A Few Will
by Edgar Young
from The Excavating Engineer - August 1921
Mr. Young is a veteran of the army who "put across" the "Big Ditch." His story is a vivid portrayal of the spirit which fired that splendid army of American workers
I stood on the deck of a steamer
making its way through Culebra Cut. Everything was changed. Nothing was the
same. A second growth of jungle had sprung up. Grass was growing from the
water-line to the hilltops. Herds of acclimatized Colombian cattle were grazing on
the sides of Culebra.
Passengers lounged in deck-chairs idly scanning what they supposed were natural slopes of the country. A few stood at the rails chatting good-naturedly. Already they were beginning to wonder what would be of interest at the ports of the West Coast. Yet we were passing through the Culebra Cut, the nine-mile gash through a chain of mountains, the man-made canyon where we had battered and battered and dug and dug to weld two oceans into one. Culebra, trier of souls, red with the blood of men!
They are pasturing cattle onto sides of Culebra. It would have been scant picking eight years ago. Then the walls were bare and a horde of men swarmed sides and bottom of the big rut. I had to shut my eyes before I could see it as it was then. The roaring steam-shovels, belching smoke and steam, the racing locomotives dragging long trains of Lidgerwoods heaped high with red and blue clay, the maze of tracks on every spare foot of space along the floor and along the sides of the cut, the chugging Star-drills making holes for the noon-day bombardment, the channelers thumping up and down their short runways, the locomotive cranes with greedy clamshell or orange-peel buckets biting into the earth, the swinging stiff-legs, the screaming dinkys, the long-boomed track-shifters, the swarming gangs of white and yellow and black men from all countries on the earth's face.
An army of men had fought Culebra. Day by day they had gone out to give battle. And day by day Culebra gave answer. The walls caved in and great cracks in the earth extended back into the hills for miles, the bottom belched up from the weight of earth on the sides, overturning steam-shovels and disrupting tracks; slides came down. Cucuracha dropped four million yards into the cut in one day over and above her regular schedule. And she was but one of many. An unknown bed of mineral was dug into, which took fire at exposure to the air and smoldered like a volcano for weeks until it was dug up bodily and hauled from the cut.
And Culebra killed and maimed and crippled many men. One day eighty were buried under a bank that caved in. Another day fifty were killed in a premature explosion. She took legs and arms, feet, hands and would have taken more lives and maimed more men had it not been for the best surgeons in the World who averaged more than thirty operations a day for months at a stretch in the operating ward at Anacin. Culebra - snake as your name implies; monster!
Men lost their grip of things and went to hell fighting against Culebra Cut. Men turned tail and fled, spreading the word that it could not be done. Men were made into gamblers, liars, thieves and murderers on account of Culebra Cut. It tried their souls. It gave them tests they never would have had to meet otherwise.
We were passing along the side of Gold Hill. How meaningless to the well-mannered folk who lounged the deck. Gold Hill! Gold Hill, the defiant! Gold Hill, the inscrutable! Gold Hill, the unconquerable! Gold Hill, highest peak of the mountain-chain!
Here had been Culebra's fort. Here she had let loose roaring avalanches of mud and stone. Here she had put more dirt in the canal in a day than we could dig in a year. Here she had bitten deep into the ranks of the Yankee men, the sweating blacks, the allied horde that swarmed to give battle to this unchained giant and devil, Gold Hill.
We were floating over the exact spot where Jim Hall's shovel had worked the day before Gamboa dike was blown up and the water turned in. Jim Hall! I could have screamed it to my fellow passengers. Jim Hall's shovel made her last cut right back there. Jim Hall's shovel, the battered old Bucyrus. They meant much to me. And Jim Hall's heart, the heart of an overalls-clad private in the ranks. Of this big heart I shall have more to say.
I couldn't say just how long this shovel-runner had been on the Zone when I first arrived. That he had been there a long time I knew from the gaunt look of his hollow face, the sag of his figure, the melancholy stare of his pale blue eyes. There wasn't an ounce of strength visible in his face. His chin sloped abruptly, his sparse gray mustache drooped downward over a sagging lower lip. He was plainly a man who had missed too many boats back to the U.S.A. And this was in 1907.
I knew from the first time I laid eyes on him that he was hard hit by the sun. I wouldn't have given him a month to remain. Bigger, stronger, healthier men were going down and out by dozens. Shut off from the breeze down there under Gold Hill it was hot. One day at noon down there it registered one hundred and twenty-eight. And at Colon it was only ninety-four. That was in the shade. The Lord Himself only knows how hot it was on the same day on the deck of a Bucyrus with a piece of corrugated iron overhead and a red-hot boiler close beside. They packed them out that day on stretchers and they threw water on them were they staggered in circles and fell.
