FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE CANAL ZONE IN 1912
THE Royal Mail steamer on which we have journeyed to Colon anchors alongside the Company's own
wharf. For anyone who has the interests of the Old Country at heart, a British wharf as an
outstanding feature of this important harbour, on the threshold of the Atlantic entrance
to the Panama Canal, is a cheery sight. A merchantman flying the French colours, a steamer
on which a German band is playing "In the Shadows," and one of the fine
banana-and-passenger ships of the United Fruit Company are the British liner's near
neighbours in the big docks.
In a small bay lie a fleet of plebeian steamboats, which make omnibus journeys to the
little trading centres on the neighbouring coast, and a shoal of Indian canoes or
"cayukas" as they are called. Coloured folk are swarming aboard one of the steamboats,
whose chimney is belching forth smoke. Indians and coloured folk are trafficking in the
cocoanuts, ivory nuts, and bananas with which the cayukas are laden.
MARKET PLACE IN COLON
THE MAN IS AN INDIAN FROM SAN BLAS.
Colon strikes us as being in the growing stage between a village and a provincial town. On
the quayside of the city, and a few hundred yards from our landing-stage, there is a
square bedecked with clumps of the variegated
 shrubs called "crotons" and with an array of majestic palms, which carry their plume-like
heads high in the air. The main street, which is neither broad nor narrow, runs past this
square on its way to the railway-station; it is bordered on one side by moderate-sized
shops, on the other by an open-air market, office bungalows, and ware-houses mostly of the
shed type. At the back of the main street lies a network of little shops and houses.
Verandas and dilapidation are the chief characteristics of the buildings. Fascinating as
is the heart of the little city, we find it a welcome relief to emerge from a stifling
atmosphere on to the seaside parade. In the fresh-air neighbourhood of the sea-front are
the commodious bungalows where live the officials who represent foreign interests,
together with a few of the superior class Panamanians. Having sampled the best
accommodation that Colon can offer her visitors, we are pleased to find a first-class
hotel nearing completion in this neighbourhood.
The principal needs of the inhabitants seem to be fruit, iced drinks, shiny boots, and
lottery tickets. Amidst the attractive display in the numerous open-fronted fruit-shops
are choice tropical products, some of which we recognize as relations of the expensive
luxuries to be seen in the very superior fruiterers' establishments at home; but in spite
of the aristocratic note struck by pines, avocado pears, and suchlike southern dainties,
the general appearance of the Colon fruit-shops reminds us of a costermonger's barrow,
which has been stocked from Covent Garden by some smart "Bill," who has the showman's gift
for arranging an exhibition. Apple-chains seem to be the favourite means of decoration.
Bananas and plantains, as we are not at all surprised to find, are the commonest of the
products on sale; but the great "hands" of them, that
 are hanging from roofs and walls, are a somewhat novel sight. The peanut stove, which is
so often to be seen on the footpath just outside the fruit-shops, makes us think of the
familiar street scene at home, which is provided by the roast-chestnut seller. The whistle
of the peanut stove, as it lets off steam, is quite a musical street cry.
The swinging of many a wicket gives us peep after peep into well-patronized bars, which
are gaily adorned with flags and furnished cafe-fashion with little tables. Hawkers
compete with the bars for the custom of the thirsty populace. The brightly painted
handcarts which they take about the streets are of the kind commonly used by Italian
vendors of ice-cream. These travelling bars are equipped with a few glasses, a bucket of
water, a dishcloth, and numerous bottles containing very highly coloured liquids. The
mottoes which straggle above the shelves suggest that the Panamanians have not a very keen
sense of humour—as, for instance, "We trust in God." The barrow bearing this device
reminds me of the native cook at a planter's bungalow in Malay, who wrote in letters of
icing, "Prepare to meet thy God" on the cake which he made as a Christmas present for his
In almost every street a lottery-ticket hawker, usually a woman, has a pitch. The lottery
is a regular weekly excitement; in the interests of fair play the drawing of the numbers
is done by a little daughter of the people.
The "people," or masses, include the majority of folk born on the Isthmus outside the
bounds of the Canal Zone; they are of mixed descent, the principal contributors to the
stock being Spaniards, Indians, and Negroes. Pure-bred, or nearly pure-bred, Spaniards
make up the small aristocratic class of Panamanians.
