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"Off for the Ditch"

Theodore and Edith Roosevelt Visit Panama in 1906

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President Theodore Roosevelt, distinct in his white linen suit and boater hat, is surrounded by workers as he examines “the Cut” on his “inspection tour” of the Panama Canal Zone, 1906.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

Prior to President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Panama in 1906, no American president had set foot outside the country during his tenure in office, not even crossing a bridge to Canada or Mexico. In an August 1906 letter to Andrew Carnegie, President Roosevelt bemoaned the “ironclad custom which forbids a President ever [going] abroad” that kept him from engaging in direct personal diplomacy with “the Kaiser and the responsible authorities of France and England” to negotiate events of the day.1 Considering Roosevelt’s view of the United States’ waxing role in global influence, his desire to witness construction of the Panama Canal—something he considered his “most important [presidential] action . . . in foreign affairs”—is perfectly understandable.2

There were multiple reasons for a president to remain inside the nation’s continental borders. The historian Richard J. Ellis argues that while technology limited travel options for the earliest presidents due to both pace of travel and lack of communications, presidents were equally “constrained by norms and expectations that were rooted in the nation’s understanding of its role in the world.”3 Americans eschewed “entangling alliances” (George Washington’s term) with European nations, beyond trade agreements, and abhorred “European monarchy and autocracy.” The nation believed that the unique U.S. system saved it from “the path of war, conquest, taxation, and empire.” According to Ellis, “A republican president was to exhibit simplicity of manners; he was to be the nation’s ‘first citizen’—distinguished and admired but a fellow citizen nonetheless.”4 Thus Americans had historic fears that, combined with the travel and communication complications, kept presidents home and limited their contacts with European royalty and its potentially negative influences. Roosevelt clearly recognized the national tenets that constrained him but was determined to visit nonetheless.

The tale of Panamanian independence from Colombia, U.S. acquisition of what came to be known as the Canal Zone, and the construction of the Panama Canal is complex and rife with political and international meddling. It is told in many other places and is not my subject here. Roosevelt summed up most people’s general impression of what happened in a March 23, 1911, statement, often misquoted, at the University of California: “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on the Canal does too.”5 In the final draft of the speech (in which this topic was buried almost halfway through fourteen pages of text), Roosevelt’s comments are put in a fuller context that the historian Richard Collin described as “the longstanding debate with Congress over the limits of executive power and [his being] as much concerned with the engineering delays on the canal as with the diplomatic controversies.” Roosevelt’s actual speech text said:

"I naturally take an interest in it because I started it . . . the Panama Canal wouldn’t have been started if I hadn’t taken hold of it. . . . I took a trip to the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me and in portions of the public press the debate still goes on as to whether or not I acted properly in getting the canal but while the debate goes on the canal does too and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal now."6

Having both access to and control of an interoceanic canal was an ambition of the early twentieth century approximately equivalent to a later generation’s passion over a vital cold war national security interest. The nation needed that gateway to ease naval protection of both coasts, with the facilitation of east-west domestic and international trade a welcome bonus. Roosevelt so closely identified himself with the canal that he wanted to see his accomplishment firsthand and witness the pathbreaking engineering feats it entailed.

The trick was getting around the “ironclad custom.” The administration of President William McKinley helped make that possible. McKinley not only expressed interest in going outside the national boundaries, but the imperialist United States that matured during his terms in office—mostly owing to the 1898 war with Spain—helped establish the view that “imperialism [was] no longer . . . a perversion of America’s mission but its fulfillment.”7 An assassin’s bullet cut short McKinley’s plan to visit Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba during his second term—all American territories or lands under U.S. protection—or he might have been the first president to travel abroad instead of that distinction going to the vice president who succeeded him.

