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Message of the President on the Panama Canal
Communicated to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17, 1906

Improvements in Panama and Colon

The sanitation work in the cities of Panama and Colon has been just as important as in the Zone itself, and in many respects much more difficult; because it was necessary to deal with the already exiting population, which naturally had scant sympathy with revolutionary changes, the value of which they were for a long time not able to perceive.  In Colon the population consists largely of colored laborers who, having come over from the West Indies to work on the canal, abandon the work and either take to the brush or lie idle in Colon itself; thus peopling Colon with the least desirable among the imported laborers, for the good and steady men of course continue at the work.  Yet astonishing progress has been made in both cities. In Panama 90 per cent of the streets that are to be paved at all are already paved with an excellent brick pavement laid in heavy concrete, a few of the streets being still in process of paving.  The sewer and water services in the city are of the most modern hygienic type, some of the service having just been completed.

In Colon the conditions are peculiar, and it is as regards Colon that most of the very bitter complaint has been made.  Colon is built on a low coral island, covered at more or less shallow depths with vegetable accumulations or mold, which affords sustenance and strength to many varieties of low-lying tropical plants.  One-half of the surface of the island is covered with water at high tide, the average height of the land being 1 1/2-feet above low tide.  The slight undulations furnish shallow, natural reservoirs or freshwater breeding places for every variety of mosquito, and the ground tend to be lowest in the middle.  When the town was originally built no attempt was made to fill the low ground, either in the streets or on the building sites, so that the entire surface was practically a quagmire; when the quagmire became impassable certain of the streets were crudely improved by filing especially bad mud holes with soft rock or other material.   In September, 905, a systematic effort was begun to formulate a general plan for the proper sanitation of the city; in February last temporary relief measures were taken, while in July the proper sanitation of the city; in February last temporary relief measures were taken, while in July the prosecution of the work was begun in good earnest.   The results are already visible in the sewering, draining, guttering and paving of the streets.  Some four months will be required before the work of sewerage and street improvement will be completed, but the progress already made is very marked.   Ditches have been dug through the town, connecting the salt water on both sides, and into these the ponds, which have served as breeding places for the mosquitoes, are drained.  These ditches have answered their purpose, for they are probably the chief cause of the astonishing diminution in the number of mosquitoes.  More ditches of the kind are being considered.

Colon Water Supply

It was not practicable, with the force at the Commission's disposal, and in view of the need that the force should be used in the larger town of  Panama, to begin this work before early last winter.  Water mains were than laid in the town and water was furnished to the people early in March from a temporary reservoir.  This reservoir proved to be of insufficient capacity before the end of the dry season and the shortage was made up by hauling water over the Panama railroad, so that there was at all times an ample supply of the very best water.  Since that time the new reservoir back of Mount Hope has been practically completed.  I visited this reservoir.  It is a lake over a mile long and half a mile broad.  It now carries some 500,000,000 gallons of first-class water.  Nothing but a cataclysm will hereafter render it necessary in the dry season to haul water for the use of Colon and Cristobal.

One of the most amusing (as well as dishonest) attacks made upon the Commission was in connection with this reservoir.  The writer in question usually confined himself to a vague general mendacity; but in this he specifically stated that there was not water in the vicinity fit for a reservoir (I drank it, and it was excellent), and this particular reservoir would never hold water anyway.  with typical American humor, the engineering corps still t work at the reservoir have christened a large boat which is now used on the reservoir by the name of the individual who thus denied the possibility of the reservoir's existence.

Colon Pavements

I rode through the streets of Colon, seeing them at the height of the rainy season, after two days of almost unexampled downpour, when they were at their very worst.  Taken as a whole, they were undoubtedly very bad; as bad as Pennsylvania avenue in Washington before Grant's Administration.  Front street is already in thoroughly satisfactory shape however.  Some of the side streets are also in good condition.  In others the change in the streets is rapidly going on.  Through three-fourths of the town it is now possible to walk, even during the period of tremendous rain, low shoes without wetting one's feet, owing to the rapidity with which the surface water is carried away in the ditches.  In the remaining one-fourth of the streets the mud is very deep -- about as deep as in the ordinary street of a low-lying prairie river town of the same size in the United States during early spring.  All men to whom I spoke were a unit in saying that the conditions of the Colon streets were 100 per cent better than a year ago.   The most superficial examination of the town shows the progress that has been made and is being made in macadamizing the streets.  Complaint was made to me by an entirely reputable man as to the character of some of the material used for repairing certain streets.  On investigation the complaint proved well founded, but it also appeared that the use of the material in question had been abandoned, the Commission after having tried it in one or two streets finding it not appropriate.


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February 12, 1999

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