Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter XIII. The Greatest Engineering Enterprise in the World

IT is a mere truism to speak of the work upon which the Americans have entered in the construction of the Panama Canal as "The greatest engineering enterprise in the world."

It is easily first among such works of construction! But there are so many things connected with it, both of national and international interest, so many possibilities of good and evil, of national benefit and advantage, and of calamity and disaster, bound up with it, that all who have had the opportunity of visiting and inspecting it will watch its progress with the very deepest interest, and even after its completion, with many of us, that interest will not be free from grave anxiety.

When I first visited the Canal to spend Easter in 1909, I made the acquaintance of four out of the five members of the Canal Commission, and was most hospitably entertained by them. I was taken over the railway by Colonel Goethles in his own car--he is the Governor of the Canal Zone--and had the whole work carefully explained to me. Admiral Rousseau, another Commissioner, showed me the work in great detail upon map and plan, Colonel Hodges, the most recently appointed of the Commissioners, took me all through the workings on a little motor-car. Colonel Gorgas, of worldwide fame, told me much about his great work of sanitation on the Isthmus, which has been even more remarkable and successful than his famous "cleaning up" of Havana after the Cuban war, and, finally, I have been presented with the last report of the work, full of maps, illustrations, plans, statistics, and descriptions, a compendious work of some four inches thickness. I have also visited the place again since then, and each time all my previous impressions have been confirmed. Special opportunities have therefore been afforded me for writing this article, which I here very thankfully acknowledge.

To understand what is being aimed at, and whence danger and calamity may arise, it is necessary to know the French, as well as the American scheme.

The French company--"La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique"--was formed in 1881 to enable M. de Lesseps to have the same triumph at Panama as he had had at the Isthmus of Suez, and the aim was as simple in the one case as in the other. An ocean level canal was to be made from Colon on the Atlantic to Panama on the Pacific Ocean, a distance of some forty-nine miles. A deep wide channel was to be made, without locks or dams, and as indestructible as anything of the kind could be. It was not to be spoken of as merely a canal, but as the "Straits of Panama." This was the aim!

It was a colossal undertaking, for the two oceans were of different levels; there was a great mountain at Culebra some fifteen miles from Panama, which would have to be cut through ("The Culebra Cut" it is now called), the climate was held to make the place one of the un-healthiest in the world, and imported labour would be a terrible difficulty and anxiety. All these conditions had to be duly taken into consideration, and made it, even to the French, one of the greatest engineering enterprises ever undertaken; but still the aim was a very simple one, and the result, if attained, would have been simple also, without any complications, and the canal would be such an addition to the natural waterways of the world that it could be truly spoken of, as I have already said, as "The Straits of Panama."

The Americans, however, have undertaken a very different piece of work, although they have followed the same track for their canal as in the French scheme, and used such assets as their purchase of the rights and possessions of the French company gave them, as far as they could. The French undertaking spelled disaster and calamity for the whole length and breadth of France, although it only lasted seven years, from 1881 to 1888. Millions and millions of francs were contributed to the work by the peasants and small proprietors which were thought to have been entirely lost, and it was not until 1904, when the American Government took up the work and gave .£8,000,000 for the French rights and possessions, that any of this money came back to the unfortunate investors. "Panama" will long be a word of evil omen in France.

But this this is the American scheme. They have determined to avoid an ocean level canal and the consequent deep excavation which would be required for it. Above Colon on the Atlantic side, and nearly seven miles away, a large lake is to be made by building a huge dam i^ miles long, 500 yards wide at the bottom, and 115 feet high, and impounding the waters of the Chagres river, the hilly character of the ground above being favourable to the formation of the lake, with the aid of the huge dam just mentioned. Ships will be raised to the level of this great inland lake from the Atlantic, by means of three immense locks, and then they will proceed over its waters, following a prescribed course, till they come to the "Culebra Cut," where they enter upon a canal 300 feet wide, and of the same level as the lake. At Pedro Miguel--some eight miles away--they will descend, by locks, 30 feet to another small lake nearly a mile long, over which they will steam to Miraflores and again descend by locks to tide level, and finally pass along a channel 500 feet wide and eight miles long to deep water in the Bay of Panama.

