The Panama Canal Review . . . Spring 1976

There were those who contended that building the Panama Canal was a man's job. The Isthmus was no place for a woman. The men could come and live in tents and rough it and when the job was done, in 5 or 10 years, they could pack their grips and go back to their wives and children.

Although the First Canal commission discouraged American women from coming to the Isthmus, it was soon realized that it was impossible to keep the men here without them.  In the first 2 years of the construction, turnover was so great among the foremen, sub-ordinate engineers, and skilled craftsmen that it was impossible to organize an efficient work force.

After a few months on the Isthmus, many of the American men became disenchanted and lost interest in their work. There was none of the excitement of the city and they found the energy-sapping heat, the lack of women and social life, and the dense steaming jungle demoralizing.

Complaints and murmurs of discontent were heard among laborers. Boldly asserting their disgruntlement, a group of West Indian workers held a sitdown strike announcing, "No women, no work." About that time American men made it known that they too were ready to do some "sitdowning" for the same reason. Commission officials soon were convinced that workers needed a normal social life, and changing the policy, hired more married men and encouraged bachelors to marry.

In those early days of chaos and confusion, women workers were not recruited from the United States mainly due to the lack of suitable housing and the general rigors of the unhealthy climate. But a few wives and daughters of employees were hired.

The Isthmian Canal Commission had obtained more than 2,000 houses from the French Canal, most of them in poor condition. These were renovated, boxcars were placed on sidings and fitted out as quarters, and tents put into service. Anything with four walls, a roof and a floor was considered living quarters. Food familiar to Americans was scarce and very expensive. There was no cold storage, no fresh milk and little meat. There was no potable water; distilled water was delivered to each house daily. When it was not available, water was boiled.

As time went on and conditions improved, Canal officials began urging women to come and to stay. They came and with their arrival life in the construction towns began to change. They were soon influencing the choice of furnishings, food and clothing sent to the Isthmus and they not only beautified their own quarters with plants, but also the public grounds.

Housekeeping was almost as much as an adventure as digging the Canal. There was the constant battle with ants, roaches and spiders. Fleas came with the dry season and, at certain times of the year, big black ants swarmed through the houses. The sugar bowl was kept in the ice box. Table legs were immersed in oil. Cooking was done on a coal or wood-burning stove, and at times the smoke got very thick.

The first woman to be employed by the Isthmian Canal Commission was Mary Eugene Hubbard who was appointed Superintendent of Nurses in June 1904, one month after the transfer of the French property to the United States Government. Two weeks later, she arrived in the Canal Zone with her commanding officer, Dr. W.C. Gorgas, Chief  Sanitary Officer, and two trained nurses who were to work with her.

Miss Hubbard wrote of her first day at the Ancon hospital: "We found about 75 buildings, very scattered. Our work was to study the situation and find the best possible for the patients who were to be accommodated." After selecting the five buildings she wanted to use for wards, sanitary conveniences, diet kitchen, and linen rooms, she wrote: "The amount of cleaning after 15 years of neglect can be imagined." She spent 4 years here and a bronze plaque at Gorgas Hospital honors her as "Nurse, patriot, gentlewoman, humanitarian, friend, who rendered outstanding service to the development of better health in the tropics."

The nurses who came to the Isthmus were highly qualified, having served as Army or Red Cross nurses in the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, or at hospitals in Cuba, Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines.

Among those who soon followed Miss Hubbard was Jessie M. Murdock, who later succeeded Miss Hibbard as chief nurse. They were well aware of the problems and challenges that faced them. An obstacle they did not anticipate was the hostility of the French nursing nuns who had been caring for the sick and understood that the coming of the American nurses meant their departure.

An even more serious problem for the new nurses developed from the religious vows of the nursing nuns, whose intentions were far better than their training. Surgeon's orders that post-operative patients be fed nothing were ignored by the nuns who vowed to "feed the sick and pray for the dying." Despite these drawbacks, Miss Murdock wrote in "Ancon Hospital in 1904 and 1905" in the Society of Chagres Yearbook, 1913, that the nuns were "women of much refinement and charm" and she praised their heroic work in the face of great difficulties.

She noted that the buildings were not screened, but each bed had a mosquito bar making it difficult to attend the patients. The French nuns thought the netting unattractive and tied it back with bows of ribbon to the dismay of the American nurses. When yellow fever patients were admitted, a wire cage was built around the bed. For the nurses who had night duty, their only protection from the mosquitoes was swathing themselves in bandages soaked in oil of citronella.

Early in December of that first year, as yellow fever and other forms of sickness became more prevalent, almost causing panic, she wrote: "Had we allowed ourselves to do so, we would have lost heart completely, for death seemed to dominate the situation. But the unselfishness and splendid administrative skill by which our work was arranged made everyone feel that we too must do our work courageously, and in the trying days when one of our number was stricken, no one showed the white feather but all stood faithfully to their tasks." Ada Jane Nice, one of those valiant women on the Ancon Hospital staff, was the first nurse to die on the Isthmus. She was from Riegelsville, Pa.

