THE COMING OF THE AMERICANS
 DURING the first two and a half years after the United States undertook the construction of the
Panama Canal, they were busily engaged in making preparations for construction work, and
in discussing whether it would be better to make a sea-level or lock type of waterway.
Owing to the great increase in size of modern ships as compared with the largest ships
that were in use, or being built, when the French planned the Canal, America determined to
construct a very much wider and deeper waterway than the one that had been begun by her
predecessors on the Isthmus. But apart from the vast expenditure of both time and money
that would be involved by the stupendous amount of excavation necessary in the
construction of a sea-level canal, there were some sound scientific objections against
that ideal type of canal to be taken into account—notably, the tendency of Nature to
wreak vengeance by landslips when man interferes with the equilibrium of Mother Earth by
digging and blasting. To the lock type of canal there is always the objection that traffic
is impeded and valuable time lost whilst ships are being taken in turn through the locks.
And there were some very special local difficulties in connection with the construction of
a lock type canal for the Panama route. The Chagres River, with its tributaries, must be
used as one of the principal sources of water-supply; but up to the point where the river
would be required to feed
 the canal, the waters of the appropriated section of its course must be maintained at a
given level, and in order to subject the river to the service of the canal its course must
be altered. The variation of the rainfall in the Chagres valley, and the sharp contrasts
in the form of the country, presented some very difficult problems in connection with the
control of the Chagres; for instance, the Americans had to face the disconcerting evidence
of statistics which gave the low-water surface of the Chagres as one foot above mean
sea-level at Bohio, forty-eight feet above mean sea-level at Obispo, which is only
thirteen miles from Bohio, and ninety-five feet above mean sea-level at Alhajuela, which
is only eleven miles farther up the valley; and statistics which told of the river rising
over twenty-five feet in twenty-four hours at Gamboa.
On June 24, 1905, the President of the United States appointed an International Board of
Consulting Engineers to report upon the type of canal which should be adopted. On January
10, 1906, the Board presented two reports: The first, or majority report, recommending a
sea-level canal, was signed by eight members, five of whom were foreign experts; the
minority report favouring a lock canal at an elevation of eighty-five feet was signed by
five members, all of whom were American experts. These reports were submitted to the
Isthmian Canal Commission, which, on February 5, 1906, sent a report to the Secretary of
War recommending a lock canal. On June 29, 1906, Congress authorized the construction of
the lock type of canal.
Meanwhile the Isthmian Canal Commission had been devoting itself to the business of
preparing for construction work.
I have already told you about the measures they took
 for making the Isthmus healthy, and of the mosquito-proof buildings they erected for the
housing of staff officers and the labour force.
The Commission first sought labour recruits among the negroes, both in the States and the
West Indies. From a member of the Commission who, at the outset of its organizing
operations, was intimately associated with the important work of recruiting labourers, I
heard some amusing stories about the way the negroes took the bait which was designed to
appeal to their sense of self-importance. For instance:
Mr. Ebenezer Johnson, living in some little country place in the States, would write to
the head offices of the Isthmian Canal Commission. in New York applying for a job as
plumber. Provided his qualifications and character were found to be satisfactory, a
letter, running somewhat as follows was sent to him:
"I have the honour to inform you that you have been appointed plumber to the Isthmian
Canal Commission." A few days later the staff officer who signed that letter was pretty
certain to be having this experience:
Clerk: Mr. Ebenezer Johnson to see you, sir.
Staff Officer: Who is he? I don't know him.
Clerk: He says he's had a letter from you.
Staff Officer: Show him in.
Enter Mr. Ebenezer Johnson, attired in draught-board pattern trousers, black tail-coat,
fancy waistcoat, yellow tie, green socks and patent leather shoes, carrying straw hat in
one hand, letter in the other. "I am Mr. Ebenezer Johnson," he announces in a tone which,
combined with his manner of walking over to the table, suggests that the Panama works are
at a standstill, and that the staff officer has been eagerly waiting for him to
 appear and announce his readiness to proceed at once to the Isthmus to set things moving
A very little experience on the Isthmus taught the Americans that it would be hopeless to
attempt to carry through their enterprise solely with negro labour. The black man,
considering himself indispensable, was idle and uppish. The authorities decided to send to
Spain and Italy for labourers. White labourers were attracted by the terms offered them,
and went to the Canal Zone. Spanish and Italian gangs were put to work side by side with
negro gangs. The black man soon discovered that the white man was advising his friends at
home to come to Panama; also, the black man began to realize how much work he must do in a
day if he did not want to lose his job.
In addition to coping with the unhealthy condition of the Isthmus, solving the housing
problem, and recruiting a labour force, the preliminary work of the Commission included:
The transference to the Isthmus of construction plant, consisting of steam shovels,
locomotives, cars, pile-drivers, cranes, dredges, steamboats, barges, etc., etc.
The organization of a Commissariat Service for supplying the employees with all things
necessary for their comfort and convenience.
The framing of a system of civil government for the Canal Zone, together with the
establishment of courts, a police force, post offices, public works, fire stations, and
suchlike civil machinery.
The increasing of the capacity of the existing railway system, by double tracking many
sections of the Panama railroad, enlarging yards, and establishing communication with
areas available as dumping grounds.
 In short, for the purpose of carrying through the "big job" she had undertaken, America
built on the Canal Zone a vast construction camp, capable of accommodating some 35,000
employees, together with the wives and families of a large proportion of the married men
on the rolls; also equipped that camp, and organized for it a system of service and
control calculated to make every employee a healthy, happy, loyal and efficient servant.
For the period of the "big job," the form of government devised for the Canal Zone by the
democratic United States was autocratic. Owing to the acquisition by the United States of
the Panama railroad, and the care, springing from a keen commercial instinct, which the
American Government as boss of the "big job," took to see that its employees were well
housed and properly fed, by itself housing them free and feeding them at "cost price,"
some people have called the Canal Zone system of government "socialism." That description
of the method by which the Zone community was ruled is contradicted by the fact that the
employees had no vote, no say in the way they should or should not be ruled.
Colonel George W. Goethals, the Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal, won distinction as an
able and just autocrat, in addition to universal fame as a Master Engineer.
Colonel Gorgas, the popular Head of the Department of Sanitation, became world-famous as
the man who transformed a death-trap region into a veritable health-resort.
Prominent among other men whose names must be put high on the Panama scroll of fame are
Mr. Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Secretary of the Commission, and Dr. Claude C. Pierce, the
Quarantine Officer at Colon, who was the first sanitary representative on the ground.
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