A New World Power, 1890-1914

Author: George W. Goethals  | Date: 1907

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The Human Side of Panama Canal Building

THE general impression prevailed from the beginning that the building of the Panama Canal comprised one of the world’s greatest engineering feats, and the tremendous scope of the work as it developed during the construction period served to mold this impression into a fixed belief; yet Mr. Stevens, who, for nearly two years had control on the Isthumus, not only of all construction, but of those various coordinate branches which were essential adjuncts to the building of the Canal, expressed the opinion that the engineering features were the least difficult, describing them as "of magnitude and not of intricacy." On the other hand, his experience convinced him that the administrative problems were the greater, presenting as they did many unusual features, involving an immense amount of detail and extending into every branch of business, with ramifications touching many phases of social and domestic economy.

In every undertaking of an engineering character there must necessarily be a greater or less amount of administrative detail resulting from problems of supply, labor, policy, and considerations arising out of them. In the case of the Panama Canal, not only were these problems present, but, as compared with those of engineering, they made the latter appear relatively small.

The very magnitude of the work imposed difficulties which would have existed even had it been undertaken in any portion of the United States, but these difficulties were increased materially by reason of having to carry on the work in a tropical country, sparsely populated, non-productive, affording no skilled and very little efficient common labor, with customs and modes of living as different as the civilizations of North and Central America have been since the settlement of these portions of the western hemisphere, with a heavy rainfall during the greater portion of the year, and with a reputation for unhealthfulness which placed Panama in the category of one of the worst pest-holes of the earth….

The forces of the United States were fortunate…. for before the transfer of the work to them preventive medicine had made such advances as to make possible the conversion of the pest-hole into a habitat where most white men could live and work. The diseases which sapped the energy and vitality of the men and struck terror to their souls were malaria and yellow fever. The cause of the former had been discovered by Sir Ronald Ross, of the British army, who formulated rules by which an infected locality could be rid of its influences. Not only were his theory and practices known, but we had the benefit of his advice and experience, for he visited the Isthmus on invitation of the commission at the instigation of the health authorities in order that we might have his assistance. After Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery, Doctors Reed, Lazear, and Carroll, in Cuba, with Aristides Agramonte, a Cuban immune, proved the correctness of the theory advanced by Doctor Carlos Finlay, of Havana, that yellow fever was transmitted only by the mosquito, and prescribed the methods that resulted in ridding Cuba of that dread disease; it naturally followed that the Isthmus could be freed in the same way. Finally, great advances had been made in construction machinery of all kinds, making the equipment used by the French obsolete, though this was continued in use by the Americans until it could be replaced by the more modern and up-to-date appliances that experience had shown would accomplish the results.

Because of the reputation of Panama, difficulty was experienced in securing the necessary skilled and unskilled labor, but systems of recruiting had been worked out and were in satisfactory operation in 1907, when the force aggregated about 5,500 "gold" employees and 24,000 "silver," or common, laborers. Notwithstanding the fact that at this time the Isthmus had been freed from yellow fever, the dread of the tropics was still extant, making it difficult to secure American workmen.

The assembled force had to be housed and fed. Many houses were acquired from the French, but not sufficient for the needs, nor were they always accessible to the work in progress. Extensive building operations were undertaken, including the erection of offices, storehouses of various kinds, quarters, hotels, messes, kitchens, hospitals, and schools. (The arbitrary nomenclature that became current on the Isthmus is of interest. The terms "gold" and "silver," the former designating the high-grade employee, usually American, and the latter the lower grades, usually West Indian or European, are well known….

New settlements were located and constructed with a view of accessibility to the work. The terminal cities of Panama and Colon were without pavements, sewers, or running water, and under the treaty these were to be provided by the United States, reimbursement to be accomplished at the end of the fifty-year period. This work was in progress as well as similar improvements in the various settlements that were building or completed. Machine-shops were rehabilitated or added to, and new ones constructed for assembling the machinery purchased in the United States, for manufacturing parts in order to avoid the delay incident to securing them from the manufacturers, and for making repairs.

The commissary of the Panama Railroad was enlarged and an adequate cold-storage plant for the proper care of meats and the manufacture of ice was in course of construction; local commissaries were established at the various settlements; and a system of supply was in operation between the main commissary and those at the different localities, as well as with the hotels, messes, and kitchens.

