Chapter XXXVI
The Railroad Men At Panama
by Theodore P. Shonts

It was toward the latter part of March, 1905, while on a cruise among the West Indies on board the United States dispatch-boat Dolphin, with Senator Hale, of Maine and Representatives Cannon of Illinois and Meyer of Louisiana, as guests of the late Paul Morton, Secretary of the Navy, that I received a cablegram from President Roosevelt asking me to accept the chairmanship of the commission then in process of formation to construct the canal across the Isthmus of Panama.  the president's message was delivered on board the Dolphin at Guantanamo, our naval station on the southeastern coast of Cuba, and I had time to consider the proposition during the several days that elapsed before we went ashore at Fernandina, Florida, to take train for Washington.  Knowing as little about the big project at Panama as anyone who kept track of current events at all, I was nevertheless aware that the first commission, of which Rear-Admiral Walker was chairman, had not -- to quote Secretary of War Taft -- "so developed itself into an executive body as to give hope that it might be used successfully as an instrument for carrying on the immense executive burden involved in the construction of the canal."   I recognized the shrewdness and wisdom of the President in choosing a railroad man to shoulder the "executive burden," for, after all, the big problem of the canal was one of transportation -- the moving of the excavated material from the cut to the spill banks, and the moving of sand, rock, cement, and iron to the points for the location of the locks along the route.  The engineering problem was one of magnitude rather than complexity.  If the project had been to do a similar job in a developed country and a temperate climate, it would have been attended with no especial difficulties; the fact that conditions approximating modern development had to be brought into existence in a tropical wilderness two thousand miles from the base of supplies for the work itself and the men performing it, was what made it interesting.

While the acceptance of the President's offer meant material sacrifice, I considered it a patriotic duty to accept, providing only that certain views I held, whereby I believed I might achieve success, were met.  And I own that I felt some pride in being chosen for an important part in a historic enterprise fraught with such enormous potentialities to the entire world and for all time.  The views referred to I set forth to Mr. Roosevelt in his office at the White House, the day after my arrival in Washington from Fernandina.

"Mr. President," I said to him, "I have an idea that when  you learn the conditions under which I am willing to become chairman of the Isthmian Commission you may withdraw your offer.  With a body composed of so many different members with diversified duties that are likely to conflict on occasion, there is bound to be friction so long as responsibility is divided.  I should not care to accept the chairmanship of this commission, therefore, unless it is understood that I am to have absolute authority as to both men and measures in the work of the construction of the canal -- subject to your approval, of course."

Mr. Roosevelt's response was characteristic.  He rose and threw open the door of his office to the newspaper correspondents, whom he had summoned for the purpose of acquainting them with my decision -- provided it should be acceptance of the post he had offered.

"Gentlemen," he said, "allow me to introduce to you the chairman of the Isthmian Commission, who is to have absolute control of the construction of the Panama Canal."

It was a propitious outcome of my acquaintance among railroad officials that I was able to put my hands upon men especially fitted to become heads of the various departments of the canal work.  Following the resignation of John F. Wallace as chief engineer, I had the good fortune in June to secure in his place John F. Stevens.  Mr. Stevens had been active in the construction of the Great Northern Railway, and afterward in its operation.  He severed his connection with the Rock Island Railroad as vice-president in charge of operation to accept the position of chief engineer of the canal.  On his resigning this position, after having succeeded me as chairman of the Isthmian Commission in March, 1907, he became vice-president in charge of operation maintenance of the New Haven lines, and subsequently president of a railroad constructed by him across the state of Oregon for the Hill system.  Mr. Stevens's first assistant at Panama was J.   G. Sullivan, who is now chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.   David W. Ross, who had been purchasing agent and afterward superintendent of transportation of the Illinois Central Railroad, left the latter position to become the head of the canal's purchasing department, and is at present vice-president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, of New York.  Edward . Williams, paymaster of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, became disbursing officer on the isthmus, and up to date has paid out $250,000,000 without an error.  From the Chicago & Rock Island road, where he was assistant general manager, came W. G. Bierd to take charge as general superintendent of the operation of the Panama Railroad.  The Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, a part of the Harriman system, contributed its general auditor, E. S. Benson, who assumed control of the accounting department of the canal construction.   W. G. Tubby, for years general storekeeper of the Great Northern Railroad, left that position to perform the same duties at Panama.  Jackson Smith, who, as a railroad contractor and in other capacities, had had a very extensive experience with construction labor, took charge of the department of labor and quarters.  Richard Reid Rogers, who was general counsel to the Isthmian Commission and the Panama Railroad, still holds the latter position, and is also general counsel to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.  W. Leon Pepperman, who had formerly been assistant chief of the bureau of insular affairs at Washington, was chief of the office of administration of the commission, and today holds the position of assistant to the president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.

