How “Uncle Sam’s Big Ditch” inspired the real estate industry in 1914

Map of the Panama Canal, National Real Estate Journal, Mar. 1914.

One of the premiere events for Americans a century ago was the long-awaited opening of the Panama Canal. Initially started by France in 1881, the United States took control of the project in May 1904, shortly after Panama declared its independence from Columbia. The Canal was completed ten years later, and was officially opened to boat traffic in the summer of 1914.

Many in the United States were eager to see the Panama Canal project brought to fruition, including REALTORS®. NAR’s members were given an insider’s update in the March issue of the National Real Estate Journal, written by one J. F. Jordan, an employee of the American telegraph service in Panama.

“There is perfect team work,” Jordan reported, “and a great deal of rivalry, both of which have a tendency to hurry the work along. If you listen to the steam shovel men they will make you believe they dug the canal, and the dredgemen, machinists, boilermakers, carpenters and concrete men will make you think theirs is the most important part of the work, and their arguments are so plausible that you hardly know to whom belongs the credit. Each man seems to think the whole responsibility of the canal rests of his shoulders. This enthusiasm is not confined to Americans alone, but to the 85 nationalities represented on the zone.”

Jordan also wrote that “Uncle Sam’s Big Ditch” held interesting prospects for enterprising real estate brokers and investors. “The canal zone has been a very good place for the sale of real estate; the men have made good wages and a large percentage have been saving for the proverbial rainy day. They see the work is nearing completion and most of them look ahead to owning home in the city or ranches…. There are still good opportunities for a live wire down in Panama, but my advice to any dealer contemplating going there is to get some A1 references as to the reliability of himself and the property he is selling, for, as I said before, quite a few have been ‘stung’ and are inclined to be skeptical.”

The Canal’s promises for economic growth in the United States were what REALTORS® looked forward to most, however, especially in cities on the West Coast. At the National Association’s convention in Pittsburgh, Seattle broker Alfred Dwyer spoke up for his city’s potential: “Last year our shipping amounted to 8,000,000 tons — nearly one-half that of Chicago. Twenty years ago it wasn’t a million. All before the canal opens. Now that the canal is ready, what will be the increase? What about that million mark of population, now?”

At the same meeting, Edward James Cattell, City Statitician of Philadelphia and author of a guide to the new nation of Panama, assured REALTORS® that the United States would fare well in “the forthcoming battle for world-supremacy along commercial lines.”

“A mighty change, I think, will follow the opening of the Panama Canal,” predicted Cattrell.

  1. That was some great inspiring history. Long live realtors.