Message of The President
on The Panama Canal
Communicated to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17, 1906
In the month of November I visited the Isthmus of
Panama, going over the Canal Zone with considerable care; and also visited the cities of
Panama and Colon, which are not in the Zone or under the United States flag, but as to
which the United States Government, through its agents, exercises control for certain
sanitary purposes. The U.S.S. Louisiana, on which I was, anchored off Colon
about half past 2 on Wednesday afternoon, November 14. I came aboard her, after my
stay on shore, at about half past 9 on Saturday evening, November 17. On Wednesday
afternoon and evening I received the President of Panama and his suite, and saw members of
the Canal Commission, and various other gentlemen, perfecting the arrangements for my
visit, so that every hour that I was ashore could be employed to advantage. I was
three days ashore -- not a sufficient length of time to allow of an exhaustive
investigation of the minutiae of the work of any single department, still less to pass
judgment on the engineering problems, but enough to enable me to get a clear idea of the
salient features of the great work and of the progress that has been made as regards the
sanitation of the Zone, Colon, and Panama, the caring for and housing of the employees,
and the actual digging of the canal. The Zone is a narrow strip of land, and it can
be inspected much as one can inspect 50 or 60 miles of a great railroad, at the point
where it runs through mountains or overcomes other natural obstacles.
I chose the month of November for my visit partly because it is the rainiest month of the year, the month in which the work goes forward at the greatest disadvantage, and one of the two months which the medical department of the French Canal Company found most unhealthy.
Immediately after anchoring on the afternoon of Wednesday there was a violent storm of wind and rain. From that time we did not again see the sun until Saturday morning, the rain continuing almost steadily, but varying from a fine drizzle to a torrential downpour. During that time in fifteen minutes at Cristobal 1.05 inches of rain fell; from 1 to 3 a.m., November 16, 3.2 inches fell; for the twenty-four hours ending noon, November 16, 4.68 inches fell, and for the six days ending noon, November 16, 10.24 inches fell. The Chagres rose in flood to a greater height than it had attained during the last fifteen years, tearing out the track in one place. It would have been impossible to see the work going on under more unfavorable weather conditions. On Saturday, November 17, the sun shone now and then for a few minutes, although the day was generally overcast and there were heavy showers at intervals.
First Day Ashore
On Thursday morning we landed at about half past seven and went slowly over the line of the Panama Railway, ending with an expedition in a tug at the Pacific entrance of the canal out to the islands where the dredging for the canal will cease. We took our dinner at one of the eating houses furnished by the Commission for the use of the Government employees -- no warning of our coming being given. I inspected the Ancon Hospital, going through various wards both for white patients and for colored patients. I inspected portions of the constabulary (Zone police), examining the men individually. I also examined certain of the schools and saw the school children, both white and colored, speaking with certain of the teachers. In the afternoon of this day I was formally received in Panama by President Amador, who together with the Government and all the people of Panama, treated me with the most considerate courtesy, for which I hereby extend my most earnest thanks. I was driven through Panama and in a public square was formally received and welcomed by the President and other members of the Government; and in the evening I attended a dinner given by the President, and a reception, which was also a Government function. I also drove through the streets of Panama for the purpose of observing what had been done. We slept at the Hotel Tivoli, at Ancon, which is on a hill directly outside of the city of Panama, but in the Zone.
