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A ceremony on May 4, 1905 marks the official beginning of the second attempt to build the Panama Canal. This second attempt to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will succeed, dramatically altering world trade as well as the physical and geopolitical landscape of Central America.
For decades before it was attempted, merchants and engineers fixated on the idea of creating a passage through Central America for ocean-going vessels, sparing them thousands of nautical miles and the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. A French company was the first to attempt building such a canal, but the results were disastrous: roughly 20,000 workers perished due to accidents and tropical diseases, and the company collapsed without coming close to completing the canal.
In 1902, the United States Congress passed the Spooner Act, authorizing the acquisition of the defunct French company. After failing to reach a deal with Colombia to dig the canal, the Unites States backed separatists in the Isthmus of Panama, leading to the birth of a new nation as well as the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land 10 miles wide along the route of the canal over which the United States would hold jurisdiction.
WATCH: Modern Marvels: Panama Canal Supersized on HISTORY Vault
On May 4, 1905, dubbed “Acquisition Day,” the project became official. The Americans largely avoided the mistakes that had doomed the French project. Engineers used dams to create an inland lake, connected to the oceans by locks, rather than building a sea-level canal all the way across the isthmus. In addition to creating Gatún Lake, then the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also required the blasting of the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, an artificial gorge which was dynamited out of the rock of the Continental Divide so that the canal could flow through.
In October of 1913, nearly 10 years after construction had resumed, a telegraph from President Woodrow Wilson triggered the detonation of a dike and the flooding of the Culebra Cut, joining the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. The following August, the Panama Canal officially opened, immediately altering patterns of world trade in ways comparable only to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Accidents, disease and the extremely hot conditions killed 5,609 workers over the decade it took to complete the canal. The United States remained the de facto sovereign of the canal and the Canal Zone until 1979 when, under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. agreed to transfer management of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.
What were the immediate results on completion?
As construction of the canal wore on, employment in the Panama Canal Zone had swelled into huge numbers, bringing with them townships and businesses. Upon completion, thousands of workers were laid off and townships demolished, forcing businesses to close.
The project had never set out to be a sustainable employer and when the canal opened, it was unanimously hailed an incredible achievement - a marvel of the modern world. Shipping patterns quickly changed and merchandise flowed freely between the U.S and other naval countries.
The canal cut approximately 7,800 miles off the sea journey from San Francisco to New York, making shipping cheaper, faster and safer.
Opening of The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal – connection two oceans. Photo credit: shutterstock
Finally, on October 10, 1913, the temporary dike at Gamboa was demolished, officially opening the Panama Canal. The very first ship to sail down the canal was the Alexandre La Valley, an old crane boat from France that was slowly working its way across the Atlantic-Pacific divide during the final stages of construction.
The Panama Canal was an extremely important asset to the United States, both strategically and economically. The canal rendered the Drake Passage and Cape Horn useless, and cut 7,800 miles off the important shipping route from New York to San Fransisco. A total of 75,000 people worked on the construction of the Panama Canal, and over $375 million was spent to bring this technological marvel to life.
The Panama Canal, the connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, is one of the highlight of Panama. Enjoy the remarkable environment of Panama without the hoards of tourists. Explore the rest of Central America during one of our amazing Central America Tours.
Historical Publications about the Panama Canal
The U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) partnered with the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida (UF) to make digitized versions of publications related to the Panama Canal published by the Panama Canal Commission, its predecessor agencies, and other Federal agencies widely available
About the Panama Canal
Over 100 years ago, an incredible engineering feat, the Panama Canal, officially opened to traffic on August 15, 1914. Called one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the construction of the Canal removed enough earth and debris to bury Manhattan up to 12 feet. The 52 mile long waterway was completed on schedule and under budget at a cost to the United States of $352 million. The Canal dramatically changed shipping patterns by eliminating the long voyage around the Cape Horn and South America. Ships could now cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific in only 8 to 10 hours. By 1915, over 5 million tons of material passed through the Canal annually. The United States administered the canal and the surrounding Canal Zone until December 31, 1999. (Source: Panama Canal Museum (Source: Panama Canal Museum http://cms.uflib.ufl.edu/pcm/Home.aspx )
The United States Government controlled and operated the Panama Canal and the surrounding Canal Zone from 1904 through 1999. The Panama Canal Commission was the final Federal agency to manage, operate, and maintain the Canal. The Commission was created by the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, and superseded the Canal Zone Government and the Panama Canal Company. The Commission operated the Canal until the expiration of the Panama Canal Treaty on December 31, 1999, when the Republic of Panama assumed full responsibility for the Canal.
