Rose van Hardeveld, the young wife of an American civil engineer working on the Panama Canal, joined her husband on the Isthmus in 1906. A firsthand account of her time in the canal zone, Make the Dirt Fly! charts her experiences from her first day in Panama to the completion of the project in 1914. In the following excerpts, Rose records every detail of life in Panama. The accomodations that awaited her were nothing like what she had left in Wyoming -- the smell of guano permeated her house and mold quickly covered her furniture.
The book Make the Dirt Fly! was originally published in 1956.
"In America, anything is possible," Jan would boast, whenever he learned of some modern miracle of enterprise in his new country. An avid reader of any and all newspapers he could obtain at our little whistle-stop post on the Union Pacific Railroad in western Wyoming, he was forever marveling at the spectacle of progress in the United States at the turn of the century, and from time to time he would add, proudly, "With Teddy Roosevelt, anything is possible!"
He had landed in Panama City on the Fourth of July, continuing by train from there to Culebra, a few miles inland. It was after dark when he finished his interview with the American official to whom he had been sent, and was finally at liberty to hunt up the place where he was to sleep that night. The men’s bachelor quarters were down by the railroad tracks in another part of town. "Believe me, Kate," he wrote, "this was some Fourth of July! A heavy suitcase in each hand, no light anywhere, the sweat rolling down my face, I stumbled along the wet slippery track, which I had been told to follow until I found a place to turn off. I could sense that the water was on both sides. If my foot slipped from the ties, it landed in soft mud. In the deep darkness I seemed to have walked miles, and I never dreamed there could be such unearthly noises as came to my ears from all around. Thick croaking, hoarse bellowing, and strange squeaks and whines leaped at me from the blackness. I have learned since that these swamp noises are made by lizards, frogs and alligators, but to me they sounded like the howling of demons. Well, I decided that turning back looked almost as hard as going on, so here I am."
"The food is awful," he wrote, "and cooked in such a way that no civilized white man can stand it for more than a week or two. These native women have nothing to cook on but little iron charcoal braziers just large enough to hold one pot at a time. Almost all the food is fried. They feed us fried green bananas, boiled rice, and foul-smelling salt fish. It rains so much that honest to goodness my hat is getting moldy on my head. I’m convinced there isn’t a place in the world that can beat the Isthmus for rain. Every day and every night it pours down. I haven’t had on a pair of dry shoes in weeks. More water falls from the skies here in six days than does in six years in Wyoming."
Jan’s next letter brought news of an even more serious menace. Disease. Yellow fever, malaria, black-water fever! With all the rainfall and the abundance of water everywhere, no water was safe for drinking. "I grew careless last week," wrote Jan, "and before I realized it, I was one sick hombre -- stomach out of order, and my blood full of malaria bugs. Now I live with a bottle of liquid quinine in one pocket and a bottle of Epsom salts solution in the other. I’m taking no more chances that I can help of being sent home wrapped in a wooden overcoat, although they tell me the Government dresses each American in a metallic one, when it becomes necessary to send him home in that style."
"The slowness of the work would be discouraging," Jan wrote, "if I were not certain that our Government can and will accomplish whatever it sets out to do. You know what I always say -- in America, anything is possible … That is why, since you have made no objection, I have made my decision to stay -- and I am happy to be able to tell you that the quartermaster has at last assigned me to married quarters. The house is an old one at Las Cascadas, the village near where I am now working. It was the first house build here by the French, and it is marked "House Number One.""
"This will be our chance to be among those who make history! Your Papa is helping to build the big canal, the waterway that has been in the minds of men for centuries. This canal, when it is finished, will change the face of the earth. It will unite the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, and alter the course of the ships that sail upon them. Yes, children, we will be among those who make history!"
As the train rolled out of the station, we soon saw where the smells came from. Houses were built on timbers right in the ocean. Green scummy water lashed and licked at the posts. Coconuts and rotten vegetables floated on the surface of the water. Naked brown children with tousled heads, and mangy-looking dogs stared listlessly at the train from the dismal vantage points along the track. It was a relief when the town was left behind and we plunged into the green jungle.
