The Truth of History
by John F. Stevens
In handling the enormous amounts of
money required for payment of salaries and wages on the Isthmus, not only in the actual
disbursement of the funds but the methods of timekeeping, identification, etc., leading up
to the actual payments, it required the skill and honesty of an unusual man -- such a man
as Mr. E. J. Williams, who was engaged by the commission for this work. In matters
of accounts, etc., he was nominally under the direction of the auditor of the
commission, but for the care and legal expenditure of all the funds he was directly
responsible in the last analysis only the Comptroller of the Treasury at Washington.
Previous to Mr. Williams taking charge of the disbursement office, things had not
apparently moved smoothly in matters of detail on the work, but under the system he put in
force satisfaction was given; and that this important feature of the work was well
administered is attested by the fact that his services were retained until the completion
of the canal. Some of the unnecessarily elaborate plans for accounting, as
promulgated by the auditor of the commission at Washington, caused a little friction with
the disbursing office, but annoyances of this kind were not allowed to have serious
consequences, and fairly harmonious action prevailed between the auditing and the other
The organization of the Engineering Department was framed on simple lines, and generally the material of its personnel with few additions was found already on the Isthmus. In addition to the staff at general headquarters, there was the Division of Building Construction -- Mr. Belding in charge -- under which plans were made and construction of all buildings or other structure required by the canal work were carried out, and so successfully that once material began to arrive in sufficient quantities we were able, without serious delay to properly house and care for the thousands of constantly arriving employees. All the numberless variety of buildings required -- quarters, hospitals, schoolhouses, churches, jails, fire and police stations, etc., were promptly erected and put into service. Including the amounts used by the Panama Railroad, over 80.000,000 feet of lumber was brought in from gulf ports and from the Pacific Coast, and all used in the work of this division in a year and a half.
The Division of Municipal Engineering, under Mr. Holcombe, had in its charge all improvements in the nature of sewerage, water supply, paving, street and road making, not only in Panama and Colon but in all the towns in the zone. Its work covered -- like that of all the other divisions -- a multitude of details, which were well planned and executed.
The Division of Meteorology and River Hydraulics was under the late Mr. Arango, a native of Panama, who was technically educated at one of the prominent engineering schools in the United States. He gave excellent service and was charged with the duties of conducting all stream measurements, of the extensive system of water recording stations we maintained, not only on the zone, but far distant, up the Chagres River, nearly to the Darien country. Its records of temperature, rainfall, winds fluctuating flow of streams and seismic disturbances (which were slight, and generally at long distances away) were models of clearness and intelligence, and will become more and more valuable as time goes on.
The maintenance and operation, as far as mechanical features were concerned, of all machinery, was placed under the charge of Mr. Brook, as superintendent of motive power and machinery. Locomotives, steam-shovels, rolling stock, shops, drills and field plant, were planned and built under specifications made by this division, the head of which was held responsible for results. One interesting feature of the work of this division, which I have never seen described in public print, was the planning and building of three immense air-compressing plants, located at about equal distances from each other, from which plants was fed into a pipe line, extending along the entire length of Culebra Cut (nine miles) all the compressed air that was needed to operate the hundreds of air drills employed in the cut. The able work of this division, in planning the necessary plant and tools, was a great factor in enabling the transportation system to be evolved, by which the Culebra Cut was so quickly and economically taken out.
The preparatory work and actual construction of the canal proper was placed under three division engineers. Mr. F. B. Maltby's jurisdiction extended from deep water at Colon to and including all works at Gatun dam, spillway and locks, he also having charge of the construction and maintenance and operation of all marine plant, including dredges, tugs, marine shops, etc. He also planned and erected the elaborate plant which so successfully handled the enormous amount of masonry which was used in the construction of Gatun locks by the army engineers.
The work throughout the famous Culebra Cut was supervised by the division engineer, the late Mr. D.W. Bolich, whose authority extended to and included the locks at Pedro Miguel, including the excavation and disposal of all material from the cut, not matter to what point it was taken. This involved the application of the plan of track installation which I had devised for handling this material, and which plan was followed until the work was completed. From Pedro Miguel locks to deep water in the Bay of Panama, the work was under Mr. William Gerig as division engineer, and all matters in connection with this sectiion were handled by him, the grater part being the dredging of the outside channel, together with the maintenance and operation of marine shops and plant on his division (as assistant to Mr. Maltby in the last-mentioned work), in which particular lines of employment he was especially qualified. In additioin, he conducted all of the vast amount of surveying and test borings, which were needed to arrive at a final decision as to the details of the plan of the canal at its southern.
