In the early 'eighties the usual periodic insurrection occurred on the Isthmus of Panama, which interfered with the railway communication, and a small force of several ships was sent to Aspinwall, as the Atlantic terminus was then called, to clear up the situation. This railroad had been built by American capital, and by treaty we had the right to keep it open. After the usual parley it became necessary to send an armed force on shore. It was my good fortune to be attached, as a midshipman, to a battery of machine-guns, or gatling guns, as they were called in those days.
After clearing up the town which is now Colon, it looked as though we might have to cross the Isthmus and make an attack on the city of Panama, and preparations were made accordingly. All sorts of visions of real fighting, scaling walls, hand to hand encounters, and the interest and excitement that accompanies such affairs, flitted through my mind. We wondered what might be the result, and what the future might have in store for us — when all of a sudden the whole operation was called off and peace restored.
It seems that on the previous day, while we were formulating our final plans for an attack on the city, one of our war‑ships cruising in the Pacific, never dreaming of any trouble, since there was no cable, radio or other like means of communication, just happened to p216 drop anchor off Panama, when at once a deputation was sent on board to offer the surrender of the city. The captain didn't even know that "it was loaded," or in other words, that there was any trouble on shore, but by judicious inquiries he ascertained the facts, accepted the surrender and communicated with our force.
Had the matter ended there, all would have been well and good, but in his report to the department he took all the credit to himself. He didn't even mention our force, and one could almost imagine from his account that he had taken the city single-handed!
It was on this visit that, acting under orders from the department, a board was appointed to make a report on the progress of the work of the Panama Canal under the French, and to prognosticate the future. I was appointed the secretary of the board. If I remember correctly, the gist of the board's findings were about as follows: it had been estimated that the canal would cost one hundred million dollars; already sixty million dollars had been expended, and the work had only been touched in the "high spots"; and very little excavation had been done. To complete the canal would cost at least twice or three time the estimated cost, if it were ever completed at all, which seemed problematical. There seemed to remain some doubt as to the exact route, and as to whether or not it would be a tide-water, or lock-and‑dam canal.
The French plans called for a canal •seventy‑two feet wide at the bottom and twenty-nine and one‑half feet deep, which would have been decidedly inadequate had it been completed on these lines. The present canal is •three hundred feet wide at its narrowest part, through Culebra or Cut, where it pierces the continental divide. Elsewhere it is from p217 •five hundred to one thousand feet wide. The locks are one thousand feet long and •one hundred and ten feet wide. The designed depth of the canal is •forty-one feet.
But One Answer The question had often been discussed as to the advantages and disadvantages, or the advisability of constructing, a tide-water or lock-and‑dam canal. To those of us who are familiar with the conditions governing the situation, there was only one answer, namely, a lock-and‑dam canal — in comparison, the other has little or no merit.
First and foremost, such a canal is far cheaper to construct, owing to its greater size and wider channels. Transit is facilitated, and time of passage is shorter than if it were built on the sea level.
In my opinion, the cost of a sea‑level canal would have been prohibitive and I am not sure that it could have been accomplished through the continental divide, where it was so extremely difficult to make the excavation "stay put," on account of the fact that the material of which the earth is composed in this vicinity is always ready to slide.
If it were a sea‑level canal and only three hundred feet wide it would take about eight hours to transit from ocean to ocean since a speed of six knots could not be exceeded, plus the time required for lockage. In the narrower canal it would require more skill to handle the traffic at all times, but particularly when larger vessels might be passing each other.
As it is the average vessel can make a passage through in less than eight hours, including lockage, and with a greater factor of safety because there is practically no limit to speed in crossing Gatun Lake, which is formed by the dam of the same name across p218 the Chagres River, and speed may be increased beyond six knots in the five‑hundred-foot channels. Also the cost of maintenance is less, since the part of the canal embodied in the lake requires little or no major expenditures, other than for the aids to navigation.
To my mind there is no question but that it is the greatest work on earth ever created by the hand of man, and an enduring monument to the builders. Goethals was the creative genius to whom the credit is due; others had failed or lain down on the job, but he made it a marvelous success. Gorgas is entitled to full credit for his exceptional ability and administration of the sanitary work. Without this the canal could not have been built.
