America's "Triumph" at Panama

Children of men who'd managed the act
Of making our Manifest Destiny fact,
By tying the desert to mountain and plain
With rails of steel and miles of pain,
Who'd joined up the seas from west coast to east,
Sent settlers out on the black iron beast,
Brought silver and gold and buffalo back,
Now turned to the Isthmus and planned their attack.

But swampland and jungle and mountains and tides,
And great roaring rivers, and rainfall and slides,
And snakebite and fevers would all have to wait
Until there was settled affairs of the state;
Colombia was sovereign in Isthmian affairs
And England, by treaty, could seek her fair share.
The Panama Railroad owned most of the land,
The French had possession of what had been planned.

Then fresh from the mountains of Cuba's San Juan
Came the Roughest of Riders to spur matters on.
McKinley now dead, the new president
Took the reins of the Project, to Panama sent
American gunboats to aid revolution;
The Republic was born with our contribution.
The Frenchmen were bought out, equipment and plans
The Panama Railroad was now Uncle Sam's.

Now, "Make the dirt fly!" was the cry of day
But the earliest efforts were plagued by delay;
For first they must find a team that would last,
Then help them survive, 'spite Panama's past.
John Stevens and Gorgas were sent to the scene
And prepared Panama for the centuries' dream;
Doc Gorgas fought fevers, mosquitos and pest-holes,
While Stevens chewed cigars and spelled out his next goals.

The Canal could wait for the Zone, as they knew;
First they'd have roads, and sewers, too,
Clean water supplies to the homes they extended,
Club-houses, and fields for baseball intended.
They cleaned up Colon, paved o'er her wet streets,
Proud Panama's pestilence went down in defeat.
But when it was all set, the Canal Zone designed,
Big John F. Stevens just up and resigned.

Now Roosevelt picked one helluva man
When Goethals was chosen to follow the plan.
"Go make the dirt fly!," the President said,
And Goethals, Gaillard and Sibert they did.
And Hodges and Blackburn, and Thatcher and Rousseau,
As Bishop recorded, proceeded to do so!
The Colonel's "Yellow Peril" ne'er ceased in its rounds,
As shovel and dynamite continued their sounds.

The natives were useless, 'twas said at the time,
Were lazy and no 'count and stole a man blind.
So the Colonel decided he'd import his force,
And ships to Cristobal arrived by the scores.
From State-side came planners and smart engineers,
And tough shovel men, and work over-seers.
From the islands came Bajuns, "they slow but they strong,"
Came Hindus, Italians, and Spaniards along.

The locks were then built with tons of concrete,
A thousand feet long by a hundred-ten feet;
Their massive twin gates were wrought of thick steel,
To answer the call of the mighty bull wheel.
Culverts were built with their rising stem valves,
And great fender chains which would check the ships' bows,
Controls in their houses to guide the machine,
And land-locked steel "mules" to tow things marine.
* * *
So Gatun Dam, at last complete, was to its promise held;
The Chagres River here was tamed, and here its volume swelled.
Rising waters of the lake now distant shorelines found,
The wide world watched in awe, amazed, as ancient forests drowned.
One sunny day a tiny tug was checked on through the locks,
The first boat in from Limon Bay to tie to Gatun's docks.
The Atlantic Side had passed the test; the job was near'r complete.
In three big steps a ship could rise now almost ninety feet!
* * *
'Tween Contractor's Hill's and Gold Hill's peaks,
The work of the shovels went on, and for weeks.
For as bottom was reached at the Culebra Cut,
The top would slide down and again fill it up!
But drillers and track crews and the dynamite guys,
And trains of dump-cars of Lidgerwood's devise
Were moving the mountains on down to the coast;
Steam-shovels were racing to see who'd move most.

The great Admin Building was put high on The Hill,
On a shoulder of Ancon, where it stands still.
The swamp-land was filled in with Gaillard's debris,
For the grounds of Balboa, as the town came to be.
The channel from Sosa to Miraflores Locks
Was busy with building of Balboa's big docks.
Oh, they built and they plumbed and they wired away
From Peter Magill to Panama Bay!

Taboga's islanders would watch now in fear,
As trains from the digging got nearer and nearer;
To Naos and Perico and Flamenco, too,
The Causeway's length just steadily grew,
While the Rio Grande's muddy mouth
Was dredged out and straightened from north end to south.
The channel's approaches were buoyed and marked
And lighted for ships to move safely at dark.

The day did arrive for the oceans to meet,
A day of great pride in the Isthmus' defeat.
The signal was sent from Wilson's far hand,
To dynamite buried at Gamboa's dam;
The river was loosened and poured through the breach,
And Chagres' sweet water Pacific now reached!
The Commission's own flagship was queen of the day
As the "Ancon" steamed over to Panama Bay . . .

America had reason to tell of her pride:
A decade and more had gone by the side
Since Uncle Sam's finest were sent to their test;
America now on the world's stage was best!
Though speeches and parties were held coast to coast,
Returning constructors got toast after toast,
At the Panama Pacific International Expo,
(One heck of name to put a rhyme next to!)
 * * *
A triumph, they called it; 'twas more like Step One,
For the slides would continue while politics stunned:
For twenty-five million Colombia agreed
To sooth Yanqui guilt for a Panama freed.
When Panama learned of our Democrat's zeal,
She opened her pockets and asked to re-deal;
"For Roosevelt, Taft and the others had not
To Panama given what she ought to have got."

The precedent started, we never said, "No."
Our relations down here were based on our "Go . . . !"
Or giving more money, or arms or control
To leaders we di'n't like because of their goals,
Their graft and corruption, their "anything goes;"
Our statesmen would soon know "naivete woes."
In efforts to "be fair" we'd soon give away
What was once (and forever?) our own waterway.

It wasn't too long after "Ancon" through sailed,
After America's triumph, once so widely hailed,
That Colonel Torrijos took over the state
And Uncle Sam said, "We'll co-operate!
"Now that your country is all clean and healthy
"And most of your leaders have gotten quite wealthy,
"We understand well the aggression we've shown,
"So if you'll take this Canal we'll just go on home."

The Zonians, whose pride in their work was so large,
Were torn from their Zone while Carter had charge.
For three generations they'd worked in the land,
Now off they were sent with a Treaty in hand!
But if giving our work away baffles the senses,
What of Medellin's shipments through Isthmian defenses?
With plenty of green stuff to pay the new "toll,"
The fact is Colombia . . . has regained control!
* * *
So once again this country's choice was looked upon with smiles,
For Uncle Sam had never learned to deal with foreign guiles.
He tells himself it's right the way he makes his wrongs o'er-seas
And pats himself upon the back for every junta pleased.
Then tells the folks at home it was the best thing he could do,
'Cause if "we hadn't we shudder to think of horrible things come true!"
While "honor" alone is not always right it's better than "guilt" the basis
For dealing with people with dubious claim to power in faraway places!

Dave Furlong

The title was taken from America's Triumph at Panama by Ralph Emmet
Avery, (C) 1913, published by The L.W. Walter Co., Chicago; 384 ppg.,
with many photos and color plates.

September 20, 1999

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