Chapter XXXV
Building the Foundations
by John F. Wallace

The first intimation I had of my name being considered in connection with the position of chief engineer of the Panama Canal was the following letter which I received from Mr. William Barclay Parsons:

At Sea, between Cuba and Colon,
April 3, 1904

My dear Mr. Wallace:

On this trip from New York to the Isthmus the Commission has been giving earnest consideration to the selection of a chief engineer, realizing that a very great measure of our success will depend on that official.

The man for this position must possess exceptional qualifications.  He must not only be an engineer, but must also be an administrator and executive.  He must have mature judgment, and yet energy of accomplishment.  He must be well known and favorably known.  Among those who have been considered as so qualified naturally your name occurs, and the Commission desires to know whether if a tender of this position were made, it would be seriously considered by you.  Owing to a previous professional engagement with the British Government I will be obliged to leave Panama in advance of the other members of the Commission and will arrive in New York on April 19th so as to sail for England on April 26th.  The other members of the Commission and I would very much like to have you and me to meet to talk this matter over so that I could communicate with them prior to my leaving for Europe.  Would it be possible for you to be in New York some time between the dates mentioned, on say the 21st or 22d of April?  If you can do this we can discuss the whole thing and I can give an answer to my associates.

I can imagine that you will be disinclined to think of severing your connection with the Illinois Central, but on the other hand you would attach your name to the greatest piece of construction ever undertaken.

Hoping that you will be able to meet me, I am,
Yours sincerely,
William Barclay Parsons.

Pursuant to the suggestion of Mr. Parsons, I had an interview with him in New York, in which he explained to me the desire of the other members of the Isthmian Canal Commission as well as himself to secure my services as the principal representative of the commission on the isthmus, in full charge of all matters connected with the construction of the canal, with the title of chief engineer.

Mr. Parsons stated that as the commission was charged with the responsibility for the construction of the canal under the direction of the President, and as it was necessary for the commission, the duties of which would be largely administrative and legislative, to keep in close touch with the President and the legal, financial, and executive departments of the government, it was thought wise at a recent meeting of the commission on the isthmus to put the actual execution of the work under the charge of an administrator with the title of chief engineer, in order to obtain that prompt action, unity of purpose, and efficient execution which could only be accomplished through a single executive whose authority under and responsibility to the Isthmian Canal Commission should be properly balanced.

Mr. Parsons explained that on taking an informal ballot I had been the choice of such a large majority of the commissioners that it was decided to consider me for the position; and on account of his having to go to Europe he had left the isthmus a week earlier than the commission and had been delegated to take the matter up with me in a preliminary way and find out if I would be willing to confer with Admiral Walker and the commission on the subject upon their return to the City of Washington.

On the following Wednesday, May 4th, I visited Washington and had a conference with Admiral Walker and the commission, in which the communication made to me by Mr. Parsons was confirmed and the further explanation made that it desired not only the services of a technical engineer, but an administrator and executive with engineering knowledge and experience, preferring a man of my type and qualifications familiar with business methods used in the conduct of large enterprises, rather than to select an engineer who might have better technical qualifications alone.

At this meeting I did not accept the position, but outlined my views in regard to the authority that should be delegated to me and my responsibilities to the work, and laid particular stress on the fact that I could not give satisfactory service unless I was given an absolutely free hand in the conduct of the work; that I could not be expected to take orders or instructions from any individual member of the commission, but that the commission should decide matters of policy and organization relating to the general plan and conduct of the work, and its instructions should come to me, through the chairman, in the form of resolutions passed by the commission, and that my communication with the commission should be through Admiral Walker, its chairman.

In connection with my employment I want to say that Admiral Walker took particular pains to state that my tenure of office and obligations in undertaking the work were as outlined in a letter of instructions on this point which President Roosevelt had communicated to the commission from which I quote the following:

"I believe that each one of you will serve not merely with entire fidelity, but with the utmost efficiency.  If at any time I feel that any one of you is not rendering the best service which it is possible to secure, I shall feel called upon to disregard alike my feelings for the man and the man's own feelings, and forthwith to substitute for him on the Commission some other man whom I deem capable of rendering better service.

"Moreover, I shall expect if at any time any one of you feel that the work is too exhausting and engrossing for him to do in the best possible manner that he will of his own accord inform me in order that I may replace him by some man who to the requisite ability joins the will and the strength to give all the effort needed.  But so long as you render efficient service of the highest type in the work you are appointed to perform you may rest assured of my hearty support and backing in every way.

"These are the conditions under which you have been appointed and under which I shall expect you to proceed.  I shall furthermore expect you to apply precisely the same principles in the choice and retention of the subordinates who do the work under you as I have applied to your choice and shall apply in your retention."

The admiral particularly impressed upon my mind the fact that no tenure of office could be conferred upon me by the commission except under the conditions mentioned in the President's letter above quoted, and that at any time I felt I could not perform my duties in harmony with the policy of the administration, or for any reason felt that I could not fully support that policy, the obligation rested upon me to resign, in which views I fully concurred.