A penetrating stench, so vile it was almost unbearable, had struck me the instant the door had opened for our entrance. "The bats. These French houses have stood unoccupied for years. They have double walls, and the space between the inner and outer walls is occupied by hundreds of bats." The house had two rooms and an alcove. We put up the two beds. The mattresses were new, for which I was very thankful. We hung mosquito nets over the beds, for the house was not screened.
As if to comfort me with the knowledge that our situation was by no means the worst on the Isthmus, Jan described to me at some length how unsatisfactory conditions were everywhere on the canal. The big cry was "Make the dirt fly!" -- but things had not yet reached the stage where the dirt could be made to fly. Between thirty and forty thousand alien people were to be brought into this area; the housing problem alone would be staggering. Colonel William Gorgas, the man who had done such outstanding work in Cuba with his fight against yellow fever, was on the Isthmian Canal Commission as chief health officer. Sanitation was of primary importance. Conditions were appalling in the cities of Colon and Panama, with their crooked gambling houses, filthy saloons and brothels. The well-known "American sucker" had come to the Isthmus and was being properly fleeced by those who knew how. The authorities realized that the only way to counteract these evils was to bring to Panama the wives and children building of the canal.
In our quest for food, we found that the town of Las Cascadas was anything but pleasing in the daylight. Dingy, nondescript houses sprawled up and down the hillsides. It did not have the appearance of a village that had been planned. It looked as though the people had become tired, dropped just about anywhere, and put up a shack on whatever spot they happened to be resting. There was not a street or a sidewalk. Instead of roads there were narrow footpaths worn by feet that walked from place to place on the rocky hillsides. We entered a whitewashed barn we suspected might be a store. A bald-pated Chinese in a cotton undershirt and loose white pantaloons shuffled toward us with a friendly grin, his bare feet thrust into straw sandals. I looked around, wondering if this could be a grocery store. Not one edible thing looked familiar, except five or six doubtful looking eggs, loose on the shelf. On the counter there was a pile of something that looked like long, angular green bananas.
From the grocery store we went to the meat market, a sorry looking place indeed! About the size of a small clothes closet, but tightly screened, the place was almost hidden by flies. Ribbons of bloody beef hung suspended from nails around the walls. A rusty saw, hand-axe and knife lay on a shelf besides hunks of meat which had evidently been hacked from the same carcass that had furnished the ribbons of beef. The dark-skinned, bare-footed man inside looked hopefully at me as I approached, but it all looked so unappetizing that I turned away down the track to our house. A fine drizzly rain was falling. Black men, women, and children were going to and fro on the track, jabbering and gesticulating as they walked. A white man -- the only white person I had seen -- came along and held an umbrella over our heads. "You must not go out in the rain," he said. "It will give you fever." He was the local sanitary inspector. During the walk to our steps, I learned from him that we must by all means avoid getting the fever. We were so hot and uncomfortable by the time we got inside that the thought of making a fire in the pocket size cookstove was almost unbearable. The children were already broken out with prickly heat, and I felt as though I were being smothered between wet, evil-smelling sponges.
I thanked my friendly neighbor, and prepared for another tramp in the heat. Passing by her house, I had to smother a gasp of dismay as I glanced at her and her small, almost naked boys. She talked like an American, and I knew she must be American, but her skin was yellow and taut. The little boys’ teeth protruded from their pale lips, their abdomens were painfully distended, their knees knobby. Oh dear, I thought, as I looked at my round-cheeked rosy babies. I wonder how long it will be until we look like that?
Trains had been rattling down the tracks all day but I paid no attention to them, until I heard a strange squeaky whistle. I reached the porch in time to see a most peculiar train pulling in from the north. The funny, old-fashioned engine halted right at our board-walk. There were a dozen cars, of the cattle car type, filled to overflowing with black men. Before the train stopped, they were dropping off and spreading out like a colony of black ants.
Noting my depression, he remarked, "They’re an American family. They’ve just come from two years living in the interior, eating only native food, surviving repeated attacks of malaria."… "A government commissary will be in operation in a few days," Jan said, "at Empire, and we’ll be able to have staples and canned milk from New York."… I struggled bravely with my housekeeping problems throughout the afternoon. What furniture there was, was hopelessly old and shabby. The heat was too intense to venture forth again in search of food. The evil stench inside the house drove us at last out onto the porch, where we sat limply awaiting Jan’s return.