Hook Worm Medsin Not only was Gorgas the acknowledged authority on the prevention and eradication of yellow fever and malaria, but he extended his labors successfully in many other directions. Many of the negro laborers on the Panama Canal came from the West Indies, where hookworm, among other diseases, was rampant. American medical officers were stationed in the different islands to examine the men before they came to the Isthmus, and frequently treated those afflicted prior to their departure. That their treatment was efficacious is demonstrated by the following letter:
"Barton, P. O.
"Jamaica, B. W. I.
Dare Dr. W–––––:
"I write to complan erbout the hook Worm Medsin. It is too stronge an has caus me a lot of trubble. From sins I tak the medsin two treatment I feel an well in bodie and min an like work more than before. The which is all very well.
p219 "But dr. Sir, a great chang has come over me in other ways. From till I tak the medsin two treatment I was mild an of a sweet disposition an were known by sich throughout the country roun erbout. An very patient. Now Sir all is chang an I feel very civil to myself. So much so that on Satday last one Jeptha Smith cuss me an I box him down too hard and him threaten to run law wid me.
"Sir, from your kindness, if the aforesaid person run law wid me I respectful asks to see His Honor for it were no other than the Hook Worm medsin make me act in sich a fierce manner.
Expect your kind help in need be an your indulgence ever crave, I remain as ever,
"(sgd.) Abijah Thomas."
Goethals had a hard row to hoe. He overcame every obstacle, not only monumental engineering difficulties, but political and personal ones. Not only was he the head of a great engineering enterprise, but he was also an organizer and administrative genius and endowed with wonderful foresight. He was directly responsible for all of the major features which apply to the canal and its management to‑day. He has been called a tsar, and sometimes worse things. After an intimate association with him as one of his assistants for two years, as marine superintendent of the canal from the days of its organization for operation until it was fully open to navigation, I can concur most decidedly in the opinion that he was a tsar beyond all manner of doubt.
But he was a just and benevolent tsar. Had he been otherwise, the canal would never have been built. No man who served faithfully and loyally under him can but admire him. To those who gave their best p220 endeavor to their work he gave his whole-hearted support. In the case of those who did otherwise, he first thoroughly investigated the situation, then if he concluded they were no good, off went their heads, with short shrift. He couldn't have built the canal had he acted otherwise.
My relations with him were not only intimate, but extremely cordial, and it was a real pleasure to serve under a man of his unbounded ability and exceptionally able leadership, and to have the assurance that he would bestow credit where credit was due.
And how has our government rewarded him? He has been made a major general in the army, a rank he would doubtless attained anyway, and has been retired on six thousand dollars a year! Any other country on earth would have heaped honors upon his head and given him not less than a million dollars as a bonus.
The colonial government established by General Goethals works smoothly and easily. No important changes have been made since he established it.
Congressional Investigators During my tour of duty, committee after committee from Congress visited the Isthmus on various pretexts. Sometimes it might be supposed that these were veritable junketing trips from the picayune way in which the congressmen conducted their investigations, and the lack of benefit which resulted from them.
At least one committee pretended to believe that there might be injustice or partiality in the treatment of some of the employees; that some had more privileges than others, and as a matter of fact that was the case, as it is in every walk of life. But it can truthfully be said that there was no injustice nor discrimination, nor could the committee find any.
p221 At that time a member of Congress received a salary of seven thousand five hundred dollars a year. A rather pompous M. C. was asking a number of questions. He pointed to a dwelling and asked General Goethals who was going to occupy the house.
"Captain Rodman," said the general, "after it shall have been moved to Balboa."
"What is Captain Rodman's pay?"
"Seventy-five hundred dollars."
"That is just my salary; would I get a house like that if I came down here?"
"No, sir," said the general, "not on your life — you wouldn't get seventy-five hundred on the Isthmus."