Although, geographically speaking, Colon is situated in
 the Canal Zone, politically it is Panamanian territory. But America has a reserved quarter
in the city, and also enjoys the right to superintend the government of the republican
city as regards matters—such as sanitation, or the maintenance of order during any
political crisis—which have any bearing on the interests of the Canal. The same
arrangement holds good for the republican city of Panama.
In Cristobal, the American quarter of Colon, we get a first peep at the mosquito-proof
houses which have helped even more than mammoth machinery in the making of the Canal. In
appearance they closely resemble a meat safe. Exceptional utility could alone excuse the
exceptional ugliness of these human habitations. Only a thoroughly practical boss," with
the dogged determination to carry through a gigantic job at any cost, and keenly alive to
the fact that the prime factor of success in such an undertaking is a healthy labour
force, could have been sufficiently inspired by courage to erect such hideous buildings
for the housing of all his employees, from the commanding officer to the negro navvy. The
swarms of mosquitoes which inoculated the French employees in the Isthmus with yellow
fever and malaria were as powerful an agent as financial mismanagement in wrecking the
Franco-Panamanian Canal enterprise. When the Americans took over the work, they at once
organized a Sanitary Revolution. The rest of the civilized world scoffed, or said, "Very
plucky, but it can't be done," for the Canal Zone was then a renowned death-trap. But
Jonathan Boss had learnt much about the wily and pestilential mosquito during his war with
Cuba. Convinced that this insect was his most fearsome foe in the Isthmus, he lost no time
in waging war on the mosquito throughout the
 Canal route. By tactics such as are employed in isolating valuable property within the
zone of a great fire, the little beasts' means of communication with the immediate region
of the Canal route were cut off; mosquitoes cannot fly far without a rest, so around
places from which it was particularly desirable to keep them away, the Bush was cleared up
to boundaries that could be relied on to pull them up on their journey from the interior
before they could get a chance of doing mischief among the Canal-makers. Drastic measures
were taken to exterminate mosquitoes throughout the region where the Canal-makers were to
work and live. All the houses in Colon and Panama were thoroughly disinfected. Swamps,
pools, and suchlike breeding-places beloved by mosquitoes were drained or filled up,
rivers and streams were coated with oil. And all the houses erected for the working force
were mosquito-proofed with wire gauze. The work of sanitation included the establishment
of hospitals for the care of the sick and wounded. Also, with a view to securing and
maintaining better health conditions in the cities of Colon and Panama and along the line
of the Canal, numerous municipal improvements were undertaken, such as the construction of
reservoirs for furnishing a good water-supply, sewerage, pavements, and a system of roads.
Owing to the skilful and persevering efforts of the Department of Sanitation of the
Isthmian Canal Commission, the Panama Canal region was transformed into a health resort
for the carrying out of the "Big Job."
STEAM SHOVEL DISGORGING.
As we leave Colon by train to journey across the Isthmus, we say to ourselves that now we
are going to see the Canal. We are in the parlour car, whose every comfortable arm-chair
is a window-seat. Next to our compartment is the hospital car; through the open doors
 of the corridor we get a good view of its spacious, well-equipped interior. There are no
invalids on board, but nurses and ambulances are ready for duty, and the train will stop
at every station en route to Panama in case there should be any patients for
the hospital in that city—accidents will happed, in the carrying out of any big
engineering job, but in spite of the many dangers that threaten the Canal-makers there
have been remarkably few catastrophes since the Americans took over the work.
A few minutes after leaving Colon we are in the Bush. It seems as though we must be
dreaming, so curious is the contrast between the highly-civilized train in which we are
travelling and the wild luxuriance of the country through which it is carrying us. Vainly
we search for a sign of the Canal amidst a procession of bright-hued flowers, masses of
giant leaves, and creeper-draped shrubs.
