Panama Canal Tour
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The 26th U.S. president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was the first president to visit a foreign country. His enthusiasm for the Panama Canal project led him to see it for himself in November 1906.
In anticipation of his visit Panamanians and Zonians alike went into overdrive to make the place presentable. David McCullough writes in his seminal book, Path Between the Seas:,
Advanced preparations involved the efforts of thousands of people. . . . streets were scrubbed, houses were painted or whitewashed, flags were hung from windows and balconies. Programs were printed, schoolchildren were rehearsed in patriotic airs. The Republic of Panama declared his day of arrival a national day of “joy and exalted enthusiasm” and instructed the populace to behave, since “all thinkers, sociologists and philosophers of the universe [will] have their eyes upon us in penetrating scrutiny.”
At Ancon, construction of a big three-story frame hotel called the Tivoli, a structure begun the year before but still far from finished, rushed ahead with all speed as soon as Stevens learned of the visit. One wing of the building was finished and furnished in six weeks.
Once Roosevelt arrived he was not the most obliging to his hosts. At one point he pulled Dr. William Gorgas into his carriage then slipped out the other side with him for an impromptu inspection of Ancon Hospital. Later he would report their medical accomplishments were astounding.
The President toured the bay in a tug boat and then popped in for a surprise visit and lunch at an employee mess hall instead of showing up for the luncheon in his honor at the Tivoli. He took the site-seeing train to Culebra Cut where he walked the railway ties. He was continuously pointing out the things he wanted to see and demanded to see them, even going so far as to inquire of black workers if they had any complaints. In his enthusiasm he inspected everything from dam sites, to steam shovels, to kitchens, to military troops. Teddy’s secret service men frantically scurried around trying to keep up as he dashed around the Canal Zone. Standing at the back of the train, he waved his hat and flashed his toothy smile at the children lined up to wave flags as he passed.
After his whirlwind three-day visit everyone complained of exhaustion. As for Teddy, his only regret was that he didn’t have time to explore Panama’s tropical forest. He wrote in a letter to his son Kermit,
All my old enthusiasm for natural history seemed revived, and I would have given a good deal to have stayed and tried to collect specimens