The Truth of History
by John F. Stevens
With the light of what I could plainly see had been
the experience of Mr. Wallace, I determined from the start, or as soon as I could grasp
the significance of affairs, that the only line of policy that promised success was one of
gong ahead and doing things on my own initiative, without waiting for orders or
approval. One of the terms I insisted upon before I became chief engineer was that I
should be unhampered in my work in any way, shape or manner, and I am free to say this
agreement was strictly kept. The distance of the commission from the work as well as
its make-up, did not admit of any other plan of procedure. As constituted, the
members of the commission, who were civil engineers, were designated to act in an advisory
capacity. But I knew full well that none of the board had the experience in either
such construction work or transportation matters that would qualify them to dictate to me
how matters should be planned and handled, and frankly I determined early that they should
I wish candidly to say that the commission cheerfully, as far as I know, accepted the situation, cooperated with me to the utmost, and approved formally of all my acts. I was accused by busy-bodies of being a law unto myself, of having cut the cable and all such nonsense. Not a word of truth in such talk. The commission was always kept advised by me, in due course of time, as to current events and what I had done. As a rule I never requested approval in advance for detailed expenditures in any line whatever; on the Isthmus I went ahead, made plans, saw they were executed, and later on advised the commission in fair detail what I had done, what I had expended, and asked approval, which was always quickly given.
In assuming such responsibility I felt I was taking the only sure course, although I fully realized that on me, primarily, would fall the blame, should my plans not develop into success. But I had been used all my life to accept responsibility, and a man who will not had better stay on the old farm. The only true basis of successful organization is the lodging of authority and of responsibility for results. And in this case, after I had in a way understood the plans and aims of the Sanitary Department, not a shadow of doubt remained in my mind as to ultimate success of the great project -- provided the right type for the canal was adopted.
Of the many important matters that pertained wholly to the Engineering Department was the securing of the necessary labor, both skilled and unskilled, to carry out our plans, which were slowly but surely being evolved. All common labor, for years, -- for the Panama Railroad, and in fact for most of the ports in different countries along the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, -- had been black, drawn from the islands of the latter. Such supply had so far proven insufficient in either amount or quality, and I at once saw that it had to be made better, if possible, by raising its standard, either within itself, or by introducing a sufficient number of a higher grade to leaven the mass.
My first thought was, naturally, Chinamen, as I had observed their good qualities for years in railway and other similar works on the Pacific Coast. But, after due consideration, through the commission, this idea was dismissed for good reasons. Then, attention having been called to the possibilities which Spain offered as a source of supply, I sent an agent to Madrid -- a man well versed in Spanish law and a fluent linguist -- with orders to secure several thousand men from the Biscayan provinces. This, after some difficulties, he was able to do through the assistance of the steamship companies. Their introduction as expected resulted in such a marked improvement in labor conditions that altogether nearly eight thousand of them were brought over.
At the same time, measures were taken to provide a systematic method for securing an ample supply of blacks by establishing agencies in the various English and French islands, and in a comparatively short time the problem of the necessary amount of common labor was solved.
All skilled labor was drawn from the United States, agents for such purpose having been placed in several of our large cities -- those that were centers of manufacturing and railway activity. In spite of handicaps which ought never to have existed, we succeeded wonderfully well, and after due course of time were able to keep the ranks full of all good classes -- all this work being handled directly by and through our organization on the isthmus. One of our handicaps in securing these skilled laborers was the insidious and disloyal attitude displayed by some of our home newspapers and magazines in depicting to their readers the terrible health and living conditions alleged to prevail on the Isthmus, long after the zone had become a safer and healthier place of residence than the very cities in which some of these papers were published. The words of irresponsible letter-writers were taken in direct contradiction of the facts, and screeds were eagerly scattered broadcast, poisoning the public mind, all probably for the sake of sensationalism. By me, such publications could only be given the name they would be called, if the nation was engaged in a foreign war.