The president travels on a small car with his group. Left to right, engineer J. G. Holcombe; Surgeon General Rear Admiral Presley Marion Rixey; Edith Roosevelt; President Roosevelt; an unidentified man; John F. Stevens; Joseph Bucklin Bishop (Roosevelt’s biographer); and an unidentified man, November 16 or 17, 1906.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

Another question arose, and that was the issue of health safety for anyone in the Latin American tropics. The first attempt to build a Panamanian canal by Frenchmen faced numerous obstacles; the rapid and increasing death rate among its workers was the most difficult of all to overcome. Some Americans questioned why the president would go into such a disease-infested region when there was no real need to do so. American construction of the canal was aided by the dramatic reduction in sickness and death among workers wrought by breakthroughs in mosquito control and medical treatment. Roosevelt’s passion for the greatness of America’s Panamanian achievement included his belief that the danger of disease had been conquered satisfactorily to allow his visit.

Photographs show that First Lady Edith Roosevelt preferred to be careful, with her head covered in netting (no doubt for sun protection as well) and every inch of skin covered by long-sleeved, high-necked, full-length dresses and gloves—in keeping with the proper dress for ladies of the day. Roosevelt rejected such coverings, as did all men in the region; he appears with just a Panama boater hat and white linen suit. His response to those arguing danger as a reason not to make the trip was to declare the region “safe as a health resort” as a result of American advances in disease control and to dismiss any further objections.8

The front page of the November 9, 1906, New York Times announced “‘I’m off for the ditch’: President’s Farewell” and recognized innovation in a subheadline: “His Voyage Violates the Traditions of the United States for over a Hundred Years.”9 In the days leading up to the trip, the Times made no mention of the president’s travel abroad or its breaking of tradition, but was instead focused on the president’s turkey hunting at Pine Knot, the Roosevelts’ “retreat” in rural Virginia (in the days before Camp David), and his quick visit to Oyster Bay to vote in the congressional midterm elections two days before his departure. As Ellis noted, Roosevelt’s farewell characterized the trip as “a tour of inspection, not engaging in foreign diplomacy,” which could well have raised more concerns about his breaking of the travel ban tradition.10 In the body of the Times story, the “ironclad custom” was given short shrift: “The trip to Panama [will] violate the traditions of the United States for 117 years by taking its President outside the jurisdiction of the Government at Washington.” The article explained what likely concerned readers the most—how would the president remain in communication and who would be in charge while he was gone:

"It is understood that during the absence of the President, Secretary [Elihu] Root [secretary of state] will have the job of holding down the lid. . . . Arrangements have been made to keep constantly in touch with the President by means of wireless telegraphy during the voyage to and from the Isthmus. All matters upon which Secretary Root is not prepared to act will be submitted to the President by wireless if they are of such importance as to require the immediate notification of Mr. Roosevelt. As soon as the party arrives [in Panama] the regular cable can be relied upon to keep the President in close touch with his office work here."11

President and Mrs. Roosevelt traveled to Panama on the largest battleship in the U.S. fleet, USS Louisiana, pictured here c. 1910.

Library of Congress

With matters of state left in capable hands, the president, Edith Roosevelt, Surgeon General (and personal medical adviser) Admiral Presley Rixey, Assistant Secretary Maurice C. Latta from the White House, and three Secret Service men departed that day from the Navy Yard aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower, headed down the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay to meet the battleship USS Louisiana (the largest in the U.S. fleet) “off Piney Point [Maryland],” as Edith Roosevelt recorded in her diary, where they transferred for the voyage to Panama, escorted by the cruisers Tennessee and Washington.12

The fleet admiral’s cabin aboard the Louisiana was remodeled to accommodate the Roosevelts’ passage—it was mostly enlarged—and sported wicker chairs, brass beds, and Oriental rugs.13 Having a woman aboard was quite a change for the sailors, but they seemed honored by the distinction of ferrying the first couple on their mission. The voyage to Panama was uneventful. As the Louisiana and its escort headed south, Theodore and Edith walked the decks—in keeping with their usual practice of hiking or riding almost daily—and read.

While traveling, TR wrote their son Kermit and described some aspects of their on-board routine:

"So far the trip has been a great success, and I think Mother has really enjoyed it. As for me I of course feel a little bored as I always do on shipboard, but I have brought a great variety of books. . . . Mother and I walk briskly up and down the deck together or else sit aft under the awning or in the aftercabin, with the gun ports open and read; and I also spend a good deal of time on the . . . bridge, and of course have gone over the ship to inspect it with the Captain."14

The trip reminded Roosevelt of the trip in 1898 to participate in the American invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. U.S. territorial spoils from that war appeared on Roosevelt’s itinerary during the Panamanian trip. In fact, President Roosevelt’s daily desk diary for November 8 included only the notation “Leave for Porto Rico 4pm.”15 Identifying his trip by merely the location of its final stop is evidence that Roosevelt recognized the groundbreaking nature of his departure from the country.

