Friday, April 24, 2015

City Building in the Panama Canal Zone

(specially written for "the PRESS.")

By S. Hurst Seager, F.R.I.B.A

The very brilliant success which has been achieved by the Americans at Panama forms a striking example of the value of a single organisation in the carrying out of any national or community scheme. It proves beyond question of dispute that whatever the organisation may be—whether it be formed under the State under any form of local government or under a specially created body it must have under its control every activity necessary to the success of the venture. If success is to be gained nothing must be left to chance. All things great and small must be carefully considered and provided for. Unfettered complete control must be given to one master mind, who should have the power to associate with him experts in all these branches of work necessary to the fulfilment of the undertaking.

The final accomplishment must result from the close co-operation of many trained minds working in harmony for one ideal—the realisation of the vision of great achievement. Those engaged in the work must be free from any speculative financial interest in it. All these elements of success were present in the organisation which the Americans formed, and were conspicuously absent in that of the French.

The gigantic failure of the French was the result of the promoters, shareholders, and all officials connected with the work at Panama concentrating their attention not on the success of the Canal as a great inter-nation undertaking of world-wide importance, but rather on the profits they were likely to get out of it. There was no master mind.

The great international value of the Suez Canal completed under De Lesseps in 1869 appealed strongly to the imagination of the whole world. De Lesseps became a universal hero. Especially was he worshipped by the French, and when he proposed in 1875 to form a company to procure a concession for the building of a canal at Panama the country rose in his support.

£12.000.000 was asked for: £52.000.000 was subscribed. "De Lesseps has cut a canal at Suez and must therefore be a great engineer, and can cut a canal at Panama. The fact that he was not an engineer, but only a company promoter was, in the fullness of his fame forgotten, as was also the fact that to dig a ditch through the perfectly healthy sandhills of Suez was a very different task from that of carrying a canal through the deathful tropical jungle and over the mountains of Panama.

The Americans have succeeded where the French failed because they have carried out a great work of Peace exactly under the same administration and organisation as have been proved to be necessary in carrying to a successful issue, the Art of War. The building of the canal, the laying out of the towns and the erection of all buildings and works in connexion with them were in fact carried out by American Army engineers. At first in 1904—-when the United States took over the works from the French—the Americans made the serious mistake of creating a constitution which provided for a Governor of the Canal Zone, a Chairman of the Canal Commission, and a Chief Engineer. It was soon found that the overlapping powers of these officers led to friction: this, together with the fact of the interference in control by officials in Washington, seriously hindered the progress of the work. It was, therefore, a master stroke of policy on the part of Mr Roosevelt in 1907, when he appointed Colonel G. W. Goethals to be both chairman of the Commission and Chief Engineer, with complete control over the whole of the Canal zone. Under this new constitution there was no more delay. The work went forward with extraordinary rapidity, and without a hitch. The difficulties met with were these which Nature created. These were successfully surmounted, and the whole of the work stands to-day as a great masterpiece, an outstanding object lesson for the world's wonder and education.

It shows what great things can be accomplished for the benefit of humanity if the old methods are abandoned and outworks carried out —as was this one —by the complete co-ordination and co-operation of all concerned. It is in this way our present cities must be improved—our new ones built. The general form of the Canal itself is now well known the world over but it is perhaps not sufficiently realised that the country through which it passes is extremely beautiful, and that the towns which have been built by the Commission are as interesting, as examples of town or city building, as are the locks and canal works from an engineering point of view. The Canal Zone under the control of the Commissioners is a strip of country 10 miles wide, stretching right across the Isthmus from shore to shore, a distance of 40 miles. This area is rented in perpetuity by the United States from the Republic of Panama, for the sum of £50,000 a year. Within this belt the only part not under the complete control of the Commissioners is the town of Colon, at the Atlantic end, and the town of Panama, at the Pacific end. Colon came into being in the middle of the 19th century, when the railway across the Isthmus was built by a French company, and Panama has grown from the city founded by the Spaniards in 1673, after the destruction by Morgan, the buccaneer, of an older city established in 1519. Panama may, therefore, be regarded as the oldest city in the Western World. Even in these two towns, which are integral parts of the Republic of Panama, the Commissioners are given power to supervise the whole of the sanitary arrangements - of this power they made good use, and both towns were subjected to a thorough cleaning up. Roads were formed to take the place of the insanitary ditches which ran down the centres of the streets; a drainage system was carried out, and a good water supply installed. Still, this is not sufficient to make Colon an attractive town. Narrow streets, lined with two storey wooden buildings, with verandahs and balconies, and occupied by as mixed a population as is to be found in any spot on earth.

Panama, the capital, has also a mass of old wooden buildings, but the wealth which has come to the Republic as payment for its concessions, has enabled it to build some fine modern works, notably the National Institute or University, the City Hall, the Theatre, and interest centres in the Cathedral —a Spanish Renaissance work, completed in 1760.  All these are surrounded by well-laid-out, open spaces, grassed and planted, the cocoanut palm forming a striking feature.

