Panama Canal Trip 1912

Panama Canal, 1912

tangertn.gif - 1257 BytesThis account of a visit to the Panama Canal in 1912 before it was finished was made by my Great Grandfather and reported in the Daily Gleaner Newspaper. Great Grandfather was for many years a member of the Legistative Council and Chairman of the St Ann Parochial Board. He was also a merchant of Brown's Town, St Ann. All these interests are reflected in the piece.

October 28, 1912

INTERESTING DESCRIPTION OF PANAMA CANAL--The Vivid Impressions of Mr. J. H. Levy--EXCELLENT SANITATION--Not a Fly or Mosquito to be Found on the Canal Zone.

(From our Correspondent)

Dry Harbour Mountains, Oct. 24

Friday last J.H. Levy Esq., chairman of the parochial Board of St Ann who recently went on a visit to the Isthmus, by request delivered an address on the Panama Canal at the meeting held in the Government schoolroom, Brown's Town. The address was a most interesting one throughout and was listened to with marked attention.

Mr. Levy was received with applause and said:
Gentlemen: This paper was prepared after my visit to the Isthmus of Panama with the object of sending to the Y.M.C.A. of this town the members having requested that I should do so, but for some reason other it did not materialize, and I have now consented at the invitation of Mr. D. Theo. Wint to read it at this meeting. I express the hope that you will be tolerant of defects, and if you find anything to be appreciated you will credit it to the efforts to please a community in which I have lived so long, and love so much, rather that to any claim to literary style or rhetorical effect.


I have selected this short but short title as the head lines of my little talk to you about the Canal, as I think it better illustrates my short visit to that great hive of industry and mammoth undertaking, than any other that I could select. I may, however, say that the title is not original, as it is the name of a little Pamphlet issued by the Canal Commissioners for the benefit of those who visit the Isthmus for the purpose of seeing the Canal by the observation trains with expert guides, but as I did not avail my self of this means (except for a short distance) my experience and my talk to you will be more in the nature of personal observation by routes selected on the recommendation of those on the spot and by the amiable Captain of the boat on which I travelled from Jamaica. It is right, however, to say that a good deal of the history anterior and subsequent to the building of the Canal by the American is derived from literature published by the Canal Commissioners or others interested in the great work, as I do not wish to pose in borrowed plumes, so frankly make admission of the fact.

Before proceeding, I wish it to be understood that this is no lecture, my object is less ambitious, and you must accept what I am going to tell you, as more in the light of talking to my fellow townsmen who like myself, are interested in the great undertaking to building the Canal, and its possible bearing on the destinies of this Island.

It may be thought by those who have only given cursory consideration to the subject of the building of the Canal, that the idea first originated with the French, which after failure, was taken up by the American, and who are now doing the work; but this is not the case. For the benefit of those who have not studied the subject, I propose to give an abridged account of its history.

The transit across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean by an interoceanic canal had been a matter of thought since the year 1580. Several ideas were formulated from this time on, and not until the sixteenth century did it assume tangible form; nothing was done until 1828 when surveys and explorations were made with the view of determining whether the undertaking was feasible or not. Different routes were considered, but in process of time, all were abandoned save two, that by Nicaragua and that by Panama. After the discovery of gold in California in 1849, an American Company established a provisional transit by means of stage and boat across Nicaragua, and formulated some plans for completing the system by the construction of a Canal. These plans were not carried out, owing to various complications, some of them of an international character. In 1872-1875 complete surveys were made of both routes by the United States Government and the Panama route declared to be the best and most feasible. At this period, however, a Frenchman named Wyse secured from the Columbian Government a concession for building the Canal: it is said that his surveys and explorations were incomplete, but armed with the concession from the Columbian Government, he returned to France and secured the cooperation of deLesseps. An International Scientific Congress met in Paris in 1879 and a Panama Canal company was formed with deLesseps as head, and the Wyse Concession was purchased. It was estimated at the time that it would cost $169,000,000 to build the Canal. Shares were taken and the Canal commenced in 1881. The Canal was to have followed much the same route as that of the Railway from Colon to Panama, and was to be a sea-level Canal, with a depth of nearly 30 ft, and a bottom width of 79 ft., the distance was to be about 47 miles. It was, however, soon discovered that a sea level canal could not be built for the money estimated, and that a lock canal was necessary. It is said that the French made many mistakes and in 1889 they abandoned the work. To this time it is said it had cost $260,000,000. In 1894, however, a new French Company was formed to carry on and complete the work: and after operating for some time, also abandoned the undertaking. At this time it is said that about 12 miles of the entire length of the Canal had been finished by the French; this, however, did not include the more difficult portion of the work. It is said that never in the history of any great undertaking was there ever such lavish expenditure of money,


as was experienced by the building of the Canal by the French: a great deal of the machinery proved to be entirely unsuitable and useless, indeed there is to be seen to-day along the banks of the present canal, tons upon tons of large pieces of machinery lying among jungles and debris, of no use whatever.

