CROSSING THE ISTHMUS

Dubliner Helps to Build Canal


At the time of its completion, many believed the Panama Canal was one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of man. Some still do. At the turn of the 20th Century, if you wanted to take a sea cruise from New York to San Francisco, you had to go clean around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America to reach your destination. Dreamers had dreamed of a canal across the narrowest part of Central America for nearly three centuries. The French tried it in the 1880s. They abandoned the project after the deaths of nearly twenty-two thousand souls. But no one could, or would, tell President Theodore Roosevelt it couldn't be done. The indomitable commander in chief spent the appropriated forty million dollars and bought all of the discarded French equipment that he could get his hands on and still worked along with the rights to continue construction along the abandoned ditches in the mosquito-infested isthmus of Panama.

One Dublin man was there to help and not just with a ditch digging spade in his hand. The work began on May 4, 1904 under the leadership of Chief Engineer John Frank Stevens. M.B. Stevens, no relation to the chief, went to work on the canal project in 1906 leaving behind his relatives and friends in Dublin. When he arrived, he found a ten-mile wide strip of land forty-seven miles long teeming with adventurers, miscreants, opportunists, desperados and peons.

"When the work first began, the government did most of the work," Stevens said in describing the deplorable conditions of the area. After a year or two, the sanitary engineers were able to establish semi-sanitary conditions, a tormenting task which took constant attention to every mud puddle and stagnant creek along the way.

Stevens observed that the bulk of the common workers were West Indian Negroes, whom he found more than inefficient, but a people, who possessed a great respect for morals and the law. "They rarely smile and sing," Stevens told a reporter for the Macon Telegraph on a visit back to Dublin in the fall of 1909. And why would they, working for a pittance of a dime an hour? Spaniards, working at a wage of twenty cents per hour, amounted to about five thousand of the work force. Panamanians, of whom Stevens did not think too highly, were used sparingly, primarily to cut through the brush. Nearly all of the skilled and clerical workers were Americans. Italians were rarely hired, because as Stevens put it, "they are too free with the knife."

Discounting the tales of the Canal Zone being a filthy and deleterious place, Stevens said, "I would favorably compare the zone with the average American city." "Yellow fever has been driven from the area and cases of malaria are under control," he added. Stevens boasted of the fifteen American cities along the projected route of the man-made waterway. He warned anyone that it was a mistake to assume that the Americans were not respected. "Many tourists come here and seem to enjoy it, although it does rain about eight months out of the entire year," Stevens said.

Proud of the quarters which he and his fellow workers occupied, Stevens said, "Life in the zone is pleasant enough. There are houses fashioned for the men in the style of railroad Y.M.C.A. barracks. Each person lives here for free." Married men were even furnished separate housing for themselves and their families.

When workers needed medical care, they were sent to the hospital where the medicine was free as well as all expenses of their stay. Government operated commissaries furnished the other necessities of life at cost. Three meals a day cost an American sixty cents, while Spaniards ate thrice for forty cents. All Negroes were charged thirty cents, presumably for less hearty meals.

M.B. Stevens returned home to Dublin in October 1909 to enjoy a well earned twelve week leave of absence. Though he had earned a well-deserved rest, Stevens was anxious to return to work and finish the job he started. At that point, the canal project was nearly half completed. "I am proud of the fact that I am taking part in the construction of this great canal," Stevens said. In the end, Stevens believed that it would be the South which would benefit the most from the completion of "The Big Ditch." "South Atlantic ports will reap a big harvest, but all of the interior points will benefit also," he added.

Stevens remained confident that the canal would be finished on time, perhaps even ahead of schedule. He was right. Stevens predicted that the canal would be finished by new Years Day in 1915. It formally opened some four and one half months on August 15, 1914, just in time for the opening battles of World War I.

M.B. Stevens could not leave the Panama Canal. He seemed to have loved it more than his old home in Georgia. Long after the canal was completed, Stevens remained at his job. In 1921, he served as Secretary to General Chester Harding at the Headquarters of the Executive Department in Balboa Heights. Harding, a Mississippian and graduate of West Point, served as governor of the Panama Canal Zone from 1917 to 1921.

I lost track of M.B. Stevens after that. I wish I could tell you more, perhaps at another time. Maybe one day, some day, someone will come forward and tell us the rest of the story of the Dublin man who helped to build "The Path Between the Seas."

Comments

Wendy said…
Hi Scott,

My husband and I found your blog while looking for M.B. Stevens after we discovered that we have Mr. Stevens' Panama Canal Medal. I have no idea how it came into our possession.

It looks similar to the one here:
http://www.coins-of-panama.com/canalmedals/cm10-2.html but it has 3 of the "two year" bars and is missing the pin part. The name M.B. Stevens is engraved on the bottom. I'd be happy to send you photos if you would like some.

~Wendy
Scott Thompson said…
Wendy,
If you see this, please send photos to dublinhistory@yahoo.com.
Scott