It must be perfectly plain from the foregoing description how much will depend upon mechanical efficiency and artificial conditions when the actual traffic and business of the canal are going on, after all the work has been completed, and how little will serve to put it out of order--and perhaps at a very critical time in American history--or even totally destroy the work as a whole.

For instance, the Chagres river is depended upon for the whole water supply, and those who know it, cannot but regard it as a very weird and uncertain factor in the question of the stability of the great lake and channel.

Then that part of the Continent is continually visited by earthquakes. I have already described in Chapter VI the havoc which was wrought by one at Cartago, in my own Diocese, not very far away, when a whole city was destroyed in a quarter of a minute. There is also the possibility of what one or two concerted explosions of dynamite would do in the destruction of the locks at Gatun. In days to come, even more than now, an aeroplane, or iarship, rising from the battleship of an enemy could easily drop the necessary charges of explosives at the vulnerable places, with the most terrible of consequences, if part of the American Fleet happened to be passing through the Canal at the time. No Japanese would shrink from losing his life in carrying out such a deed, or even attempting it, if Japan were at war with the States.

There are many authorities in the States who view the present scheme with very great disquiet and anxiety, and it was pointed out in the Times last year by M. P. Bunau-Vanilla, who was connected with the French undertaking, that the dangers from earthquakes and dynamite were very real, but would not in any way have affected an ocean level canal, except as they would affect any of the other works of Nature. However, the whole matter has been no doubt very carefully considered by the American Government, from every point of view, and they have unquestionably counted the cost very carefully, and will, humanly speaking, "see it through," regarding the national reputation now as involved in its completion; and those who know it can only look on at the work with very great interest, admiration, and sympathy, and hope for its final triumph and success.

Its main purpose, of course, is strategical, for as it seems likely to cost in all nearly £100,000,000, it can hardly be expected to be financially remunerative. It will be remembered that the Oregon .had to steam all the way round the Horn from the Pacific when urgently needed in the war with Cuba. What a difference if it could have just slipped through the Canal to Colon, only four days from Cuba, instead of having to circumnavigate a whole Continent! It was felt to be necessary for a Power with a coast upon two oceans to provide against such a contingency occurring again, and far-seeing people then knew the United States would undertake the completion of the Canal.

It is for strategical purposes, therefore, and though it seemed to take many people by surprise, yet it was only what was to be expected, as the logical outcome of the whole scheme, when President Taft announced in 1910 that he intended to ask Congress for £400,000 for the fortification of the Canal. It is expected that it will be ready to be opened some time in the year 1915.

My Diocese of British Honduras and Central America formerly included the Isthmus of Panama, and went down beyond it to the Magdalena river, as I have already said, but before acquiring the plant and rights of the French Company, the Americans bought--technically leased--five miles on either side of the projected Canal for the sum of £2,000,000, and that ten miles by forty-five miles of the Isthmus is now known as the Canal Zone.

There was at that time a good deal of Church work going on, with churches at Colon, Culebra, and Panama, as the labourers were imported negroes from the West Indies, and were our own fellow subjects, and in great part our own fellow Churchmen, but, of course, it became necessary to approach the American Episcopal Church when it became American territory, and about five years ago that strip of land, and down to the Magdalena river, was ceded to them, and has been worked hitherto by the Presiding Bishop (Missouri) issuing a commission first to the Bishop of Washington, and then, at his death, to the Bishop of Cuba, to include the Zone in his jurisdiction.

When one has been accustomed to hear and think of the Isthmus as one of the plague spots of the world (for during the French occupation the workers "died like flies," it has been said, from yellow fever and malaria, and there were "more graves than trees" to be seen there, even in that land of rapid growth) an actual visit to the place is nothing less than a revelation!

The country is most beautiful, and I shall never forget my first evening at Ancon, just above the Pacific outlet for the Canal. It reminded one of Monte Carlo, with Panama jutting out below into the ocean, just as Monaco comes out into the Mediterranean, and the colour of the water was of the same deep and glorious blue, but Ancon had the beautiful mountains of Colombia rising up in the distance, kindled up into all kinds of rich and glowing colours by the setting sun. The air was fresh and cool, and in no part of the Isthmus have I ever found myself, either by night or day, unable to get into a place where one could feel the breeze blowing refreshingly over from one ocean or the other. There is moisture in the air without question, and a good deal of it, for every well-equipped house has its drying-room, but the air is always in motion, and I have never felt less of what one may call "stuffy" heat in the tropics than on the Isthmus of Panama!

