Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers

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Material Information

Title:
Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers Contest solicitation, overview and entry requirements
Series Title:
Isthmian Historical Society competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Language:
English
Spanish
Donor:
Afro-Antillean Museum ( donor )
Publisher:
Isthmian Historical Society
Place of Publication:
Panama

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal

Notes

Scope and Content:
The Contest: In 1963, as the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal drew near, the Isthmian Historical Society decided to make a collection of stories of personal experiences of non-U.S. citizens during Construction Days by means of a contest. This contest was publicized in local newspapers, by notices in the food packages given to Disability Relief recipients, and in newspapers in the Caribbean area. The following letter was sent to a total of 15 newspapers in Jamaica, Barbados, British Honduras, Trinidad, Antigua, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Grenada: "The Isthmian Historical Society is trying to collect the personal experiences and viewpoints of those West Indians who served in the labor force that dug the Panama Canal. Very little has been written by them or about them. Soon it will be too late to obtain personal accounts. In the hope of making a permanent record of their experiences during the construction of the Canal, our Society is sponsoring a competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction years. It would be much appreciated if you would assist us in publicizing our competition. I am enclosing a separate sheet with the information for this." The information sheet: "The Isthmian Historical Society announces a competition for the-best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal. The competition is open to West Indians and other non-U.S. citizens who were on the Isthmus prior to 1915. Entries may be handwritten but must be legible. Anyone who is infirm may have his story written for him by someone else, but in this case it must be stated on the entry that it has been written for him in his own words by someone else. Give name, address, year arrived in Panama, where employed there, and type of work done. All entries must be in the mail by November 1, 1963. The winners will be announced in December. All entries become the property of the Isthmian Historical Society. First prize will be: $50 (U.S.); second prize: $30 (U.S.); third prize: $20 (U.S.)…” Brief notices of the contest were placed in several thousand food packages ("Food for Peace" packages have been distributed monthly by the Panama Canal Company-Canal Zone Government). These notices read: "Competition -- For West Indians & other non-U.S. citizens who worked on the Isthmus before 1915. For the best true stories of life & work on the Isthmus during the Canal construction there will be awarded prizes: 1st PRIZE: $50; … Give year arrived in Panama, kind of work & where, name & address. Write of interesting experiences & people, living & working conditions, etc… The Entries: The majority of the contest entries were handwritten. In some cases the handwriting was difficult to read. In making copies of the entries, it occasionally was necessary to omit an undecipherable word, leaving a blank space to indicate the omission. Although an effort was made to reproduce the letters exactly as they were written, it is probable that there are errors. However, they will detract little from what these Old Timers wanted to say. It should be remembered that these letters were written by individuals who labored on the Isthmus prior to 1915. They are no longer young. Some are handicapped by the infirmities of age: failing eyesight, unsteadv and arthritic hands that find it laborious to form words and sentences, and minds that know what they want to say but communicate it imperfectly. Generally, unfamiliar spellings need only to be sounded and their meaning becomes clear. In cases where the entrants wrote as they speak, there may be dropped "H"8s so that "has" is written "as". Other features of West Indian speech will be noted. As spoken language, there is no English more colorful. Mr. Albert Banister's interesting letter is a good example. The Society is most grateful for all the entries and we regret that there could not be a prize for everyone. Ruth C. Stuhl Competition Editor

Record Information

Source Institution:
Bibiloteca Nacional de Panama
Holding Location:
Bibiloteca Nacional de Panama
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the source institution.
System ID:
AA00016037:00002


This item is only available as the following downloads:


Full Text







Peters, Albert; c/o United Fruit Company, Cristobal, C.Z.


