John Stevens and the Panama Canal

John Stevens and the Panama Canal

June 28, 1905,  President Roosevelt accepted the resignation of the first Panama Canal Chief Engineer, John Findley Wallace.  The railroad magnate, J.J. Hill, who incidentally disapproved of the Canal project and disliked Teddy Roosevelt intensely,  recommended his former General Manager John Stevens as the best construction engineer in the U.S.

Stevens, who came by his reputation as the country’s best construction engineer, had no formal engineering education.  He learned surveying.  He studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry on his own while working full time.   Per David McCullough, “he had survived Mexican fevers, Indian attack, and Canadian blizzards.  He had been treed by wolves on one occasion; he had learned to sleep sitting up while crossing the prairie in a buckboard; with surveying gear, tent, and provisions packed on his back he had traveled hundreds of miles into the Rockies on snowshoes.”

He began work for J.J. Hill by exploring a railroad route west from Montana.  In mid-winter, 1889, he found Marias Pass where Hill was to build the railroad over the continental divide.   Later, he located what is now Stevens Pass over the Cascade Mountains in Washington.  Hill made him chief engineer and then general manager.  In 1903, Stevens resigned from Hill for the position of chief engineer (later Vice President) of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad.  In June 1905 he was preparing to leave for the Philippines as a “special advisor” on railroad construction when he was persuaded to take the Panama job instead.

Stevens’ ability to educate himself from every available source and incorporate relevant details into his decisions was undoubtedly one reason for his accomplishments since he arrived in Panama without experience in the tropics. Frank Maltby, who had been John Wallace’ division head at Colon, reported on getting acquainted with the new Chief Engineer, “Mr. Stevens did not talk much, but ask questions—and could that man ask questions!  He found out everything I knew.  He turned me inside out and shook out the last drop of information.”

Stevens began canal work by stopping it.  He understood the importance of infrastructure.  He wasn’t convinced of the mosquito theory of yellow fever transmission; nevertheless, he gave Dr. Gorgas first priority for supplies and labor.  By September of 1906, the yellow fever threat and panic was over.

He re-built the railroad with wider and heavier rails and more powerful engines.  He double-tracked it so trains could work continuously in both directions to carry the excavated “spoil” wherever needed for fill and to extend land into Panama Bay.

In one year, 1200 buildings left from the French era were repaired or rebuilt (and numerous unusable ones demolished) and about the same number of houses, hospitals, mess halls, recreation centers, and administration buildings constructed.

Stevens, ahead of his time in considering workforce efficiency, suspected that the reason Jamaican laborers earned their reputation for being dull and “lazy,” was their diet of mostly yams and rice.  He made arrangements for a more protein-rich diet with the result was that Jamaicans proved themselves as capable as other workers

Workers’ morale was boosted, at least for the privileged white Americans, the “gold” workers, with recreation facilities, schools, better food, shopping centers on the same model as later military BX’s.  Workers were encouraged to bring their wives or to marry.  They had 42 days of paid vacation a year.

Stevens’ most critical effort, and what he most detested, was testifying to Congress on locks vs sea level.  Roosevelt’s advisory board had voted for a sea-level canal.  The Senate committee reported, by a margin of one, for sea level.  Stevens himself, when he arrived in Panama, had assumed he would be working on a sea-level canal.  Since then he had seen the Chagres River in flood, had experienced tropical downpours and listened to engineers who worked under Wallace.  The Senate voted 36 to 31 for the minority report–the lock canal–on June 21, 1906.

When Stevens had returned to Washington, he left work orders in Panama.  He cabled the Senate decision immediately.  Within twenty-four hours, construction was re-directed toward locks by starting a new town at Gatun,  clearing the site for the Gatun Dam, and laying new railroad track above the water level of what would be Gatun Lake.

Another major contribution of Stevens was appointing Joseph Ripley, who had made major contributions to the minority pro-lock report, to design Gatun Dam and the locks.  Stevens had no experience constructing locks.  Ripley had designed and supervised the Soo Canal which by this time had fifty years of commercially successful and safe operation.

For the rest of 1906, now that the methods were clear, construction continued steadily and purposefully.  Excavation at Culebra increased to over 600,000 cubic yards in January 1907.

Then John Stevens quit.

He didn’t formally resign, but he wrote President Roosevelt expressing dissatisfaction and some paranoia: “…enemies in the rear…subject to attack by a lot of people,”  although he was a popular figure nationally as well as locally.  The President accepted this as resignation.  Stevens refused for the rest of his life to discuss the matter.  It’s probable he simply burned out.  The combination of twelve to eighteen-hour days and responsibility for not only engineering and infrastructure but details of labor supply, housing, utilities, and working conditions, apparently without vacation, would bring most of us to exhaustion.

President Roosevelt replaced Stevens with George Washington Goethals, who, because he was technically on an Army assignment, did not have the option of quitting.

Goethals took over the Chief Engineer position from John Stevens on March 31, 1907.

Will Hobby was employed on the Panama Canal on April 12, 1907.

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