There I heard much about the dissatisfaction of the men. They all complained about the labor; it was impossible to teach these blacks or to trust them. The second chief engineer, Mr. Stevens, was doing a fine job reorganizing, but he was having his troubles. No one knew whether the canal was to be a sea-level or a lock canal. Colonel William Gorgas was having difficulty in getting enough material for the adequate sanitary program, which was of such importance. About a mile to the south we could see Empire. Culebra lay a half mile beyond that. At both of these towns a number of American families had already arrived, and schools were being established for the children.
In going to and fro between the shops I noticed dingy places bearing across the front the word Cantina. I did not know the meaning of the word, but by the smells around the places and the condition of the men and women coming out of them, I knew they must be saloons. It worried me to see little black children running in and out, freely, to see black women staggering, laughing, cursing, and to watch our own men going in for drinks. …I was told that the men needed some stimulant to cope with the climate, but I did not believe it. It seemed strange to me that alcohol could be such a general panacea, a warming agent in cold countries, a cooling agent in warm ones.
There was little furniture and little space in which to put it. A very small bedroom with an alcove, a smaller living room, and a tiny kitchen partitioned off one end of the screened veranda -- this we were to call home. A long flight of wooden steps led from the front door and another from the kitchen door. A small building in the rear contained a shower room and a toilet. The house was dingy behind description, but there was a wonderful view in every direction, since the building was raised from the ground on wooden posts. To the south lay the village, beyond that Empire, Culebra, Miraflores, Corozal, Ancon, Panama, and finally the Pacific Ocean. To the north, along the line of the track winding among the low hills, was Matachin, a small nondescript village; then Haut Obispo, no bigger or better; and then Bas Obispo. The good old Star Spangled Banner, doubly beautiful and precious in this strange country, flew from a pole on the top of a hill in Camp Elliott, the United States Marine Corps station at Bas Obispo. To the west, a panorama of palm-crowned hills rolled along at the edge of the horizon, their jungle-covered slopes bearing down to the very edge of the railroad track. Looking eastward from the back door, I got my first sight of the Canal.
Below us lay pieces of machinery overturned, strings of cars, engines, and twisted rails, all covered with growing vines and brush. Large trees had grown up through the couplings of a string of cars at the foot of the hill. The whole array told mutely of the hard-earned, penuriously saved money that had gone to purchase the equipment now lying there useless. "A graveyard of a nation’s dead hopes," the Americans said. Some of the equipment was used for a while by the Isthmian Canal Commission, but it was too small and inadequate, and was finally sold to a Chicago wrecking company.
This was [the girls’] first real glimpse of the vast project, too enormous for their young minds to grasp, which was the whole purpose of our lives here in the strange, always uncomfortable and often frightening tropics.
We made it a habit to go once a week to the Cut to watch the progress made in the canal. We stood awed at the whining, groaning thing of iron, which obeyed so well the wishes of two men, its masters. Sometimes Jan took us and explained how the craneman controlled the leavers which caused the big dipper to drop and take huge bites out of the earth with its great, iron teeth; then swing around and from its hinged jaw spit all the contents out into the empty car which was waiting for it. He told us of the duties of the engineer who sat with his hands and feet ready at other levers, shifting, moving, controlling the different parts of the big machine.
The commissary at Empire had opened, but it was still two miles away, and I had no way to get there but to walk and carry a basket. …Once or twice I walked and took the children. Every passing train sent me into a panic. Getting two small children off the track and standing in the narrow, slippery footpath until the train passed, was too nerve-wracking… Once I went by train to Panama City where there was a good market and many shops where one could buy every possible kind of food, both native and domestic -- at terrible prices!
White men in spotless white clothes walked along the track with time books in their pockets, time inspectors on their rounds among the various gangs. Engineers and firemen in grease-blackened clothes crossed the track and scrambled up the other hill, home to House Number Two. Khaki-clad white foremen and ragged black laborers followed each other at intervals throughout the days.