I was born In Nas sau Bahamas February 10th 1885 (a
Carpenter by trade). One day while reading the daily paper
I saw where they woro digc-Ain a Canal from ocean to ocean on
the isthmus; of Fannmna and needed thousands of men. I and two
of my pals re:.d it over and we su a-ost:-d to t-'ke a trip over.
JWe wcre all easier for some adventure and experience. %y
parents were.aca.lnct the idea. They told me about the Yellow
Fever, Malaria and S-.all pox that infested the place but I
told them that 1 and my pals are just going to see for our-
selves. Well we arrived in Colon August 31st 1-906, I was 21
years and there 1 got my first surprise, board walks for
streets. We moved around the place a couple of days then took
the train for Tatern.illa where they had just started the new
relocated track. I got a job as a straw boss with 30 men.
Grading I knew nothing- aboUt a railroad, but being a carpenter
I knew uhat grading was. The big boss was a man amned Joyce.
Now here was. my second surprise. :.y nice clothes and shoes
tbht'I brought was not for down here in the heavy rain and mud.
.1 was ashamed to go back as I had spent all the money I had'
so .1 made up my mind to face it. I sold all my clothes, my
black derby, took the money and bought high top boots and blue
jungree suits then I started on the job. The pay was 2 Bal-
boas a day, those B.alboas equal 504 U.S. currency. I kept
well for a bout one month, then I got Malaria. Went to the
hospital which was up on a high hill and thitt was another sur-
prise. .The hospitals were a row of Army tents and the beds
Army cots. The first nib:ht in there the ;ian 'next to me died
and that's the time I remembered my partento plea and wished
I hp.d taken their advice. After 5 days living6 mostly on
quinine I c:;.mc out and ;:ent back tc work. In another 15 days
I was back in thcre c:.ain 8 days this time. ';ihen I came out
I found that ::y pals h had left for Colon, so I decided to get
out of that mud and rain myself. The latter part of November
I went to Colon and found one of my pals work1l-ng.in .the corral,
he told me the bo-U0 waintcd a "nan I told i'ua I don't like
working around mnulec. They are bad. and can't be trusted.
They didn't 'ba.ve any respect for Our Savour, vwha you think
of me. Anyw'a.y bein, vcry easy to be led I took the job just
feeding thc-n ,with i'.: and oats. After one nonth I g6t used
to the:n and seeing tlhe other fellows handle them I decided
to drive. They gave ;ie a big aches color one, I named her
Sar.?.h and after a while she really knew her name. She would
follow me like a dof;. .,'ell I took sicd: agaln ('-lalaria) went
to Colon hospital fever 10. They put me in the European
ward with the Italians. That first night in there I again











Peters, A. p.2


remembered my parents plea not to go. About 2 A.M. the third
morning I was sure roasting with fever, I saw an Ordely place
a screen around my bed. It was a saying around town that when
you are poorly they screen you around and the doctors cut you
to see what is really wronE. As snic' as I was I said to my-
self no operating on :ie. i/on the Ordely came back he took
off my pajamas and placed :me on a rubber sheet I was stark
naked on the bed, nick but ready for action. lie came back
with a towel in the b::..sin I didn't know what it was, he soaked
the towel in the basin, never said a word to me, just plastir-
ed it right over my whole face. I don't Imow where I got the
strength from, but I drew my two feet up and ltt him have it
straight in the chest. He fell back knocked down the screen
and I was up on my feet asking him what he is doing. Both of
us mad ot eahb other, but when the nurse came and told me they
were bringing down my tempocture, I apologised to him. I really
thought it was something like ether to put me to sleep until
the doctor came to cut, but it was ice water. When I came out
I went back to work but found out .that they had changed my
mule and gave me another that they said won't cross over a
bridge where water ir. I had to drive over a bridge with
-water too in my dttiving and it was a lie. This mule never gave
any trouble until one day driving on a narrow board walk about
,9 ft. wide and 2 ft.j up from the ground there were small
cottages close to the board walk suddenly a newspaper blew
from between them a.nd floppod riL-ht over the mule's head and
face, he reared and jumped sideways, the right wheol went off
the board walk then capsized, threw roe right in a woman's front
door I manage to get up and cut the girth with the help of
some others who wcre around got the mule out of the mud. Well
that was experience and the last for me and mules. A few
weeks later a friec; of mine driving 2 mules shiod on a bridge--
at 9th and D street Colon, everything went over in the muddy
water both muleu were drowned before they could rescue them.
I lft the corral, got a job as camp watchinan for the con-
tract men working on Pier 11 stayed on that job 13 months
until they all left for their homes in 1908. 1.very man who
worked for l;be Fi. or the I.C.C. and lived in the camps had
to have a lodging, check '.ith month 'ud. date. That was to keep
non employees out. L're-.yO.y the ti:nokeeper would issue them
along with the ic.al tickl'-ou, 3 Ic.l a day for 30. at the
kitchens. If anyone was found in the camp w.-ithout a lodging
ticket, h'd have to tell the jud-e : why and that's where it
ends with a 5.00 fine.. Every evening around j1:30 one could
see i5 engine with a box car :a.nd3 the rough bronn coffins
staked one upon the other oound Yor 'it. Hope which was called
Money Hill in those days. The death rate was high. The most












Peters, A. p.3


deaths were from pneum'nonia and malaria, come from accidents.
There were no Yellow fever ,.t that time that I knew of. If
you had a friend that you always see and missed him for a week
or two, don't wonder, he's either in the hospital or at Monkey
Hill resting in peace.