It was soon after the Spanish American War that the United States Government announced its intention of building the Canal, and in 1904 the French Company offered to sell their rights to the United States Government, and price fixed was $40,000,000. Previous to this, say in 1903, the Treaty between the U.S. and the Columbian Governments was signed, whereby the U.S. was to secure a lease of the necessary slip of land for the building of the Canal for a hundred years, renewable at the pleasure of the U.S. This Treaty, however, was rejected by the Columbian Government; then followed the establishment of the Panama Republic, and a treaty was then signed by the U.S. and the Panama Republic, which gave the land to the U.S. for ever, say five miles of either side of the Canal (now called the Canal Zone) on payment of $10, 000,000 and an annual payment of $250,000 after 9 years, at which time it was calculated the Canal would be finished. This bargain with the Panama Republic following the rejection in the first instance of the treaty by the Colombian Government will recall to many the severe strictures that were heard on many sides against the U.S. Government over this bargain and the ceding of Panama and Colon from the possession of the Columbian Government.

However, with these matters we have nothing to do, for out of evil (if there were any) good will assuredly come. The building of the Canal will mark a new era in the history of nations, and make for the progress and prosperity of the entire world, and it is doubtful if any other nation could or would have undertaken so stupendous a work as building the Canal with the same amount of certainty, and success as the American Nation as on my visit I was not only struck with the stupendous nature of the work, of its mammoth organization carried out without a hitch, but with the well-studied nature of the sanitation of the entire Zone, its perfect system in every detail, and of the lavish and unstinted expenditure of money everywhere, without, as far as I could see, extravagance or waste. I will not, however dwell here on this phase of the undertaking, as I hope as I proceed, to give a few condensed details of what is being done, but I thought by bringing in these facts at this stage it would help to demonstrate the idea of which I have given expression, that is how well equipped the Americans were to undertake the work, and that there were no obstacles in the way of their carrying it to completion, as against other nations who were less equipped, and less enterprising.

Having brought my talk down to the period of the completion by the United States of America of the bargain with the Panama Republic to build the canal, and their taking the same over, I will now tell as best I can what


during the seven or eight years of their occupation of the territory known as "The Canal Zone" containing about 448 square miles of land. The entire length of the Canal, from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific is about 50 miles, its length from shore line to shore line about 40 miles; the bottom width of the channel, maximum about 1,000 feet; the canal is to be provided with a system of dams and locks. The vessels passing through the locks will be propelled by electricity, no vessel being allowed to use its own power. The estimated time for a vessel to pass through the Canal is 10 hours, being 3 hours through the locks and 7 hours through the open water-way; that is no vessel will be allowed to proceed at a greater speed than 5 miles an hour. The Americans have estimated that it will cost to build the Canal the large sum of $375,000,000 or 75,000,000 of our money, but I may here say that in my opinion it will cost nearer $500,000,000 or 100,000,000 sterling.

Up to some period of last year it was estimated that 182,537,000 cubic yards of excavation had been done by the Americans, besides appropriations for Railway Tracks, work on the dams and locks, and various other constructional and electrical work etc., costing over $218,000,000. The total number of people engaged at work at this time was nearly 36,000 daily. The pay to the labourers, including West Indians is from ten to twenty cents per hour, or the average of about 6/[shillings] sterling per day, while skilled labourers could earn from 8/ to 10/ per day and more. It would be tedious for you to listen to further details in long and wearisome figures giving the details of the cost of respective departments, how manned, and so on, suffice it to say in this connection, that it is estimated that more than three fourths of the work has been completed, and that the year 1915 will see the final finish, and that soon after, the ships of all nations will be passing through the Canal. It is estimated that the distance saved by vessels going to Panama from the United States instead of going via Cape Horn, as they now have to do will save 10,000 miles by going via the Panama Canal.

I will now tell you as briefly as I can my personal observations of the work, and I will ask you to make allowance both for brevity and lack of consecutive detail.


