. . . but it takes many skills to run it
The Panama Canal Review - Spring, 1976

A liveable environment created by modern technology and premium pay have made the current Alaska pipeline project popular as well as practical. But in the early days of the American effort to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the only incentive that could be offered was good wages.

The environment was a formidable obstacle to recruiting workers. Discussing this problem, some years later, Chief Engineer John F. Stevens, who was responsible for changing living conditions on the Isthmus said, "Colon at the northern, and Panama at the southern terminus of the Canal, were, up to 1907, two of the most forbidding, dirty, unhealthy places on earth."

With the discouraging news of disease and death being printed in mostof the newspapers in the United States, recruiting labor was a difficult task and there was no surplus labor in the Republic of Panama. The population was sparse and during the entire construction period, Panama supplied only 357 workers.


Since the United States was not only constructing a canal but providing all auxiliary services ordinarily available from other sources, an enormous amount of labor was required. The United States had to conduct the Government of the Canal Zone, create fire and police departments, a department of schools, construct and operate hospitals, commissaries and hotels, run the Panama Railroad, and provide all other services that would be required in a community in the United States. Firemen, policemen, cooks, stewards, nurses, doctors and all types of skilled and unskilled laborers had to be imported to perform these functions.

With no surplus of skilled labor available in Central and South America, it was recognized that most of the foremen, and the higher grades of skilled labor would have to come from the United States. Attractive pay was offered and large numbers of Americans were brought down in 1905. But the living conditions were so bad that many went back home. By 1908, due to the success of sanitation efforts and building of adequate quarters, more Americans came and stayed. During the construction period, the number of Americans employed at any one time averaged more than 5,000.

Additional sources of labor had to be found, however, and recruiters fanned out over the world. The American work force was soon supplemented by laborers from many other countries including Spain, France, Italy, India, Germany, Greece, Armenia, China, Russia, Cuba, Costa Rica, the West Indies and Colombia. The work force increased from 1,000 in 1904 to over 30,000 in 1907.  Considering the problems of those days, it is easy to appreciate the difficult task of recruiting and organizing a work force of over 30,000 men in less than 3 years.

By 1914, the work force had reached 45,107. Taking into consideration the size and type of work performed as well as the diversity of the work force, one of the greatest triumphs was the creating of an enthusiastic esprit de corps. Writing about the Canal workers in 1916, Maj. R.E. Wood, who was with the Canal Quartermaster's Department from 1905-15, said: "The Canal will always remain a material monument from a construction and engineering standpoint; it will also stand as a monument in the minds and hearts of the employees who worked on it during the construction period - a monument no less enduring than its physical presence. Every wage earner, whether a high salaried superintendent or division head, or the lowest paid laborer, was given a chance in every sense of the term, and was able to earn more than his living expenses. The handling of the working force during the construction of the Canal will always stand as a model of an intelligent, just, and liberal treatment of labor."

D.T. Lawson, one of the construction day employees who came to the Isthmus in 1906, wrote proudly in later years, "Nationals of every tribe, race and color, from all parts of the world, contributed to the building of the great waterway."

But after conditions had improved, Government red tape and strict personnel regulations, including thorough medical examinations, still presented a problem in recruiting skilled laborers. A story, told about the 1905 Civil Service Commission at a meeting of engineers in Chicago, was typical of the problems. According to the story, in the early days, boilermakers were badly needed, and a request for 20 was made in the regular way. Some time passed and the following cables passed between the Isthmus and Washington: "Why have you not sent boilermakers, as per my cable?" The reply came back. "Forty applicants examined. All failed account of defective hearing." From the Isthmus to Washington, "Never knew of good boilermakers that could hear. Send twenty of the deaf applicants as soon as possible."

But as health and organizational difficulties were overcome, the work force became stable and there was a certain sadness felt by many laborers the day the Canal opened. As the first ship transited, one man, recalling the esprit de corps of the construction days said rather wistfully, "I would almost like to see it filled up so we could start all over again."

Made possible by the sweat of thousands of laborers and the far-sighted vision of great engineers, the Panama Canal owes its efficient operation to carefully trained competent personnel.  As traffic and size of ships increased over the years, the Canal became a complex operation with 1,754 occupational designations. The only other U.S. Government agency having a greater range of jobs is theDepartment of Defense.

Range of jobs: Bureau director, secretary-stenographer, special assistant to bureau director, Canal pilot, secretary, police officer, audiovisual specialist, operating room nurse, linehandler, Administrative officer, frietruck driver, veterinary aid, pool guard, electrician, painter, civil engineer, attorney, Canal Zone guide, Pharmacist, syustems accountant, statistical draftsman, programer, clerk typist, boatman, custodian, gynecologist, locks helper, Rigger, mdeical technician, security gurard, messman, school teacher, motor launch operator, machinist diver, police private, supervisory mechanic, budget analyst, civil engineer, mechanic leader, office supervisor, tugmaster, mechanical engineering technician, control house operator, community relations assistant, Towing locomotive operator, boatman, welder, launch captain, receptionist, chauffeur, translator, custodian foreman, radiologist ... AND many other jobs not listed here!!

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December 21, 1998
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