Probably the most difficult problem was the feeding of the force. Boarding-houses and restaurants thrived, but not so the men, and the stories told, exaggerated no doubt with the passage of time, are of conditions which, to say the least, were decidedly unpleasant. A local contract was made for running a hotel at Culebra, and the subsistence privilege for the entire force was advertised and bids were received.

Thought and attention were given to the storage and distribution of construction supplies. A system was instituted for shipping material and equipment direct from the dock to the places where needed, preventing congestion and saving double handling. A large storehouse was erected for reserve supplies of all kinds that might be needed and without which delays to the work would result. The great distance from the source of production and supply, and the necessity for keeping the work going, made the supply of material a very important feature.

The Panama Railroad, constructed in 1850-5 by Americans with American capital, constituted a part of one of the through routes between the east and west; its commercial interests had to be continued, and, in addition, it must assist in the construction of the Canal. The roadbed, equipment, and facilities were scarcely adequate for the former alone, and, with the immense quantities of supplies required for the Canal, they became totally inadequate. The road was double-tracked and rebuilt to suit the heavier equipment that had been ordered, round-houses were constructed, docks erected, and yards built at the terminals and at various places along the line for the handling of freight of all kinds and spoil from the Canal.

All of these various branches of the work came directly under the control of the chief engineer; and it was necessary to co-ordinate them with the construction of the Canal. Under these circumstances, it can readily be seen that Mr. Stevens’s conclusions, that the administrative problems were greater than those of engineering, were correct….

One of the departments on the Isthmus not yet touched upon, and a very important one, was that of government. Under the treaty, the United States obtained from Panama the control and jurisdiction of a strip of land across the Isthmus ten miles wide, five miles on either side of the center line of the Canal to be constructed, so that there were required, as soon as the transfer of the strip was effected, a code of laws, a fiscal system, and the other machinery necessary for the establishment of a form of government. While the Spooner Act gave the President authority to make such regulations and establish such tribunals as might be required to exercise the control under the treaty, Congress, by specific enactment, delegated to the President the exercise of civic, judicial, and military functions in the Zone, to be exercised through such person or persons as he might determine, but such delegation of authority was to cease with the expiration of the Fifty-eighth Congress (March 4, 1905). The President exercised this authority through the Isthmian Canal Commission, which became the legislative body, announced that the laws of the land would continue in force until changed by competent authority, and appointed a member of the commission as governor of the Canal Zone—Major-General George W. Davis, U. S. A., who brought to the task valuable experience gained in Porto Rico and the Philippine Islands. At that time the Zone was divided into municipalities, each with its mayor, secretary, treasurer, and municipal council, so that a political organization was established for the government of the strip, but without the elective franchise. Laws were prescribed, courts established, police, fire force, postal system, customs service, and schools were organized as the needs of the situation demanded. This department also had charge of all questions that arose between the Republic of Panama and the Canal Zone. The governor was given the power of reprieve, pardon, and deportation. The Fifty-eighth Congress adjourned without legislating for the Canal or continuing the authority it had vested in the President, so that the commission lost its legislative functions. A de facto government had been established, however; the work had to proceed; new conditions as they arose had to be met; so that President Roosevelt continued the government but legislated through the medium of Executive Orders….

The engineering side of the enterprise was necessarily of very great importance, for the success of the undertaking was dependent upon the proper solutions of the problems involved, both theoretically and practically. The construction of the locks presented no new problems, though some novel features were introduced in the operating machinery for the locks and spillways; neither did the dams, dredging, or dry excavation; the methods adopted had been in use elsewhere. The difficulties were due to size and were sufficiently great in themselves; there is no desire or intent to detract from them or to belittle their importance. There were also questions concerning the plans of the Canal and methods of construction that required administrative action, and to these were added the problems or questions which arose in all the other departments and divisions, so that on the whole the administrative side of the work, including the co-ordination of its various parts, was the greater. This is more especially true if there be embraced under administration, where it properly belongs, the problem caused by the "human element."

In any line of endeavor this is always the uncertain factor. It can be told with a great degree of accuracy what a particular piece of machinery will do under specified conditions, or, knowing a man, what that man will do under normal circumstances, but take 40,000 men gathered from all parts of the world, place them in a tropical country, many miles from home and away from the ties and associations which have more or less guided and restrained them, and the "human element straightway becomes a problem heavily charged with uncertainties and difficulties. I have been asked frequently what part of the work I considered the most difficult, and the reply was, invariably, the human problem; it extended from the highest to the lowest.

