Gatun Spillway

Sanitation & Infrastructure

Building the canal was not the lone job of the American engineers in Panama. They were also responsible for providing housing, hospitals, administrative buildings, and recreation facilities. Engineers also supplied two basic necessities ó electricity and healthy drinking water. To do so they relied on manmade Gatun Lake. Although the lakeís primary purpose was navigation, its water also created power for the canal operations via a hydroelectric plant adjacent to the Gatun Dam spillway. Additionally, Gatunís freshwater became the primary source of potable water for residents in the Canal Zone.

Creating a healthy work environment was one of the greatest challenges and successes of the American venture. Tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever plagued the French effort, killing an estimated 22,000

workers and contributing heavily to its eventual failure. The Americans were determined to eliminate tropical diseases and granted that responsibility to Dr. William Gorgas of the Army Medical Corps. Gorgas believed in new medical theories advanced by another Army doctor, Maj. Walter Reed, that mosquitoes transmitted tropical illness. As Chief Sanitary Officer in the Canal Zone, and with full support of the engineers, he declared war on the insects. He required copper screening in hospitals, administrative buildings, hotels, and many homes; mandated hundreds of fumigations; and banned open cisterns. He had thousands of drainage ditches built and ordered vegetation cut near populated areas and oil sprayed on the surface of bogs and swamps. Tropical disease rates plummeted under Gorgasís leadership and greatly increased the American chances of success in Panama.

The canal builders also relied on hundreds of unheralded support facilities, essential to the projectís completion. These included repair shops for all the various classes of equipment, port facilities to service ships and receive supplies, warehouses, and office space. Most of the permanent structures, built of steel and concrete, are located on the Pacific side. The main administrative building at Ancon Hill has 67,000 sq. ft. of office space and stands above what had once been marshland. Engineers filled the marsh with spoil from the Culebra Cut and built upon it a post office, police and fire stations, a church, a commissary, a YMCA, and even baseball and tennis facilities. By the time the canal opened, many areas of the Canal Zone resembled contemporary American towns.

Canal worker spraying larvacide to kill mosquitoes
Spraying oil to kill mosquitoes

View from the Administration Building
View from the Administrative Building at Ancon Hill