Colonel W. C. Gorgas was at Panama when I became chairman of the Isthmian Commission, and his splendid services as sanitation had given him an international reputation.   Charles E. Magoon was the civil governor of the Canal Zone and a member of the commission.  The other members were Mr. Stevens, Rear-Admiral Mordecai T. Endicott of the navy, General Peter C. Hains, a retired officer of the army, Colonel Oswald H. Ernst, of the engineer corps of the army, and Benjamin M. Harrod, all capable and efficient men.

The magnitude of our task did not diminish as we became familiar with details.   Our first proposition was the creation of a modern state in a ten by fifty mile stretch of tropical wilderness, scourged by deadly fevers and pestilence, and practically uninhabitable by natives of other climes.  Obviously it would be a criminal as well as an uneconomic policy to begin the actual construction of the canal while conditions were such that the laborer did his work at the peril of his life; and, in spite of the fact that the Fourth Estate of America was unanimous in the view that because we did not at once begin to "make the dirt fly" we were wasting time, we adhered to the determination to render the isthmus habitable before beginning to dig, rather than bring men there to die.

The commission was also charged with the making of an investigation as to the respective merits of a sea-level or a lock canal at Panama; with the designing, purchase, and installation of the power and machinery with which the great ditch was to be dug; with the determining of the character of the labor to be employed, and recruiting and carrying it to the isthmus; and with the rehabilitation of the Panama Railroad, which was an instrument essential to the construction of the canal.

When the commission took charge at Panama there were almost as many of the white employees leaving the isthmus as were coming there.  In a recent address before the Oregon Society of Engineers, Mr. Stevens thus describes the situation:

"When I reached Panama in July, 1905, conditions could have been much worse, but they were bad enough.  No real start had been made at any effective work on the canal proper, no adequate organization had been effected, sanitary reforms were really just beginning, little new plant had been provided, and little that was absolutely necessary had been ordered.  In the organization that existed no co-operation was apparent, and no systematic plans, as far as I could discover, had been formulated toward the carrying out of the work along the lines promising any degree of success.  And -- worse than all -- over and above, in the diseased imagination of the disjointed force of white employees, hovered the angel of death in the shape of yellow fever, a number of cases of which were then prevailing, and from which several deaths had occurred.  What many of the intelligent men seemed to expect was an order from Washington to abandon the work and go home.  To provide housing for this army, to properly feed, to instill into them faith in the ultimate success of the work, to weed out the faint-hearted and incompetent, to create an organization fitted to undertake the tremendous work, and to fill its ranks with the proper material was a task of heroic proportions.  No one will ever know, no one can realize, the call on mind and body which was made upon a few for weary months while all the necessary preliminary work was being planned and carried forward, and no attempt was or could be made to carry on actual construction until such preliminaries were well at hand.  And the only gleams of light and encouragement were the weekly arrivals of newspapers from the States, criticizing and complaining because the dirt was not flying.

In order to make the Canal Zone a place fit to live and work n, there were three fundamental tasks which had to be performed in advance of all others -- the thorough sanitation of the isthmus; the provision of suitable habitations for all classes of employees, from heads of departments to negro laborers; arrangement for a food-supply which would afford to all employees an opportunity to obtain meat and vegetables at reasonable cost.  when the United States began the work of sanitation there were no systems of waterworks, of sewerage, or of drainage on the isthmus.  The people depended for their water largely on unprotected cisterns filled during the rainy season, and on barrels supplied from near-by streams, all breeding places for mosquitoes.   The filth of ages had accumulated around the dwellings and in the streets, undisturbed except when washed away by torrential storms.  Pools of stagnant water had existed for years in proximity to dwellings, and insect-breeding swamps lay undrained adjacent to the cities and many of the towns.

