Chapter XXII
The Stevens Regime

The selection of John F. Stevens to succeed John F. Wallace as chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission was announced within a day or two after Mr. Wallace resigned.   Mr. Stevens was to be paid $30,000 a year.  He was on the eve of accepting a contract to go the Philippines to build the Government railroads there.  His determination to accept the isthmian berth instead of going to the Philippines was reached at the personal solicitation of President Roosevelt.

When Mr. Stevens arrived on the isthmus, July 26, 1905, he asked the Canal Commission to permit him to suspend work on the excavations in Culebra Cut in order that he might perfect the transportation facilities needed there.  His first effort was to infuse confidence into the dispirited canal army.  He had a knack of saying and doing things that pleased the canal employees.  He promptly told the people that there were three diseases on the isthmus -- yellow fever, malaria, and "cold feet," and that the greatest of these was "cold feet."

In reporting on conditions as he found them on the Panama Railroad, he said that the world had moved and that the Panama Railroad had not, in personnel, equipment, methods, or otherwise.  All efforts practically had ceased to remedy the congestion of freight.   "About the only claim for good work," said Mr. Stevens, "that I have heard made, was that there had been no collision for some time.  But even a collision has its good points as well as bad points -- it indicates that there is something moving on the railroad."

On one occasion the chief engineer sent his head carpenter to Gorgona to build certain sheds on the site subsequently occupied by the machine shops.  The carpenter found the proposed site covered with old burnt equipment.  He wrote to Mr. Stevens for instructions as to how to proceed under these conditions, and received this prompt reply:   "Wait until I have a free Sunday, and I will come down and move the material for you."

Mr. Stevens was a ubiquitous man on the isthmus during those days.  He went out over the line in overalls every day, and at no time did he allow any of the work to escape his attention.  It was not long before he had secured a strong force of engineers, a large number of whom stayed with the work until it was completed.

There were many things to be done in reducing the chaos that existed on the isthmus, and in preparing for the great work that was ahead.  Comparatively little had been done in the direction of cleaning up Panama and Colon.  Under the treaty with the Republic of Panama, the United States was to build modern water and sewerage systems for the cities of Panama and Colon, and was to be reimbursed for this work by collections from the sale of water.  In this way about two and a half million dollars was spent, and this debt is being gradually amortized by the water rent collections.  These cities had been pest holes of disease, with a supply of drinking water brought in barrels from springs of questionable character, and with no sewerage facilities whatever.  Under the ministrations of the United States Government they were abundantly supplied with hydrant water, sewerage systems were provided, and their streets, though still narrow, were well paved.  The transformation was such as to be almost beyond belief.  the story can be told in no other way so graphically as by contrasting pictures of Panama streets before and after the sanitary campaign.

Another problem facing the chief engineer was that of providing suitable quarters for the men who were to dig the canal.  the buildings which had been acquired with the French purchase were all remodeled, and hundreds of others were built.  In addition to this the Y.M.C.A. club houses had to be completed, and many other important structures planned and equipped.  during the first year and a half of his administration, Mr. Stevens spent $30,000,000.  Of this, $5,000,000 was for governing and sanitation, $7,000,000 for quarters, and $12,000,000 for supplies.

Mr. Stevens then undertook the task of recruiting an adequate force for the building of the canal.  This was perhaps the hardest task of all.  Panama had made a highly unsavory reputation in the labor markets of the world.  Recruiting agents were sent to the West Indies, to Italy, and to Spain.  It was not long before these agents were sending a steady stream of West Indian laborers to the canal.  By making certain concessions in the way of guarantees, the consent of the Spanish Government was obtained for the departure of its laborers for Panama.

When the work got under way it was found that the West Indian laborer was a rather lazy, indifferent individual.  Mr. Stevens once likened him to a Japanese flagman he had employed on the Great Northern Railroad.  This flagman was sent back to stop oncoming trains, but permitted an engine to run by him without flagging it, thus precipitating one of the most serious wrecks in the history of the road.  When asked why he had not flagged the engine, he replied that his orders were to flag trains.  So it was with the West Indian laborer:  he carried out orders literally, and very slowly.  the chief engineer found that one white man was worth three negroes in the digging of the Panama Canal.  when Mr. Stevens established the wage scale that continued to the day of the completion of the canal, he granted twenty cents an hour for unskilled white labor, and ten cents an hour for negro labor.  The negro laborer was inclined to resent this seeming discrimination against him, but he continued to improve to the end, and finally was able to render good service for the money paid him.

The red tape which had bound the hands of Chief Engineer Wallace was almost as vexing to Chief engineer Stevens.  He found a tendency everywhere to postpone action, and sometimes he went forward on his own responsibility.  This policy soon began to show results.  He laid new railroad tracks through the Culebra Cut.  where there were little old French dump cars in use, no two of which had trucks of the same gauge, and some of which even had trucks of different gauge, the dirt trains were now made up of up-to-date Lidgerwood and Western dump cars.  Where drilling for blasting had been done with individual plants, and by the old and expensive method of hand drilling, a compressed air system was installed, and the efficiency of the drilling force immensely increased.

Indifferent judgment had been shown in the selection of sites for dumping material, and in laying them out.  It became necessary to select new dumps, and to lay out those already established in such a way that trains could be unloaded in the shortest possible time.  by the time Mr. Stevens had been on the ground a year he had perfected a system of transportation and spoil disposal which was good enough and broad enough to last to the end of the construction period, with only the extensions that the operations called for.  when it is remembered that over 100,000,000 cubic yards of material had to be disposed of on these dumps, it will be seen how necessary it was that they should be properly laid out.