The system under which food supplies were handled to the vast army of employees was an amplification of the plan under which the Panama Railroad had been supplying necessities to its men. But the enormous expansion in the demand, and the endless multiplicity of detail involved, together with the securing, housing an care of the force, made necessary the establishment of the division of labor and quarters, subordinate to the Engineering Department. This division was placed in charge of the late Jackson Smith, under whose able direction the details were all carefully worked out, and the entire problem solved in such a systematic manner that these very important matters became but coordinate parts of a well-oiled and smoothly running machine.
As, naturally, the vast majority of the white
employees were bachelors, it became incumbent on those in charge of the work to provide,
not only for their ordinary living quarters, but also for ample, well-cooked and served
meals for all classes, as the lowest rates that could consistently be given. To this
end hotels and eating houses were built, equipped and put in proper running order, at the
different localities, wherever necessary. As the result of experiments as to cost of
raw food and preparing and serving it, a price was fixed upon for such meals, which, after
the natural discussion and criticism bound to follow, was agreed to as being fair and
reasonable, and the system moved off satisfactorily.
Previous to this time, I had discussed with the commission at various times the policy of putting all the work of feeding employees into the hands of outside parties. We all realized that next to the all important matter of sanitation came the problem of caring for the material wants of our men. But as time elapsed, and we began to see light, through the plans we were putting into effect (those for handling the matters directly, ourselves) the question of contracting for the food was held in abeyance until the success of failure of the experiments I was trying was demonstrated.
But at this particular time the commission made a contract with a party, the terms of this contract being practically such as would result in turning over to him all of our carefully installed, elaborate plant, and practically the welfare of the thousands of our employees, subject to restrictions and supervision which in my opinion would have been impracticable to enforce, and would have resulted in certain trouble and confusion. And in addition to this, the contractor was to be allowed to charge employees much larger prices than our own system had demonstrated were necessary.
Immediately I was advised of the terms of this contract I registered a vigorous protest by cable, with the effect that the chairman and contractor came to the isthmus, and after a short conference with the governor, the manager of labor and quarters, and myself, the contract was very wisely abrogated, by mutual consent. Doubtless the commission in making this contract acted only for the best interests of the work from its point of view, but the results of such action, if carried through, would have precipitated only dissatisfaction and trouble, resulting in serious disruption and lowering of the morale of the force, and would have certainly produced large profits to the contractor at the expense of the employees.
The reconstruction of the Panama Railroad, which was under my management, was a serious problem. It was not, at the time I took charge, able to handle its commercial business, with the additional traffic already thrown onto it, and a very serious state of congestion prevailed. Owing to the delay in deciding upon the type of the canal, it was not possible to rebuild it upon a permanent location; at the same time, the extraordinary amount and variety of service it was called upon to render made quick decision and vigorous action necessary. We were very fortunate in obtaining the services of Mr. W. G. Bierd as superintendent, whose abilities I had clearly recognized while under my jurisdiction in railway work in the States. Plans were made, the work of reconstruction pushed, -- hampered all the while by the necessity of handling the constantly increasing traffic -- until in 1906 the railroad had been practically rebuilt, double-tracked, supplied with al necessary accessories, including those demanded by food and other supply reception and distribution, and was fully capable of, and did handle satisfactorily, every burden put upon it. We were subjected to criticism and fault-finding, some of it from high sources, that should have been a help instead of an attempted embarrassment; but I kept plugging ahead, disregarding and defying possible consequences to myself, until my judgment was finally conceded to be confirmed by results.
Meanwhile, the commission had reorganized the very inefficient Purchasing and Supply Department, placing at hits head, at Washington, Mr. D.W. Ross, to whose able management, hearty and prompt cooperation, I can give only words of praise. All requisitions for supplies, material, plant, tools and thousands of different articles needed were promptly handled, and the Purchasing Department speedily became a help of the right sort, instead of the hindrance it had been in Mr. Wallace's time. In cases where owing to price or time of delivery, possible changes in specifications looked advisable, the matter was taken up promptly in consultation and agreement arrived at without friction, and in the conducting of all business, particularly through the supply stores on the zone, the greatest harmony prevailed between the departments.
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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