Under the direction of Colonel Gorgas 3,500 men were put at work on sanitation. Panama, Colon and the towns, villages, and labor camps in the Canal Zone were fumigated over and over again, at first house by house to stop the spread of the disease, and afterward as units, one city, village, or camp at a time.  Yellow fever was extirpated in less than four months, and there has been no return of the disease.  In June, 1905, there were 62 cases of yellow fever on the isthmus; in July, 42; n August, 27; in September, 6; and in October, the worst month of the year for the disease, 3, not one of these last among the employees, and all originating many miles from the line of the canal.  To understand what was accomplished by our sanitary work it is only necessary to compare the death-rate on the isthmus during the French occupancy with that after Colonel Gorgas began to "clean up."  In August, 1882, the second year of the French occupancy, with a force of 1,900 men, the death-rate was 112 per thousand.  In August, 1905, with a force of 12,000 men, there were only 8 deaths, or two-thirds of a man per thousand.   the average daily sick-rate among the employees of the commission during the ten months from January 1, 1906, to October 31, 1906, was 28 per thousand, which was no higher than might have been expected in an equal number of laborers engaged in construction work in any part of the world.  So far as general health conditions were concerned, no stronger evidence for their favorable character may be adduced than the fact that among about 6,000 white Americans, including women and children, on the isthmus during the rainy season of 1906 -- August, September and October -- there was not a single death from disease.

Within our first four months on the isthmus we established a hospital system that included a large hospital at Colon, another at Ancon, and a number of smaller hospitals along the line of the canal.  The one at Colon was built on piers over the Atlantic Ocean, and patients there had at all times the benefit of cool and invigorating sea air.  the hospital at Ancon was, and is, on e of the largest and best equipped in the world, situated on the hill above Panama, and commanding a superb view of mountains and sea.   Colonel Gorgas organized a staff of physicians and nurses inferior to none in civilization.  President Roosevelt, in a special message to Congress written after his personal inspection of the isthmus, said of the sanitary work there that "the results have been astounding,{ and that "the conditions as regards sickness and the death-rate compare favorably with reasonably healthy localities in the United States."

During the railroad men's regime on the isthmus we converted the City of Panama, which on our arrival was without pavement, sewers, or water supply, into the bet-paved, the best-watered, and the best-sewered city in Central America or the northern half of South America.  We constructed for it a great reservoir with an abundant supply of pure water, and installed for it a fire service that on two occasions has saved the city from destruction.  We also constructed for Colon a great reservoir, with a capacity of 508,000,000 gallons.  We paved the main street of Colon with vitrified brick, and raised the surface of other streets and covered them with crushed rock.  Before we left the Canal Zone it was as safe a place to visit as most other parts of the world, and much safer than many parts of the United States, so far as danger from disease was concerned.  Observance of sanitary laws and regulations was compulsory and rigidly enforced.  Whenever an employee of the commission was discovered with too high a temperature, he was compelled to go to the hospital, whether he wanted to or not.  To Colonel Gorgas is due all the praise for the triumph of science over disease on the Isthmus of Panama, but he would not have accomplished the magnificent results achieved there without the active and sympathetic cooperation of the commission.  The United States paid out something like $4,000,000 in less than a year in the sanitation of the canal route, and Colonel Gorgas has said that he would not have dared authorize the expenditure of that great sum on his own initiative.

The problem of labor for the construction of the canal was almost the paramount one.   The clerical forces and skilled artisans were recruited in the United States, though at first some difficulty was experienced in securing the right class of men, owing to the reputation of the Canal Zone as a disease center.  To supply the unskilled labor was a far more perplexing task.  During the twelve years the French had been operating on the isthmus, they had depended upon the West Indian negro for this class of work.  We soon found that if the canal was to be completed within any reasonable limit of time or expense, some other source of obtaining labor must be developed, not only to obtain a better grade and a surer supply, but to eliminate the sense of security the West Indians possessed in the assurance that they controlled the situation by virtue of a labor monopoly.  Agents were sent to Europe, and they succeeded in directing to the isthmus a stream of Spanish, Italian, and Greek laborers, though the negroes have all along far outnumbered the others.  The erection of living-quarters for the employees and supplying them with good food and pure water was accomplished during the same period that the sanitation of the Canal Zone was carried on.  Employees of every grade, white and black, were given free of rent, with free lights and fuel, comfortable furnished houses.  While many hundreds of these houses, of various classes and capacities, were taken over from the French, all of them had to be rebuilt and made sanitary, and in addition new dwelling-houses and living-quarters, hotels, restaurants, clubhouses, schoolhouses, courthouses, postoffices, jails, commissary buildings, fire-engine houses, shops and railway buildings had to be provided.  Along the line of the canal we built a succession of trim villages, containing populations ranging from a few hundred up to 5,000 each.  At Gatun, the site of the great dam that now holds back the waters of an inland lake 165 square miles in extent, a village sprang into existence within four months, supplied with pure water and a modern sewerage system.   At Culebra, situated upon bluffs overlooking the great cut and surrounded with amphitheater by the rising slopes of beautiful hills, a town of 5,000 inhabitants came into being with its modern sewers and water supply, on a site that a year and half before was covered by an impenetrable jungle.  Among other towns and villages we constructed along the route of the canal are Empire, Las Cascadas, and Gorgona, and in every one of these centers of population there is, in addition to the quarters and mess-halls for the employees, a clubhouse, or recreation building, each with its gymnasium, its reception, card, and billiard rooms and its assembly-hall, managed in conjunction with the Young Men's Christian Association by boards of directors selected from among the men themselves.

