Chapter XXXVII
The Truth of History
by
John F. Stevens


My connection with the Panama Canal began on July, 1, 1905, my appointment as chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission taking effect upon that date, to succeed Mr. John F. Wallace, who had resigned three days previously.   When the position was first offered to me I did not look upon it with favor, and had made up my mind to refuse it, but after a conference solicited by him I succumbed to the persuasive tongue of William Nelson Cromwell, who, among the many others, seemed to have a deep and heartfelt interest in the success of the proposed work.  And as the matter was presented to me, in view of the discouraging condition into which affairs had drifted during the period of American occupation, as a loyal American citizen, and as a cordial supporter of an administration which was represented as being much exercised over the situation, it became my duty to waive personal inclinations, and to accept the responsibilities of the position.  I accordingly did so, and the arrangement verbally agreed upon between Mr. Cromwell and myself was confirmed by the chairman of the commission, on the date noted.

As soon as practicable thereafter, I sailed for the Canal Zone, landing there on July 26, taking immediate and personal charge of all affairs there (excepting government and sanitation), including the Panama Railroad, and I believe I faced about as discouraging a proposition as was ever presented to a construction engineer.

In any comments I may make upon the condition of affairs which existed there at that time, no reflection whatever is intended upon the ability of my predecessor.  I had known Mr. Wallace for many years, as a high-class engineer and railway operator of great experience, and I was not long in deciding in my own mind, why and how the situation had developed as it existed.  The ineffective organization of the Walker commission, the utter lack of responsibility definitely located, the endeavor to decide and act upon the most trivial matters, at a distance of two thousand miles by a body of seven men, each of equal rank, who were apparently unable to agree with each other, or with anybody else, would have been sufficient reason for a partial, or even a total failure, no matter who might have been the chief engineer.

The retirement of this commission, and the organization of the new one, on April 1, 1905, might have bettered matters, but it had not to any great extent, during the three months the latter had been in power.  There were probably several reasons for this; it would have taken a longer time than three months to have recovered from the deplorable state of affairs left by the old commission in any case, but I have always believed (and I had a fairly good opportunity to judge), that a lack of harmony or sympathy between the chief engineer and the chairman of the new commission was the greatest single contributing cause leading to a comparative failure to produce results.  But there was no time to "look mournfully back into the past."  The problem of changing the situation had to be grappled with, without delay, and in such manner as human judgment could best devise to meet the emergency, which was truly formidable.

Under the agreement between the United States and the Republic of Panama the former was charged with the regulation of sanitary matters in the cities of Colon and Panama.   To carry out this obligation successfully required the paving, sewerage and the providing of an ample supply of water for both cities.  At the time of my taking charge, plans had been adopted for the water plants of both cities and considerable work had been done on them.  Much material for the paving of Panama had been ordered, and so far as the arrangements for the sanitation of these two cities had been carried, the work was creditably done.  There remained, however, much yet to do, not only in Colon and Panama, but in all of the then existing towns, and others soon to spring up along the Canal Zone.

From time to time, during the past seven years, very flattering notices have appeared in various newspapers of the United States, of the condition of Colon and Panama, as regards streets, sewers and water supply.  They were all true, but in justice to the engineers in civil life, who designed and built these works and wrought these changes, it should be remembered that all this was accomplished before the advent of the army engineers, and was not done by the latter, as mistakenly asserted by the articles in question.

When I reached the zone, conditions could have been worse, but they were bad enough.   No real start at any effective work on the canal proper had been made, no organization worthy the name had been effected, sanitary reforms were really just beginning, little new plant had been provided, and little that was absolutely needed had been ordered.  And plant and material that had been under requisition for months was so delayed in delivery as to paralyze the efforts of those who, to the best of their ability and means, were trying hard to get results.

In such organization as existed, no cooperation was apparent -- exactly the opposite -- and no systematic plans, as far as could be discovered, had been formulated toward carrying out the work along lines promising any degree of success.

And, worse than all, over and above in the diseased imaginations 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 otherwise intelligent men seemed to be expect was an order to abandon the work and go home.

To provide housing for this army, with its future great increase; to properly feed, to instill in them faith in the ultimate success of the great project, to weed out the hopeless doubters and incompetents, 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 in hand.

While the French turned over to us square miles of engines, cars, rails, dredges, tools and plant of all descriptions, very little of it was of practical value, and such of it as was used, was generally only until proper modern appliances could be substituted; but as time wore on, as new plant arrived and was put into service, as the force increased, as proper food and housing were provided, as improved health conditions prevailed, as the majority saw that -- unconsciously perhaps to them -- a real effective organization, working steadily but surely towards a definite, intelligent end had been made, the whole situation hanged for the better; and that the organization was effective, the plant well designed, the working plans rightly conceived, is evident from the fact that the construction of the canal since the real beginning of work early in 1906, with but mall addition to plant in hand, or under order, or material change in organization, went steadily and smoothly on to completion, with a rapidity and economy that long ago confounded and silenced carping criticism.

The work of the Sanitary Department under the direction of Colonel (now General) Gorgas.   And, as the success or failure of the entire work of building the canal rested upon the underlying basis of good health conditions, it may truthfully be said that the responsibilities of that department were of the first and prime importance.  Disease and death would have conquered de Lesseps even if his finances had held out.  And they would conquered us, if, in the light of latter-day science, General Gorgas and his staff of able, devoted assistants had not so successfully handled the situation.

There seemed to exist, unfortunately, a general feeling, outside of the medical staff, that the work being inaugurated and carried on by this department was largely experimental, and doubts were expressed on all sides as to its permanent success.

General Gorgas was under the jurisdiction of the governor of the zone, who was a member of the commission.  But I failed to find the hearty cooperation to exist which was so necessary to success.  Large amounts had to be expended by the department, prompt decisions involving big questions had to be made, and I judged that the governor, being, as indeed we all were, totally unacquainted with such a problem, had a natural reluctance in assuming the great responsibilities involved.  In fact, the chairman expressed the opinion that much money was being wasted by the department and seemed inclined rather to criticise than to suggest.

In line with the policy I adopted, as explained later, and knowing full well that all my efforts would end in failure, lacking proper sanitary conditions, I took the bull by the horns, regardless of regulations or red tape, and threw all the weight of the Engineering Department to the aid of General Gorgas, cooperating with him in every possible manner.

Labor was scarce at that time, but the Sanitary Department had the first call and its requisitions for laborers had preference over all others.  Without waiting for orders, or even approval, the Engineering Department built roads, sewers, waterworks, hospitals, and many other essentials, at the request of General Gorgas, and I am certain that he knows and appreciates too, that the real success which crowned so royally the labors of his department began to date from the autumn of 1905; and while I know that the Engineering Department -- during the period I was connected with it -- has justly to its credit many things of importance, there is no single one of them all that I take more pride in as time goes by than that of the aid and help we gave to the Sanitary Department, when it was so sadly needed.

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

Presented by CZBrats
February 15, 1999
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