Part 4
Chapter XXXVII
The Truth of History
by John F. Stevens


I remarked previously that upon my arrival on the work, little of value had been done on the canal.  Doubtless the old commission, in deference to the idiotic howl about "making the dirt fly," had instructed Mr. Wallace to try and do so with the means at hand (for I am convinced that, of his own volition, would have done no such thing), which meant with the exception of a few modern steam shovels, he had to resurrect a lot old, small, and decrepit French plant, and hammer away as best he could.   Engines, cars and track were all pitifully ludicrous, and no progress worth the name could be made.  Standing on one point, overlooking a part of Culebra Cut, a short time after my arrival, I counted seven work trains in the ditch, and all visible shovels idle.  And all available forces of laborers were trying to get these trains on to the tracks, an unwise proceeding, for they were of more value where they were.

I immediately issued orders suspending all and every effort to move material from the cut, organized all these forces into crack constructiion gangs, and as far as material was in hand, laid work tracks of heavy rail, properly ballasted, to conform later to a definite plan I had decided upon, to enable the shovels to work to the best advantage, and the material to be moved most quickly and cheaply.  The commission approved my action, and it was carried out, and no more "dirt flew" until the proper preparation had been made.  To quote from a letter to a high official in answer to a request for information on certain matters, I said in relation to my policy -- "that if anyone in power realized the absolute necessity of thorough preparation along all lines before attempting to do actual work, he did not have the courage of his convictions, and did not put such a policy into execution.  I have endeavored to do so, and regardless of clamor and criticism I propose to do so as long as I am in charge of the work.  And all the criticism, from any source whatever, of my course in adopting such a policy, will have no effect upon me; and I am confident that if this policy is adhered to, the future will show its absoute wisdom."

The bulk of the common labor being of such a low rate of efficiency, prompt consideration of ways and means to increase the of these blacks was necessary.  From the viewpoint of the white man, the lack of a sufficiently nourishing diet seemed to be largely responsible for their small value.  So the experiment was tried of furnishing them, at fair prices, such raw food as suited their needs, and to which their race had for generations been accustomed.  In some individual cases an improvement was apparent, but the fact remained that the great bulk of them were, to put it plainly, too indolent to cook the food, preferring to eat raw, such of it as they could.  Then we established eating stations, or messes, for all of them, at which places every one, excepting those who were married and living at their homes, were obliged to take their cooked food, the cost of which was deducted from their wages.

The good effect of this move was at once noticeable, and their efficiency increased to a marked degree, and this improvement was enhanced by the introduction of the Spanish, by showing the blacks that they did not control the labor market -- as some sort of such crazy idea had gotten into their heads.  These negroes are a childlike, amiable sort of people, moral, according to their standards, and easy to control.  Those from the British Islands all had a smattering of education, and exhibited it on every occasion.   One old man whom I had as a personal servant well illustrated this tendency, when he said:  "Mr. Stevens is a fine man, we all love him, but he does not use good English," -- a fact which the patient reader had probably long since discovered.

No serious labor troubles ever occurred during the period in question.  One class of our skilled labor, which was enjoying a wage scale that, in addition to the man privileges wisely granted by the commission, really resulted in an advance of more than sixty per cent above the wages paid for similar work in the States, demanded a very large increase, coupled with the usual threat of  a strike, and as a matter of fact some of them did stop working for a few days.  This was rather a relief to me, as we were overstocked at that time with this class of men, waiting for necessary preparatory work to be completed.

I refused to make the concessions asked, and plainly told them that our ships were running light, north-bound, and would be glad to fill up their passenger lists.  As the Secretary of War, who next to the President had supreme authority over canal affairs, was on the Isthmus, I took up the matter with him, and after due deliberation he sustained my position.  The men went back to work, and the incident was closed and remained so during my term of office.

There was a sporadic attempt to make trouble among a fire-eating few of our Spanish laborers, but prompt and drastic action by our zone police put an end to the affair in an hour.  Of course, there were the usual malcontents, always present and always vociferous among so many men, but their influence was nil, as far as results were concerned.  The whole force -- of all classes and races -- once living and health conditions became normally what they should be, settled down in a business-like way, and affairs moved off smoothly.

Practically an open door was kept at headquarters for all classes and grades of employees.   Complaints and suggestions were listened to patiently at all times, and adjustments were made as equably as possible and did exact justice to all.  At least one-half of my time during daylight hours was spent -- generally on foot -- along the work and among the labor camps, and my knowledge of the situation was gained very largely by personal contact, and not from routine reports.

During all the time the work of preparation was under way, and coincident with the consideration of the plans under which all phases of the construction was to be carried on, the question of the proper amount and character of the plant which would be required was a pressing and vital matter.  The delay in the decision as to the type of the canal was a serous handicap in deciding all of these problems, once the type was decided upon, then quick action was taken.  Vast quantities of all sorts of machinery for all classes of the work, from locomotives to money wrenches, track material, steam shovels, cars, and a variety too great to even give a faint suggestion of here, were requisitioned, and for such plants as required special designs, plans and specifications were prepared and orders were placed as soon as the necessary data were available; so that in 1906, enough plant and material had been assembled to enable us to  make a real start, not only in Culebra Cut, but also at many other points along the line -- notably at Gatun dam and locks and at Pedro Miguel.  And the work thus inaugurated during that year went on without cessation, until the completion of all work in 1914.

The relations of the Engineering Department to the various departments under the charge of the governor of the zone were pleasing and harmonious.  Especially was this true as regards the policing of the zone, with which we had much to do.   Its affairs were administered wisely and firmly and the conduct of all governmental functions contributed much to our progress.

We were thrown often into contact with the officials of the Panama Republic, and speaking for my department, I can truthfully say that we found them a high-grade lot of men, with whom, by the ordinary amenities of life, the most cordial relations could be maintained, and among the many pleasant recollections of a busy life are those of the friendships formed among these people.

It may be thought that in my references to the members of the engineering staff I have pictured them as a very exceptional lot of men.  They were not; they were simply a group, truly representative of the best type of educated Americans, who needed only to be shown the way, and to be provided with the proper means to accomplish results; and they did so with an eye single only to the interests of the great project.

I have spoken of the apparent lack of cooperation which existed between the various officials in 1905.  To eliminate this discordant note I early instituted weekly meetings, at which were present a representative of every department of the canal, of the Panama Railroad, and the division engineers.  At these meetings a general discussion of all work in progress was taken up, and whenever such work was found to interfere with, or to be not in line with the best interests of all departments, adjustments and changes were made, so that these interests were mutually provided for.  The same adjustment was made of all work planned to come up in the immediate future, each member of the council being called upon to explain his plans and scope of work, and then and there, any criticisms or suggested changes necessary to conserve the welfare of the work, as a whole, were presented, considered and finally settled.  In a word, each official was enabled not only to get a clear idea of the work of his associates and its relation t his own, but also to realize that the interests of his department, however important in his eyes, were but the component parts of a great system, to the successful establishment of which all were mutually interested.  The good results coming through these meetings were soon apparent, and thenceforward perfect teamwork became the rule, and it was remarkable how much assistance each could give to the other and to the advancement of his own work.


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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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