The food-supply proved a serious corollary of the labor proposition.  If we could not feed the men, we could not build the canal.  Owing to the fact that the Panama natives never look beyond their present necessities, no food ever accumulates on the isthmus, and in the summer of 1905 this disastrous condition was augmented by an almost total failure of the crops for the two preceding years, by the abandonment by agricultural laborers of the farms back in the hills for work on the canal at better pay for shorter hours, and by quarantine of the port of Panama because the bubonic plague, which prevented the delivery of foodstuffs from neighboring provinces.  We were thus brought face to face with the problem of feeding 12,000 men and their families and our nearest available market was 2,000 miles away.  We immediately arranged to open local commissary stores at every important labor camp, to provide mess-houses, and to furnish food, both cooed and uncooked, to all employees at cost.  Orders were cabled to have our steamers equipped with refrigerating plants a cold storage plant was erected at Colon, and refrigerator cars were purchased for immediate shipment to the isthmus, thus establishing a line of refrigeration from the markets of the United States to the commissary stations along the line of the canal.  The net result of these efforts was that all employees were afforded opportunity to obtain an abundant supply of wholesome food at reasonable prices.   We learned from experience that no price for food was sufficiently small to induce the West Indian laborers to eat enough to keep them in good physical condition.  they were offered cooked food at ten cents per meal, and the uncooked material at a price reduced by the cost of cooking and service.  Both plans resulting unsatisfactorily.   We even tried giving them uncooked food free; they declined to go to the trouble of cooking it.  Next we had it cooked and offered it to them free, when for the first time they ate heartily.  The plan was then adopted that is followed in railway and other construction work in this country, and we paid the West Indians a fixed wage that included three meals per day.

Simultaneously with the sanitation of the isthmus and the erection of comfortable living-quarters for the employees and the establishment of a refrigerating system to supply them with wholesome food, we reconstructed the Panama Railroad, the most valuable instrument to the construction of the canal acquired by the United Sates in its purchase from the French at Panama.  However, the modernizing of the road was a tremendous task.  It had but a single track, practically no sidings or station buildings, a worn-out telegraph line, no terminals worthy of the name, and motive power and rolling stock that were obsolete twenty years before.  Canal and commercial traffic, local and through, were nearly at a standstill; thousands of tons of through freight were piled in cars and warehouses or on the docks, and some of these shipments had lain undisturbed from three months to a year and a half, in many instances even the shipping papers and freight records having been lost.  Had the docks, wharves, warehouses, terminal years, locomotives, and cars of the Panama Railroad been in good repair, they would still have been entirely inadequate to handle and care properly for the small commercial business the road was transacting.  The existing facilities, poor as they were, were rendered less effective by the entire absence of any mechanical appliances on the docks for receiving or discharging cargo from the steamships.  The negro laborer was the only power employed; he was at once the hoisting-machine and traveling-crane.   Imagine conditions, then, when the accumulated orders in the States for canal material began to arrive in large quantities on both sides of the isthmus.  The situation was aggravated while the congestion was at its densest by an increase of fifty per cent, over the year before in the commercial business of the road, and at the moment when we believed that our predicament could not possibly be worse an outbreak of bubonic plague at La Boca resulted in two consecutive quarantines, completely closing that outlet for sixty days.  Furthermore, the personnel of the Panama Railroad as it was turned over to us not had been educated on modern lines, and was completely paralyzed when confronted with the onerous conditions caused by the congestion of freight.  It was necessary, therefore, to begin at once the construction of new wharves equipped with modern mechanical appliances and of large terminal yards at both ends of the road; of extensive warehouses, of suitable machine shops, and of modern coal-hoisting plants.   New and more powerful locomotives and larger cars were purchased for both passenger and freight service.  The personnel of the road was reorganized, and into the more important positions we put the experienced, energetic, up-to-date railroad men from the United States, where, indeed, we recruited our entire complement of yard and train masters, superintendents of transportation, train-dispatchers, and master mechanics, and an army of conductors, engineers, and switchmen.  We double-tracked the road with heavier steel rails, strengthened the bridges to enable them to withstand the weight of our heavier equipment, and in 1907 the line across the Isthmus of Panama was in a position to bear favorable comparison, with the average of the best railroads in North America.