Edith Roosevelt wrote to the president’s Aunt Lizzie “at sea” from the Louisiana, “We have had wonderful weather and I spend my time walking up and down the deck or sitting at the stern and watching the two great cruisers which are Theodore’s convoy, and feeling very magnificent.”16 In addition, she was preparing for the visit by studying “maps of the canal” until she “literally dream[t] of it at night.”17 On November 11, Edith reported being “At Sea. Calm [and] Lovely.”18 She sent home to her son Kermit a small menu booklet printed on purplish heather card stock:19


given in honor of The President and Mrs. Roosevelt

and Captain Cauden

by The Chief Petty Officers of the U. S. S. Louisiana

At Sea, Nov. 12th, ’06


Boullion Fried Oysters

Roast Leg of Lamb Green Peas

Sweet Potatoes Mashed Potatoes Hibbard Squash

Apple Pie Fruit Coffee

C. H. Durgin, C. G. M., Caterer

The crew of the Louisiana was quite proud of their role in the presidential journey and took every effort to show their appreciation for the opportunity to serve the nation’s executive.

The Roosevelts arrived in Panama to a record downpour. Roosevelt seen here leading his group wrote his son Kermit, “We saw the climate at its worst. It was just what I desired to do.”

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

The New York Times printed the “official” trip itinerary on the day of their departure, announcing the scheduled arrival at Colón on Thursday, November 14.20 According to Edith Roosevelt, they arrived, “at about three o’clock.” When the rain cooled off the air, Panamanian President and Señora Manuel Amador and several American Canal officials “came on board in p.m. [at 8:30 that evening].” The rain started “as [they] anchored.”21 It was the height of the rainy season when the Roosevelts arrived, and the trip was best characterized by the prodigious amounts of rain, even by tropical standards. On the Roosevelts’ second day in Panama it rained 3 inches in less than two hours—the most in fifteen years.22 Edith Roosevelt’s diary entries described the rain as “continuous” and “pouring” those first two days, but it did not dampen their enthusiasm. Indeed, the president told Kermit he was pleased to experience the construction under its most difficult conditions: “We saw the climate at its worst. It was just what I desired to do.”23 Roosevelt looked for the challenge in things he undertook—challenging both himself and his circumstances.

The Louisiana arrived a day early at Colón, and the Roosevelt party stayed aboard ship until the reception planned for the next morning that began their threeday visit. According to the Times, Roosevelt “received the local newspaper correspondents on board the Louisiana” during the afternoon.24 Among them was the editor of the Jamaica Gleaner, with whom the president explored the “West Indian labor question,” illustrating that his wide-ranging interests extended to international issues besides the Panama Canal.25 When the official welcoming delegation arrived on the dock the next morning at the appointed 7:30 a.m. greeting time, Roosevelt had already been ashore “exploring” for two hours.26 This was the pattern for the rest of his visit—do the unexpected, look behind the scenes of all that was carefully arranged, get into the thick of things. Worried that “someone was trying to hide something from him,” a U.S. official remembered, Roosevelt asked questions of everyone, at all levels of the construction operation from the chief engineer to the Jamaican or West Indian black laborer.27 He visited living quarters, health facilities, and mess halls for white and nonwhite workers, for administrators and laborers, for Americans and foreigners alike. Although he mostly adhered to the “official programme” followed closely by Americans through coverage in the New York Times and other newspapers, he certainly did not hesitate to alter it.28 He ducked out of his carriage before it left the welcoming docks and proceeded “directly to Ancon Hospital for an inspection tour, two hours before he was expected,” the historian David McCullough recounted. “By noon he had toured the bay in a seagoing tug and had walked unannounced into one of the employees’ mess halls . . . , where, with several hundred [laborers], he and Mrs. Roosevelt sat down to a 30-cent lunch of soup, beef, mashed potatoes, peas, beets, chili con carne, plum pudding, and coffee. According to the official schedule, he was supposed to have attended a large luncheon in his honor.”29 The president set his own agenda to achieve his goals.