The collection contains a variety of publications that give users a glimpse into the workings of the Canal and life in the Canal Zone. Users can now easily read the Canal Record, published weekly between 1907 and 1941 for the employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission and Panama Canal Commission, which contains a wealth of detail on life in the Canal Zone. The August 19, 1914 issue of the Canal Record, for example, contains a description of the first official trip through the Canal, lists of products available at the commissary with prices, rainfall totals for the week, as well information on Canal navigation.
The collection contains a host of other interesting government publications on the Canal. Just a small sampling of those titles include:
Before the Canal
The strategic location of the Isthmus of Panama, and the short distance between the oceans there, have prompted many attempts over the centuries to forge a trading route between the oceans. Although all of the early schemes involved a land route linking ports on either coast, speculation on a possible canal goes back to the earliest days of European exploration of Panama.
The Spanish Era
In 1514, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to see the eastern Pacific, built a crude road which he used to haul his ships from Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Atlantic coast of Panama to the Bay of San Miguel and the Mar del Sur ( Pacific). This road was about 30 - 40 miles long, but was soon abandoned.
In November of 1515, Captain Antonio Tello de Guzmán discovered a trail crossing the isthmus from the Gulf of Panama to Porto Bello, past the site of the abandoned town of Nombre de Diós. This trail had been used by the natives for centuries, and was well laid out. It was improved and paved by the Spaniards, and became El Camino Real. This road was used to haul looted gold to the warehouse at Porto Bello for transportation to Spain, and was the first major cargo crossing of the Isthmus of Panama.
In 1524 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, suggested that by cutting out a piece of land somewhere in Panama, the trips from Ecuador and Peru would be made shorter and allow for a quicker and less risky trip back and forth to Spain for ships carrying goods, especially gold. A survey of the isthmus and a working plan for a canal were drawn up in 1529. The European political situation and level of technology at the time made this impossible.
The road from Porto Bello to the Pacific had its problems, and in 1533, Licentiate Gaspar de Espinosa recommended to the king that a new road be built. His plan was to build a road from the town of Panamá, which was the Pacific terminus of El Camino Real, to the town of Cruces, on the banks of the Chagres River and about 20 miles from Panamá. Once on the Chagres River, boats would carry cargo to the Caribbean. This road was built, and was known as El Camino a Cruces, the Las Cruces Trail. At the mouth of the Chagres, the small town of Chagres was fortified, and the fortress of San Lorenzo was built on a bluff, overlooking the area. From Chagres, treasures and goods were transported to the king's warehouse in Porto Bello, to be stored until the treasure fleet left for Spain.
This road lasted many years, and was even used in the 1840s by gold prospectors heading for the California Gold Rush.
The Scottish Attempt
The Darien Scheme was another early attempt to establish an overland route for trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In July, 1698, five ships left Leith, in Scotland, in an attempt to establish a colony in the Darién, as a basis for a sea and land trading route to China and Japan. The colonists arrived on the coast of Darién in November, and claimed it as the Colony of Caledonia. However, the expedition was ill-prepared for the hostile conditions, badly led, and ravaged by disease the colonists finally abandoned New Edinburgh, leaving four hundred graves behind.
Unfortunately, a relief expedition had already left Scotland, and arrived at the colony in November, 1699, but faced the same problems, as well as attack and then blockade by the Spaniards. Finally, on April 12, 1700, Caledonia was abandoned for the last time, ending this disastrous venture.
The Panama Railway
While the Camino Real, and later the Las Cruces trail, served communication across the isthmus for over three centuries, by the 19th century it was becoming clear that a cheaper and faster alternative was required. Given the difficulty of constructing a canal with the available technology, a railway seemed the ideal solution.
