« PreviousContinue »
few facts with reference to the relation of Mr. Roosevelt to the building of the canal, to be used in this volume; he cheerfully consented, and gave me the following:
My relations with Colonel Roosevelt could not be called intimate, and I saw him personally only in connection with canal matters during the time of his Presidency, and subsequently when I visited the States I invariably reported to him the condition of affairs, knowing his extreme interest in the project. My first interview was' in February, 1907, following a conversation with Mr. Taft, then Secretary of War, who advised me that in consequence of a letter received from Mr. Stevens, the President had concluded to accept his resignation; that he had recommended me to succeed him, and that the President would probably ask me to call on him in connection with the matter.
That evening I visited him at the White House, by request, and found that he had spent the evening discussing the advisability of awarding the contract for the construction of the canal, though not definitely committed to such action. We spent nearly two hours discussing the various provisions of the specifications, the pros and cons, so far as the contractor and the government interests were concerned, and I was particularly impressed with his intimate knowledge of all details affecting the canal, and the construction difficulties which were liable to be encountered. I was furnished with a copy of the specification, as well as with the summary of bids, asked to go over them and be prepared to discuss them again with him on the second night following.
At the beginning of this interview he advised me that he had concluded to accept Mr. Stevens' resignation and decided to turn the construction work over to the army engineers and to order me to the canal to take charge.
We again spent considerable time in discussing the proposed contract, the financial arrangements made by the lowest bidder for furnishing the bond, and at the conclusion it was definitely decided that all bids would be rejected and, whether the work should be done by contract or otherwise, would be postponed for a period of six months, during which time I would be given an opportunity to study
conditions on the isthmus and to report my reasons as soon as I reached a conclusion as to the method that should be adopted for completing the work.
The next personal contact I had with him was in January, 1908. Prior to this I had submitted recommendations relative to carrying on the work, advocating the abandonment of the contract method for reasons which were specifically stated in the report that I made to him. At the January interview the organization charged with the construction of the canal was discussed at great length. The Spooner Act of 1902, which authorized the President to construct the canal under certain conditions, stipulated that it should be done through an agency consisting of seven members. The commission was to pass upon all plans and all matters of detail connected with the project, even to the extent of employments and salaries attached thereto. It was a very bulky organization, had not worked satisfactorily in the past, and was not working satisfactorily.
Subsequently to the passage of the Spooner Act, Mr. Roosevelt, recognizing the inherent difficulties of commission organization for management, had endeavored to secure a modification of the law so as to concentrate the authority and fix the responsibility. But Congress, fearful of vesting so much power in the hands of one man, had failed to enact the necessary legislation. The House of Representatives had consistently supported the President, but the Senate was always the deterring and opposing influence.
On the recommendation of Mr. Taft in 1905, the President, by executive order, had reorganized the commission by the creation of an executive committee of three, who were to be the active members in passing upon the various matters requiring immediate attention, and for which the calling together of the entire commission was not practicable. And this had not worked satisfactorily. Certain jealousies and bickerings had arisen which the President realized and stated were not conducive to efficiency, and after our conference he suggested that I draw up an executive order which would bring about a reorganization and accomplish the results which we were both anxious to secure. I caused such an executive order to be prepared and submitted it to the President, who signed it; as a consequence of which, the work was reorganized and earried forward to completion.
Omitting the taking of Panama, which Colonel Roose velt claims to have done, and the details of which I am not at all familiar with, the most important step in connection with the canal which he took was accepting the report of the minority of the Board of International Engineers, convened for the purpose of determining the type of canal which should be constructed and advocating the construction of the lock type of canal. In view of the prominence of the engineers signing the report, the study that they gave to the question, it is rather remarkable that after indicating in his letter of instructions to the board his desire to accomplish the construction of a sea-level canal, if such were practicable, that he should, after the report was submitted, have disregarded the recommendation of the majority and advocate the lock type. Not only did he advocate the lock type, but he worked strenuously for it, and, practically due to his personal interest in the matter, succeeded in securing the consent of Congress. I spoke to him many times about this point, but could never get a satisfactory answer as to the reasons which led him to pursue this course. Probably the length of time involved was the more important consideration to his mind, since at all my interviews with him the necessity of securing the completion of the canal at as early a date as possible seemed to be the paramount consideration. The opposition that he developed by his action was strong and powerful, yet he succeeded in putting it over.
The great objection by the opponents of the lock type of canal was the feasibility of constructing a dam at Gatun and the practicability of its holding the water of the lake, because of misinformation which had been disseminated and which had appeared in the minds of the members of the board relative to the underlying strata of the site.
In the fall of 1909, during a flood of the Chagres River, and because of a slip in the rockpile forming the south tow of the Gatun dam, and which was sensationally heralded in the press as a failure of the Gatun dam, the whole question of the lock type versus the sea-level canal was revived, and action had to be taken which resulted in the appointment of a Board of Consulting Engineers to advise the President concerning the project. The bigness of the President was clearly demonstrated by a letter that he wrote me concerning the whole subject, and stated that
while we both thoroughly believed in the lock type, it is human to err and that we might have made a mistake. He personally felt the matter was of such great importance that no personal feelings or pride should stand in the way of a proper solution, and was willing to reverse his position if he felt that he had been in the wrong in the selection of the type.
As the accident, if it may so be called, was purely local and did not affect in any wise the feasibility and practicability of the construction of the dam, the Board of Engineers so reported, and he was very much gratified in the result, though he showed throughout that he was a big enough man to change his views if he felt that he was in the wrong. He would not allow politics to interfere in any part of the work. He was besieged on all sides to appoint men of various types to positions on the canal, and his attitude is clearly exemplified by the fact that on one occasion he appointed as superintendent on one part of the work a brother of a political boss from the West. He did not remain long on the work for, feeling that he had been placed there by the President, he felt secure and did very much as he pleased. The next time I saw the President ne was very much amused at the appeals which this man made to him to be reinstated, questioning my right to remove him under the circumstances, and remarked that he would have no interference with the efficiency of the work, that he had given this man his chance, and as he had not availed himself of it he would not take any further action in the matter.
He took the attitude in all labor questions that these were matters which depended so largely on local conditions that, while he was willing to listen, he would not take any action that would in any wise disrupt affairs on the isthmus, and that final decision must rest there.
My association with him developed in me that same spirit of admiration and enthusiasm concerning him which is found in all men who have come closely in contact with him. His interest in the work never lagged. He was ever ready to assist in any way that could further its completion, though after he left office there was no inducement that would get him to visit the work, for he felt that his visit might be misinterpreted by others and felt it wiser to remain away rather than be misunderstood.
In a recent address on Mr. Joseph Choate, Colonel Roosevelt made this reference to the great difficulties that confronted him in the building of the Panama Canal and of the manner in which those difficulties were overcome. He said:
In the effort to secure the land and a concession of the rights required for the construction of the canal there was a succession of negotiations, resulting in agreement and then breaking of the agreement by Colombia, with a demand for constantly increasing compensation. I made up my mind that the talking about the canal might go on for fifty years without results, so I decided to secure for our country the canal and let the people talk about the canal and me as they pleased for the next fifty years.