I left Kingston on the s.s. Prinz August Wilhelm on Saturday the 20th July, the vessel sailing at 10 a.m. and on Monday at 7 a.m., we were going up the harbour at Colon, thus making the voyage across in about 45 hours. At about 8.30 we were all ashore investigating and inspecting conditions in Colon, and I may here say that I was struck with its complete sanitation and cleanliness. I had of course heard of the greatly improved conditions to eight or ten years previous, but it was certainly a great revelation to me to find a complete system of sewerage, concrete side-walks, streets clean as a new pin, and everywhere, cleanliness and sanitary completeness rivalling our larger and older city Kingston. On enquiry, I found that the new state of things were coincident with the American Treaty and purchase of the Canal Zone that the Panama Republic was required to keep the city in a perfect state of cleanliness and sanitation, and to which the Canal Company made a substantial contribution, and had the power at any time, not only to enforce, but to do the sanitation themselves in case of failure by the Panama authorities. I found too, that several new docks were being built at Colon with the evident intention of overtaking the increased trade that would come to it after the completion of the Canal; it is admitted on the Isthmus, that Colon, much more that Panama, will benefit by the Canal, for while at the Pacific end vessels are likely to enter and pass through the Canal without stopping, at Colon on entering the Atlantic they will stop for coaling after taking in stores, before proceeding on their journey, and certainly, this view of the matter appealed to even my lay mind as being a reasonable conclusion to this end. The P.R.R.Co., which is an adjunct of the Canal Company, are now building a very large hotel in Colon to contain 1,000 rooms with all modern and up-to-date conveniences in order to meet the contingency spoken of. The Hotel is to be of reinforced concrete, the first of its kind in Colon. I may say that ninety percent of the houses in Colon are of wood, and all are provided with mosquito netting, even the smaller houses (and those I took to be houses of the working people) are similarly protected. In this connection, I may here state, that from the time I landed in Colon, and all through my roamings on the Zone and in Panama, I never saw a mosquito or a fly, the reasons for which I will give later on.

The Cold Storage of the Isthmus is in Colon, situated at Cristobal, the greatest and most perfect institution in the world, the place from which all meat, vegetables, and fruit are supplied for the feeding of the thousands working on the Canal. I visited this place which is considered one of the show places of the Isthmus, and I found it well worthy of a visit and quite up to, if not exceeding, all I had expected to find. I was treated with great courtesy by the management, and to my surprise and delight the manager of this department was an Englishman who had lived in Jamaica for some years, and was apparently glad to see one coming from Jamaica. The Cold Storage proper consists of a number of stores, but under the same roof, in which are stored hundreds of carcasses of oxen, sheep and pigs, and eggs, butter, fish and vegetables and fruit, each having a separate room colder than ice, if I may say so, one room in particular was 15 degrees below zero.

Before entering these cold rooms, a heavily lined coat is given you, as one would actually freeze if one went in without this precaution. I was shown over the entire place from one room to the other, and I was amazed to find the


that everywhere abounded, and the great system of perfect organization that existed. I was told by the manager that ten train loads of beef and other stuffs leave Colon every morning for all sections of the Canal, Panama and other places and that 120,000 people were fed from the supplies from the Colon Storage every day. A steamer from Chicago brings a supply of beef, mutton and other necessaries every week.

I then visited the power house, the bakery, and the laundry, all in connection with the cold storage and belonging to the Canal Company. I saw in the Laundry a great many Jamaican girls that I knew, all at work and apparently satisfied; the Manager told me that of the hundreds employed in the storage rooms-none received less than $10 gold per week. I considered the Cold Storage of Colon, one of the greatest things I saw, and anyone going there, should not miss seeing it.

At 10.25 I took the train for seeing the Canal enroute for Panama, we stopped off at Culebra Cut and having first gone over the Culebra Cut, where I saw the sliding hill recently reported, and I having luncheon at the Y.M.C.A. restaurant, took the sight-seeing train for Pedro Miguel, where we were shown over the Locks, Dams, and other constructional works. From there we went to the Miraflores Dam down the east side to the locks, and thence by the track on the west side of the Canal to Corozal, then to Balboa to view the Pacific entrance to the Canal, and then on to Panama where we stayed that evening at the Tivoli, a fine hotel built by the Canal Company. Neither at this hotel nor at and of the other hotels controlled by the Canal Company is liquor or spirits of any kind sold. Needless to say no spirits or even beer is sold at any of the hotels or restaurants controlled by the Y.M.C.A. and at almost every station along the line there is an hotel or restaurant run by this great and worldwide association. The charge for a good luncheon with iced tea at these places is only 50 cents or 2/.