In closing her account of those early days at Ancon, Miss Murdock wrote, "Before two years were over we were surrounded by all the modern comforts and conveniences. Telephones buzzed, electric lights were flashed on, and we recognized ourselves as only a part of an ideal community. It would be hard for anyone today to believe that Ancon had ever gone through a pioneer stage. We are glad to have had a hand in the work of those early days, and although as women we achieved no distinct celebrity, yet we flatter ourselves that we played an important part in the building of the Canal."

In addition to the nurses, a few women were employed as teachers. Most were wives or daughters of employees. Feminists today would wince at the reference to the employment of women teachers in the 1907 Canal Record: "On account of their natural qualifications for the work and because at the salaries paid it was easier to secure women with requisite experience than men." Their salaries ranged from $30 to $110 a month.

The first Canal Zone free public school was opened in June 1906 at Corozal with Emily Kyte as the teacher.

"Line teachers" received the highest pay. They were the "permanent substitutes" who taught wherever there was a temporary vacancy. They also did tutoring wherever they were assigned. Line teachers put in a 12-hour day, leaving for school on the 7 a.m. train and returning at 7 p.m.

Among those substitute teachers was Winifred Ewing, who celebrated her 90th birthday on the Isthmus last January. Recalling those days, she commented on the tropical rains and the mud in the wet season. But for her, hardships and inconveniences have been smoothed out or forgotten with the passing of the years.

Her husband Ora Ewing had come to work in the Sanitation Department in November 1906. A year later he returned to his home in Glensville, W.Va., married and brought his bride to the Canal Zone. They were assigned a little house on the Ancon Hospital grounds. It had one room with a tiny kitchen and woodburning stove. Though she had graduated from Normal School and would have qualified for a full-time teaching job, Mrs. Ewing preferred to devote most of her time to homemaking. Her two daughters were born in Ancon Hospital. Later, after her husband's death, Mrs. Ewing was for many years the housemother at Canal Zone College. Reflecting on those early days, Mrs. Ewing said, "We got along alright with what we had. It was no problem. It did rain a lot but it didn't bother us. We became used to it. I've lived here since 1907 and I've loved it."

The early Canal Zone high school was a migratory one, located at various times in Culebra, Cristobal, Gatun and Ancon.

When it was on the Atlantic side, slides on the railroad frequently prevented students from the Pacific area from getting home and they would have to overnight with friends on the Gold Coast. Although high school pupils were enrolled in the Canal Zone as early as 1907 (before there was a high school) the first high school commencement was not until 1911. It was at Gatun and there were two girls in the class. At that time the Canal Zone high school diplomas were signed by the President of the United States.

Mamie Elizabeth Miracle, the first American schoolteacher at Empire, was the principal of the high school at Culebra. She came to the Isthmus in March 1906 to marry Frank W. Miracle, a storekeeper in the Quartermaster Department at Empire. They had the distinction of being the first couple to be wed in the Canal Zone after it came under U.S. control.

Reminiscing on what it was like teaching at Gatun School, a construction-day teacher recalled that during the rainy season it involved the changing of shoes several times a day.

Teachers would board the train and before reaching Gatun would change to boots to walk through the mud to the schoolhouse, then change to shoes and then back to boots when it was time to go home. It was a bothersome chore considering the high buttoned shoes of the day. In 1907, so many were the inconveniences faced by families in the Canal Zone, President Roosevelt sent Gertrude Beeks, of the Department of Welfare of Government Employees of the National Civic Federation, to look into labor conditions to try to find out why the men would not stay on the job. A capable investigator, Miss Beeks got closer to the American workers than the officials and they talked frankly with her without the fear of being called complainers.

Though living conditions were much improved and quite good compared to those found by the first workers who came here, Miss Beeks made a report to the Isthmian Canal Commission and the Panama Railroad including such criticisms as no hot water in the showers; inadequate quarters for about 1,000 men living in boxcars; the existence of bedbugs and vermin; the nurse's dormitory at Colon Hospital where during rain storms nurses sleeping on the ocean side got drenched and were known to sleep with umbrellas over them; no adequate supply of fresh vegetables; lack of rain sheds along the Canal for the workers; and a number of other complaints.

Miss Beeks also found that women were lonely without the social and cultural activities they had enjoyed at home. To remedy the situation, she recommended that women's clubs be formed. At her suggestion, Helen Boswell, of the Federation of Women's Clubs in the United States, was sent to the Isthmus. During a month-long visit, she encouraged women to form clubs affiliated with the Federation. Nine clubs were formed. Soon, they were holding meetings and finding outlets for their mental and social talents in club work.

They developed home gardens, promoted the organization of the Humane Society in the Canal Zone, sponsored home nursing programs and many other educational and cultural projects. Their recommendations on community improvements generally brought results.

In 1908 the personnel rolls of the Isthmian Canal Commission showed 6,100 American males and 205 American females employed. There were 117 female nurses in the service, 25 women schoolteachers, and 45 were employed as copyists, coupon counters, clerks, postal clerks, dietitians, timekeepers, telegraphers and storekeepers. A total of 18 women were working for the Panama Railroad.