These men -- in details -- laid the foundation upon which was built up the structure, which enabled me to demonstrate that the canal could be built; and not only our success, but the success of those who followed us to the completion of the gigantic work, is debtor to their intelligent, indefatigable labors, in putting into effect the general plans which had been given for their guidance.
I have not touched upon the organization for operation of the Panama Railroad. It was reorganized, and in some ways by drastic treatment, not only in personnel but in methods. Modern systems of accounting and store-keeping were installed, and under the experienced eye of Mr. Bierd -- who was later made general manager, -- the Panama Railroad became a wonderfully efficient transportation machine. And it had to be, for the amount and variety of service demanded of it cannot be paralleled in the history of the railway world.
The general charge of designing of the dams, locks and spillway was placed in charge of Mr. Joseph Ripley, whose long experience, not only in the construction, but the operation of canals, made his services of immense value. This work was well inaugurated during 1906, and a staff of designers, exceptional in ability, was selected by Mr. Ripley, who worked out all plans of these structures as they were built, with few changes and which now stand as great monuments to their creative genius.
All this time surveys were being conducted, not only along the line of the canal proper, but elsewhere in the zone for various necessary purposes, such surveys being made in some cases to verify and supplement the records left by the French, but more to obtain exact data required by our accession of the strip of land called the Canal Zone. This work was practically continuous, and it entailed upon the engineers a life of hardship and danger -- far in the dense, tropical jungles, miles from the comforts of zone life, and from the protecting ministrations of the Sanitary Department.
The general direction of all of the work of the Engineering Department was supervised and directed from the administration building at Culebra, to which I moved all headquarters -- previously located in the City of Panama. At Culebra, Empire, Gorgona, Gatun, Paraiso and Pedro Miguel, we build new large towns, supplied with modern improvements, and smaller ones at many other points, of less importance. A complete system of telephones was installed, so elaborate that, sitting at my desk, I could without delay talk not only with the leading officials wherever located in the zone, but also practically with every switch shanty and steam shovel on the canal. The charge of all office work at headquarters, of correspondence, and largely of executive matters was in the hands of Mr. E.P. Shannon, my faithful and efficient secretary.
Time and space will not here permit the mention personally of the scores of other capable, intelligent, hard-working men who made up the staff of the Engineering Department. They were a fine lot of men, a surprisingly large percentage being graduates of our best colleges and high-grade schools. Almost without exception they seemed to feel that the success of the particular part of the work assigned to them meant the success of the whole project, and with such a devoted, loyal band of assistants there could be but one result.
It may, I think, be fairly assumed from what has already been said that the position of Chief Engineer was a reasonably busy one, but the conduct and direction of the work so far outlined was only a part of the requirements. The time devoted to the discussion of the type of the proposed canal, both on the Isthmus and in Washington, seemed endless, but the part I took in it, which, without conceit, I think had some influence in the decision made, will ever be a source of gratification to me personally. I went to the Isthmus with a fairly open mind on the subject of type -- if anything, rather inclined in father of the sea level. But it did not take me long to realize that however rich and powerful in men and resources the United States might be, the idea of a sea-level canal, such as proposed, was absurd; that a practical one could not be built in any admissible length of time, or without the expenditure of a totally unjustifiable amount of money -- enough to stagger even the financial ability of the nation.
So I became an earnest advocate of the present completed lock-type, and reported to the commission strongly in its favor, and both before the International Board of engineers and committees of both House and Senate, and with individual members of these bodies, earnestly urged its merits; and felt then, and do yet, that the decision which was made in its favor was eminently wise, and that time will so fully demonstrate.
Visits to the States, solely on canal affairs, took up much valuable time which I felt could much better have been devoted to affairs on the Isthmus, but they seemed to be considered necessary, and were made, although several times under protest. It must be remembered that upon me fell the burden, as well as the responsibility, of not only pushing the necessary work of preparation needed to lay a solid foundation for the real work of building the canal, but also, to a great extent, the origination, coincident with the task of organization, of the plans under which the construction of the canal itself was to proceed.
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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