The Panama Canal Review . . . April 2, 1954

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Without doubt one of the most remarkable facets of the Panama Canal construction story was the Sunday morning "court" at Culebra when Colonel Goethals gave every employee an opportunity to air grievances or views.  Most astute observers attribute to this a great part of the success of the undertaking.  Many legendary stories are told of these Sunday morning conferences, some of which have undoubtedly grown greatly with retelling.  Because of the importance and intensely human aspect of the Culebra "court" the following descriptive article is quoted in full.  It was written by Arthur Bullard, one of the topflight writers of his day, who wrote under the pen name Albert Edwards.  He visited the Canal Zone during the height of the construction work and wrote many articles of the work. The one below first appeared in The Outlook magazine. It was later republished in the book, Panama, The Canal, The Country, and the People.]

The most remarkable part of Colonel Goethal's routine is his Sunday Court of Low, Middle, and High Justice. Even as the Caliphs of Bagdad sat in the city gate to hear the plaints of their people, so, in his very modern setting - principally maps and blue prints - the Colonel holds sessions every Sunday morning.  I had the good fortune to be admitted one Sunday morning to the audience chamber. The first callers were a negro couple from Jamaica. They had a difference of opinion as to the ownership of 35 dollars which the wife had earned by washing.  Colonel Goethals listened gravely until the fact was established that she had earned it, then ordered the man to return it.  He started to protest something about a husband's property rights under the English law.  "All right," the Colonel said, decisively. "Say the word, and I'll deport you. You can get all the English law you want in Jamaica."  The husband decided to pay and stay.


Then came a Spanish laborer who had been maimed in an accident. The Colonel called in his chief clerk and told him to help the unfortunate man prepare his claim, "See that the papers are drawn correctly and have them pushed through." A man came in who had just been thrown out of the service for brutality to the men under him.  This action was the result of an investigation before a special committee.  The man sought reinstatement.  The Colonel read over the papers in the case, and when he spoke his language was vigorous: "If you have any new evidence, I will instruct the committee to reopen your case.  But as long as this report stands against you, you will get no mercy from this office.  If the men had broken your head with a crowbar, I would have stood for them.  We don't need slave-drivers on this job."  Then a committee from the Machinists' Union wanted an interpretation on some new shop rules.   A nurse wanted a longer vacation than the regulations allow.  A man and his wife were dis-satisfied with their quarters.  A supervisor of steam-shovels who had two or three "high records for monthly excavations" to his credit came in to ask advice about applying for another job under the Panama Government.  The end of the Canal work is approaching, and the far-sighted man was beginning to look into the future.   "Of course I can't advise you," the Colonel said.  "You know I would hate to see you go.  But if you decide that it is wise, come in and see me.   I may be able to give you some introductions which will help you."   (There is another man who will want to vote for Goethals for President in 1916!)   Then a man came in to see if he could get some informal information on a contract which is soon to be let.  His exit was hurried.


An American negro introduced some humor.  He was convinced that his services were of more value than his foreman felt they were.  The Colonel preferred to accept the foreman's judgment in the matter.  The dissatisfied one pompously announced that he was the best blacksmith's helper on the Isthmus and he intended to appeal from this decision.  The Colonel's eyes twinkled.  "To whom are you going to appeal?" he asked.  For the fact is that the verdicts rendered in these summary Sunday sessions will not be revised before the Day of Judgment.  The procession kept up till noon -- pathos, patience-trying foolishness, occasional humor. "Once in a while," the Colonel said, "something turns up which is really important for me to know.  And, anyway, they feel better after they have seen me, even if I cannot help them.  They feel that they got a fair chance to state their troubles.  They are less likely to be breeding discontent in the quarters.  But it is a strain."   One sees the Colonel at his best in these Sunday morning hours. You see the immensely varied nature of the things and issues which are his concern.  Engineering in the technical sense seems almost the least of them.  There is the great human problem of keeping this working force in good order, of caring for the welfare and contentment of this community of exiles -- exiled to what was once the most unhealthy jungle in the world. And he sits there, week after week, the paternal authority to which all may come with their unofficial troubles.  English, French, American negroes, Spanish and Italian peasants, coolies from India, with all the complications which come from their varied languages and customs -- Mrs. Blank, whose husband drinks too much; diamond-drill operator No. 10, who has an abscess of the liver and wants a word of encouragement before he goes to Ancon Hospital for the operation.  It is as remarkable a sight as I have ever seen to watch him at it. He is a good listener until he is quite sure he has got to the nubbin of the matter, and then, like a flash, the decision is made and given.  And I think there are very few indeed who go away thinking that they have been denied justice.  But, as he said, it must be a strain.  This routine of Colonel Goethals is followed week by week, year after year.  It is broken only by occasional trips to Washington. And every one knows that the political end of the job is more wearing than the regular grind. He has not had a real vacation since he took up this job of ours.

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June 19, 1998

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