The same member, standing on one of the Pacific locks, said to Goethals, "General, I wish you would explain to me the working of this wonderful lock." Maybe he referred to the electric "fool-proof" mechanism for handling the valves and gates. Be that as it may, General Goethals simply said that these locks were no different in principle from any others; that when a vessel entered the lower lock-chamber the gate was closed and the chamber flooded, then the upper gate opened and the vessel proceeded on the higher level.
It should be remembered that there is a series of three locks in one erection at Gatun on the Atlantic side, which, with the dam, impound the waters of Gatun Lake, and which extend via Culebra Cut through the continental divide. They are held in check by Pedro Miguel Lock on the Pacific side.
The M. C., continuing his questions, said:
"But, General, I want you to give me a full description of just exactly what is done each time a vessel uses these wonderful locks."
p222 I saw a glance of withering scorn darken the general's countenance and then, like the barking of a rapid-fire gun, came the most minute and technical explanation, such as no one but a skilled technician could possibly understand. At its conclusion I am sure the M. C. was as much in the dark as ever, but to save his face, he began orating on the A. B. C.'s of a ship entering and passing through the canal, much to the disgust of Goethals and the amusement of others. After waxing eloquent, as he thought, he wound up, in substance, about as follows:
"General, we have now seen this mighty vessel enter the canal at Colon, pass up through the locks at Gatun, and find herself crossing the magnificent inland sea which you have created; then she enters Culebra Cut, finally arriving at this lock on which we stand, to be lowered into the Pacific."
"Yes," said Goethals, biting it off short, but with a puzzled look.
"Then, General, will you please tell me what was the use of wasting money in building these Pacific locks? When we get those ships up •eighty-five feet in the lake, why didn't you let them go down by gravity to the Pacific?" This with an air, as much as to say, "I have certainly got you hung to a finish!"
"Well," said the general with the evident intent of keeping a serious mien, which later developed into a sinister smile, and speaking as if weighing his words, "we thought of that plan, and she certainly would go down-hill a‑whopping. But she would have such a hell of a time trying to get up, bucking the current, that we decided to abandon that plan and try the lock instead."
The Water-hyacinth Problem In addition to congressional committees, we had investigators and writers galore. They bobbed up p223 serenely from almost everywhere and were very much in evidence. I remember the typical Britisher, clothes, accent, mannerisms and all, who visited every part of the canal with the view of publishing a book on the subject. It fell to my lot to have him accompany me on some of my field work and I found him a very delightful, but credulous companion.
The water hyacinth had made its appearance on the newly created lake and, because of its rapid growth and spread, and the trouble it had caused elsewhere as an obstruction to navigation, experimental work had been inaugurated looking toward its extermination. Discussing this with my English friend, I jokingly said that we had considered importing some pigmy hippopotami and turning them loose in the lake, knowing their fondness for this plant, with the hope that they might exterminate it. But we had learned that this might have a diametrically opposite effect, for the plants had myriads of very small seeds which were indigestible and would, in consequence, pass through the hippopotami and might in this manner be spread over the whole lake, thus increasing the growth, and rendering the lake unnavigable.
Furthermore, these animals soon became very tame, and we were afraid that the passengers and crews of passing vessels would be constantly chucking all sorts of food to them and thus pollute the waters of the lake.
Again, they might not only foul the propellers of the ships, particularly those with twin screws, which protrude well outside the hull, but might also, by accident, get foul of some of the intakes or valves at the locks and cause a great deal of annoyance and bother.
p224 Finally, that inasmuch as dwarf hippopotami are fecund breeders, produce large litters, and are notorious for wandering far afield and destroying crops, we thought it best not to introduce them on this continent, for, should they reach the Amazon and other tropical rivers, they would not only be a menace to navigation, but through injury to property might become the cause of suits for damages against the canal. While all of this was told in an exaggerated joking way, it was accepted in earnest and later appeared in print, accredited to me. This afforded me a warning that if I must joke with such people, I had better make the point plain. The whole thing was later recalled to me by an incident that happened during the World War.
