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A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!
The Big Ditch had so far been a colossal flop, and Teddy Roosevelt desperately needed an engineering genius who could take over the job and “make the dirt fly.” The answer was not the famous Goethals, but a man whom history has forgotten.
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Stevens later called Hill the finest man he ever knew. And once he got to Panama, at the end of July, 1905, Stevens quickly demonstrated a number of Hill’s more noted qualities. Like Hill, he believed in giving subordinates as much authority as possible and then holding them responsible for results. He was decisive, intelligent, highly intolerant of incompetence, and never did he leave anyone in doubt as to who was boss. But it was his ability to instill spirit and personal loyalty among workingmen that gave Stevens his most obvious resemblance to Hill and had the most immediate effect at Panama.
Stevens found the situation a good deal worse than it had been described to him. At high tide tons of garbage drifted about the piers at Colon, the terminal where ships from New York docked. Wharves were crowded with goods nobody seemed able to account for and men with little to do. Colon itself and Panama City, the opposite terminal, were vile, depressing places with foul drinking water, dreadful food, and streets strewn with filth. The American workers all seemed possessed by fear of yellow fever. (Black laborers and others native to the Caribbean or Panama were largely immune.) And though the trouble to date was nearly all in their minds, there was still no guarantee that a real epidemic might not break out any day.
Few workers appeared to know what they were doing. For those who did there was a maddening tangle of red tape to cope with. At one point Stevens saw two new recruits from Martinique hoist a wheelbarrow full of dirt up onto the head of a third man, who carried it off that way. Carpenters were forbidden to saw boards over ten feet long without a signed permit. When he went out to Culebra Cut (later renamed Gaillard Cut), the place midway across the zone where the Canal would have to slice some nine miles through the mountain spine of the Isthmus, every steam shovel in sight was idle. “Nobody was working but the ants and the typists,” he said.
There was, as he wrote, “no organization worthy of the name, no answerable head who could delegate authority and exact responsibility; no cooperation … between what might charitably be called departments …” When a first meeting with department heads was called shortly after Stevens’ arrival, the men thought it was to announce that the United States was pulling out and abandoning the whole project.
Since the Americans had taken over, surprisingly little had been done. Equipment left behind by the French, which Wallace had tried futilely to make do with, was nearly all too antiquated to be of value, and scarcely any new equipment was on hand. (Wallace had wanted to experiment at length with various kinds of steam shovels, dump cars, and other machinery before deciding on what to order.) The famous Panama Railroad had only one track, and its undersized rolling stock was twenty years out of date. There were no sidings and no warehouses. When somebody told Stevens there had been few collisions, he answered, “A collision has its good points as well as bad ones—it indicates that there is something moving on the railroad.”
The Canal was to follow the line of the railroad, which was approximately the route the French had figured on. The French, contrary to popular opinion in the United States, had accomplished quite a lot considering the equipment they had. Their determination in the face of continual setbacks and death had been heroic to say the least, and almost certainly they would have succeeded had it not been for yellow fever and de Lesseps’ insistence on a sea-level canal like the Suez. But the jungle had long since returned over most of the French work, and the forty-two-mile stretch between Colon and Panama City looked about as it had to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had discovered the Isthmus four centuries earlier. There was still no final plan authorized by Washington, and Stevens had seventeen thousand men waiting to be told what to do.
Stevens’ own plan was very simple. He would prepare to dig a canal. Making dirt fly, he saw from the start, was not at all what was called for. That, he estimated, would be the easiest part of the job and it could wait. So he stopped all excavation and announced that it would not resume until he had everything ready (a very unpopular move back home where the American people were eager for news of progress).
His first step was to do something about morale, and that came easy to him. By nature he was not an “office engineer.” He put on a pair of overalls and rubber boots and rapidly became a familiar sight up and down the line, riding the railroad, tramping through the jungle (he would walk the entire length of the Zone, surveying the scene and studying what the French had done), or out among the men talking to them in a way they had not been talked to before. “There are three diseases on the Isthmus,” he told them, “yellow fever, malaria, and cold feet. And the worst of these is cold feet.”