Part 5
Chapter XXXVII
The Truth of History
by John F. Stevens


Owing to the difficulties encountered in securing men of experience for subordinate positions in the early stages of the work, I inclined strongly to the belief that to secure the quickest and most economical results it would be best to place the purely physical parts of it under contract, and on my expressing such views I was requested by the chairman to outline formally such a plan as I might deem practicable, and accordingly I did so.

A careful study of the conditions under which any contract could be entered into and carried out made me absolutely sure that, owing to the multiplicity and variety of details which were known and which must be considered, there would enter into the problem many unknown factors, to provide for, or even foresee, under any system based upon unit prices.   I, therefore, reverted to the well-tried-out plan of contract by percentage, which plan on the whole, when well conceived and honestly executed, is as fair to all interests as can be devised.

My underlying idea was that it might be possible to attract the attention and cooperation of strong railroad and general contractors in the United States, who by combining their strength and influence could form a powerful syndicate, one that not only would command the respect of the business world, but would easily be able, by utilizing their own well-trained forces of experts in all lines of construction, to at once make up an organization composed of the best material that the world afforded.  All of these contractors have a following of such men, who are reluctant to leave their service, as I found when trying to build up an independent organization.

After serious study I drew up a plan based upon percentage, under which I considered the interests of both the government and the contractor would be carefully guarded, and every contingency possible to foresee would be provided for.  By this plan all governmental and sanitary laws and regulations were to be undisturbed, and the commission, through its chief engineer, was to be to all intents and purposes as much the dictator and arbiter as though the work was to be carried out by its own forces.

The plan was cordially approved without modification by the commission and consideration of it by the higher powers that were was given without delay.  But on a trip which I made soon thereafter to Washington, I found that such changes and modifications -- mostly of a technical character -- had been made, that in my opinion would render it unattractive to the class of contractors I desired to interest.  However, bids were asked and a few were obtained, none of which were satisfactory in the judgment of all -- including myself.

Inasmuch as the objects sought to be accomplished had not been attained, all of the bids were rejected, and decision was made to go on and complete the work with our own forces, which was probably wise.  The organization had been so improved and perfected, and such a satisfactory rate of progress was being attained, that it was not thought advisable to incur the certain delay and possible disappointment which another call for bids might entail, as we knew we were certain of success in the handling of the work, as it was then proceeding.

Any present discussion which is being indulged in as to the great superiority of the plan under which the work was done, as compared with what might have been the result if it had been done under contract, is entirely futile.  The record is made, as far as the one method is concerned, and only hypothesis and theory can be set forth in regard to the other method, and when such speculations are made by parties having had no practical experience n handling large works by percentage contract, their opinion can have little weight.  I know -- from actual experience gained through the expenditure of many millions -- that great efficiency and economy will result from such methods properly handled.

In view of the many complimentary remarks passed upon the organization that was finally adopted governing the whole work, I quote below a letter which speaks for itself:

Culebra, August 5, 1906

Sir:--
  In compliance with your instructions, that I outline my ideas as to a proper organization, that will permit the construction of the canal to be carried out in the simplest, quickest, and therefore, best manner, I have the honor to report I have given much thought to the  matter and to say,--

  I believe that the power and responsibility should be concentrated, not divided; that the commission, constituted in whatever way it may be, must practically be a unit, and as such, must resolve itself into what will amount to a one-man proposition.

  That from now on, everything should be made subordinate to construction, and that, -- complying, of course, with the law governing, -- the members of the commission should be such men as will be in direct charge of, and responsible for, the most important phases of the work, and as far as consistent, they should live on the Isthmus.

  That so long as a large commission must be maintained, the division of duties to each other, should be clearly defined, and the chairman should be the responsible head.

  That purely Governmental functions should be entirely separated, in theory and practice, from the work of canal building, excepting so far that all officers representing the United States, shall understand that the sole and only object they have in holding office and living on the Isthmus, is to enable the United States to build and operate the canal

  I have, in consultation with Chairman Shonts, thoroughly threshed over these matters, and wish to say I am entirely in accord with him, and that I believe an organization along the lines we have drawn up, a draft or outline of which he takes to the States with him tomorrow, is the best and strongest that can be devised.

  While the canal may be paid for by the eighty odd millions of the people of the United States, the construction of it can be successfully carried on only under the supervision of a very limited number of them.

Respectfully yours,
        Jno. F. Stevens,
             Chief Engineer.

The President,
      Oyster Bay,
                 N.Y.

It will be seen, I think, that there is a striking similarity in the suggestions outlined in this letter, and the plan that was put into effect at a later date.  And the remark in the letter, that I collaborated with any one in drafting it, was a polite fiction, excusable perhaps, for reasons of policy, which seemed desirable to maintain.

I have heretofore referred to the fact that I always had the approval and cordial support of the commission in whatever I undertook and carried out, and without such help, of course the results achieved could not have been attained.  In so far as this, the commission is entitled to great credit, but I want distinctly to state that, as far as the Engineering Department was concerned, all its plans, including the securing of labor of all classes, the housing supplying and feeding of the same, the designing and the ordering of all plant, the conception of how the work, both preparatory and permanent, should be carried out, were made and executed on the Isthmus, by that department, within itself, and not by the commission.  And I fail to recall even a suggestion in reference to any important matter, much less an order, which was ever given out by that body, in regard to, or governing in any way, the methods we pursued in planning or carrying out the work, with the exception of the one concerning the unfortunate food contract, to which I have alluded.