I had been on the Isthmus four months now. Hard rains had set in by this time. Everything smelled of mold and decay. Water fell from the sky in great, drenching sheets. The house and everything in it was sticky and wet. People carried umbrellas all the time.
Jan seldom had a dry shirt or a pair of dry shoes. He would come home with the mud and water squashing in his shoes and his shirt and trousers wringing wet. Our little iron cookstove and kerosene lamps were entirely inadequate to cope with the eternal dampness. The small space under the house was the only reasonably dry spot on top of our hill. We dried what clothing we could there, snatching at the brief periods of sunshine to dry a few pieces on the line.
What racked my nerves more than any of our other trials and tribulations was the horrible and unfamiliar noise at night. When the sun had gone down behind the palm-fringed western horizon, the darkness of the night descended immediately. There was no softening, lingering twilight. There was daylight and then there was darkness, and with the darkness came noises so weird and uncanny as to make the flesh creep with the strangeness of it all. We did grow familiar in time with the bark of the alligator, the indescribable sounds made by the lizards, the buzzing and creaking of insects and the calling of night birds. It was the noises made by human beings that were unbearably irritating. About the time we got settled for the night, we could hear the subdued chattering of the black gang whose duty it was to take care of the septic pails. They seemed like ghouls. You could hear them but never see them unless there was bright moonlight and then one could see them weaving like ponderous shadows in and out among the houses and down the tracks. The very worst of all was the waiting for the dead that came from the labor camp below us. When one of their number died the friends and kindred of the deceased would gather in the room where the corpse lay. All night long they would drink rum and wail and sing Old English Gospel hymns in the flattest, most unmusical was imaginable.
Slowly but surely my natural fortitude was giving way, and I was becoming a nervous, fearful woman. I believe it was the consciousness of what would happen to the children that kept me from going to pieces. The sanitary building with its huge stacks of dull red pine coffins leaning against one side of it was right in my line of vision if I looked northward. From here every morning the sanitary gangs, accompanied by an inspector or boss, started out on their way to conquer the mosquito and the jungle. The quinine squad usually came first. Large bottles of bright red liquid were carried about and given in copious doses to all on the job. I was urged to give it to the children and to take it myself daily, but I could not bring myself to do it very often. Doubtless it did much to combat the ravages of malaria, but the very thought of it still has the power to send a shudder down my spine. After this gang came the oil gang. These men went out with small tanks of crude oil strapped to their shoulders. Hand pumps enabled them to spray all pools, streams, and puddles with the oil that would prevent the hatching out of mosquito eggs. Men with machetes cut down the brush, and others with shovels made ditches for drainage.
Sister had the fever! Her round face was pale, and the cold sweat stood out in beads all over her body. It was malaria and dysentery, and a dreary time we had of it. She became a limp, feverish little bundle, crying night and day. "Keep everything sterile, and give her quinine," cautioned the doctor. In that moldy atmosphere, it seemed impossible to keep dishes and linen sterile. The quinine, when I did get it down her little throat, made her sick at her stomach and she would lose it as fast I gave it to her. Sister did not respond to treatment to the doctor’s satisfaction, and he talked of putting her in the hospital at Ancon. All the time I was becoming lower in spirits and less able to cope with the adverse conditions surrounding us. The thought of putting my baby in a strange hospital was the last straw. That night I gave way to old-fashioned screaming hysterics, outside beside the roaring cataract. Poor little Janey clung to me, her frightened eyes searching mine for the cause of such carryings on!
The Panamanians (they called themselves Panamans, but we changed the word) were generally immune to malaria and could not understand why we should spoil the water in all the convenient pools and puddles. He spoke also of the sanitary project going on in the cities, agreeing that it was a good thing but expressing doubts if it could be done effectively. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change the mode of living that had prevailed for centuries. The rich could live above the filth and were entirely indifferent to it as long as it remained outside of their immediate vicinity. The poor had never known anything different, and were too ignorant to make any effort at a drastic change. Our host himself did not seem to care what innovations the Americans might bring to the Isthmus.
