Chapter XXX
Living Conditions In The Zone


"Our most serious handicap is the lack of rational amusements.  The people have so few diversions that they soon yearn for their homes in the States, and that condition is followed by the loss of good men from our force."  Thus spoke Colonel Goethals, upon one occasion, in discussing the needs of the great work.  That was shortly after he took up the reins on the isthmus and he was quick to meet the situation.  Several Y.M.C.A. buildings had been built which were intended to serve as club houses for the men, but the plan had not been developed.   New buildings were added at several places and a liberal policy adopted that made the Y.M.C.A. enter largely into the every-day lives of the men and women of the Canal Zone.  The club houses were the meeting places of nearly all the organizations of Americans.  Their large, spacious rooms were given over to a meeting of the women's club, or devoted to a dance or concert, or became the scene of amateur or even professional theatricals.

The people liked the liberalized Y.M.C.A. idea, and the club houses were most beneficial.  One of the first evidences of their usefulness was the falling off of liquor sales.  Before they were built the men had no place of resort except the saloons.  The men drank and kept drinking largely because there was nothing else to do.

This and many other causes made for discontent, and during the first two years over ninety per cent of the Americans returned home each year.

It was perceived that if the work was to be success the government itself would have to provide amusements for the men.  Congress had made no specific appropriation for such a purpose, so President Roosevelt decided to build the club houses and discuss the matter with Congress later.  But Congress never debated the subject.  The good results were so obvious that there was no room for argument.

Each club house contained billiard rooms, an assembly room, a reading room, bowling alleys, dark rooms for the camera clubs, gymnastic equipment, an ice cream parlor and soda fountain, and a circulating library.

When these club houses were built drunkenness quickly fell into disrepute, and the saloon trade fell off at least sixty per cent.   Men who had frequented the saloons could now be found at the club houses reading the latest paper from home, going through the new magazines, taking part in a game of billiards, or at work with their bowling teams.

The club houses were under the management of the Y.M.C.A. and trained men were put in charge their salaries being paid by the Commission.   How useful they made themselves in creating a spirit of contentedness, on the part of the American worker, is shown in the history of work accomplished.

The dues of the members were only ten dollars a year, and the operations annually left a deficit of about $7,000 at each of the larger club houses which was assumed by the Commission.

The activities of the Y.M.C.A. club houses are set forth in the annual report for 1912.  It shows that during the year seven companies visited the Canal Zone from the United States, giving eighty-five entertainments, with a total attendance of 21,000; and 406 entertainments given by local talent and moving pictures scored a total attendance of 96,000.  During the year the bowling alleys recorded a total of 104,000 games, and 278,000 games of pool and billiards were played.   There was a total attendance of 15,000 at the gymnasium classes, while 420,000 books were withdrawn from the circulating libraries for home reading.  Soft drinks, light lunches, and ice cream dispensed yielded a revenue of $60,000.

The Y.M.C.A. work was only a part of the general scheme of recreation.  The commission maintained a band for the benefit of the people at an annual expense of about $12,000; band concerts were given regularly at various points, and special trains run for the benefit of employees and their families who desired to attend them.

Baseball made as strong an appeal to the American love of sport at Panama as ever it did at home, and the commission encouraged this in every way, furnishing grounds, special trains, and opportunities for practice; and no league ever fought out a more exciting series of contests that the isthmian league.   Usually the pennant contenders were the teams of Empire and Culebra, and the whole isthmus became engrossed in their fight.

When the Americans first went to Panama there were few who took their wives and children with them.  But after the yellow fever germ was exterminated and the malaria germ was denied admittance to the precincts of the isthmian home, men who had families in the States brought them to the isthmus, and the bachelors began to sign, each for the girl he had left behind.  The result was that there was soon a large number of American wives on the Canal Zone, and with nothing to occupy their minds they son became the victims of discontent.  Each woman thought every other woman was treated better than herself by the quartermaster and the commissary attendant, and the petty little annoyances that in a normal community would be laughed away, flourished there even as the vegetation of the untamed jungle.

To remedy this condition Miss Helen Vanck Boswell was invited to visit the isthmus to organize women's clubs.  She went and was welcomed with enthusiasm by the women, who set to work with a will in all the affairs with which such clubs interest themselves.  Their lonesomeness gave way to contentedness, and instead of dwelling upon fancied wrongs they developed a spirit of satisfaction at being able to help along the great work of building the canal by promoting the general welfare among both men and women.

The spirit of the commission in providing rational amusements and comforts for the people may be read in the statement that the cost of these accessories amounted to more than two and a half million dollars a year.

The Canal Commission provided good churches for both white and black, where ministers of any denomination could meet with their flocks, and several chaplains were employed at its expense to help with the religious work of the community.  The negro churches were built so that the lower story could be used for worship and the upper story for lodge purposes.

The social life on the isthmus centered at the Hotel Tivoli, which was built with a spacious ballroom where the fortnightly Saturday night dances could be held.  These dances were given under the auspices of the Tivoli Club, composed of representative Americans.  The youth and beauty of the American contingent turned in force at these functions.

During the latter years of the construction period the new Hotel Washington, with its ballroom opening three sides to the sea, was opened, and on alternate Saturday nights dances were held there.

From time to time there was a word of criticism as the liberality of the Canal Commission in providing rational diversion for the people who had to build the canal.  With all that was done, however, fifty per cent of the Americans still grew weary of the heat and the stress of the big task every year and went back to the States.

Life on the Canal Zone was all that a generous government could make it, and yet it was not one iota more pleasant or more profitable than was necessary to make it bearable to a sufficient number to enable the canal work to go forward in a satisfactory way.


History of the Panama Canal by Ira E. Bennett
Historical Publishing Company, Washington, DC, 1915

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