Adjacent to these old towns are the new ones built by the Canal Commission—Christobal, joining with Colon, Balboa with Panama. Balboa is in two distinct portions, one for the Americans, the other for the native employees. That for the Americans —Ancon—is built on a high plateau formed by the spoil taken from the Culebra cut and commands a magnificent view of the Ray of Panama, at the entrance to the Canal, and of the first series of locks. This is the capital of the Canal Zone, and the site of the fine block of administrative buildings. The buildings and houses are grouped on true town-planning lines, around large, open spaces, or along parkways.

The residential roads are in some instances narrow and well sheltered by palms, forming beautiful shady retreats from the burning rays of this tropical zone. Although we passed through in the wet season, and in the hottest month, we were fortunate to have a fine bright day—September 14th —a temperature of only 84 degrees, tempered by a cool breeze. We saw the whole district therefore under most favourable conditions, and the impression created was one of extreme beauty. Combined with this triumph of engineering is an example of the expenditure of time and thought in the endeavour to make the whole work not only successful but also beautiful. Success in this endeavour is as full and complete as is the triumph of engineering. There is not a discordant note. Science and art and Nature are here combined to produce a beautiful and impressive whole. All the buildings are of one style, spoken of as the "Spanish Mission Style." They are very simple in character, with broad horizontal masses, well-proportioned fenestration, low red tiled roofs, with deeply overhanging eaves. They are of concrete treated to a pale buff colour. The sites are excellently chosen or made —it is already difficult to tell which, for Nature here in this warm and wet region is fast covering up the evidence of the liberty man has taken with her: the excavations along the Culebra cut and the spoil which has been thrown out are quickly being covered with luxuriant foliage. Soon it will be impossible to realise where the work of man leaves off, and that of Nature begins.

All this science and art, and our enjoyment of it, is made possible by the conversion of what was a malarial pestilential region into a perfectly healthy one by the self-sacrificing labours of the medical staff to look after the health of the workers. At the head of this staff was Colonel Gorgas, and the work accomplished is justly regarded as the greatest conquest over disease and death the world up to that time had seen.

The Americans had the advantage over the French in that—the science of healing and the knowledge of preventive measures had advanced considerably since the French commenced their work. English physicians had proved that any disease could be transmitted by insect bite and that the bite of a certain kind of mosquito was the cause of malaria. American physicians had proved that another kind of mosquito transmitted yellow fever. Both these and many other species— 50 of them were present at Panama —the air was black with them, and the task of the medical staff was to get rid of this death dealing plot—a task so successfully accomplished that not a single mosquito was seen during our journey through and out our stay in this region. It is literally a case of pouring oil on the troubled waters, for at the head of every stream, every rivulet, which finds its way into the zone, are placed large tanks of oil continually dripping on to the water, spreading as it flows, and as is well known, forming the thin scum under which no larvae can live. Continued vigilance is necessary, and therefore a large army of workers is still maintained to fill the tanks and to spray with oil or poison all marshy places and stagnant pools. As an extra precaution all the houses and hotels are provided with insect-proof screens. Hospitals and dispensaries, comparable with the best, have been built in the new cities and at suitable places along the canal, where all the employees of Commissioners get advice, treatment, and medicine free of charge. Thus is the health of the people assured, and their material welfare, education, comfort, and happiness no less, for not only are the houses provided for the 10,000 employees under the Commission, but large stores are built and managed by them, where everything required to clothe and feed this "army" can be obtained at prices free from any suspicion of profiteering. Large laundries have been erected. Schools and colleges have been founded, and well equipped and free transport granted to all white children to reach them. Well-furnished libraries, reading rooms, and club houses have been provided, places of entertainment built, companies of players and musicians engaged. The Y.M.C.A. organisation, which has done good work here as elsewhere, has been very liberally supported, and the salaries of many of the officials paid by the Commission. The Commission are also the builders and proprietors of two very fine hotels—the Washington and Christobal —on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, and the Tivoli at Ancon, overlooking the bay at Panama. These were built and are maintained for the higher officials and for the thousands of tourists who will as a result of the Commissioners' foresight flock to the canal zone.

Independent settlement will not be encouraged in the zone area. It will be kept under the complete control of the Commissioners, who have already established a large experimental farm close by the Chagree river, and have ranches on which there are already many thousand head of cattle. The Chagree river falls into the canal near its centre, above its highest locks, and is harnessed to supply all the power for the locks, the railway, and the towns. The completion of the task of the Commissioners is not yet. Before many years have passed the canal zone will be widely known as an example of successful agricultural and industrial development; famous also for its City Building, as famous as the canal which now passes through it.

Press, Volume LV, Issue 16688, 24 November 1919, Page 8

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