Studies were carried out to this end as early as 1827 several schemes were proposed, and foundered for want of capital. However, by the middle of the century, several factors turned in favour of a link: the acquisition of Upper California in 1848, and the increasing movement of settlers to the west coast, created a demand for a fast route between the oceans, which was fuelled even farther by the discovery of gold in California.
The Panama Railway was built across the isthmus from 1850 to 1855, running 47 miles from Colón, on the Atlantic Coast, to Panama City on the Pacific. The project was an engineering marvel of its age, carried out in brutally difficult conditions it is estimated that more than 12,000 people died in its construction, many of them from cholera and malaria.
Until the opening of the Panama Canal, the railway carried the heaviest volume of freight per unit length of any railroad in the world. The existence of the railway was key in the selection of Panama as the site of the canal.
The idea of creating a shortcut from Europe to Asia through the Isthmus of Panama goes back to the 1500's. King Charles I of Spain asked his governor of the area to plan a route along the Chagres River across the isthmus. The land was filled with jungle and mountains, so the project seemed impossible at that time and was not begun.
France was the first country to really make a conscious attempt to carve out a water route through the isthmus. In 1880, Ferdinand de Lessups was commissioned by France to begin construction of a sea level canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Constant rain and landslides plagued them, as well as malaria and yellow fever. De Lessups decided that a sea level canal wasn't going to be possible, so he made plans to try a lock canal. However, France decided to stop funding the project in 1888.
In 1902, the United States, under President Theodore Roosevelt, bought France's part of the Canal Zone for $40 million dollars. After it was learned that a part of the zone in which the United States wanted to build belonged to Colombia, the U. S. urged Panama to fight for independence. Then the U. S. made an agreement with the new government of Panama to have rights forever in the Canal Zone.
The U. S. officially began the project for a sea level canal in 1904 under chief engineer John Wallace, but he resigned due to faulty French equipment and the fact that workers fled from fear of malaria and yellow fever. In July 1905, a railroad engineer named John Stevens took over. He devised more efficient ways for excavating and hauling away debris and convinced President Roosevelt that a better way to go would be a lock canal.
Dr. William Gorgas was the chief sanitary officer for the project. He believed that mosquitoes carried the diseases. He cleaned out the pools of standing water and fumigated homes. Yellow fever was gone by November 1905. Within the next ten years, cases of malaria dropped. Stevens resigned suddenly in early 1907. Lt. Colonel George Washington Goethals of the Army Corps of Engineers took over. He used his military experience to get things moving. He also brought about better living conditions for the workers and their families.
Goethals had to clear a 9-mile stretch of mountain and made the project continue 24 hours a day. Landslides and dynamite explosions were very dangerous and caused deaths among the workers. In August 1909, the pouring of concrete for the locks began. The purpose of the locks was to raise and lower water levels across the isthmus from one ocean to the other. The two oceans were not on the same level. The process was run by electricity.
Two steam shovels met coming from opposite directions in 1913. From the White House, using a telegraph, President Woodrow Wilson could trigger the explosion of Gambia dike and allow the last dry bed to fill with water. When the canal opened on August 14, 1915, it was the most expensive building project the United States had ever undertaken. It cost more than $350 million. 5,600 of the 56,000 workers were killed on the project. A dam called the Maddan was added in 1935.
The Panama Canal has been an extremely important part of world trade since it was completed. The time it takes traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific is remarkably short when compared to the course which ships used to take going around Cape Horn. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and the leader of Panama signed a treaty beginning to turn over the canal to Panama. The Panama Canal Authority took over complete control on December 31, 1999. By 2010, one million ships had passed through the canal.
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Panama’s Independence, Separation and its relation to the Panama Canal
Panama becomes independent from Spain and voluntarily joins “Great Colombia” with the idea of forming one country together with Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.
This country lasts only for a short time, soon becoming the “Republic of Colombia”. The Isthmus becomes subject to abandonment and neglect. These factors, among others, lead to the formation of several separatist movements, which result in separation from Colombia in November 1903.
During the month of November, the following dates are historically significant and represent a month of patriotism in Panama.