President Roosevelt’s ultimate goal was to observe every aspect of work on the canal. He traveled slowly by train with Mrs. Roosevelt (seen protected from mosquitoes by a veil of netting, gloves, and long sleeves).

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

That first day also included a trip across the isthmus on “a slow train . . . in order to [have] an opportunity to see the canal works,” the Times reported.30 Once the president’s party reached Panama City on the Pacific Coast, they took a cruise around Panama Bay. After, while Roosevelt inspected hospitals, the first lady drove around the city with Joseph B. Bishop of New York, secretary of the Isthmian Canal Commission, and then accompanied Mrs. Amador to the front of the cathedral, where Roosevelt and President Amador spoke.31 The congenial presidents exchanged warmhearted public greetings on behalf of their nations. Both expressed devotion to the cause of their peoples, international commerce, and the canal’s completion.

Amador included in his remarks some flattery of Roosevelt’s leadership in the “great struggle of progress and civilization”:

"To harmonize the various elements that had to be united, to overcome the opposition and obstacles that arose, to reorganize the great work, to grasp, in a word, its immense magnitude, a superior man was necessary, and you were this man. Firm in your endeavors, you now come as commander in chief of our allied forces to review them and infuse in them the enthusiasm which you possess, so that the victory of toil and science may soon crown our sacrifices and efforts for the common glory of your country and mine in proportion to the contingent of each."32

The affections of the Panamanian people for Roosevelt were evident in Amador’s speech and in the crowds of enthusiastic citizens who greeted him all across the country. He responded with equal appreciation. “We are joint trustees for all the world doing [this] work,” Roosevelt said, adding “that the sole desire of the United States . . . is to see [Panama] increase in wealth, in numbers, in importance, until it becomes . . . one of the republics whose history reflects honor upon the entire western world.”33 The president was supportive of the dreams expressed by the leader of the youngest republic in the Americas. The American minister reported that “both speeches, particularly [Roosevelt’s], were received with much cheering and enthusiasm.”34 The Times reported that Roosevelt’s speech “was interrupted time and again by the admiring crowd, who cheered almost every word.”35 The day was capped off with dinner hosted by the Amadors for about twenty canal officials and Panamanian leaders, followed by a “most cordial and enthusiastic” reception given in Theodore and Edith’s honor by Amador at the Commercial Club with over three hundred guests expected to attend.36 Edith Roosevelt’s diary summed up the day: “so tired.”37

President Roosevelt posed at the controls of a giant steam shovel for this photograph that became a symbol of American progress abroad, November 16, 1906.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

Leaving by train at 7:00 a.m. the next morning for the Culebra Cut, the Roosevelts witnessed “where the great work [was] being done,” as the president told his son.

"There the huge steam shovels are hard at it; scooping huge masses of rock and gravel and dirt previously loosened by the drillers and dynamite blasters, loading it on trains which take it away to some dump, either in the jungle or where the dams are to be built. They are eating steadily into the mountain cutting it down and down. . . . The great ninety-five ton steam shovels work up like mountain howitzers until they come to where they can with advantage begin their work of eating into and destroying the mountainside. . . . It is an epic feat, and one of immense significance."38

The belief of President Roosevelt that the Panama Canal was the “greatest engineering feat of the ages” was evident in much of his writing about this aspect of his administration.39 While he “tramped everywhere in the mud,” the first lady “did not do this roughest of work, and had time to see more of the . . . beautiful side of the life [of the area] and really enjoyed herself” according to the president.40 Of her trip to Isla Taboga in Panama Bay, Edith Roosevelt noted the “wonderfully picturesque old Spanish Town.”41