That contentment leads to efficiency was fully recognized at the beginning of the enterprise, and had resulted in the adoption of a broad, generous, and what seemed to me a very wise policy in regard to the force. Steps were taken to provide comfortable quarters, the men were encouraged to bring their families to the Isthmus when the quarters available permitted, and, as an additional inducement, reduced rates of transportation on Panama Railroad steamers were established, sufficient only to pay subsistence and service. The necessary furniture for the quarters was provided at the expense of the commission, with the exception of linen, table and kitchen ware, which could be brought from the United States at reduced freight rates or purchased from the commissary at practically cost price. About one-third of our "gold" employees were married men occupying family quarters. Taking into consideration the plant expenditure, water, fuel, light, medical attendance, and other privileges which were granted free, it was estimated that the families cost us $40 and the bachelors $ 14 per month. This was only a rough calculation, but the ratio of cost as between the married employee and the bachelor which it gives is no doubt nearly correct, and affords an idea of the large expense that was incurred in making our settlements semi-permanent communities rather than mere construction camps. The size of the job, the length of time required for its execution, and the results attained in increased efficiency and stability of the force fully justified the cost. Furthermore, the presence of women was necessary, not only for their influence in their respective home lives, but, in a larger way, for their influence on the social fabric as a whole. I do not believe, as has been claimed by some, that a body of American men would, during a few years, become absolute savages if left without the influence of good women, but I do believe, for so experience has shown, that there would be a marked social and moral deterioration….

Ministers of various denominations were employed by the commission, and suitable buildings erected in the settlements for religious services and Sunday-schools. These buildings were of two stories; the lower was used for church purposes and assigned to the different denominations by the district quartermaster, while the upper stories were lodge halls assigned to the use of different lodges, also by the district quartermaster.

The policy outlined was not confined to American, or "gold," employees, but was extended so far as possible to the so-called "silver" class, though some discrimination was made because the latter were not so thoroughly among strangers as the whites and their needs, consequently their demands, were fewer.

They found that everything was determined in accordance with the rules of the commission and their interpretation; that their status as to the selection of quarters, as well as other privileges, was determined by the wage they earned, so that money became rather the dominant factor in determining a man’s position, and necessarily his family’s, in the community in which he lived, causing rivalries, with attendant jealousies and heart-burnings.

The efforts to make the Zone a more comfortable and attractive place in which to live, and thus secure greater stability of the force, were not entirely successful. After the Isthmus had been put in a healthful condition and the danger of a yellow-fever or other epidemic had been entirely eliminated, there was a constant stream of employees leaving the Isthmus, compelling the employment of other men to take their places. In the year 1907, for instance, referring to the "gold" force, 5,804 men were employed and there were 4,367 separations from the service for all causes; or, stating the matter another way, in order to increase the force by 1,437 men during that year, it was necessary to employ four times as many.

The climate and the distance from home were not conducive to contentment; on the whole, a general clearing-house became an important factor in the common desire to secure harmony, and the "Sunday court," which seems to have attracted attention, was established more for this purpose than with the idea of meting out justice. All employees, irrespective of color, were accorded a hearing; but soon the demand on available time became so great that I was obliged to have the assistance of Mr. McIlvaine, chief clerk of my office, and Mr. May, my secretary, confining my attention to the "gold" employees and those negroes whose cases could be settled by no one else.

The quarters question gave the greatest trouble, and the difficulties increased when, in 1908, family quarters were no longer promised. The houses acquired from the French were of various sizes and types, and the new buildings erected were built in accordance with type plans that had been adopted. Trouble arose from the fact that certain employees had a greater amount of room than others doing the same class of work. Mr. Jackson Smith evolved the method of determining the assignment of quarters on the basis of the wage earned. Rules were formulated governing their assignment and occupation which, while they worked hardships in certain individual cases, covered the situation very satisfactorily on the whole, notwithstanding that bickerings and grumblings continued. Early in my career on the Isthmus I made an exception to the rules in a case which appealed to the sympathies—contrary to the recommendation of Mr. Smith, who predicted trouble—and I learned to regret it. Since then the rules governing quarters have been like the laws of the Medes and Persians.

