twenty-four tons of silver were handled, in payment for a single month's work.

Upon one occasion Commissioner Rousseau was going over the work on the Pacific terminals.  He had seen one engineer after another, and finally came to J. A. Loulan, a canny Scotchman in charge of the Ancon quarry, of whom it had been said that "he can get more work out a rock crusher than the man who made the machine."  The night before a Jamaican negro hostler had knocked the chock from beneath the wheels of an engine and it had run down the steep incline, off the end of the rails, and had sunk waist deep into the soft earth.  At 2 o'clock in the morning Loulan was called up on the telephone and advised of the mishap.  At half past two he had a force of men on the scene and at work getting the engine back on the track.  When the commissioner   met him he was as full of the "go ahead" spirit as though he had nine hours' sleep and never a trace of Jamaican indifference to worry him.  It was remarked that he did not look like a man who had been the victim of such carelessness, and he replied:

"Oh, what's the use to worry?  That does not pay.  We got the engine back on the track again, our force was at work at the usual time, and that hostler will be more careful next time; so why worry?"

Why worry?  That was the philosophy heard everywhere.  A thousand and one difficulties could thrust themselves into the faces of the engineers, slides could pour into Culebra Cut, dirt trains could sink into the seas of mud, sentiment at home could distrust Gatun Dam, muckrakers could assail the feasibility of a lock canal, but still the force pushed forward, surmounting each difficulty as it arose and cheerfully disposing of it with the query, "Why worry?"

The question of labor unions was one which threatened to handicap the work on the canal, but the firm hand of the chief engineer put an end to that issue.  Careful to recognize every legitimate right of labor organizations, he reserved the right of final judgment in all matters pertaining to the building of the canal.  He was glad to have the American workman given the benefit of the eight-hour law, and was a champion of the plan to pay the men wages and a  half for their work.  When the change from the construction organization to the permanent organization took place he came to Washington and appealed to Congress to continue the old wage scale until the last finishing touch was put on the work.

When strikes were threatened, Colonel Goethals said: "Gentlemen, decide for yourselves.  Quit work if you want to.  That is your right and privilege.   But if you do so, remember that under no circumstances will you be reemployed."  He said this in such a way that they knew that he meant it.   After the boiler-makers' strike of 1910, when some of the boiler-makers walked out because they did not get their wages raised from $5.20 to $6 a day, the jobs were filled and the strikers were told that the isthmus had no more work for them.  There never was another strike among the Americans there.

As work on the canal slowed down the men were permitted to accumulate eighty-four days of leave to their credit, so that when they returned to the States they would have ample time, with pay, to look around for other work.  Likewise, provision was made that when a man left the isthmus, the record made by him during his services on the canal could be taken from the commissioners' card index and a transcript furnished.  A man who had made an A-1 record at Panama was certified as being entitled to be rated as "excellent," and the man who came back to the States with such a record had little trouble in obtaining work.

Another evidence of the interest of the chief engineer in his men came when the steam shovel work began to fall off in Culebra Cut, because of the lack of elbow room.   Colonel Goethals ordered that the work be changed to a two-shift basis, and thus the men who would have been dismissed were able to continue work for many months, with no disadvantage to the government.

It was American brains that dug the Panama Canal, but the brawn of British subjects that did the work.  Perhaps nine-tenths of all the West Indian labor came from British colonies of the Caribbean region.  Jamaica and Barbados were the principal recruiting grounds.  Usually the Barbadoan was found out on the canal itself, while the Jamaican preferred the lighter tasks around the hotels, the quartermaster's department, and such places.

When the negro began work n the isthmus he did not have much of a reputation for industry and very little more for strength.  He was accustomed to very light work, at the hardest, on his native heath, and when he got to Panama he found the pace a strenuous one.   After a brief experience with the West Indian, Chief Engineer Stevens declared that he found that one Italian or one Spaniard could do the work of three negroes, and so it was decided that the wage scale should be fixed in proportion to the working qualities of the two races.  The European laborer was paid twenty cents, gold, an hour for his work and the negro, ten cents an hour.  The West Indian received ninety cents a day and had the choice of feeding and lodging himself or of being subsisted and quartered by the Canal Commission for twenty-seven cents a day.

The European laborer received $1.80 a day and was charged forty cents a day for subsistence.  The rations furnished the negro were practically a counterpart of the United States field rations in quantity and quality, the the negroes preferred, as a rule, their little thatched huts and their meager diet to the barracks and the wholesome food of the West Indian kitchen.  On the other hand, the Spaniards stuck to the government quarters and the government mess halls.  In both cases the Canal Commission sought to have their menus made by cooks of the same nationality as the men and with due regard for the habits of diet of these men at home.  The Spaniards patronized the commission quarters and the commission mess hall because they were so far away from home that their wives could not come with them.  The West Indian could easily save up enough to provide five dollars for steerage passage for his wife, and so he chose his home and its freedom and companionship in preference to good food and sanitary quarters.  His little yam patch, his bean plot and his chickens made him perfectly happy.  It mattered not that he was underfed; this system permitted him to work when he wanted to and to loaf when he preferred.  Colonel Goethals once said that if the West Indian negro were paid twice as much he would work only half as long, for a full pocketbook was too heavy for him to carry around.  There were many exceptions to this rule, but for most of them there was a long rest after pay day.

The negroes at first had to be secured by the recruiting agents.  They were fearful of the Panama Canal, remembering what had happened to their brethren in the days of the French.  But after the first year of two the stories of prosperity that came back from Panama proved a strong drawing card, and nearly every negro in Barbados and Jamaica who could raise the price of a steerage passage, five dollars, sooner or later found himself on board a Colon-bound steamer.  The recruiting service secured a bout 26,000 laborers before it closed its work.  The commission then depended on the natural inflow of labor to supply its demands for brawn.  Every, year, thousands would return to the islands whence they came, and other thousands would be on hand to take their places.

The negro help was thus constantly changing, and more than half of the force changed each year.  But the labor market was always well supplied.  There was always an excess of arrivals over departures, the surplus in some years amounting to 20,000 men.

The Spanish laborers were the best and steadiest workers that ever came to the isthmus.   The government was permitted to recruit them only on condition that it would pay them in gold and repatriate them when their tasks were ended.  The Spaniard was a very hard worker, and saving of his shining yellow wages.  He was the balance wheel of the labor situation, too.  The negro knew he must make good, or the Spaniard would take his place.

After the Spaniard had been on the isthmus for several years he began to grow somewhat assertive of his rights as he construed them.  When this condition reached a head, Colonel Goethals took a very decided stand.  He told the Spaniards that he was through with their services under the terms of the agreement and was ready to send them home.  He announced, however, that if any of them wanted to enter into a new contract with the government on the same terms as others, he would leave the way open for them to do so.  They saw the situation and accepted the new conditions, with the result that they stuck to the job to the end and were able to go back home with enough money to make them independent for life, on the basis of their frugal method of living.

The United States owes a debt of gratitude to the men who bore the heat and burden of the great work of laying low the barrier that interposed itself between the oceans.  When we think of the burning heat of the sun in the dry season, of the debilitating atmosphere of the wet season, of the tropical climate that caused clothes to mildew and shoes to turn green with  mold overnight, a condition that kept up for nine months of the year, we may well imagine that the men who tugged and toiled day in and day out under such handicaps were made of sterling stuff.

from The History of the Panama Canal by Ira E. Bennett
Historical Publishing Company, 1915

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February 18, 1999
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