Message of The President on The Panama Canal
Communicated to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17, 1906
Care of Employees
Next in importance to the problem of sanitation, and indeed now of equal importance, is the problem of securing and caring for the mechanics, laborers, and other employees who actually do the work on the canal and the railroad. This great task has been under the control of Mr. Jackson Smith, and on the whole has been well done. At present there are some 6,000 white employees and some 19,000 colored employees on the Isthmus. I went over the different places where the different kinds of employee were working; I think I saw representatives of every type both at their work and in their homes; and I conversed with probably a couple of hundred of them all told, choosing them at random from every class and including those who came especially to present certain grievances. I found that those who did not come specifically to present grievances almost invariably expressed far greater content and satisfaction with the conditions than did those who called to make complaint.
Nearly 5,000 of the white employees had come from the United States. No man can see these young, vigorous men energetically doing their duty without a thrill of pride in them as Americans. they represent on the average a high class. Doubtless to Congress the wages paid them will seem high, but as a matter of fact the only general complaint which I found had any real basis among the complaints made to me upon the Isthmus was that, owing to the peculiar surroundings, the cost of living, and the distance from home, the wages were really not as high as they should be. In fact, almost every man I spoke to felt that he ought to be receiving more money -- a view, however, which the average man who stays at home in the United States probably likewise holds as regards himself. Later I shall confer on the subject with certain representative labor men here in the United States, as well as going over with Mr. Stevens, the comparative wages paid on the Zone and at home; and I may them communicate my findings to the canal committees of the two Houses.
Quarters Good and Satisfactory
The white Americans are employed, some of them in office work, but the majority in handling the great steam shovels, as engineers and conductors on the dirt trains, as machinists in the great repair shops, as carpenters and timekeepers, superintendents, and foremen of divisions and of gangs, and so on and so on. Many of them have brought down their wives and families; and the children when not in school are running about and behaving precisely as the American small boy and small girl behave at home. The bachelors among the employees live, sometimes in small separate houses, sometimes in large houses; quarters being furnished free to all the men, married and unmarried. Usually the bachelors sleep two n a room, as they would do in this country. I found a few cases where three were in a room; and I was told of, although I did not see, large rooms in which four were sleeping; for it is not possible in what is really a vast system of construction camps always to provide in advance as ample house room as the Commission intend later to give. In one case, where the house was an old French house with a leak in the roof, I did not think the accommodations were good. But in every other case among the scores of houses I entered at random, the accommodations were good; every room was neat and clean, usually having books, magazines, and small ornaments; and in short just such a room as a self-respecting craftsman would be glad to live in at home. The quarters for the married people were even better. Doubtless there must be here and there a married couple who, with or without reason, are not contented with their house on the Isthmus; but I never happened to strike such a couple. The wives of the steam-shovel men, engineers, machinists, and carpenters into whose houses I went, all with one accord expressed their pleasure in their home life and surroundings. Indeed I do not think they could have done otherwise. The houses themselves were excellent -- bathroom, sitting room, piazza, and bedrooms being all that could be desired. In every house which I happened to enter the mistress of the home was evidently a good American housewife and helpmate, who had given to the home life that touch of attractiveness which, of course, the bachelor quarters neither had nor could have.
Food Supplies -- A Thirty-Cent Meal
The housewives purchase their supplies directly, or through their
husbands, from the commissary stores of the Commission. All to whom I spoke agreed
that the supplies were excellent, and all but two stated that there was no complaint to be
made; these two complained that the prices were excessive as compared to the prices in the
States. On investigation I did not feel that this complaint was well founded.
The married men ate at home. The unmarried men sometimes ate at private boarding
houses, or private messes, but more often, judging by the answers of those whom I
questioned, at the Government canteens or hotels where the meal costs 30-cents to each
employee. This 30-cent meal struck me as being as good a meal as we get in the
United States at the ordinary hotel in which a 50-cent meal is provided.
Three-fourths of the men whom I questioned stated that the meals furnished at these
government hotels were good, the remaining one-fourth that they were not good. I
myself took dinner at the La Boca government hotel, no warning whatever having been given
of my coming. There were two rooms, s generally in these hotels. In one the
employees were allowed to dine without their coats, while in the other they had to put
them on. The 30-cent meal included soup, native beef (which was good), mashed
potatoes, peas, beets, chili con carne, plum pudding, tea, coffee -- each man having as
much of each dish as he desired. On the table there was a bottle of liquid quinine
tonic, which two-thirds of the guests, as I was informed, used every day. There were
neat tablecloths and napkins. The men, who were taking the meal at or about the same
time, included railroad men, machinists, shipwrights, and the members of the office force.
The rooms were clean, comfortable, and airy, with mosquito screens around the outer
piazza. I was informed by some of those present that this hotel, and also the other
similar hotels, were every Saturday night turned into clubhouses where the American
officials, the school-teachers, and various employs, appeared, bringing their wives, there
being dancing and singing. There was a piano in the room, which I was informed was
used for the music on these occasions. My meal was excellent, and two newspaper
correspondents who had been on the Isthmus several days informed me that it was precisely
like the meals they had been getting elsewhere at other Government hotels. One of
the employees was a cousin of one of the Secret Service men who was with me, and he stated
that the meals has always been good, but that after a time he grew tired of them because
they seemed so much alike.
No Cause for Complaint About Food
I came to the conclusion that, speaking generally, there was no warrant for complaint about the food. Doubtless it grows monotonous after awhile. Any man accustomed to handling large masses of men knows that some of them, even though otherwise very good men, are sure to grumble about something, and usually about their food. Schoolboys, college boys, and boarders in boarding houses make similar complaints; so do soldiers and sailors. On this very trip, on one of the warships, a seaman came to complain to the second watch officer about the quality of the cocoa at the seamen's mess, saying that it was not sweet enough; it was pointed it to him that there was sugar on the table and he could always put it in, to which he responded that that was the cook's business and not his! I think that the complaint as to the food on the Isthmus has but little more foundation than that of the sailor in question. Moreover, I was given to understand that one real cause of complaint was that at the Government hotels no liquor is served, and some of the drinking men, therefore, refused to go to them. The number of men using the Government hotels is steadily increasing.
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February 12, 1999