"There will soon be a mess, or sort of hotel, in each place for the white men," Jan explained to me. "That will help a lot. It will be supervised and inspected and one can feel that it’s fairly clean, at least."
I tried to visualize the passengers and crews of the ships of the world that would proceed slowly and majestically through this canal when at last it was completed. Would they, thronging the deck and crowding the rails to watch their serene passage from one ocean to another, be aware of all the obstacles and hazards that had had to be overcome before their voyage could be made possible? Would they think, as they sailed from Atlantic to Pacific or from Pacific to Atlantic over the waters where once there had been only steaming jungle, of the long months of relentless excavation when banana trees sprang up in the midst of briefly neglected tracks?
Jantje did bring us something wonderful from Panama. When he went into a wholesale importer’s place he found them unpacking the first contingent of Edison phonographs that had ever been on the Isthmus. Jantje immediately bought two phonographs and a half dozen records for each. We had not realized how starved we were for music and entertainment until we heard the first strains of "Silver Threads Among the Gold" floating from the big tin horn. The first phonographs had just been coming into use through the West about the time we’d left the States, and though we had heard one once in the home of friends, we had never before owned one. Now Jan sat entranced as he played the records over and over. Marina and I enjoyed the songs, while Jantje danced around with the baby in his arms to the music of Hungarian Rhapsody. We hung over the little box of a machine while supper, rain, canal, everything was forgotten for the time being.
The wailing wakes at the camp, thanks to the persistent efforts of the doctors and sanitary inspectors, had almost ceased. Sanitary inspection was rigid and constant in the camp, to the utter amazement of the careless inhabitants. In all their lives, they had never disposed of garbage in any way other than just throwing it out. Now they were commanded to put all garbage into containers provided for that purpose, under pain of fine or arrest. This was a hard thing for them to learn.
New families were arriving on every boat from New York, and soon every available house was occupied. The new hotel was going up not far from the hoot of the hill. The thing that pleased me most was the fact that the cantinas were being crowded back because the land was needed for new tracks.
The man who was doing the blasting in the front of our hill was Charley, a Colorado boy with nice eyes whom I had met shortly after my arrival. He was now living at House Number Two, and we became better acquainted with him. Even though he was an American citizen, his status was different from ours because he was unmarried. He could have only a room, or part of a room, in bachelor quarters.
My solitary walk into the jungle was fresh stimulus to my eager desire to learn to know the fruits and flowers around me. Where before I had been concerned with the need to re-establish our American way of life here in this foreign land, I now found delight in its very foreignness. The West Indian fruit vendors carrying their huge tray loads of fruit on their heads held new interest for me. They were no longer merely slovenly black women swinging swiftly by under my veranda. They now had something that I was avid to see and learn about.
The promised commissary had become a reality: not much more than a shed, but gratifying accessible to me after these long months of having to travel long distances for food or do without. There were staples and canned goods, including milk, onions and potatoes and once in a great while a few pale shrunken cabbages. Greatest and best of all was American beef sent each morning from the cold storage plant at Cristobal. The urgently needed corrections and improvements in both living conditions and work on the canal project, which Jan had for so long confidently predicted, were at last materializing as the dry season drew to its close in 1907.
It seemed that almost at once we could feel the effect of a strong, steady hand on the wheel. The members of this commission would take up their residence with the rest of us, right on the Zone. Living as we did practically on top of the work, we soon saw the new commissioners in action. The Colonel [George Goethals], or the Old Man as he was soon nicknamed, seemed to be omnipresent. His routine was to be on the job from early morning until noon, and in his office all afternoon. He was a tall, long-legged man with a rounded, bronzed face and snow-white hair. His moustache was also white, but slightly stained with nicotine, for her smoke many cigarettes. Except for his very erect carriage one would never have taken him for an army officer, for he never appeared in uniform. He wore civilian clothes with the usual awkwardness of a man who has spent most of his lifetime clothed in the uniform of his country. In addition to all the traffic passing under our veranda, there now appeared a large, glass-windowed track automobile pained an ugly yellow. This official car of the I.C.C. came to be known as "Yellow Peril" or "The Brain Wagon." It rattled by at all hours of the day, sometimes carrying one or more of the officials, sometimes empty save for the driver. I might see the Old Man, black umbrella hooked over one arm, climbing around in the Cut over loose rocks and dirt, stopping to watch a shovel or talk to a foreman or locomotive engineer, or making his way out to meet the car and go farther along the line to some other point of the job. The Old Man was so constantly on the job that we never thought of him as being at home or eating or sleeping. If he was ever sick, we did not know about it. As the men came to know him better, they found him to be fair and just at all times.