We so often accredit Englishmen with being obtuse and unappreciative of American humor. Right or wrong, I believe that we do not always appreciate theirs. But, be this as it may, I had on my staff during the world war a British officer who adored London Punch. One day one of my aides said to him jokingly:
"Captain, don't you think that British jokes are so obscure that one needs an interpreter to explain them?"
"Mr. X–––––," he replied, "I want you to understand that British jokes are not to be laughed at!"
And some of us, at heart, agreed with him. This yarn went the rounds of the Grand Fleet, and my good friends, the Britishers, appreciated it just as much as we did.
It seems probable that my attempt to be humorous to the writer on the Isthmus was no better appreciated.
Collections from Canal The Panama Canal has more than warranted the p225 enormous expenditures for its construction, which may be roughly estimated at three hundred and seventy-five million dollars. In the hearings and discussion in Congress, with reference to its necessity and utility, it was assumed that half the cost might be charged to its commercial use, and the other half to its strategic necessity.
When it was first opened, our collections were about $127,000 per month, which in something over a year increased to $650,000, even though the slides in Culebra Cut mitigated against it.
They are now roughly over $2,000,000.00 per month, or $25,000,000.00º per annum, with a maintenance expenditure of about $8,000,000.00,º leaving $16,000,000.00º or four per cent on the investment, which is a very fair profit for a government undertaking. If we consider that only half the cost was applied for commercial purposes and the other half solely for strategic reasons, then it might be argued that commercially the canal is paying eight per cent.
It should also be remembered that the expenditures for maintenance do not apply to the canal alone, but cover the cost of the civil government as well.
In a recent passage through the canal I was most interested to note the all but complete obliteration of the scars of construction days. With the exception of a few bare places in Culebra Cut, where the earth seems most unstable and minor slides occasionally occur, nature has covered the sides with a dense tropical vegetation and foliage. The dams and the approaches to the locks have been graded and the immediate vicinity of the latter has been laid out in parks and ornamented with flowers and shrubbery.
p226 The buildings have taken on a more permanent look, most of the new ones being of concrete with tile roofs. The old wooden shacks of construction days are rapidly disappearing and the whole Zone offers a most pleasing, restful and delightful effect. A sail through the canal is not only a most enjoyable trip, but is an education in itself and well worth the time and money that it takes to visit the Isthmus.
Any of the Latin-Americans from South America or Central America en route to our country via the canal, get their first impression of Yankee enterprise and ability while making passage through it, and it must make a wonderful impression on their minds and vastly raise our country in their estimation.
To this day the discussion as to the feasibility and possibility of building a second canal in Nicaragua is still before the public. Our government has paid Nicaragua the sum of three million dollars for the exclusive right to construct such a canal if so desired.
To my mind there is not now, nor will there be for many years to come, if ever at all, any necessity for a second canal for the following reasons: the cost would be enormous, the canal would have to be much longer than the present one, be much more difficult to construct and maintain, and would not shorten the route of a very large percentage of the vessels which now use the Panama Canal.
It would be far cheaper for both construction and maintenance to enlarge the Panama Canal and add other locks on the same sites to the groups now in operation. If there were any question of a shortage of water-supply in Gatun Lake for lockage, an additional dam at Alhajuela, above Gamboa, on the Chagres River, could be constructed at a relatively p227 small cost, which would impound a sufficient reserve to eliminate such danger.
It should be remembered that the canal is far from being worked to capacity under present conditions. Though the data is not at hand, I would estimate that by working twenty-four hours a day, instead of eight or ten as at present, it could accommodate at least three or four times the tonnage that is now utilizing it, if not more.
During my tour of duty as marine superintendent of the Panama Canal, there was very little time or opportunity for recreation. It was a busy community; the day began at seven A.M. and ended when one's work was done. Much of the time was spent in the field, and office work could be attended to only when opportunity offered.
From the day when the canal opened for traffic until my tour of duty ended, my work required my presence at Culebra Cut to superintend the transit of ships owing to the constriction in the size of the cut caused by slides. There was hardly a day that I did not spend hours there.