November 3: Panama’s separation from Colombia
November 4: Flag’s day
November 5: Consolidation of the separation from Colombia
November 10: Declaration of Independence in “La Villa de Los Santos"
November 28: Independence of Panama from Spain
It is critical to consider the meaning of “independence” and “separation” as the patriotic acts of Panama, because Panama became independent from Spain and later it separated from Colombia.
With this in mind, let’s look at the events that lead to Panama becoming a sovereign and independent nation.
After Spanish colonization around 1821, ideas of revolution and independence surged. Abuses by the Spanish Empire led to a battle for the Independence, which started in La Villa de Los Santos it is for this reason November 10 is known as the “First Yell for Independence.” It took until November 28, 1821 for Panama to be declared independent. At this point, Panama made the decision to freely join “Great Colombia” along with Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia (Note: At that time it was not yet the Republic of Colombia).
How does Panama separate from what was left of Great Colombia?
The answer is closely related to the creation of the Panama Canal. The idea of creating an Inter-oceanic Canal between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean had been around for several years. But it wasn’t until 1876 that the French officially showed an interest in taking on the project. At this time, Panama had become part of Colombia, so the French signed a treaty with Colombia in order to begin studies and construction on the canal this treaty was known as the “Wyse Grant”. Under this treaty, the French began construction of the Canal through Panama but they faced several problems, including combating diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. At that time people didn’t know how these diseases were transmitted, it was believed they were result of gases emitted from the excavations.
These two diseases decimated the labor force working for the French company in charge of building the Canal. By 1889 the French went bankrupt, failing to complete the project.
Three key factors in Panama’s separation:
France with Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla: Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla was in charge of the canal project at the time of its failure. He was also a shareholder of the now bankrupt, French company.
The United States: At this time the United States were interested in an Inter-oceanic Canal for military and commercial strategies. Because of influence from the U.S. senate, they were inclined to create an alternative Canal through Nicaragua.
Separatist Movement in Panama: From the beginning of Panama’s union with Great Colombia, the Isthmus witnessed several failed separatist movements. However, around the time of the failed attempt to build the canal by the French, a separatist movement led by Manuel Amador Guerrero was in process. Guerrero, along with several others dreaming of a completely independent Republic fought against Colombia’s neglect towards Panama.
With these three elements in play and his own interests in mind, Bunau-Varilla turned to the United States, offering them the Canal project in an effort to get back some of the money the French had invested. However as previously stated, in 1902 the U.S. Government led by Theodore Roosevelt, was more inclined to construct an inter-oceanic channel through Nicaragua.
The Stamp that changed history
Bunau-Varilla, in desperation to sell the Panama Canal project, sent a letter to each U.S. Senator with a 1-cent stamp of Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano in an eruption, showing the danger of volcanic activity in Nicaragua. This strategy helped win the approval of the U.S. senate, encouraging them take on the Panama Canal as opposed to creating a similar one through Nicaragua.
In January 1903, the “Herrán-Hay” treaty between the United States and Colombia was signed in order to continue the canal trough the Isthmus of Panama, but the Colombian Congress rejected the treaty.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt saw the rejection as a threat to the Inter-oceanic Canal project, and put his support behind the Panamanian separatist movement. Panama’s leader, Manuel Amador Guerrero, traveled to the United States and while there, Guerrero held a meeting with Bunau-Varilla who was also interested in the United States taking on the canal project started by the French.
The help of French Bunau-Varilla came with a high price. Once the new nation was proclaimed and Panama received diplomatic recognition from the United States, Bunau-Varilla had to be named Plenipotentiary Minister of the new Republic. This would give him the faculty of negotiating the new Canal Treaty with the United States. Bunau-Varilla signed a treaty giving the Canal Zone to the United States for eternity (later in 1977 the “Torrijos-Carter” treaty reverted this agreement promising to give back the Panama Canal to the Panamanian people by the 31 of December of 1999).
The Panama Canal
The history of the Panama Canal is full of stories detailing the experiences of many different nationalities during the construction and operation of the canal. Although the exploits of white Americans, Chinese "coolies," and West Indians have been highlighted in various books and articles, those of African Americans have not been similarly chronicled. African Americans' experiences did not always follow established patterns or have predictable outcomes. Their dual identity of being American and black set them apart from a large population of aliens of color and technically granted them privileges on par with white American employees. But these privileges were denied them by means of an officially sanctioned discriminatory employment system. The unique dual character of being an African American employee in the Canal Zone is worthy of examination.