Upon my arrival on the isthmus I immediately placed Mr. Carleton E. Davis in charge of all work connected with water supply, sewerage, street paving, and other physical work necessary to be carried on in connection with such plans for sanitation as the commission might adopt as the result of recommendations of Colonel Gorgas and myself, it being understood that the chief engineer should have charge of the physical execution of the larger sanitary work and that Colonel Gorgas's department should have charge of the sanitary policing and such other sanitary work as could be conducted directly by and under his department.  On account of the prevalence of yellow fever on the isthmus at this time, preparation for proper health protection was considered essential and paramount.

In this connection, it was necessary that an abundance of pure water should be provided for the various towns and settlements along the line, proper sewerage systems established, and in Panama and Colon that the streets should be properly paved.

Within three weeks after my arrival on the isthmus a general scheme for a water supply at Panama was devised, and Engineer Davis and his staff, under my general directions, immediately set to work and prepared plans for the water supply for Panama and for Colon, also a sewerage system for Panama as well as street paving.

A site for a reservoir was selected west of the Panama Railroad line in the vicinity of Culebra cut, and an old reservoir which had been constructed under the French was enlarged and plans made for a secondary reservoir in the immediate outskirts of Panama.   during August complete plans and specifications for the water supply were submitted to the Isthmian Canal Commission for approval.

This was followed by plans for a sewerage system, and for the street paving of Panama.

As soon as the plans were approved by the commission actual construction commenced, and all the work with the exception of the street paving, the material for which had not arrived, was practically completed during my administration.

General Davis, Colonel Gorgas, and myself all considered these sanitary works as fundamentally essential to enable Colonel Gorgas to eliminate the plague of mosquitoes, which the medical department considered to be the chief, if not the sole method of yellow fever transmission.

Coincident with these works, Colonel Gorgas with a force under his immediate direction, started an extensive campaign of fumigation, the draining of marshes, cleaning up of vegetation, and other means for the elimination of mosquitoes.

The importance of the water works, however, consisted in the fact that the principal supply of water during the dry season, in both Panama and Colon, was provided through the storage of rain water in cisterns, most of which occupied the interior courts of residences and business houses.  In these reservoirs the species of mosquito which transmitted yellow fever was constantly breeding and the elimination of these mosquitoes was impossible as long as these cisterns were maintained.

At that time Panama had absolutely no sewerage except a few individual sewers that emptied directly into the harbor, and a sewerage system could not be established and made efficient without an abundance of water supply to flush the same.  Again, the sanitary department found it very difficult to keep the streets free from accumulations of filth and garbage without a smooth surface that could be readily cleaned and flushed with an abundance of water.

It may be of interest to note that while I was assured by the authorities in Washington that my requisitions would be promptly filled for the water and sewer pipe necessary to make this installation -- which could have been made within ninety days after the receipt of the material, and might have prevented the series of epidemics which occurred during the following dry season -- they were not filled in a way that enabled the principal water main to be laid and put in use until some eight months later.

One of the first difficulties which I met in the initial organization was the fact that it was necessary to provide suitable and sanitary living quarters for the men before any large force was brought on the isthmus.  It was a difficult matter to properly adjust the relation between the new forces necessary to start he initial organization in various parts of the work, and also to prepare sanitary quarters for the men who were brought to the isthmus to perform this service.

A building department was at once organized and put in charge of Mr. M.O. Johnson, with a staff of building mechanics necessary to rebuild the French quarters and to provide new quarters.

Under his supervision the hotel at Corozal was planned and constructed also the one at Culebra, and a large number of buildings for quarters for the various officers, members of the staffs and the employees of all grades.

Another difficulty encountered was the inability to get requisitions filled for the proper wire netting which the sanitary department considered necessary to protect the men from the attacks of mosquitoes.

Here it might be well to mention that at Colon and Panama it was necessary to protect the employees from yellow fever mosquitoes, whose radius of action was small and which seldom went beyond the boundaries of the houses in which they bred, and in the outlying districts between Panama and Colon, as well as in Panama and Colon, to protect them from the kind of mosquitoes which transmitted malaria, which was considered by the sanitary department as fully as important as protection from the yellow fever mosquitoes, the malarial mosquitoes having a larger radius of movement and invading the settlements from their adjoining breeding places in the swamps.

It was not until several successive epidemics of yellow fever had occurred that the authorities at Washington finally awoke to the fact that our requisitions for the material necessary for these preventive measures must be fully and promptly filled, the great pressure from Washington the chief engineer being to commence active operations in the actual excavation of material, to the constant clamor of the American press to "make the dirt fly."

The first construction operations that were undertaken were at Culebra.  We had come into possession of a large amount of machinery used by the French company -- dredges, excavators of various types, steam locomotives, dump cars, and all sorts of construction appliances and apparatus.  It was the desire of the commission to experiment sufficiently with this material to determine its economic efficiency or inefficiency before finally adopting or discarding it.

As it was impossible to provide the work with entire new equipment before active operations commenced and as it was desirable to gradually train and build up a force, the work of excavation was at first carried along the lines followed by the French company, utilizing the native labor then available and gradually organizing the work and engaging American superintendents and foremen, in order that they might be trained to the utilization of such labor as was available and become acclimated and familiar with the conditions that were to be contended with.

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from: The History of the Panama Canal
by Ira E. Bennett, 1915

March 24, 1999
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