Presently our attention is beguiled from the view outside by a negro in smart uniform, who
is walking the train with refreshments; his business-like manner suggests an American
training, and there is a very pronounced American accent in the voice that invites us to
buy "candies." We are hesitating over a purchase with the object of studying the salesman
when the train pulls up, and we hear voices calling "Gatun." Promise of new excitements
makes us instantly turn our faces to the window. "Gatun"—now we shall certainly get
a good view of the Canal, we think. We see one negro woman balancing on her head a basket
piled up with clean clothes; another squatting on the ground alongside some bananas; and
some shanties on which are written in rickety letters "Billiard Saloon," "Barber's Shop,"
"Cool Drinks." Our eyes travel uphill to a little town—it is typical of
 the mosquito-proofed centres of civilization that have sprung up at close intervals all
along the Canal line. We are at a right distance away for getting a clear and
comprehensive view of the bungalows. They are all standing on stilts; the large ones, when
viewed separately, are examples of the meat-safe style, the little ones remind us of
dog-kennels and fowl-houses. As a group, the buildings make us think of a menagerie.
But where are the great locks and mountainous dam with which everyone associates the name
of Gatun? We look out of the windows on the opposite side of the carriage, but the only
sign we can see of such wonder-works is a stretch of massive concrete wall, which rises
but a few feet above the ground.
From the clearing at Gatun the train plunges into forest lands. We know that from Colon to
Gatun we were being hauled up an incline; and we can see that we are in the midst of
mountains. How is it that this high land is very swampy, when the low land through which
we passed was quite dry? For mile after mile swamps are a feature of the landscape; and
there are large tracts of forest that seem doomed to be submerged—the undergrowth is
in the last stage of drowning, fast withering little trees are standing trunk-deep in
water, among the giant trees there is many an ashen skeleton.
PART OF THE GATUN LOCKS.
From the half-way station the train moves out backwards, as though it was going to return
to Colon; soon we are discovering that it has manoeuvred its way to a station on the
opposite side of the valley, whence it once more travels onwards. We get a peep at an
embankment of red-gold sand, which gags the mouth of a ravine, and at a magnificent
panorama of mountains. Then the train plunges once more into dense tropical jungle. A few
 miles ahead we have an experience that is in the nature of an adventure—on a
rough-timber bridge, that has every appearance of having been knocked together for
temporary service, the train crosses a wide and very deep ravine. Although it very
obligingly crawls across the chasm, we only have time for a sweepeing glance at the
fastinating scenes which have suddenly come into view. To the right, the chasm is
blocked by two pairs of giant, fortress-like gates, which form the back of a huge,
double well. Massive side-walls and a dividing wall of concrete reach from the well
floor to the mountain summit. On the steel frames of the two pairs of gates which are
being erected at the front of the well numbers of men are at work; they look like tiny
dwarfs. To the left, we get a long vista of the ravine, in whose depth little people,
toy trains, and model machines seem to be playing pranks with dirt.
A little way beyond the bridge we meet a train-load of labourers; the jovial crowd of
Spaniards, Italians, and coloured folk with which the open cars are packed might well
be a beanfeast party. A few minutes later there dashes past us a long train of trucks,
which are laden with masses of rock and loose dirt. And shortly after that diversion
we are alighting at Panama station.
You are disappointed—in crossing the Isthmus you expected to see the Canal from
beginning to end of its course; you are thinking that, although the journey through the
Bush has been a novel entertainment, it has not afforded you a single glipmpse of the
channel of the famous waterway, and that the one good view it revealed to you of some
gigantic locks, which did not seem to have any connection with an artificial channel,
cannot persuade you to believe that all the towns you have passed are peopled with Canal-makers.
 You will be very surprised to hear that you have seen a great deal of the two most
wonderful sections of the Panama Canal—the Gatun Lake and the Culebra Cut. Those
mysterious swamps among the highlands were the Gatun Lake in the making by the gradual
rise of the barricaded River Chagres. That great chasm over which the train passed was
not, as it looked, a natural ravine, but the big ditch, known as the Culebra Cut, which
has been hewn through the giant bodies of rocky mountains.
The train journey across the Isthmus only takes about two hours. Whilst the Canal is in
course of construction, we shall make this journey at least half a dozen times, and each
time discover something of new interest. And excursions within the actual channel of the
Canal, such as we are going to indulge in, will emphasize the attractions of a train trip
that can afford numerous views of country which will soon be submerged, of towns that will
speedily be cleared away from the track of the rising waters, and of scenes in the
everyday life of the Canal-makers, most of whom will shortly be going back to the
different parts of the world whence they came to work on the big job."
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