When Chief Engineer Stevens was at work on the plans for the successful attack against the isthmian barriers, he was also engaged in gathering data upon which could be predicated a judgment as to the type of the canal that should be constructed, and as to the probable unit costs which its construction would involve.  President Roosevelt, in the latter part of 1905, sent a board of consulting engineers to the isthmus with instructions to consider the question of the relative merits of a lock canal and a sea-level canal, the cost of the two projects to be taken into account, as well as the time within which either could be completed.

This commission voted eight to five in favor of a sea-level canal.  Chief Engineer Stevens did not agree with its conclusions, nor did any of the members of the Isthmian Canal Commission, except Real-Admiral Endicott.  When President Roosevelt read the statement of Chief Engineer Stevens, in which he favored a lock canal, the President became a convert from the sea-level type, and ordered work on the isthmus to move forward with a view to constructing a lock canal.  this decision afterward was ratified by the Senate and house of Representatives, and as soon as the chief engineer had completed the preliminaries, he was free to begin the actual excavation work.

Mr. Wallace had planned to have the canal forces fed under contract with J.E. Markell, of Omaha, Nebraska.  Markell had made a reputation in the conduct of "eating houses" in the West, and Mr. Wallace felt that he would be able to purvey for the forces on the isthmus better than the commission could.  When Chief Engineer Stevens came to look into this matter, he concluded that the canal commission could operate its own eating houses and hotels more cheaply than any contractor could operate them, and the Markell contract was canceled by mutual consent.

One thing in the condition of affairs on the isthmus that was a thorn in the flesh of Chief Engineer Stevens was the eight-our-day law, which was forced upon him by Congress.   Another law which handicapped him in the prosecution of his work was the civil service law, which had been extended to the isthmus, and which had interfered with the plans of Mr. Wallace.

The eight-hour law applied to the common laborer was a hardship on the government, and forced unit costs higher than any one had intended they should go.  The civil service law was a handicap in the selection of the force.  The application of these two pieces of legislation led him to the conclusion that the best way to build the canal was by contract.  In this conclusion he was supported by Chairman Shonts, and President Roosevelt at one time accepted the same view of the matter.

But as Mr. Stevens proceeded further with his work of organization he was finally convinced that the canal should be constructed by the government itself.  He found ways to make the civil service law his servant, rather than his master, and the eight-hour day was robbed of some of its disadvantages under the plans he worked out.

Mr. Shonts, however, adhered to the belief that the canal should be built by contract, and urged that view upon the President so strongly that Mr. Roosevelt decided to ask for bids providing for its construction under private contract.  It was not long before Messrs. Stevens and Shonts were at odds over this and other questions.  When President Roosevelt finally decided to support the recommendations of Mr. Stevens, Mr. Shonts concluded that his usefulness in the canal project was at an end and he resigned.   Upon the retirement of Chairman Shonts, President Roosevelt appointed Mr. Stevens to had the commission.  About the same time he decided to put army engineers in direct charge of the work, a decision which was most unwelcome to Mr. Stevens.

When Mr. Roosevelt, in February, 1907, designated Major George W. Goethals as chief engineer under the direction of Mr. Stevens, the latter protested for fear that civilian engineers and army engineers could not work together.  the upshot of the whole matter was that Mr. Stevens grew impatient with the situation as it then appeared to him, and wrote a letter of protest.  He is said to have shown this letter to a friend, who asked Mr. Stevens to withhold it, as it appeared to be equivalent to a resignation.   Whether Mr. Stevens really intended to resign or not, President Roosevelt construed the letter as a tender of resignation, and he cabled his acceptance.

In justice to Mr. Stevens it must be said that he never issued any statement indicating his reasons for resigning, and that after he did resign he was always loyal to his successor, and heartily aided the efforts he put forth in the building of the canal.

The proposition of building the canal by contract went as far as the consideration of bids by the Secretary of War.  These bids were opened in January, 1907.  It was stated that none of them met the terms imposed, and they were all rejected.  As a matter of fact, owing to the progress that Mr. Stevens had made in the recruiting of a canal-digging army, the administration had undergone a change of heart, and had decided that the canal should not be built by contract.  The terms under which it had been proposed to build the waterway by contract were such that the contractors would have been little more than superintendents of construction, receiving a definite percentage of the total cost of the work.

The decision of Mr. Stevens to leave the government service was due in part to the inherent weakness of the plan of organization.  It was this that led President Roosevelt to decide that the next commission should be made up mainly of army men.

The retirement of Mr. Stevens threw the canal army into come confusion, but he had builder so well that it could withstand even the shaking up following a change of administration and a change of leadership without any serious interruption of the work.  when Colonel Goethals reached the isthmus he soon indicated that he intended to proceed along the lines that had been laid out by Mr. Stevens.  He went there determined to accept everything that was good as a heritage from the Stevens administration, and he found so much that was good that all the changes made thereafter were by evolution, rather than by revolution.

There can be no question that Mr. Stevens proved himself a competent official while on the isthmus, and the evidences of this are to be found in the fact that many of the elements of the organization under which the canal work was carried to a successful conclusion were effected by Mr. Stevens.  His own story of his regime at Panama is presented in this volume.

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

March 24, 1999

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