Record Group 185, Records of the Panama Canal, is an overlooked source of information documenting African American involvement in this major twentieth-century construction project. Several series of records (General Correspondence, 1904-1914 General Records, 1914-1960 and Alpha Files, 1904-1960) contain a substantial amount of information concerning how African Americans, white Americans, Panamanians, West Indians, and canal authorities responded to general living and working conditions in the Canal Zone.
African Americans started arriving on the Canal Zone in the early construction years of 1904-1908. They secured employment as many others did, directly through the various canal recruitment offices in the United States or through contractors doing work in the Canal Zone. Upon arrival, they ran headlong into a separatist/racist employment system that affected every phase of life there.
Canal authorities assigned employees to either the gold or silver roll, and this difference determined a person's status. Separate towns, quarters, schools, libraries, recreation facilities, transportation, restrooms, and drinking fountains were assigned according to whether the employee appeared on the "gold" or "silver" payroll. Signs were posted to let all employees know which facilities were for their use only. The classification "gold" or "silver" also determined pay rates, vacations, and pensions.
Americans maintained that the French had established the terms "gold roll" and "silver roll," but it was under the Americans that these labels took on racial connotations. The employment system officially stipulated that the skill of the workman and the type of job he held determined whether it was a "gold" or "silver" job. Moreover, it required that the employee be paid in the currency of his native country. Technicians and foremen or other classes of skilled workers were paid in gold. Laborers or other classes of unskilled workers were paid in silver. It is apparent from the records that the better quarters, vacations, and the like were reserved for those on the "gold" roll. It is important to note that canal authorities never officially used the terms "white" or "colored" however, officials and employees alike came to equate the terms "gold" with white and "silver" with colored.
The majority of those on the gold roll were white Americans or Europeans, while the majority of those on the silver roll were people of color. In the beginning there might have been some basis for the statement regarding skill, but the canal authorities took steps to remove those people of color on the gold roll and transfer them to the silver roll. In 1906 the chief engineer of the Panama Canal issued a memorandum to place all colored men then on a "gold hourly basis" on the "silver hourly basis." No justification was given for this change, not even the type of job held. The most obvious reason seemed to be race. As noted in the following statement by the commissary manager, race alone was used to justify the removal of "colored" employees from the gold to the silver roll:
Subsequently, canal authorities added the factor of citizenship to the equation. At the same time the memorandum was issued, an exception was made for African Americans:
So now there was a line drawn between American citizens and aliens. There were only a handful of ?colored? Americans on the gold roll, but canal authorities soon found themselves entwined in questions of race. They found it hard to grant gold roll privileges to "colored" Americans in the face of racial views held by white Americans at all levels of government in the Canal Zone. This bias is shown in a statement by D. D. Gaillard, then acting chairman and chief engineer:
Canal authorities remedied this situation by ceasing to hire American Negroes for the gold roll, although they allowed the few still carried on the gold roll to remain there. From early 1907 on, "special" contracts were devised that put African Americans on the "silver" roll but granted them some privileges given to American citizens on the "gold" roll. These privileges changed over time but included paid leaves of absence, free quarters, receipt of ice, purchase of commissary books for cash in gold commissaries, and free coal.
If job skill alone determined roll placement, then all supervisors, teachers, clerks— all jobs with similar skill levels— would be carried on the gold roll, but this was not the case. There were supervisors, teachers, and clerks of color who were carried on the silver roll.
Even teachers were categorized by color despite the educational levels reached by some. The superintendent of schools recommended that Alfred E. Osborne, a naturalized citizen of the United States, be "employed as an American citizen on the silver roll . . . as a teacher in La Boca colored school as he holds Bachelor's Degree from Chicago University."5
Distinctions were made that cut across racial and citizenship lines. White Americans were treated differently from black Americans. However, black Americans on the gold roll were treated differently from black Americans on the silver roll, who in turn were treated differently from the native "colored" populations on the silver roll. Of course, these distinctions caused problems because Canal authorities refused to officially acknowledge that both the gold and silver rolls were based on race as well as citizenship and not on job skill. Things began to unravel when African Americans on both the gold and silver rolls started to demand their rights as American citizens. Then it became clear that if a person looked like a silver employee, he was treated like one the subject of citizenship was not brought up.