Among the few American women employed in the early days was Florence Williams who came to the Isthmus in 1906 from Buffalo, N.Y., to live with her doctor father and her brother who had come earlier. After living at Empire for about a year, she moved to Gatun and was one of the American women who lived there in tents until the houses were built. She recalls witnessing, in September of 1906, the first cut of Gatun Locks as the steam shovel began excavating at the lock site.

A Roosevelt Medal holder, Miss Williams worked for the Isthmian Canal Commission from 1907 to 1909 as a telephone operator at Empire. After attending school in the United States, she returned to the Canal Zone and in 1922 went to work in the Canal's Accounting Division, retiring in 1954.

During her many years on the Isthmus, she saw important landmarks being built in the Canal Zone. A few years ago, looking on as the Balboa Club House was being demolished, she reflected, "I saw it built at Empire, I remember when it was moved here, and now it is being torn down."

The demise of the Tivoli Hotel was even more disturbing since she had lived there for more than 17 years following her retirement. At 84, she still has happy memories of gala social events, white formal frocks and long white gloves and young men in starched white suits and high collars. Then, the average ratio of men and young women ran about 25 young engineers or other Canal bachelors to each American girl in her late teens or early twenties.

Stories told and recorded by women Roosevelt Medal Holders who attended the Theodore Roosevelt Centennial in the Canal Zone in 1958 give a vivid insight into life in the construction-day towns. Among these historical accounts is one by Mrs. Bruce Sanders, whose husband came to the Isthmus in 1908 to work as a nurse. She came in 1910, as a bride, and lived for a few months in Panama City and then moved to a little house just reclaimed from the jungle. It was in a settlement called Caimito Mulato, a part of San Pablo on the banks of the Chagres River, so close to the water that it was possible to fish off the back porch. There were 30 or 40 homes and no one knew the town existed until some engineers running a line for the Canal discovered it.

The house had no ceilings, only a tin roof. Cooking was done on a wood-burning stove and old railroad ties were used for fuel. She remembered that blasting on the Canal played havoc with cake-baking, because the blasts shook the whole house. A cake would either fall flat or spill out into the bottom of the oven. However, she continued to bake what she called "up side down biscuits" explaining that the uneven temperature burned the biscuits on the bottom and all she had to do was pop them out of the tin, turn them over, and put them back into the oven. She said that the dirt trains ran along the door and always seemed to pass by at meal time so that cinders were a daily item on the family menu.

The Sanders moved 13 times that first year. While living at Gorgona, they were notified on a Monday morning that they must be out of the house by 1 o'clock and the next time she saw the house it was half way down the banks of the excavation.

Their next house was on the top of a hill in Paraiso. What was supposed to be a "choice house" had two rooms and a small porch where you could place a rocking chair if you were careful how you turned it. She noted that Paraiso was the only town along the line that had fresh drinking water.

The first soft drink plant was installed there because of the good water. Recalling their first Christmas on the Isthmus in 1907, Mrs. Steve Calvit remembered that the men went into the jungle and cut down an orange tree laden with ripe and green fruit. They set it up in the schoolroom and decorated it with whatever they had available to make it colorful. Among the few presents distributed was some guava jelly made by Mrs. Mattie Morrison, who came in 1905. They had no jelly jars and used heavy drinking glasses. To seal them, they fashioned tops out of correspondence paper and dipped them in egg white to make them stick.

Mrs. Calvit, her four daughters and a nephew, Joe Ebdon, arrived in May 1907, to join her husband and two sons. They were assigned a cottage in Gorgona much too small for their large family.

In 1908, when they were assigned a larger house; it burned down 2 hours before they were to move in. "Three weeks later," she said, "21 men stood at the door and the boss said that they were to move us and they did, carrying everything down one hill, around the ravine and up onto another hill where six four-family houses had been completed."

In a Star & Herald editorial reproduced in the Society of the Chagres Yearbook, 1916-17, S.P. Verner wrote of the Women Who Made the Canal, "And then they made it home. Ah, there's the point. The government might have built barracks of silver and floored them in gold, it might have put on its hotel tables the vintages of fair champagne and pates of old g -but no woman, no home, for God made it so from the beginning of creation, and ordained it to the end of time."

In an address to the employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission in November 1906, President Roosevelt said, "It is not an easy work. Mighty few things that are worth doing are easy. Sometimes it is rough on the men and just a little rougher on the women. It has pleased me particularly to see as I have met the wives who have come down here with their husbands, the way in which they have turned in to make the best of everything and to help the men to do their work well."

According to personal interviews and written accounts, the great majority of construction day wives and women employees of the Canal in those early days were happy to have lived on the Isthmus at such a momentous time and to have been a part of the beginning of the Panama Canal. In the words of Mrs. Sanders, who recently returned to the Canal Zone to visit one of her six children born here, "Those were the happiest days. They were hard times and we griped and fussed but one did not give up. If you didn't have the pioneer spirit, you just left."

Today, women constitute approximately 20 percent of the Canal's work force. In addition to teachers and nurses and other professions traditionally known as women's jobs, the Canal's personnel rolls show they are employed as physicians, lawyers, engineers, geologists, police officers, and in other fields formerly considered exclusively the realm of men.

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Last Update: July 15, 1998
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