Other days the water poured from the sky. One year the record was a hundred and forty-four inches. And it only rained part of the time. It did not come down in drops nor sheets. It came down by pailsful, downpours, avalanches of water hurled from the heavens with force enough to knock a man to his knees at times.
I didn't stick around very long myself the first time. I did a hitch of about a year. It wasn't nearly so healthy on the Zone then as it is now. Nor, it wasn't so tame either. Colon was a mudhole with shacks standing about through it on stilts. They had no sewerage. Underneath the houses alligators and reptiles of all sizes and shapes squirmed through the black mud by day and night.
They hadn't got the Zone very well sanitated then, either. The impossible was not then an accomplished fact. Mosquitoes flew in clouds. There were gnats, bats, bugs, insects, great poisonous ants, snakes, lice - hell's brood to bite and sting - blood-sucking vampires and the sun.
This last was the worst. Not the heat but the hidden rays, the ultra-violet, the things that take hold of a man's soul, that clutches and burns up the nerves' very protoplasm, that causes men to spring up from deep slumber and scream with horror at a noise as slight as the dropping of a pin. This I know and from no man's hearsay do I know it.
I craned Jim Hall's shovel in 1907. Perched high on the side of the throbbing boom underneath a piece of corrugated iron, butterfly throttle in left hand, dumping rope in right, swoop, the big five-yard dipper bit into the slate-hard clay, Chow; chow! Chuff; chuff; chuff! A shove on the butterfly, chuck-achuck-chuck! out go the sticks, a yank on the dumping rope, a thundering of earth on the steel bottom of the Lidgerwood; clang goes the dipper door back into place, snap goes the latch and wildly we swing back for another trip. Five yards at a trip and seconds measured the interval between. Hundreds of shovels were beating the world's record for moving earth. And Jim Hall was the champion runner of the C.Z.
Steady-eyed, white-faced, grim-jawed, silent, I've seen him stand there for a full eight-hours' shift, without one minute's rest, taking every ounce of power out of the old Bucyrus, figuring the swing of the boom, studying the moves forward between trains of empty cars, calculating to the exact fraction of an inch just where we would drop the dipper, watching me and working with me until he and I shovel, dipper, boom and engines, were just one huge machine, a thing of intelligence and power. There is skill in labor, and art - yes, much art.
I stood it a year and I quit I wanted to live. Two cranesmen ahead of me had drunk themselves to death on Balboa rum to keep themselves keyed to the highest pitch. The man ahead of them placed a .44 in his mouth and blew the top of his head off one night in the quarters at Empire. He hadn't been able to sleep for a week. Jim Hall had killed them. He had worked them to death. I know that he worked them to death for he came within an inch of working me to death. and I have a paper signed and sealed saying that I was one of the best cranemen in the Zone. I got this because Jim Hall worked me so hard I made a record. No credit is due me. No egotism is mixed up in this.
All four of us were bigger, stronger men than Jim Hall. I weighed two hundred and fourteen pounds. He weighed about a hundred and forty-five. The difference was that he was obsessed. I read his mind, read his soul as we worked there together day after day. It was our two brains that ran the big machine. Working together, sweating, scheming, amidst the terrific roaring of his engines and mine, the clatter, the clanging, the throbbing that shook us like rats in the teeth of a dog, our brains welded together and I knew his thoughts as he did mine.
When he cursed Gold Hill that crept down, down, down into the cut and pointed his shovel into the toe of the slide and it gained and pushed us back day by day, week by week, month by month, I raved at it with hysterical oaths.
Yet although I hated Gold Hill and fought it with bitter heart, one Monday morning I quit and swung down from the boom with giddy head. I staggered and fell and two of our blacks got hold of me and steadied me across the tracks and on to the path leading up the hill to Culebra village. And I heard Jim Hall cursing Gold Hill as I went away. He was talking to it as to a thing alive.
"You got him. You beat him. You licked him. But you can't get me. ----- you, you can't get me."
I had one greasy glove on. I remember looking at it curiously. And I remember those exact words. And I remember the half-insane, half-hysterical, half-womanly laugh that followed his remarks.
They say that Jim Hall cried next week when his name stood third on the list in the CANAL RECORD, while he was breaking in another man in my place. The next week he was second. It was three weeks before he was back to his place at the head of the list.
