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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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General Panama Articles
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
The Birds of Panama
The Red Frogs of Panama
The Magnificent Coral of Panama
Surfing in Panama
Surfing the Caribbean Coast of Panama
Surfing the Pacific Coast of Panama
Snorkeling & Diving in Panama
Snorkeling & Diving in Pacific Panama
Snorkeling in the San Blas Islands
Snorkeling & Diving in Bocas del Toro
Panama's Marine Turtles
Saving The Marine Turtles of Panama
The Leatherback Turtles of Panama
The Hawksbill Turtles of Panama
The Olive Ridley Turtles of Panama
The Green Turtles of Panama
Whale Watching Around Panama
Whales on Tour in Panama
Indigenous Peoples of Panama
Indigenous Panama
The Kuna People of Panama
The Kuna Yala
The Embera-Wounaan People of Panama
The Ngobe-Bugle People of Panama
The Naso People of Panama
Panama's Islands
The Caribbean Islands of Western Panama
The Caribbean Islands of Central and Eastern Panama
The Pacific Islands of Eastern Panama
The Pacific Islands of Central and Western Panama
About the Panama Canal
French Dreams of a Panama Canal
The French Building of the Panama Canal
Working and Dying on the French Panama Canal Construction Project
The American Building of the Panama Canal
Working on the American Panama Canal Project
Diplomacy and the Start of America's Control of the Panama Canal
Diplomacy and the End of US Control of the Panama Canal