The multilayered problems of citizenship and race created much confusion and resentment for African Americans. How they fit into the scheme of things caused friction between white Americans and "colored" American employees, created numerous problems for canal officials, and caused confusion regarding the rights of American Negroes on both rolls.
African Americans on the gold roll found themselves in a dilemma. They often encountered problems when they presented themselves at windows marked "gold." They were denied service or told to go to the silver window where they "belonged." Canal authorities came up with ways to identify American citizens of color, stamping commissary books or issuing special gold series metal checks so they would get the proper service accorded to them. For instance, canal postal workers wanted to know if "these people are to be allowed to transact their business in the white lobby of the post office." 6 The issue of service was a constant problem because service was provided based on one's appearance (color). This issue is amply documented in the files.
Chairman George W. Goethals, head of the canal organization, received a complaint from a "colored" American employee on the gold roll. The employee had been told that he had to remove his hat before he would receive any service at the Cristobal commissary. He pointed out that no such requirement was made of white employees. In a letter to the employee, the chairman explained that the order was issued by the inspector of commissaries and "as this order resulted in discrimination between citizens of the United States it was revoked, and it is hoped there will be no further trouble on that account." 7
In another letter, a "colored" American employee on the gold roll wrote to Chairman H. F. Hodges about being unable to make purchases in the local commissary reserved for gold employees. The chairman's response was grudgingly in favor of the employee's rights: "we cannot afford to subject the few American negroes who are employed on the gold roll to any marked discrimination on account of their color. If they claim the privilege, of making their purchases in the commissaries on the gold side, it will have to be conceded to them."8
African Americans were not the only persons subjected to this type of treatment. The files document the frustration and exasperation of West Indians, East Indians, Chinese, and Panamanians with the "gold" and "silver" system. The burden of this unequal treatment was not limited to canal employees. West Indian ministers and East Indian businessmen are among those chronicled as receiving less than cordial treatment at the canal post offices, as stated in a memorandum from C.H.C. Calhoun to the governor of the Canal Zone:
African Americans on the silver roll were not always successful either in getting "their constitutional rights" or "a square deal." Piecemeal concessions were granted only as requested and only when canal authorities thought it necessary. Requests by African Americans to be transferred to the gold roll were regularly turned down. They were told repeatedly that it was not their nationality but their job that determined whether they were on the gold or silver roll. At the same time, other contradictory statements were being made: "please see that all American Negroes in the service of the Commission are paid in gold. It is not desired to transfer them to the gold roll, but they are to be paid in United States currency."10
On many occasions, canal authorities made clear their understanding of gold and silver. To them "gold" meant white, and "silver" meant colored:
Canal officials rebuked American Negroes to use common sense and follow the course of least resistance. This rather condescending attitude was voiced by H. H. Rousseau to the executive secretary: "I may state frankly that the division of employees between gold and silver is made partly to avoid friction and trouble between the different races of people on the Isthmus."12 African Americans were further instructed to "save yourself and others annoyance if you would transact your business on the side where others of your race transact their business."13
Organizations outside the Canal Zone, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wanted to know "why the terms 'gold' and 'silver' were used to distinguish the color of the working force."14 The authorities explained it in the historic terms of paying imported skilled labor in gold and unskilled native labor in silver, although they neglected to add that the entire work force was being paid in gold (U.S. currency) at the time. The argument of job skill was also used. Only a small minority both in America and the Canal Zone noted that the majority of the skilled jobs were held by whites. The prevailing racial views in America supported the notion that there were not many if any people of color qualified for skilled positions. The situation in the Canal Zone seemed natural to the majority of people concerned. Canal authorities therefore did not feel compelled to change it.