And two years later I drifted back. I had come lengthwise up the Andes and the West Coast by boat and trail, working and tramping. I was strong as an ox. I caught a train of empty Lidgerwoods coming off the dump at Balboa and rode them back into Cut. I peered off as we began to pass the shovels.
There were many new faces at the throttles at both shovel and boom-engines. Two years before I had known 'most all of them, at least by sight. Now I didn't recognize very many of them. Two years had thinned their ranks. Some had gone back to the States and the flesh of other tinged with the red clay of Monkey on the outskirts of Colon. Some raved in the madhouse at Ancon.
The whistles blew for quitting-time as we drifted on to a spotting-track on the toe of Gold Hill. Men began to swarm toward the waiting labor trains. It was when I had swung down and was looking at the battered fleet of shovels that I saw the familiar old Bucyrus; the 84. Jim Hall stumbled down and started half-groping his way toward a labor train. Yes, he was there yet. He hadn't missed a day since I had been gone. I seized him by the arm and helped him against his protests across the tracks and into a car. On a rough board-seat I sank down beside him.
I was brutally frank. I told him he was all in, that he had missed too many boats. I told him he had done his part, more than his part. I told him he would be a dead man within a month. It was only when he turned and looked into my eyes that I saw the mental flint, the mental cold steel, the indomitable will that held this man to his task after his body had broken down. He smiled wanly and shook his head.
"We just got to keep gnawing away as the slides come down. Finally the walls will brace and stay back when they get adjusted. I wish you'd come back and crane for me. I've learned a few tricks I didn't know. I can clip a few seconds that I couldn't clip before."
His voice dropped to a hoarse confidential whisper.
"I'm setting a cruel pace for the shovels. I've raised my own record twenty-five per cent."
That was in 1909. I did not go to work as steam-shovel craneman. I am no hog. I had had enough. I worked as engineer of a locomotive crane. I ran a stiff-leg. I drove a gang of Gallego Spaniards. I ran a relay-pump and an electric hoist. I was telegraph operator and towerman at most of the stations on the P.R.R. But I always found time to drift over into the Cut and stand and gaze at the snorting steam-shovels tearing into the toes of the huge slides; whole mountainsides crawling like glaciers down the sides of the Cut.
And I always looked for and I always saw Jim Hall But very seldom he glanced off and saw me. And week after week, month after month, I scanned the CANAL RECORD to see if his name headed the list. And each week the total yardage he had handled was a trifle greater than the week before.
It was early in 1913 that we on the P.R.R. began to get real busy. The waters of Lake Gatun were rising rapidly. They were creeping foot by foot up the face of the doors of Gatun upper locks. Towns were being moved. The city of Gorgona, a place that sheltered some eight thousand souls, was cut into sections and loaded bodily on cars and moved. The huge Gorgona shops, with machinery that required special cars in many instances to stand the weight, were loaded and taken away. Matachin, Frijoles, Lion Hill, Tiger Hill, all the old and all the new camps in the lake basin had to come out and we on the P.R.R. had to work swift and fast to get them out in time. The rising tide was soon to cover a hundred and seventy square miles. Our old line was already torn up and removed and we were skirting the lake on the new location.
Like clockwork we worked but like clockwork with pendulum removed, running wild, working at top speed to beat the rising water. At last the water poured over the spillway at Gatun dam. The lake was full. It stood within a foot of the top of the big coffer dam at Gamboa. Only Culebra Cut delayed turning the water through. Men fumed and cursed and lost heart. Weeks passed, months; it was in the Fall that we began to get rumors that the shovels in the Cut were working on the bottom of the proposed canal. Then quickly came the report that the Cut was ready for the water to be turned through. The tracks were being torn up and the machinery moved out. A few shovels were left until the very last, nibbling off the very tip-ends of the slides.
It was Sunday morning late in the Fall. Every man who was not actually working at the time gathered along the Cut to see the water go through. Right well I remember the bottom of the Cut that morning, three hundred feet wide and flat with a deep drainage-ditch in the exact center. And right well I remember the gaping Cut itself. A yawning gash nine miles long and over six hundred feet deep at Gold Hill, a great scar into the very vitals of Nature.
Boom! Boom! Boom-boom! Boom-boom-boom! came the muffled reports of the dynamite bombs that had been placed along the face o Gamboa dike. The water shot upward in a foaming cataract, visible for miles. Then came the coffee-colored flood raging through the Cut.
