Postcard to Nell Baird, 1947
In May 1947, Mrs. Nell Baird of Bowling Green, Kentucky found in her mailbox a postcard from a friend visiting Panama. During a trip to the interior, moving from seashore to jungle to mountains in one day, the writer sighted a “small boa constrictor snake and orchids growing wild.” The card itself pictured a native village that the visitor found “very picturesque,” with its huts “made of bamboo poles and palm branches.” Observe, however: “no windows on account of mosquitoes,” added the writer, referring to the carriers of yellow fever and malaria that had felled tens of thousands of laborers during construction of the Panama Canal from 1904-1914.
Nell Baird’s postcard is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections and is one of our featured collections as we observe the Panama Canal Centennial.
The Panama Canal’s original cost came in at about $375 million, but for a mere five cents, early 20th-century movie-goers could marvel at “Life Motion Pictures” showing the construction of “the greatest piece of civil engineering attempted by any one country.” So declared a flyer inviting patrons to the Dixie Theatre for a one-day-only screening.
President Theodore Roosevelt would have been highly pleased by such an exhibition, since he considered the Panama Canal one of his greatest foreign policy successes. It is likely that, in addition to scenes of technological wizardry, the Dixie Theatre film would have shown Roosevelt himself during his 1906 visit to inspect the construction—the first trip outside the U.S. by a president while in office. Clad in a splendid white suit and hat, Roosevelt even climbed into a massive steam shovel to experience the project firsthand.
By 1911, Bowling Green, Kentucky had four theatres: the Bowling Green Opera House, the Columbia, and the Princess Theatre. An earlier theatre, the Crescent, was located on Park Row. The location of the Dixie Theatre is uncertain, but it was possibly a temporary venue set up by enterprising showmen to capitalize on both the technical marvel unfolding down in Panama and the novelty of “Life Motion Pictures.”
The Dixie Theatre’s advertisement is part of the Kentucky Library Research Collections and is one of our featured collections as we observe the Panama Canal Centennial this month.
Almost from the beginning, the 1903 treaty granting the United States perpetual rights to a 10-mile strip across the Isthmus of Panama for canal construction became a political problem. By the late 1950s, Panamanian grievances against the U.S. over the Canal Zone were well defined: insufficient payments for its use, wage and employment discrimination against Panamanian workers, and nationalist resentment over American control of the territory itself. A particularly sensitive question, one with enormous symbolic significance, was whether the Panamanian flag should be flown alongside the Stars and Stripes in the Canal Zone.
As Panama observed the anniversary of its independence, on November 3, 1959 some 2,000 student demonstrators attempted to enter the Canal Zone to raise the flag of their country. Tensions quickly escalated. The students threw rocks at Canal Zone police, who responded with fire hoses and tear gas. Finally, the Governor of the Canal Zone, Major General William E. Potter, frustrated by the lukewarm response of the Panamanian authorities, called in U.S. troops to quell the violence.
When the Panamanians criticized Governor Potter’s actions, Kentucky Congressman Frank Chelf was livid, and wrote to President Dwight D. Eisenhower deploring the calls for Potter’s resignation. Having recently visited the Canal Zone and met “real” Panamanians who had nothing but admiration for the U.S., he believed the riots to be a cynical move by Communist-inspired opportunists. No doubt referring to presidential candidate Aquilino Boyd, a leader of the “flag invasion,” Chelf accused “free-loading politicians” of casting their lot with “flea-bitten, cheap Communist demagogues” in order to poison public opinion against the U.S. and gain votes on election day. Meanwhile, America’s long friendship with Panama went unrecognized. “We gave them more than a just trade for the original Canal Zone by and through a fair and honorable treaty,” Chelf wrote Eisenhower. “We ended yellow fever, completed the job the French had left undone and started the ships moving.” With Canal Zone operations pumping some $180 million annually into Panama’s economy, seeing his country portrayed as the “big bad wolf” was a bitter pill for Chelf to swallow. Nevertheless, in September 1960 Eisenhower authorized the flying of both the Panamanian and U.S. flags in the Canal Zone.
Frank Chelf (in checked shirt) and Mrs. Chelf visit federal judge and fellow Kentuckian Guthrie F. Crowe and Mrs. Crowe in Panama, 1959
The Frank Chelf Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections includes his letter to President Eisenhower and is one of our featured collections as we observe the Panama Canal Centennial this month.
A century ago this month, on August 15, 1914, the steamship Ancon traveled fifty miles through the Panama Canal, making it the first vessel to pass from ocean to ocean through one of the world’s greatest shortcuts.
The Ancon‘s transit through the Canal marked the completion of a daring and ambitious engineering project. This decade-long effort to save seagoing traffic the time-consuming and hazardous 8,000-mile detour around the southern tip of South America nevertheless cost about 5,600 laborers’ lives through accidents and tropical disease. Amazingly, another 22,000 are estimated to have died during a failed French attempt to construct a canal in the 1880s.
In 1979, a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter returned most of the Panama Canal Zone, then a U.S. territory, to Panama’s control. The remainder of the territory, known as the Panama Canal Area, was returned in 1999. Today, the Canal is a neutral international waterway through which some 15,000 ships pass each year.
SS Ancon in the Panama Canal, 1914
Significant anniversaries such as the Panama Canal’s centennial allow WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections to showcase relevant material about the landmark occasion and to demonstrate how international events affect even local people. Besides printed material related to the Canal, Special Collections also holds photographs of the engineering marvel, letters of people who worked in and visited the Canal Zone, and sound recordings that feature comments about the Canal when it became a political topic in the 1970s. We will be sharing some of these items on the blog during the month of August.