The next day (Tuesday) we spent in seeing Panama. Like Colon, most of the houses are of wood, but there are more stone buildings than in Colon, and all protected by the inevitable mosquito netting. The streets were clean, and everywhere there was evidence of careful and persistent sanitation. I visited several of the Historic buildings and Public Institutions, and was everywhere met with extreme courtesy. There are a great many shops and bazaars in Panama, many of them owned by the obsequious Chinamen who appear to be in flourishing condition. The same evening we returned to Colon, arriving there at night.

The best part of the trip for the seeing the Canal was reserved for Wednesday, the Captain of the ship with whom I had gone over having arranged for a motor boat to take us to the Gatun Locks, the part of the Canal most advanced, it took us about an hour to get there, the distance by water being about six miles. We passed through a part of the canal which had been constructed by the French, and which will be used by the Canal Company. I may here say that although the French Company had to abandon the building of the Canal owing to monetary troubles and other disabilities, a good bit of work that they performed, has been found to be of great use to the present Canal Company, and though the routes in some places have been abandoned for others found more practicable, yet, as pioneers in preparing the waterway, the present company has found the work more easy; besides this, though a good lot of the machinery brought out by the French was found useless, there are others of which the Americans have been able to make use, so that when they paid $40,000,000 to the French, they had good value for their money, as it is estimated that they got fully $42,000,000 worth of work and materials for the $40,000,000 they paid.


. Arriving at Gatun, we left the boat for the scene of observation, and for two and a half hours we walked the entire length of the locks and made careful inspection of the locks and large iron gates that were being prepared for holding in the water, and filling and emptying the canal during the progress of ships passing through; some of the gates were already finished, and others in course of construction. It is estimated that these gates will weigh from 300 to 600 tons each, and measure 62 feet high. It is said that it will require 92 leaves for the entire canal, estimated to weigh 57,000 tons. The lock gates will be operated by electricity; the locks will be filled and emptied through a system of Culverts; several are already finished and are a marvel of ingenuity and engineering skill. It is said the average time taken to fill and empty a lock will not be more than about 15 minutes. The dimensions of all locks at Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores will be the same say 1,000 feet long with a width of 110 feet. Each lock will be a chamber with walls and floor of concrete; the walls are 15 to 50 feet wide. I stood on the top of one of these walls and looked down, and never saw more perfect work in my life.

Passing from the locks, we went to the tower or look-out, and here had the most welcomed thing we had had on the whole excursion-a glass of cold iced water. From this tower we viewed the canal from the east side, where the dams have already been erected to control the water of the Chagres River-it was while going over the road to reach this tower, that I picked up the piece of rock here shown. I may here frankly state that nothing that has been written, nor anything one can see with the eyes, lacking those of an expert, can adequately or accurately describe the magnitude of the work at this point. As far as the eye can encompass are seen hundreds of workmen employed in all kinds of work; trains coming and going laden with rock and debris taken from the bed of the Canal, depositing it either on the banks, or carrying it long distance to fill up swamps and depressions in the land; machinery and stack of girders or iron plates strewn over the entire ground! It is certainly a most wonderful sight, and one thing that struck me as being most remarkable, was the ease and comparative comfort with which all the workmen did their work; there was no hustling nor confusion; no headmen or supervisors bawling; everything seemed to be carried on with the precision of clock-work!

Another remarkable thing that I observed, was that along almost the entire length of the cut itself, and along the banks, railway lines are laid, and one sees hundreds of trains being operated; some taking the dirt and stones that are being thrown up by the steam shovels at work; others carrying stones and other materials for the workmen. It is said that there are one hundred of these steam shovels constantly at work; no fewer that 315 locomotives and 360 drills, while there are over 1,000 cars, 30 dredgers, besides 57 cranes, 12 tugs, pile drivers, 70 barges and lighters and 14 launches and other appliances. This I think, will give some idea of the magnitude of the work, and of the perfect organization.