Cheer on cheer. Men were screaming mad with joy. Their shouts welded together in a mighty roar that echoed above the roar of water tearing through the Cut. Their cries ran the full length of Culebra and back again many times. This was the supreme climax of the work that cost the U.S.A. four hundred million. This was the realization of dreams since Balboa first stood on Darien's peak and glimpsed both Atlantic and Pacific. This was the surrender of Culebra, breaker of hearts, killer of men.
The great sirens on the power-houses were booming as hysterical men yank, yank, yanked on the ropes until arms grew numb and they tied them down to blow until the steam ebbed from the mighty boilers. Ships of all nations lying the harbors of Colon and Panama were giving tongue to their joy in huge blasts, tugs in the channels, five hundred locomotives along the P.R.R., every industrial plant in Colon and Panama, pleasure launches, everything that boasted a whistle was lending volume to the roar that rose in a crescendo to the very heavens and echoed back again and again and again. It was only when we had grown weak from exhaustion that we desisted.
And turning, we clambered along the sides of the Cut toward the various towns where we belonged. It was then that I suddenly came upon the old Bucyrus, the 84. She was muddy as a hog. Her smokestack had been knocked off and lost. Her dipper had been run out and taken down and was lashed to her deck with twists of cable. In place of the chain on her drums I noted a great reel of wire cable. She had been the last shovel to work in the Cut.
She had finished the job and had wound herself up out of the Cut at an angle of forty-five degrees on her own power with men placing short lengths of track ahead of her. She was within a rail's length of the main line of the P.R.R. and could be spurred in at any minute.
A few rods farther along I came upon Jim Hall sitting upon a boulder, resting. His chin was in his hands and he was staring down into the Cut with a look of serene satisfaction upon his emaciated face. I clapped him upon the back, shouting how great it was that we had won. He did not move and I stopped, frozen by the fact which just then came to me like a shock. Jim Hall was stone-dead.
And Now ... The Rest of the Story
It is nearly eight years since the
water was let into the Panama Canal. However, Mr. Edgar Young's story is published
for the benefit of those veterans who "will remember" and for the further
edification of many others who shared the national pride in the final accomplishment of
that magnificent job.
Mr. Young was one of those whose splendid spirit helped to "put it across." As to the facts being the story, we can do no better than to quote verbatim from his letter to the editor.
"I was working on the construction of the Southern Pacific de Mexico down near the Tepic River when the revolution started and we had to quit. Mr. Taft sent a proclamation to all Americans in Mexico to get out and sent warships to several ports to take us out. I decided that I would make the overland trip to Panama and I got a mule and started for Guadalajara. I made the trip from Guadalajara to Mexico City and thence to Tpachula by train and walked to Guatemala City. By one method and another, but mostly on foot, I finally made it to the Canal Zone.
"I went to work a locomotive craneman at Gatun and later was put to craning a shovel. I followed this at most of the camps along the canal. I know what it feels like to 'put the stocks out of her' and tie up the job. The old records of shovel performance that were printed weekly in the Canal Record speak eloquently of the high work of the shovel men. It was upon them that the entire canal hinged. "Jim Hall' is a type, but the actual man was there. His finish was worse than I made it. When the water went through he went 'bugs' and was found sitting on the ground playing with pebbles among a crowd of small Negro urchins. The fellow who drank himself to death on rum was named Kelly. He was one of the strongest men and one of the best cranemen I ever saw. He went all to pieces and finished up on Bay Rum. He would creep around the rooms at night feeling around over the dressers for the bottles of rum. The man who blew his brains out was named Cole. He borrowed sixty cents out of a friend's commissary book to get his laundry out of the commissary and after taking a bath he rammed an old forty-four into his mouth and let her go. The actual effects of the tropical sun and upon a white man is a peculiar puzzle to scientific men. Many a little tragedy occurred down there.
"It was my object to try to show the spirit of the fight made by Americans against grim nature and a deep-seated patriotic feeling that made men work until they dropped. There weren't any flags flying and there were many men heroic enough to die in the service of their country on decks of steam shovels, at boom throttles, and at every manner of work. I have never met a man who did not take pride in the Panama Canal, the greatest construction job in existence. And if men did their bit I am proud to say that the Bucyrus steam shovels did theirs. They are there all four ways from the Jack. I gave this particular Bucyrus a trifle more dipper capacity than she had because the very large dippers were only tried out on the extreme end of the job. The word 'Bucyrus' was an accepted synonym for 'steam-shovel' during the construction days. If they had failed there would not now be a Panama Canal."
thanks to the Bucyrus Company for providing this to CZBrats
December 22, 1998