Of course the most important question before the commission was as to whether the canal should be of the so-called sea level or the lock type.  The Act of Congress which authorized the President to proceed with the construction of the canal gave him almost unlimited discretion as to details of route, type, and size, the principal limiting clause being that it "shall be of sufficient capacity and depth as shall afford convenient passage for the vessels of the largest tonnage and greatest draft now in use and such as may be reasonably anticipated."  The discussion on this question, which was largely one of engineering technicalities, occupied many months, and the decision we arrived as is summarized in the following extract from an address I delivered before the chamber of commerce of Atlanta, Georgia, in May, 1906: --

"The present commission believes that the type of canal the people of this country want is the one which will provide adequate and safe passage for the largest vessels now on the seas, or which can be reasonably anticipated, and which can be constructed in the quickest time and at the least cost.  It has, therefore, recommended the construction of an eighty-five-foot-level lock canal, for the reasons that, first, in its judgment, 'it can be completed for about half the cost, and in about half the time, of the so-called sea-level canal; second, because it will be adequate for all the commerce which can reasonably be expected to seek that route during the next 150 years; third, because if the tonnage should increase beyond such expectation it can be enlarged more cheaply and more quickly than the so-called sea-level canal; fourth, because, from the operating point of view, large ships can be put through more safely and more quickly than the so-called sea-level; fifth, because, when the construction is added to the estimated cost of operation, the saving to the Government every year will be $2,340,000; sixth, because, when built, it will be a completed canal, completed in every appointment, for all requirements for generations to come.'"

It had been agreed between M. Roosevelt and myself when I accepted the chairmanship of the Isthmian Commission that I might withdraw from that position, with his sanction, so soon as the construction of the canal was under full headway.  I did not, therefore, sever all my railroad connections, although for two years I devoted my entire physical and mental energies to the problems of the big ditch.  My resignation was not handed in until 35,000 men -- within 5,000 or 6,000 of the maximum number empl9yed -- were on the commission;'s pay-rolls; all the machinery essential to the completion of the canal, except that for the lock construction, had been designed, constructed, assembled on the isthmus and put into operation; and more serious difficulties attendant upon industrial operations in the torrid zone overcome and the entire project well under way.

Colonel Goethal's splendid achievement in carrying to practical completion, without setback or delay, without a hitch of any kind or a hint of scandal, the great work of the construction of the Panama Canal, while demonstrating the thoroughness with which the railroad men prepared the way on the isthmus and the care and precision with which   their plans were laid, is one of which the United Sates Army may well be proud.   Incidentally it may be remarked that so wisely considered was the order of President Roosevelt, issued to the commission of which I was chairman in November, 1905, that it has not since been necessary to amend it in any important particular.  The order was as follows:

"The organization shall consist of the chairman ad the following heads of departments:  Chief engineer, general counsel, chief sanitary officer, general purchasing officer, general auditor, and manager of labor and quarters.  The duties of each shall be as follows:

"1.  The chairman shall have charge of all departments incident and necessary to the construction of the canal or any of its accessories.

"2.  He shall appoint the heads of the varies departments, subject to the approval of the commission.

"3.  The head of each department shall report to and receive instructions from the chairman."

This order, with a subsequent minor amendment, is that of the present organization on the isthmus, except that there have been changes made in the titles of the heads of departments to conform with military usage.  It was this concentration of supreme authority in one man that has enabled Colonel Goethals, as head of the military regime at Panama, to carry on and complete in such manner as to command the wonder and admiration of the world the work planned and begun under the railroad regime, as to enable me -- encouraged by the loyal and able cooperation of the other members of the commission and heads of departments -- to accomplish such vast results in so short a time.

This article was first printed in North American Review
from:  History of the Panama Canal, by Ira E. Bennett,

Historical Publishing Company, Washington, D.C., 1915


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