Tarpon Fishing at Gatun But fortunately, I occasionally found a few hours' leisure at Gatun, and I rarely missed a chance of having a try at the tarpon below the dam. I believe this is not only the finest tarpon fishing in the world, but as sporty as fishing of any kind anywhere else on earth. That is rather a broad statement, but true nevertheless, and for the following reasons:
The lake is •eighty-five feet above tide-water, and its level is maintained through a range of only a few feet, so that when it rises above its highest maintenance mark, the gates are opened and the surplus water discharged through the spillway into the old bed of the p228 Chagres River, across which Gatun Dam was constructed.
The current races with a velocity of •fifteen to twenty miles an hour (estimated) from the dam through the concrete spillway until it hits the old river bed. There it forms a maelstrom and becomes exceedingly rough, with whirlpools and eddies, lashed in places into a frenzy of waves and foam in which no small boat could live. The bottom is full of rocks and boulders, and the current gradually decreases through a distance of •a mile or so until it reaches tide-water level in the Chagres River channel.
It was nearly certain death for a human being to fall into the water — in fact four lives were lost there during the year and a half after the canal was opened. Since the banks were all but sheer and there were only a few constricted places from which a cast could be made, one had to be on one's guard continually to avoid a fatal step or slide into the water. In order to reach a position favorable for casting, with a line secured around my waist and under my shoulders, I was lowered over a •thirty‑foot bank to the water's edge; and I kept the line bent to me all the time I was casting.
The water was so disturbed, so full of foam, so broken, that in the beginning the fish would grab at any lure. My favorite lure was made by seizing a roll of white bath toweling on the shank of a long hook with several lashings to make it more or less rounded, then pressing it with my foot into the red mud, giving it somewhat the appearance of a shrimp. My tackle consisted of an excellent casting reel that enabled me to reach the middle of the stream, say fifty yards, a •seven-ounce split bamboo rod, and a Cuttyhunk line with a breaking strain of •eighteen pounds.
p229 Tarpon come up from the sea in myriads to feed on the small fish that come over the dam, and the shrimp that appear there at certain times. Standing on the high bank overlooking the pool, I have seen their long dorsal fins bobbing up and down in such numbers that there seemed hardly room for any more to squeeze in.
Sporty and Difficult Fishing The largest tarpon taken on my rig weighed •seventy‑one and one‑fourth pounds, but it was far more difficult to kill and land it than it would have been for one of twice its weight in the open sea. We had to contend not only with the fish itself (no mean antagonist), but with the vagaries of the current and eddies, and when the fish went down‑stream both his own speed and that of the current would be combined. Then, without warning, he might turn up‑stream and strike an eddy, and it would be all but impossible to reel in fast enough to keep any strain at all. Besides, we had the rocks to contend with, and many a fish escaped by parting the line when he fouled a hidden obstruction and made away with yards of line.
It is a far easier matter to handle your fish in the open sea, in a spacious boat where one can take any position, when the boat can follow the general direction taken by the fish and thus ease the strain and where there is perfect freedom of motion and action. There is the same difference in handling a large bass, trout or salmon in strong running water, with the usual lurking dangers and constricted space, when compared to handling the same fish from a boat on a lake.
This was the sportiest and most difficult fishing that has ever come into my experienced or under my notice. I have landed many a fish there below the p230 dam at Gatun, weighing •from forty to sixty pounds, and found it almost as difficult to land the lighter ones as I did the heavier ones.
When the gates of the dam were closed, there was still a small volume of water flowing down the spillway which had served the hydro-electric generating plant. Then the big fish would leave, and the smaller ones, running •from five to twelve or fifteen pounds, would come up to feed on minnows.
Changing to a four-ounce rod and light line, we could wade in and had comparatively still water for handling the fish, and as a matter of fact I enjoyed this sport equally as much. I have caught as many as twenty-five of the smaller tarpon in a morning's or evening's fishing, using minnows for bait. Provided the cast was a good long one, particularly when the bait landed in water a bit clouded or covered with foam, it would be grabbed up almost at once, and one was sure of a strong and skilful fight before the fish could be landed.
