Southern Explorations

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Working on the American Panama Canal Project, improving living conditions for the workers

By the time the Americans took over the defunct French canal project, the word was out about the perilous working conditions and high employee mortality, making recruitment difficult. Appointed chief engineer in 1905, John F. Stevens recognized the problem as a major impediment to progress and immediately began improving living conditions for the workers.
 

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Better conditions for some but segregation remains

Better worker housing was built, though workers were segregated by race and black employees given inferior housing to white workers. Sewer systems were installed. Especially-equipped refrigerated rail cars were imported that allowed food to last longer, and low cost meals were made available to the workers. Clubs were established for relaxing after the long work-day.
Another brilliant move on the part of Stevens was to provide ample staffing to infectious disease specialist, Army Colonel William Gorgas. The doctor had been brought in to quell the outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria that had decimated the French workforce but was so understaffed, he was making little headway.
Great strides had recently been made in controlling infectious disease, after mosquitoes were identified as the cause of both diseases. Yellow fever was the less challenging of the two infections to subdue because the culprit mosquito species could breed only in clean water as compared to the mosquitoes causing malaria that could breed in standing water of any kind. To eradicate the diseases was a matter of making it difficult for the insects to find places to breed.
As a result of the practices established by Dr. Gorgas, the U.S. lost less than 10% of its 56,307-member workforce during its ten-year construction period, a drastically reduced casualty rate compared to the French project. The French-built hospital at Ancon was later re-named Gorgas Hospital for the doctor whose efforts were pivotal in the success of the American Panama Canal project.
Most of the American workers who perished were West Indian, the nationality that comprised over 50% of the workforce. A new American Cemetery was established at Corozal near the Pacific coast to bury the remains of those who didn't live long enough to see the fruits of their labor.
Except for the magnificent end-product of the canal, only a few vestiges of the Americans' arduous, relentless work here may be witnessed on Panama tours, most tucked away in museums. All five of the Southern Explorations Panama tours visit the Panama Canal.

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