It is ironic that canal authorities continued to cling to the terms gold and silver long after it was decided to pay all employees in gold currency. They justified continuing the two rolls by the need to identify employees who were entitled to free quarters and paid leave and other amenities. Canal authorities judged that the majority of silver employees "being accustomed to the tropics and the different mode of living they do not require special quarters or frequent change of climate which is so necessary to the health of the more skilled employees from a temperate zone." 15 However, it was an administrative headache as well as an expensive proposition to keep two set of payrolls, personnel files, and other records. The auditor for the Canal Zone suggested merging the two systems in the name of fiscal efficiency, but his recommendations were never adopted. Not until the mid-1950s were the terms dropped and the signs making distinctions between gold and silver employees taken down.
Panama Canal records reveal the contradictions, racial tensions, discrimination, and American privilege rampant in the Canal Zone. Citizenship mattered, but so did color, despite the official canal policy statements to the contrary. If an employee was white and an American citizen, he benefited from the system. However, if an employee was an African American, he encountered problems in securing the "rights" that went with American citizenship in the Canal Zone. Every ethnic group wanted to be on the gold roll because of the better housing, job opportunities, and schools, but they were denied the opportunity to advance or transfer to the gold roll. Into this equation entered the African American, not quite an American but different from the native population.
The few African American employees on the gold roll technically had the same privileges as white Americans on the gold roll as long as they were not "questioned" at the post office, commissary, or train depot. If questioned, life became difficult. They were often told by canal authorities to avoid embarrassment by going to the post office windows, train cars, and schools reserved for their race. The records of the Panama Canal document the inequalities, difficulties, and contradictions faced by black American employees of the Canal. Unfortunately, they had traveled to a foreign land only to face the same problems found at home.
1. Commissary manager to J. F. Stevens, vice-president, Feb. 15, 1907, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, Records of the Panama Canal, Record Group 185, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter cited as RG 185, NA).
2. Stevens to Col. W. C. Gorgas, chief sanitary officer, Nov. 30, 1906, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, RG 185, NA.
3. D. D. Gaillard, acting chairman and chief engineer, to Jackson Smith, Feb. 11, 1908, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904?14, RG 185, NA.
4. Cross reference sheet to letter from C. A. McIlvaine to Colonel Harding, Aug. 19, 1915, file 2-C-55, pt. 1a, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
5. Memorandum, V. H. Barker, acting superintendent of schools, to executive secretary, Mar. 4, 1932, file 2-C-55, pt. 2, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
6. Memorandum, John K. Barker, chief, Division of Civil Affairs, to McIlvaine, executive secretary, Aug. 31, 1914, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
7. George W. Goethals, chairman, to Henry A. Hart, John Thomas, Mar. 18, 1910, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, RG 185, NA.
8. H. F. Hodges, acting chairman, to Maj. E. T. Wilson, subsistence officer, Oct. 19, 1910, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, RG 185, NA.
9. C.H.C. Calhoun to McIlvaine, Nov. 23, 1916, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
10. Hodges, acting chairman, to E. J. Williams, disbursing officer, Feb. 8, 1909, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, RG 185, NA.
11. Memorandum, H. H. Rousseau to the executive secretary, Dec. 8, 1915, file 2-C-55, pt. 1a, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
12. McIlvaine to Mrs. William Swiget, Jan. 1, 1916, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.
13. McIlvaine to Walter V. Eagleson, Sept. 2, 1914, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.
14. John R. Shillady, secretary, NAACP, to Governor Chester Harding, May 21, 1919, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.
15. Harding to Shillady, June 13, 1919, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.
This page was last reviewed on December 7, 2017.
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The Panama Canal
The control of malaria was vital for the construction of the Panama Canal. The discovery by Major Ronald Ross that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes had tremendous impact on development programs in the tropics. One of the first of these was the construction of the Panama Canal, which began within a few years after Dr. Ross&rsquos discovery. During the American occupation of Havana, Cuba, regulations were put into effect by the United States Army for the control of yellow fever that consisted of the screening of houses and extensive drainage to reduce breeding of mosquitoes. Not only was yellow fever eliminated, but malaria transmission was also greatly reduced. Work in Havana was under the direction of Surgeon Major W. C. Gorgas.