It delighted me that the wives of most of our officials were on the Isthmus with their husbands. I enjoyed seeing the tall, stately Mrs. Goethals and small, dainty Mrs. Gaillard going by in the official Brain Wagon or on the observation platform of a train. I knew that if we had an almost inedible tough roast for Sunday dinner, so did they, for they bought from the same shipment as we did; and if my husband got wet and muddy and cross, very likely theirs did too; and it pleased me to think that these wives of high-salaried men found their duties right by the side of their husbands, just as we all did.
They were all alike, these dozen or fifteen cottages, painted battleship grey. They stood facing each other on either side of the road. A screened veranda across the front of the house; a living room and bedroom; then a hallway terminating in a clothes closet on one end and a pantry on the other; another bedroom; a dining room open on one side; and a kitchen finished the space in the structure. I appreciated the improvements I found here as compared to our dwelling on our private hill. The house was clean and comfortable, just about the type of home a man in the States would try to provide for his family. The roofs of corrugated tin came down low over the walls to shut out as much of the sun as possible. In the kitchen was the same small iron cook-stove, but a beautiful white porcelain sink with clean pipes over it was added, together with a table, two chairs, and plenty of shelves. To me, electricity was the greatest blessing. The quartermaster asked that we leave our porch lights on at night for street lamps.
The quartermaster was a sort of tolerant, kindly big brother to us. It was to him we must look for whatever comforts we were to have in the house. When the crex rugs got too impossibly moldy, as they did all too soon, it was he that did his best to help us clean them; or if that were impossible, he would get us a new one if he could. That was so seldom that most of us, after a year of two, were without rugs. The furniture, too, was soon covered with a scum of greasy, sticky mold that was impervious to any cleaning agent we then had. Roaches and ants were not long in making homes for themselves in the crevices of the reed chairs and bureau drawers. We shared a common lot up there on the hill. We kept the same hours and ate the same food and paid the same price for everything we bought. Fresh vegetables were still virtually non-existent, but at least we were always sure, now, of getting the staples at the commissary.
Now that families had arrived in the Zone in appreciable numbers, and homes were established where the men could be sure of their bath after work and a good breakfast before work and a comfortable place in which to relax, attendance in the saloons fell off to a considerable degree, and normal social patterns became possible.
Soon the increase in American population made it possible for organizations and lodges to become a vital part of Zone life. Jan was a member of the Sojourner’s Lodge and derived real pleasure from attending the meetings in Colon. The Chagres Society and the order of Kangaroos also provided a lot of fun for the men. Then there were branches of the Odd Fellows, Modern Woodmen, Redmen, Knights of Pythias, and Mechanics’ and Railroad Men’s Brotherhoods, all of these helping us to keep in step with things as we had known them in the United States. Besides the Isthmian Canal Clubhouses, there were Y.M.C.A.’s which did much to foster American sports and ideals, and provide recreational facilities for men, women and children. The women’s clubs filled a great vacuum among us. We were hungry for opportunities to meet and study and play together. In the Republic, the young and gay of both communities gathered at the Century Club for amusement that held a little more spice than that offered by the more conservative places on the Zone; the University Club by the sea in the heart of Panama City, and the Stranger’s Club in Colon provided hospitality and recreation for members and their friends.
The Christian League of Empire, as this first band called themselves, helped organize Sunday Schools in the smaller places along the line. In Las Cascadas we met with our children at the schoolhouse each Sunday morning. And so in the midst of an alien people and in a strange country it was given to us to keep our own ideals and to teach our children, in a large measure the standards and culture of the United States. By the time the Christian League resolved itself into the Union Church of the Canal Zone, and took its place very creditably among the older established churches, the regular young people’s groups, the missionary societies, the Ladies’ Aid and Prayer Meeting were all established and functioning normally.
