Balboa Circle Renamed To Honor Canal Engineer
Edited from: The Panama Canal Review - Sept. 7, 1962
Now undergoing a substantial face lifting,
the Balboa traffic circle will soon be the first Canal Zone area named in honor of a
construction era civilian engineer.
Next month, with Undersecretary of the Army Stephen Ailes scheduled to attend, the circle will officially be named in honor of John F. Stevens, the tall, broad-shouldered, hard-driving engineer largely responsible for the basic engineering work that made the Canal's construction possible.
In addition to Mr. Ailes, who as a boy knew Stevens, members of Mr. Stevens' family also are expected to attend the dedication.
In the center of Stevens Circle will be a three-sided monument of white portland cement concrete, with an inscription in Spanish and English in raised anodized aluminum letters. The mahogany trees in the park will be retained, but planters will be added. A raised center section in the park will be walled with brick and will have benches inserted in half the area. Decorative lighting also will be installed.
John Frank Stevens was recognized as the world's foremost railway civil engineer when he arrived on the Isthmus in 1905. Tall, broad-shouldered, tough, the new Chief Engineer met no reception formalities. The wharves were crowded with scared, quiet men waiting to return to the States on the very ship he came on.
The fundamental problem that he faced was one of restoring confidence and morale. Health came first. The men needed food supplies and markets, decent living quarters, relief from the drab existence in the form of social rooms and entertainment. One of his first ideas, and a most happy one, was that of the food car. Stevens found the men were actually hungry, and the men found that they had a boss who took a personal interest in their welfare. With the food came some strong talk. Dressed like the men, Chief Engineer Stevens stood among them, spoke their blunt language, rubbed their elbows.
"There are only three diseases on the Isthmus," he charged into them, "yellow fever, malaria, and cold feet. The worst is cold feet. That's what's ailing you." It was the scolding they needed. Groups began arguing themselves into staying a little longer. Some good might come out of the chaos yet.
President Theodore Roosevelt, in a private brief interview, had confided that "affairs are in a devil of a mess." It was no understatement. A yellow fever epidemic, followed by the unexpected resignation of the first Chief Engineer, John F. Wallace, made the Canal Zone a scene of chaos and hysteria, and threatened the security of the Canal program, then still in the experimental and development state.
A small but palatial residence outside Panama City had been designed by the Canal Commission as a fitting residence for Chief Engineer Stevens. He brushed these plans aside and requested instead a cheap bungalow with a corrugated iron roof on the side of Culebra Cut where he could be near the job. In overalls and slouch hat he rode the "locals" and the "freights." He was abrupt but liberal in delegating responsibility, and had a way of bringing out the best in a man.
"Big Smoke" was Stevens' nickname from the start. When he wasn't chain-smoking cigars, he was chain-chewing them.
The Canal job had been going on a quarter of a century when he made his first survey tour. He found no order, no plan on the job. In fact, no decision had been made as to whether the Canal would be sea level or lock type.
John F. Stevens was an ardent supporter of Dr. William Gorgas in his humanitarian battle against yellow fever on the Isthmus, and the men sized him up as an important man who didn't have to act important. If anybody was going to build a canal he could.
He planed the main features of the waterway and lobbied openly in May and June 1906 for a high-level, lock-type canal; swung President Theodore Roosevelt back into line when he wavered in favor of sea-level construction; helped Senators draft speeches, prepared maps, and produced statistics. Calmly he pointed out the awkward, dangerous, expensive, and slow procedure involved in a sea-level canal planned at that time. On June 29, 1906, the President's signature put into law a bill calling for the high-level, lock-type canal.
Chief Engineer Stevens received the additional appointment as Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission in March 1907, shortly before his resignation. His original agreement had been to stick to the job until he could predict success or failure according to his own judgment. Success was assured. "I fulfilled my promise ... to the very letter," he maintained. He had rescued the Canal from chaos and defeat.
The Canal job was assigned on February 18, 1907, to the United States Army, in the person of Colonel (later General) George Washington Goethals. In a letter to his son, Colonel Goethals wrote "Mr. Stevens has perfected such an organization ... that there is nothing left for us to do but just have the organization continue in the good work it was done and is doing ... Mr. Stevens has done an amount of work for which he will never get any credit, or, if he gets any, will not get enough ..."
Officially, John "Big Smoke" Stevens remained in command until midnight March 31, 1907, but for more than a week his principal occupation was accepting tributes. In the few years of U.S. work on the Canal, the comings and goings of Presidents, Cabinet members, Senators, and foreign dignitaries, the Zone had witnessed nothing that equaled the send-off for John F. Stevens on the night of April 17, 1907. Said one historian, "It was as if the people were honoring a man who had already built the Panama Canal" -- and they were fully aware it was he who made it possible, for from his administration dates the really fundamental work of canal building, the preparation of the ground for the edifice to be erected.
John F. Stevens returned to the United States and railroading. In 1919 he was named president of the Inter-Allied Technical Board with headquarters in Harbin, Manchuria. His work completed, he returned to the United States in 1923 and retired from active life.
He was presented the John Fritz Gold Medal on March 23, 1925, for "great achievements as a civil engineer, particularly in planning and organizing for the construction of the Panama Canal; as a builder of railroads, and as administration of the Chinese Eastern and Siberian Railways." The Hoover Gold Medal was given him in 1938.
He was elected a member of the American society of Civil Engineers on June 6, 1888, and an honorary member on June 18, 1922. In 1927 he served as President of the Society.
He died on June 2, 1943, in Southern Pines, N.C. after he celebrated his 90th birthday.
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October 16, 1998