I had almost omitted to say that many of the trains are operated to take labourers from one point of the Canal to another, and for carrying them to central points for meals. The labourers, and indeed the whole staff working on the Canal, are fed from the Commissaries established along the line by the Canal Company, they are charged so much per meal, which amount is deducted from their pay at the end of the week. From these commissaries the labourers and others get their clothing, and indeed anything that they require. I was told in Colon, that this system has


of the shop-keepers, as it is no longer necessary for the labourers to buy their supplies at the shops, as they can get them from the various Commissaries, and cheaper than the shops can sell, as the Canal Company pays no duty on the goods they import from the United States of America, whereas the shop-keepers are taxed heavily. Large townships are established the whole length of the line, and every house or hamlet, lighted with electricity supplied from the electric plant established at Gatun. It was a pretty sight to see the lights on every hill or slope, as you travel by train from Panama. It is interesting also to note that at all these sections there are regularly equipped hospitals, sanitary inspectors, and every appliance that may be needed in case of accidents or illness. To illustrate:-One of the Captain's party that went with us to Gatun, got a nail through his boot, and he immediately went to one of these hospitals on the way, and had his foot cauterized. I saw it done myself, and we were put on one of the trolleys, and sent to meet our party; there was no charge by the doctor, indeed, he invited us to stay for dinner.


In earlier stages of this paper or I may say "talk," I promised to tell you how it is that in Colon, and indeed the entire length of the Canal Zone into Panama, no mosquitoes or flies could be found; the secret is this: On all the elevations or on the hills overlooking the canal, there are large oil tanks containing crude petroleum, and along the banks of the Canal on both sides, are large iron pipes (I should say about 4 inches in diameter) and the oil is sent through these pipes and deposited in every swamp, every trench throughout the improvised towns, on the banks of the river and lakes, and indeed, in every place where there is the least settlement of water. In this way, with the additional work that is being carried on of filling up every swamp, can easily be seen how this death to the mosquito and fly is brought about. Of course, the whole Zone reeks with the smell of the oil, but it has the desired effect, and one gets used to it after a time.

While on the subject of sanitation, and having assured you of the perfect system that obtains on the Isthmus, you will excuse my digressing a little, and talking about what I consider a kindred subject that I noticed on my recent trip. I refer to the precautions taken by the Health Officers in Colon, in inspecting every passenger on the ship in which I travelled, before allowing them to land. Unlike the English Officers of Health, who consider that it is official etiquette to take the word of the Medical Officer of the ship, that there has been no illness on board, or no infectious disease at the last port of call, the Colon Health Officers order all the passengers, whether they be first, second, or steerage, to be mustered, and they are called each by name and pass in review before him, the Purser of the ship having one list and he another, and each name is ticked off as the passenger is called. He scrutinizes everyone as he or she passes him, and if he sees an unsteady gait, or the slightest cause for suspicion, that passenger is turned back, and kept for the last, and then he or she is specially examined before being allowed on shore. In fact, the morning we landed, three or four of the passengers were treated in this way. You will thus see that in addition to the strict Sanitary Laws existing on the Isthmus, and the precautions taken to ensure healthy conditions among the people, rigid precautions are also taken to prevent the introduction of any infectious disease that may be brought from other places.

The last halt in my travels was at Gatun, but as you will see, I have travelled over a considerable extent of territory outside this particular place in order to get in matter bearing on the subject, as may be of interest to you.

We returned to Colon Wednesday afternoon, and the balance of the time, until I embarked on the Santa Marta for Jamaica on Thursday, was taken up with further sightseeing in Colon. Leaving Colon Thursday, I got back to Kingston Saturday, having been away exactly one week. I found this quite long enough to see the Canal, and no one who desires to go to the Isthmus for this purpose, need remain away any longer. I found the trip instructive and educative, and am fully repaid from all I saw and learnt.

I would advise all who can spare a week, to do the same, as it will be money and time well spent. It costs really very little, and the amount spent will not be regretted. (Cheers)

I thank you gentlemen for the courtesy in asking me to address you and for the patient and indulgent hearing that you have exercised in listening to me, and I can assure you that it has been a great pleasure to me in acceding to your request (Applause).


Rev. W. Graham, M.A., amid cheering, rose to move a vote of thanks to Mr. Levy. The lecture had been a most interesting one, the most complete thing of the kind ever given in Jamaica (he believed) or published in a Jamaica newspaper. He asked that the Press be requested to publish the address in extenso so that the whole island could enjoy it. He had been over the Canal Zone and was therefore particularly fascinated by the address which so completely took him over grounds he had some knowledge of. He would mention by the way that the idea of cutting the Panama Canal was first conceived by an Englishman some seventy years ago (cheers)

Mr. George R. Brown seconded the vote of thanks, which was warmly supported by Messrs. Wint and Walters, and carried unanimously.