Cantonments, General Contracting, and Spanish Flu

This historic photography does not do justice to the uncropped original. In 1917, the Army deployed panoramic photographers to sixteen “cantonments,” medium-sized cities built for draftees in just a few months. That summer, twelve trains a day, each 50 cars long, delivered materials that 200,000 construction workers turned into 19,200 structures—1,200 per camp. The Army could not accomplish such a big job so quickly, nor could general contractors under the slow traditional bid system. Instead, the Army hired the nation’s largest constructors on the cost-plus basis pioneered by the George A. Fuller Company in building early skyscrapers.

By fall 1917 the sixteen cantonments were complete, including Camp Funston (pictured), built by Fuller in Kansas. By early 1918 politicians were leveling accusations of profiteering, their assault convincing formerly wary competitors to get behind a struggling trade group called the Associated General Contractors of America. I told this story in my organizational history book, 100 Years: Building on Experience but left out a related event of early 1918. It appears to have been at Camp Funston, on March 4, 102 years ago today, that Spanish Flu emerged, the deadliest pandemic in modern times.