On Friday morning we left the hotel at 7 o'clock and spent the entire day going through the Culebra cut -- the spot in which most work will have to be done in any event. We watched the different steam shovels working; we saw the drilling and blasting; we saw many of the dirt trains (of the two different types used), both carrying the earth away from the steam shovels and depositing it on the dumps -- some of the dumps being run out in the jungle merely to get rid of the earth, while in other cases they are being used for double tracking the railway, and in preparing to build the great dams. I visited many of the different villages, inspecting thoroughly many different buildings -- the local receiving hospitals, the houses in which the unmarried white workmen live, those in which the unmarried colored employees; as well as the commissary stores, the bath houses, the water-closets, the cook sheds for the colored laborers, and the Government canteens, or hotels, at which most of the white employees take their meals. I went through the machine shops. During the day I talked with scores of different men -- superintendents and heads of departments, divisions, and bureaus; steam-shovel men, machinists, conductors, engineers, clerks, wives of the American employees, health officers, colored laborers, colored attendants, and managers of the commissary stores which food is sold to the colored laborers; wives of the colored employees who are married. In the evening I had an interview with the British consul, Mr. Mallet, a gentleman who for many years has well and honorably represented the British Government on the Isthmus of Panama and who has a peculiar relation to our work because the bulk of the colored laborers come from the British West Indies. I also saw the French consul, Mr. Gey, a gentleman of equally long service and honorable record. I saw the lieutenants, the chief executive and administrative officers, under the engineering and sanitary departments. I also saw and had long talks with two deputations -- one of machinists and one representing the railway men of the dirt trains -- listening to what they had to saw as to the rate of pay and various other matters and going over, as much in detail as possible, all the different questions they brought up. As to some matters I was able to meet their wishes; as to others, I felt that what they requested could not be done consistently with my duty to the United States Government as a whole; as to yet others I reserved judgment.
On Saturday morning we started at 8 o'clock from the hotel. We went through the Culebra cut stopping off to see the marines, and also to investigate certain towns; one, of white employees, as to which in certain respects complaint had been made to me; and another town where I wanted to see certain homes of the colored employees. We went over the site of the proposed Gatun dam, having on the first day inspected the sites of the proposed La Boca and Sosa dams. We went out on a little toy railway to the reservoir, which had been built to supply the people of Colon with water for their houses. There we took lunch at the engineers' mess. We then went through the stores and shops of Cristobal, inspecting carefully the houses of both the white and colored employees, married and unmarried, together with the other buildings. We then went to Colon and saw the fire department at work; in four minutes from the signal the engines had come down to Front street, and twenty-one 2 1/2-inch hose pipes were raising streams of water about 75 feet high. We rode abut Colon, through the various streets, paved, unpaved, and in process of paving, looking at the ditches, sewers, curbing, and the lights. I then went over to the Colon hospital in order to compare it with the temporary town or field receiving hospitals which I had already seen and inspected. I also inspected some of the dwellings of the employees. In the evening I attended a reception given by the American employees on the Isthmus, which took place on one of the docks in Colon, and there went aboard the Louisiana.
Each day from twelve to eighteen hours were spent in going over and inspecting all there was to be seen, and in examining various employees. Throughout my trip I was accompanied by the Surgeon-General of the Navy, Doctor Rixey; by the Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission, Mr. Shonts; by Chief Engineer Stevens; by Doctor Gorgas, the chief sanitary officer of the Commission; by Mr. Bishop, the Secretary of the Commission; by Mr. Ripley, the Principal Assistant Engineer; by Mr. Jackson Smith, who has had practical charge of collecting and handling the laboring force; by Mr. Bierd, general manager of the railway, and by Mr. Rogers, the general counsel of the Commission; and many other officials joined us from time to time.
At the outset I wish to pay a tribute to the amount of work done by the French Canal Company under very difficult circumstances. Many of the buildings they put up were excellent and are still in use, though, naturally, the houses are now getting out of repair and are being used as dwellings only until other houses can be built, and much of the work they did in Culebra cut, and some of the work they did in digging has been of direct and real benefit. This country has never made a better investment than the $40,000,000 which it paid to the French Company for work and betterments, including especially the Panama Railroad.
An inspection on the ground at the height of the rainy season served to convince me of the wisdom of Congress in refusing to adopt either a high-level or a sea-level canal. There seems to be a universal agreement among all people competent to judge that the Panama route, the one actually chosen, is much superior to both the Nicaragua and Darien routes.
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February 12, 1999