En route to Culebra Cut, Roosevelt stopped his train to examine the huge steam shovels carrying on the heaviest of the digging. The machines that he described to Kermit were Bucyrus and Marion brand Americanbuilt shovels, which “at full capacity . . . could dig three to five times as much as one of the old French excavators” used in the earlier French canal attempt.42 As Roosevelt entered the work area, the Times reported, “One shovel was decorated with a sign reading: ‘We will do our best to help you build it.’”43 This sign made Roosevelt quite proud. He spent about 20 minutes at the controls of the giant machine and had the picture taken that became an icon for American progress abroad. This photograph quickly became part of American folklore, and as “an expression of a man and his era [few] can surpass it.”44 Roosevelt’s visit to “the Cut” included not only an examination of the giant machines digging it but also an inspection of the laborers’ quarters and the commissary department, plus inquiries of “how the men were fed” and “patiently listen[ing] to their complaints.” 45 From these conversations, Roosevelt decided “that the work is being done with a very high degree both of efficiency and honesty,” as he wrote Kermit during the homeward journey.46

President Roosevelt is seen enthusiastically climbing aboard a steam shovel, making no effort to avoid the mud.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

On the Roosevelts’ last day in Panama, the rain stopped for their final excursion to the construction zone. The first lady’s diary noted that they rode a train “to [the] foot of [the] hill where [the] Reservoir lies.” Then they “took a tiny car . . . and ran up through beautiful jungle to the reservoir [for] lunch . . . [with] six young engineers [who] lived there.” She noted the “lovely lights [and] shadows on the hills” as they rode up Mount Hope.47 Later that day, Roosevelt did more exploring of the construction on horseback in Colón and Cristóbal and visited the towns, where he was “cheered everywhere,” according to the Times.48 At night, the Roosevelts attended dinner at the home of William Grant Bierd, general manager of the Panama Railroad, which was so vital to the success of the construction work. Dinner was followed by a ball at Pier 11 in Colón for “an enthusiastic gathering of at least 800 persons, principally canal employees.” The president gave a halfhour speech in which he said “he was pleased with [the work] already done” on the canal. Roosevelt was asked about criticism of the project from American journalist Poultney Bigelow. He replied that “in every large work there was always someone to find something that was not done as it should have been; but the employees should on no account pay attention to such criticisms, as the critics would sink out of sight, while the work . . . would remain long after all criticism had been forgotten.”49 Nothing dampened the president’s pride in the accomplishment of the builders and the nation that sponsored them.

Returning to the Louisiana after the ball, the presidential entourage left for home at 10:00 p.m. that night, heading toward Puerto Rico for a short stopover. The ship arrived in Ponce before dawn on November 20. After a fascinating drive across the island to San Juan, the Roosevelts attended a dinner and reception at the palace (former residence of the old Spanish governors) and spent the night there. The Times characterized the reception as “the greatest social function in the history of Porto Rico.”50 Early the next morning they headed back across the island, this time via Arecibo. During the trip, Edith Roosevelt recorded that they rode “over a wonderful road up [and] up through the mountains [and] beside a rushing mountain river which we often forded. Several times yokes of huge cream colored oxen dragged the autos across.” She described an open-air lunch in their cars with “trays of chicken, rolls, eggs [and] fruit” and overall “a wonderful day.”51 Back on theLouisiana just after 4:00 pm, the delegation got under way for Washington. That evening, the Roosevelts attended a “theatrical entertainment” put on by the crew, which the guests found to be “most amusing” and “great fun.”52 Any concerns over the presence of a woman on board ship had clearly been overcome, as evidenced by the “large silver loving cup” later presented to Edith Roosevelt at the White House, on February 9, 1907, “in remembrance of her voyage to and from Panama,” just a few months after the presidential journey.53 The executive guests and their hosts quite enjoyed their time together.

Many of the long-term consequences of President Roosevelt’s trip to Panama have fallen by the wayside. The warm feelings of Panamanians toward the United States shown by the cheerful greeting afforded the Roosevelts melted away in the decades following their visit, disrupted by political and economic relations between the two countries. Theodore Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the great engineering feats being done in the name of the United States gradually encouraged American views of U.S. “ownership” of the canal and the zone through which it wound and over which the United States was sovereign, much to the growing dismay of some Panamanians and other Latin Americans. Regardless of how future relations developed, however, the “ironclad custom” was broken by Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, never to hinder international personal presidential diplomacy again.

President Roosevelt traveled slowly by train observing the work and greeted by crowds of local residents and workers.

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library