In 1904, the Isthmian Canal Commission, accompanied by Col. W. C. Gorgas, Medical Corps, U. S. Army, John W. Ross, Medical Director, U. S. Navy, Capt. C. E. Gillette, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, and Maj. Louis A. LaGarde, Medical Corps, U. S. Army, as experts on sanitation inspected the potential site of construction. These experts prepared a plan for the sanitation of the Canal Zone and the cities of Panama and Colon. On June 30, 1904, the Sanitary Department was formed with Colonel Gorgas as its head.
The Isthmus of Panama was an ideal environment for mosquitoes. The high temperature varies little during the year. The rainy season lasts for nine months and the interior of the Isthmus is tropical jungle, ideal for mosquito breeding. The Panama Canal extends diagonally across the Isthmus of Panama from south-east to north-west, a distance of 42 miles from shore to shore. At Panama, the antimalarial work was principally rural, located for 47 miles along the line of the railroad between Panama and Colon. The population was about 80,000 living within half a mile of the railroad and occupying some 30 villages and camps or isolated houses. Malaria was so abundant that in Colon, it was estimated that one-sixth of the population was suffering from malarial attacks during each week.
An integrated program of mosquito control was initiated that involved seven basic programs that were strictly enforced. These were, in order of importance:
- Drainage: All pools within 200 yards of all villages and 100 yards of all individual houses were drained. Subsoil drainage was preferred followed by concrete ditches. Lastly, open ditches were constructed. Paid inspectors made sure ditches remained free of obstructions.
- Brush and grass cutting: All brush and grass was cut and maintained at less than one foot high within 200 yards of villages and 100 yards of individual houses. The rationale was that mosquitoes would not cross open areas over 100 yards.
- Oiling: When drainage was not possible along the grassy edges of ponds and swamps, oil was added to kill mosquito larvae.
- Larviciding: When oiling was not sufficient, larvaciding was done. At the time, there were no commercial insecticides. Joseph Augustin LePrince, Chief Sanitary Inspector for the Canal Zone developed a larvacide mixture of carbolic acid, resin and caustic soda that was spread in great quantity.
- Prophylactic quinine: Quinine was provided freely to all workers along the construction line at 21 dispensaries. In addition, quinine dispensers were on all hotel and mess tables. On average, half of the work force took a prophylactic dose of quinine each day.
- Screening: Following the great success in Havana, all governmental buildings and quarters were screened against mosquitoes.
- Killing adult mosquitoes: Because the mosquitoes usually stayed in the tent or the house after feeding, collectors were hired to gather the adult mosquitoes that remained in the houses during the daytime. This proved to be very effective. Mosquitoes that were collected in tents were examined by Dr. Samuel T. Darling, Chief of the Board of Health Laboratory. Cost of adult mosquito killing was $3.50/per capita/per year for whole population of the strip.
The result of this malaria program was eradication of yellow fever and a dramatic decrease in malaria deaths. The death rate due to malaria in employees dropped from 11.59 per 1,000 in November 1906 to 1.23 per 1,000 in December 1909. It reduced the deaths from malaria in the total population from a maximum of 16.21 per 1,000 in July 1906 to 2.58 per 1,000 in December 1909.
Among the work force, the percentage of employees hospitalized due to malaria was 9.6% in December 1905, 5.7% in 1906, 1.8% in 1907, 3.0% in 1908, and 1.6% in 1909. Malaria continued to be a challenge throughout the entire construction program.
The Panama Canal was the construction miracle of the beginning of the 20th century. It also was a great demonstration of malaria control based on an integrated mosquito control program enforced by the military. Malaria was not eliminated. However, under these most trying conditions, the disease was controlled to the extent that the construction work could be completed.
Drs. Gorgas, LePrince, and Darling are remembered as pioneers for their leadership in the control of malaria during this period. The Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in Panama, named after Col. Gorgas, remained a leading research center for tropical disease research throughout the 20th century. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene every 3 years awards the Joseph Augustin LePrince Medal in recognition of outstanding work in the field of malariology. Professor Darling is honored by the Darling medal and prize, which is awarded by the Darling Foundation for outstanding achievements in the pathology, etiology, epidemiology, therapy, prophylaxis, or control of malaria. An examination of references 2, 3, and 5 will give details of the work of these pioneer malariologists in the control of malaria in the construction of the Panama Canal.