The ice and cold storage plant at Cristobal was putting out all kinds of delicious ice cream and frozen pudding. The bakery at the same place was making pies, cakes and cookies, in addition to bread and rolls to be sold at the commissaries and clubhouses. I realized, with amazement and some amusement, that the last vestige of fear and uncertainty seemed to have left us when our children were able to buy ice cream cones and soda pop at the clubhouse.
The six or seven mile gash from Bas Obispo through Empire on a work day was really an awe-inspiring spectacle. Between forty and fifty huge shovels smoked and whanged at different elevations. Each shovel had its own short spur of track, then the track alongside for the dirt train. If blasting were necessary, there would be the drills churning up and down in the rock formation. There were the switches, the dynamite storage boxes, the network of wires for shooting, the engines snorting and puffing, the switchmen’s shanties. To the casual eye this would all seem confusion and chaos. There were Spaniards carrying loads on their backs, others working with pick and shovel; there were Negroes carrying loads on their heads, or signaling engines or trains; water boys, errand boys, all moving in a seemingly conglomerate mass. There were white men here and there walking about, climbing over rock and piles of dirt, stopping here to give directions, there to inspect a piece of work. Engineers with sleeves rolled back, rolls of paper in their hands; time inspectors marking in their books, foremen flipping the sweat from dripping brows and yelling at their gangs; greasy, overalled trainmen and shovel men all moved by the same power, it would seem, each having a place in that Inferno, a place where his puny hands, together with the big machinery, worked to move, literally, a mountain from the path… A path that had, by the mind of man, been appointed to become a stairway to carry the ships of the world on their way from ocean to ocean. I stood many times on the bank gazing with fascination down into that hot teeming canyon and its scurring cuts. They seemed so puny against the task that loomed before them. Here, as nowhere in the world until now, was a living illustration of what the mind of man could accomplish when trained and directed.
It was quite difficult to realize that there was other work than digging going in the canal construction. The big machine shops at Gorgona and the many men employed there composed another and still different unit of which I knew nothing beyond the fact that they took care of the machine repairs and such machine construction as was done on the Zone. On very infrequent passings by on the train we could see the huge forms, and knew that thousands of feet of concrete were being poured for the locks. We knew that an immense dam was being constructed at Gatun.
I neglected my housework many times to walk to the edge of the Cut to watch the progress of the work and visualize the day when ships would be moving past this very hill on which I stood. Nothing else seemed quite so important as this immense project moving gradually and steadily to its completion. Nearly all the women and children felt the same way, and we would usually encounter our neighbors at one vantage point or another when we responded to the irresistible attraction of the dramatic view. This was our life. All other things were subordinate. To see water surging through this yawning canyon, ready to carry ships up and down its mighty locks, was the destiny which all our days and nights were shaped.
Cucaracha Slide, with all its accompanying minor slides, was getting in its harrowing work. The slides became an absorbing reality from now on. The men coming from or going to work would call to each other, "How does she look today?" and, "Cucaracha slid more dirt into the Cut last night than we can dig out in a month."
Despite my efforts to be calm and sensible, I found myself reviewing the weapons with which this land had fought back at us through the years. Pests and plagues… Relentless heat and incessant rains such as we white peoples had never been meant to withstand… Scarcities of wholesome food for the body, and of social and recreational nourishment for the spirit, as well… Creeping mold and fungus destroying our homes, ravaging hordes of insects destroying not only our garden produce and our kitchen supplies, but even our books, our clothing and linens. Throughout the years, now, we women had struggled against these threats to the preservation of the homes so necessary for the survival of all of us, while our men had gashed away at the miles and tons of earth we were so determined to conquer. The promise of victory loomed imminent – and now the land beneath us shuddered and quaked, menacingly it seemed… To remind us, I could not help wondering how vulnerable we still were, at the very moment of our triumph?
Excerpts from Rose Van Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly! Hollywood, Calif.: Pan Press, 1956.
My American Experience
Have you gone through the locks? Or, did you have a family member who worked on the Panama Canal? Share your photos, stories and experiences.