Later, as an experiment, we caught a good many tarpon on home-made flies. I had never associated this idea with tarpon-fishing, having always used a lure of live bait, such as a mullet or other long, round fish. But, finding an old feather-duster, we plucked some of the feathers, lashed them to the head of a long-shanked hook, and cast them into the strongest and most ruffled water we could find, and had no end of strikes. It must not be supposed that this simulated the usual fly fishing, for it did not; almost at once our fly would be drawn under water and, as the feathers were of a brownish color, I am inclined to think it was mistaken for a shrimp.
Of course all this fishing was in fresh water, and p231 until this time tarpon had always been associated in my mind with salt water. It is true that they belong to the herring and shad family, that comes into fresh or brackish water to spawn; but these fish came in to feed and were often taken in the fresh water of the Chagres River between the dam and the sea.
So far as in connection with, there were formerly no tarpon in the Pacific Ocean, but as soon as the canal began operations, it was observed that large numbers of them continually entered the lower lock chambers and were locked up into the lake. So it is reasonable to suppose that in time some will traverse the lake and be locked down on the Pacific side, and find their way into that ocean.
Unfortunately the fishing at Gatun is not as good as it was formerly, owing largely to the depletion of the fish by the numerous fishermen, and to the fact that the remainder have become wary from experience. Almost anywhere in the tropics good fishing can be found in salt water, and after the experience at Gatun, the fishermen extended their fields to both the Atlantic and Pacific, particularly the latter, and have developed some excellent sport.
This reminds me that when I was a young midshipman there were two well-known sharks that had gained notoriety because of their enormous size and alleged propensity for attacking any one who might fall overboard. Under certain conditions there is no question but that sharks will attack human beings in the water. One of these sharks was accredited with living in Panama Bay and was known as Toboga Bill; the other, from his habitat on the coast of Guatemala, was known as Champerico Joe.
Champerico Joe Guatemala City, the capital, is connected by rail p232 with San José on the Pacific side, where an exceptionally long pier is built out from shore to deep water for handling freight and passengers from the steamers.
Quite a number of natives had been lost overboard from the pier, and it was generally believed that the sharks got them. Champerico Joe was charged as the arch-offender, and he was dreaded accordingly. Also it was rumored that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Guatemala Railway had each offered five hundred pesos for old Champerico Joe, dead or alive.
As our ship lay in this vicinity, off the pier, for a couple of weeks, my attention was constantly called to the unusual number of sharks in the water, some of them exceptionally large. There was one in particular which we thought must be old Joe himself, and which, by frequent approximations, we estimated to be •twenty-three feet long. Incited as much by the spirit of adventure as by the possibility of obtaining the reward, we made our preparations for the extermination of the said Joseph.
A small open-mouthed tooth-powder bottle was filled with disks of gun‑cotton, in which an electric fuse was placed; it was made water-tight, and could be connected to a battery by other wires. The bottle was then encased in what we considered the most tempting morsels, fresh meat, salt pork, fish, et cetera, and with an extension on our lower swinging boom, we let the bait down to •about a six‑foot depth and waited for the big fellow to swallow it or even take it in his mouth, when we would press the button, off would go his head, and we would reap our reward.
Theoretically perfect — but Joseph wouldn't touch it. He would take almost anything else that was p233 thrown overboard from a tin can to a piece of rotten pork — but not our bait. Yet apparently every other shark in the Pacific Ocean would make for it almost as soon as it was lowered, compelling us to haul it up out of their way, in the hope that after all Joe might change his mind.
However, finding that Joe had no intention of falling into our trap, we had to content ourselves with smaller fry, for the device worked perfectly and we used it repeatedly. It is a strange thing to see a shark with his head blown into smithereens apparently swim, though not consciously directed, for ten or fifteen minutes, and maybe cover •a mile or so before his muscular efforts cease. Even then, if his heart were examined, it was often found to be still pulsating.
Toboga Bill It is generally supposed that the other one, Toboga Bill, was captured some years later in Panama Bay by an expedition sent out especially to accomplish this object, and that he was mounted and is now in some museum. It is said that he measured •twenty-four feet in length, but of this I am not any too certain.