Possibly, such a policy would not have succeeded if the personnel had been different.   I knew I had a staff that could be depended upon, not only to loyally and efficiently carry out any plan given to it, but also to suggest and originate plans, when its members found that they were expected to do so, as a part of their duties.  And I have always been ready, and I am yet, to assume the entire responsibility for what we did, and to smile at the "damning by faint praise," and the efforts of interested parties to ignore the truth, and to seize all the glory that is so liberally exhibited to the public.

During my time as chief engineer, I had much direct association with both the President and Secretary of War, and never for a moment did either fail to give me the most whole-hearted support and encouragement.  They both realized the serious nature of the problem, and the aid they extended was of the greatest service to me.

President Roosevelt's ideas always furnished food for thought, and the suggestion that we place our clubhouses under the management of the Y.M.C.A. was on of his happiest.  It came to me from him, and so I give to him the credit.

Our relations were always harmonious, and are  yet, and all statements to the contrary, which have been published by irresponsible writers, are entirely erroneous.   I am betraying no confidence when I say I knew that under the plan of organization I have referred to, every interest would have been placed in my hands, should I have so desired.  And when, for purely personal reasons, I tendered my resignation of chief engineer, I did it unreservedly, and not with any string, or attempted bluff, as was reported.  the President was not a man to be bluffed, even if my respect for his high office, as well as my regard for him personally, would have permitted any such preposterous action.  My reasons for resigning were purely personal, and for nothing whatever in regard to the canal, its organization, or any one in any way connected with it.

And, as to having been hampered by so-called red tape or Washington ways of doing business, I think I have made it clear that nothing of the kind ever occurred in my experience.  I have explained the relations I held with the commission; and with the President and Secretary of War, it was always a case of "cut the corners," to an extent which made it a positive pleasure to do business with them.

The attitude of the great majority of our newspapers was very friendly toward us, when represented by their regular correspondents, who were a high-grade class of men, and whose reports were always made up as the result of their own observations.  to me personally they were more than kind, and I feel that much of our success was due to their intelligent work.  They were free in criticism when occasion justified, and as equally free in commendation of methods and results which proved worthy.

Of the work of Colonel Goethals and his corps of efficient assistants, of course nothing but words of praise can be given.  It has always been a source of gratification to me that the management of canal affairs fell into the hands of an able man, one who had the breadth of mind which enabled him to give credit to those who preceded him, which he has done on many occasions.  the manner in which the completion of the gigantic work was carried out was a great triumph for American men and methods.

We handed over to the army engineers a well-planned and built machine, one that was running fairly smoothly, with perhaps a squeak or a hot bearing here and there, as is always inevitable with new machinery.  Improvements in detail could be and were made, as would have been the case no matter who had been the engineer.  But the fact remains that no radical change was made in any of its component parts, and that it proved such a success was no surprise whatever to me.  It was probably wise to place the work in 1907 in the hands of the army engineers, in order to secure certain continuity of supervision, which as events had proved could not be relied upon without so doing.   but it is well known to many that it would have been entirely possible to have quickly secured men in civil lie, who could have carried the work on as rapidly and as economically as did the army men.

This statement does not imply any disparagement of the work of Colonel Goethals, or of his staff.  A good executive, with an ample experience in construction, possessed of a clear head and a strong arm could have turned the crank and ground out as finished and complete a result as has been achieved.  If I had not been fully aware of this, when I resigned, I should have remained in charge.

During the last year of my service, and at times since, I have received many letters and verbal comments -- all unsolicited, of course, -- from men of every walk in life, all very complimentary in character as to our work.  And with the certain penalty of being accused of a lack of modesty, I quote one letter here, as showing that occasionally a ray of light from the outside illumined the dark places.  I do this, because I know the kind words were intended to apply, not so much to me personally, as to the Engineering Department, of which I happened to be the head.  and while it is a voice from the Great Beyond, it will appeal to many who know the writer to be sincere in whatever he said:

Hotel Tivoli, Ancon, Canal Zone
March 16, 1906

Mr. John F. Stevens.

   Dear Sir:

   Fearing I may not see you before we sail, I want to write a word of appreciation of your splendid work here on the Isthmus.  I had not the faintest conception of it before I came here.

   I can imagine something of chaos that existed when you came here; but the order which you have brought out of the confusion is marvelous.  Your organization is more complete.  You have proven yourself not only an engineer of the highest rank, but an able and thorough executive.  The world will some day realize the debt of gratitude it owes to John F. Stevens.

   With best wishes for your future, I am,

Yours very truly,
              Sereno E. Payne.

In looking back over the events which took place during my time of  service with the Panama Canal, and of which I had a hand in shaping, I can see some which could have been better met, and many that satisfy me in their outcome.  And I know full well that when all motives, actions and results are subjected to the melting pot of time, when "the tumult and the shouting dies, the Captains and the Kings depart," each and every one who had his share, small or great, in the wonderful enterprise, will be given the true place in history to which his work entitles him.


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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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