Then, to add to the interest of one's first visit to the place, there is the character of the work. There are over 30,000 men at work in a comparatively small space. Many places are like ant hills, in the ceaseless activity which they present, as one sweeps past in a motor-car upon the rails. The huge steam shovels--ninety-five tons--at work, suspended from their gigantic cranes, have an uncanny look, as they come swiftly forward, take out a great mass of earth and rock, biting it off, so to speak, and immediately return and load it into one of the great waggons of a long train standing near. They move so quickly, and, as it were, so remorselessly, and do their work of destruction so completely and irretrievably, that it is difficult not to regard them as possessing a weird kind of consciousness and intelligence!

When the great long train is loaded up, it moves off to the place, where it is to be unloaded (the dam is being built up out of the debris), and then the sides of the waggons fall down, and a huge spade is drawn swiftly, by a great cable attached to a steam engine, along the whole train, and the contents of the waggons are turned out before you even know what is going to be done. Everything that is modern and thoroughly efficient is in use in every part of the work, and there cannot be anything more interesting in connection with such an enterprise in any part of the world, or more instructive.

In addition to the 30,000 labourers, for the most part negroes from the West Indies, with a comparatively small number of Spaniards from Europe, who are said to be excellent, there is a perfect army of young men from the States for the various departments required by the official, medical and technical character of the work. I should say they represent the very pick of United States efficiency, and they are certainly very well treated and cared for.

The houses and huge establishments which one calls "Quarters," and the four huge Y.M.C.A. Club buildings, though of timber, of course, are the very best of their kind, and thoroughly up to date. Bath-rooms and every kind of convenience required for health and cleanliness are abundantly supplied, and the well-equipped Stores, continually replenished by means of an excellent steamship service between Colon and New Orleans, afford one not only all the necessaries of life but every comfort and luxury one is ever tempted to desire there.

There can be few places where more is done for those engaged in a great undertaking than on the Canal Zone, and I have never yet seen a work where, as far as one can judge, it has been more the wish and intention of those responsible to do the thing thoroughly.

The utmost care is taken to keep the place morally wholesome and clean, and as the Governor appears to be clothed with really absolute and despotic authority, he takes care to keep all the undesirables at a distance. This, of course, is not easy, but I am assured that there are a number of officials always on the look-out, and that bad characters, as soon as known, are at once "fired," a very expressive term for being effectually got rid of and sent off.

It was a great pleasure to me to meet Colonel Gorgas, the medical member of the Canal Commission, under whose superintendence the work of "cleaning up" has been so effectually done, and yellow fever completely banished, and malarial fever brought down to a very low margin, compared with other days.

There are quite magnificent hospitals at Colon and Ancon, with all modern appliances, and splendid staffs of both doctors and nurses. All the houses are "screened," that is, covered outside with wire gauze, to keep out the mosquitoes, and stagnant water is carefully kerosened all over the Isthmus, so that, as the mosquito deposits its eggs upon the surface of water only, they may be prevented from incubating. In this way the yellow fever mosquito has been extirpated and the disease banished, and the malarial fever mosquito is in a fair way to be exterminated as well, though, of course, with the heavy tropical rains fresh stagnant pools are always being formed, and have to be carefully watched.

Colon and Panama have both been rejuvenated, from a sanitary point of view, and altogether I can imagine Panama becoming just the place for a rest cure, and taking its place as one of the health resorts of the world. This enterprise--and I know of no other of anything like the same magnitude of which it can be said--has aimed from the first at promoting (1) the efficiency of those engaged in it, (2) their physical well-being, and (3) their moral and spiritual good. No one ought to deteriorate there! On the contrary, I can imagine a young man going there, and perhaps being a little bit "slack" in character, but returning to the United States, when his work is done, more efficient, better in health, and braced up in his moral tone, and this, I know I am right in saying, was President Roosevelt's aim when he determined that the Canal should be acquired.

It is most interesting to go and see how, as it has been said, the Americans are "making the dirt fly at Panama," but to me it has been of the very greatest interest to see how that is being done, and done very thoroughly and encouragingly, in a sense of which the inventor of that phrase probably never even dreamed.

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