While carrying on my field work in connection with the Panama Canal, I was impressed with the enormous number of poisonous insects and reptiles that could be found in certain localities along its banks. We are all familiar with the old conditions with reference to the mosquitoes prior to the advent of Doctor Gorgas and the American canal builders.
On the completion of Gatun Dam, when the water was impounded and began to rise and submerge the old valley of the Chagres River, all living things, animal, bird, reptile or insect, sought higher ground. Many of the latter, as the water rose, found themselves corralled on the new‑made islands in the lake.
p234 On one occasion some of my force was sent to one of these islands to erect a small light as an aid to navigation. On account of the extraordinary number of centipedes, tarantulas, scorpions and poisonous reptiles, they were unable to work with safety in the dense tropical vegetation, so they returned to obtain means to clear the way. This was accomplished by spraying liquid fuel oil through a hose, under pressure, in advance of the party, then setting fire to it and burning a passageway to the desired point. While neither centipedes, tarantulas or scorpions are deadly, their stings are poisonous and painful; but the bite of either the coral snake or the bushmaster is deadly, and we could not afford to take any chances with them.
Whenever a case of malaria or other disease caused by a mosquito appeared, the medical force at once proceeded to locate the infested area and exterminate the remaining ones. This led to a very interesting disclosure on one occasion, when a medical officer advised me to investigate at once one of my employees who was intrusted with the handling of funds, but who had never been under the slightest suspicion.
It seemed that two of the young women employees had contracted malaria, and one of them had died in a very short time of Chagres fever, which I believe is an extremely violent form of malaria. On investigating her living quarters and the places she usually visited it was discovered that, in company with the clerk and one or two others, she had been in the habit of attending some of the public dances in Panamanian territory not under military surveillance, and that money had been spent freely, apparently beyond the salaries of the party. An examination and audit of p235 the clerk's accounts was at once ordered, and a shortage of several hundred dollars found. All this resulted from the fact that a young woman had been bitten by a mosquito!
A Fake Safe Robbery During the World War, and prior to our entrance into it, the Panama Canal was neutral like the remainder of our country. It became evident, even at that time, that Germany had her secret agents in the Canal Zone, who were attempting to obtain confidential information.
One day one of the clerks came to me and stated that he had had a tentative offer for copies of the confidential prints or maps of our fortifications. He had given an evasive answer, in order that he might lay this information before me hoping that a case might be made against the supposed secret agent who had approached him. After thinking the matter over and discussing it with the authorities, I told him that he should apparently acquiesce and keep the matter an absolute secret. He then agreed with the German to furnish twelve copies at one hundred dollars each.
Then came the rub; it was extremely difficult to make twelve distorted copies that would pass muster, but it was finally accomplished and the bogus photostats were turned over to the German agent and the cash received.
The Hotel Tivoli belongs to the canal, and here the German agent lived. It was well known that he not infrequently placed his confidential papers in the safe at the hotel for security and, true to form, he had the envelope containing the bogus papers placed there for the night.
Some time before this occurred, but in anticipation of this very act, we had planned a fake safe robbery. p236 That night the safe was robbed (?), the knob knocked off and the contents of the safe scattered around the office. The news given out stated the exact amount in cash, dollars and cents, that had been taken, and mentioned also the theft of certain valuables that had been stowed there for safe-keeping. These and other items of information made the robbery seem plausible. Thus the German spy was double-crossed. Not only had worthless and incorrect prints been palmed off on him originally, but even they were later recovered and destroyed.
The question then arose as to how to dispose of the one thousand two hundred dollars. It was suggested that it be turned in to the canal auditor and taken up on the books, but owing to certain objections that plan was abandoned. It was then suggested that the money be turned over to the welfare fund, but here too other objections were encountered.
So as we couldn't well handle it on the Isthmus, the following plan was finally adopted:
One of the trusted employees was going home on a month's leave. He was given the amount in cash and, on his arrival in the States, wrote a letter to the Treasury Department Conscience Fund, stating that he was a veteran of the Civil War, had drawn a pension for years, to which he was not justly entitled, and made restoration in this manner.
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If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 20 Sep 17