The large majority of the quarters were of the four-family type, two families below and two above, those on each floor separated by vertical partitions. With the floors and partitions of single planks, with sounds penetrating to all parts of the building, with water flowing through from the floors above on the neighbors below, with Mrs. Jones’s company disturbing Mr. Smith’s sleep (he being on night work), or the latter’s children mistreating or abusing the former’s, these quarters became prolific sources of trouble and complaint.

The furniture allotments gave trouble, for, though rules were formulated prescribing the allowance of furniture, it is certain that additional pieces were given to some employees and denied others. It was alleged that favoritism was shown by the local quartermasters, and the situation became so acute that an allowance was fixed for the various types of quarters, inspections were made, and furniture removed or added as the particular case might require. Similarly, stringent regulations had to be adopted governing the number of electric lights and the use of electrical appliances, such as irons, toasters, etc., because of the complaints of special privileges enjoyed by others. There was a letter written by a woman in Gorgona complaining that her neighbor had two oil student-lamps while she had only electric lights. Oil-lamps were in use prior to the installation of the electric plants, and these two had not been collected when electricity was substituted. The pay of this woman’s husband was greater than the pay received by the possessor of the student-lamps, therefore there was favoritism and discrimination.

Though it was necessary for us to have the women, and their influence has been beneficent and of great value to the work, it is a fact that their presence introduced many new perplexities. That Mrs. Jones had a more desirable house than Mrs. Smith, or that Mrs. Smith had three mission rockers while Mrs. Jones had only two, would not appear to any one who has not lived on the Isthmus as having much to do with the construction of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, one who had to listen to Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith as they narrated their grievances at length and with insistent demand for immediate redress might be forced to conclude that these matters were of vital importance. And they were of importance. If Mrs. Smith were dissatisfied, Mr. Smith was apt to be dissatisfied also, with a consequent loss of interest in his work and lack of efficiency; and if these little grievances and dissatisfactions had been allowed to smolder they would have spread and become general throughout the force, seriously affecting the whole human machine. In building the Canal it was just as necessary to see that Mrs. Smith had a good stove, that her commissaries were delivered promptly, and that, in general, she received all the rights and privileges to which she was entitled, as it was to decide the location of the Pacific flight of locks—and the former was the more difficult task of the two.

Next to the questions of quarters and furniture, the wage scale was the source of more complaint than anything else. A table prepared by direction of Mr. Shonts in 1906, comparing the wages paid in the various trades with the average wages paid in the United States in similar employments, showed that the increases were not uniform in amounts. The same was true also in regard to positions not belonging to the trades. Under the organization in effect prior to January 8, 1908, the heads of departments were largely responsible for the wages in their respective departments, and men were induced to transfer from one to another on promise of an increase, which not only caused dissatisfaction but tended to disrupt the organization. Much thought was given to the wages for the trades; and while some minor changes were made where increases were possible, on the whole the wage scale was maintained, for to have decreased the pay of any craft would have caused trouble. It was deemed better policy to bear with the complaints and hold the wages undisturbed until the end of the construction period.

So far as the salaries attaching to other positions were concerned, a uniform wage scale was established on January 1, 1910; an attempt was made at that time to fix the pay to conform to the position and the responsibilities attached to it. Under a resolution of the commission dated September 5, 1904, officers of the army, navy, and Marine Hospital corps, while serving on duty with the commission, were to receive an increase of fifty per cent of their service pay. This was not fair to the civilians and was resented. Effective September 15, 1908, I had this resolution revoked, and officers from the various services received the pay attached to the positions filled by them; if this were greater than the service pay the incumbents received the difference, otherwise they served without extra compensation. When the law for the permanent organization was under consideration this question of the unbalanced wage scale was discussed with the committees of Congress. I believed that service on the Isthmus merited an increase over the pay for similar employment in the United States, suggested that provision be made for this, and the law provided for an increase of twenty-five per cent….


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Chicago: George W. Goethals, "The Human Side of Panama Canal Building," A New World Power, 1890-1914 in America, Vol.10, Pp.263-278 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHVJP7N5YK92QK.

MLA: Goethals, George W. "The Human Side of Panama Canal Building." A New World Power, 1890-1914, in America, Vol.10, Pp.263-278, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHVJP7N5YK92QK.

Harvard: Goethals, GW, 'The Human Side of Panama Canal Building' in A New World Power, 1890-1914. cited in , America, Vol.10, Pp.263-278. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGHVJP7N5YK92QK.