I tbok a tlip home- sent 5 ;,;onthn a-nd returned in Febru-
ary 1909 worked on -ier 11 as ,. copper 14 months Kn&xrna tnfI
then went at Gatun took a job cutting steel for reinforcements
didn't stay there too long. everyday rain and had to work in
it for 10, per hour. WThile on this job I made up my mind to
go over on the other side. I remembered that I'd need a Com-
missary book so I ordered a .!5.00. In those days you had to
have mxnEX in more time than the value of the book to get it.
I received the book in the morning worked the whole day and
never went back to work or even for the few cents in 1910.
Then I went over and worked as a diver Ifydraulic-Excavatin,
worked there until job was finished 2 years. That was at Mir-
albres. Before that I had worked a few months on La Boca
docks. That work at Miraflores consisted of'Concrete-Barges
which could float, each has a auction pump and a discharge
pipe line then 6 inch Nozzels cutting down the banks and wash-
ing the silt toward the. barges which dumps it out in swamps
and low lands. Here is something that couldn't happen today.
It was one operator, one oiler and 4i divers on each barge it
wasn't necessary for all four divers to go overboard at the
same time. As the shift was 8 hours we made an agreement for
each man to dive 2 hours only, only unless its something very
nhxxxy heavy for him to bring up then everybody will give a
hand. The operator didn't mihd as long as he g;ot the suction
clear. Well this particular day was payday,. the pay car was
on the other side of the bank paying. The ruling was, if you
don't net your pay whilo the pay car was on the road, you
could t get it until it has finished, then get it at the
Administration Building in Ancon. The other ten got their
pay, they went across the brid.-e which -.'as about 100 yards
down the cut. It was my 2 hours shift, and that old pump
had me overbuomrd every 3 or 1 minutes. Sock Ond grass choking
it. Everytimne 1 come up I watch the ct.-r on the opposite bank,
all of a sudden 1 hoe.rd it blew ito wfr-istle for going, I ran
out on the end of the b:;v--"- n:n wavcd my handr and hollered.
They saw me raid rltop. I ;-rbbhc' cap che-ck ::.n' brasss, check
put it in my ca.. :.,nd slid on C. w.i.r. overboard swam across then
had to climb a ju, dy hi0ll about Zi0 ft. ':hen I got to the top
the pay car was about 20 ft. in front of me I was so exhausted
the policeman took ,my cap -nd helped me in the car there was
my pay in front of me on the counter. I was as naked as I
came in this world, except for my cap and Balboas and the last










Peters, A. p.4


one paid at that suction that day.

Those days no woman are seen around those places and men
are working half naked all around. At that job sometimes a
man may only have to go over board 3 or 4 times during his 2
hours, then somettines every 3 or 4 minutes according where and
how the nozzols are cutting. While we- wri e cutting midway
between Miraflores ?nd Corozal we came across a huge rock.
After washing all the earth away and riot down to about 35 ft.
there was the skelton of a ohip could see the ribs and keel
plainly. They assumed that one day it might have been a
chanel through there and th-.t chip might have struck that
rock and sank as one end of it was up to the rock. At that
same spot one morning the labor train lift Panama with about
20 box cars taking the men to work an far as Culebra. It ran
through a wrong switch and was heading right for the big ditch
which was about 150 ft. away. The sudden stop threw men off
the tops and doors. The track was strewn with dead and
injured. 1 came back to Colon in December 1912 and worked at
Pier 11 until April 1913. Then left to work for the United
Fruit Co. where I'm still employed as a Carpenter and painter
at their buildings ;%t Brazos Heirghts.

I solemny swcar that every word herin is correct, with
no exavarating and -written by me, typed by a friend.

I remain respectly,


ALD3 IT PETERS




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Peters, Albert; c/o United Fruit Company, Cristobal, C.Z.
I was born In Nas sau Bahamas February 10th 1885 (a
Carpenter by trade). One day while reading the daily paper
I saw where they woro digc-Ain a Canal from ocean to ocean on
the isthmus; of Fannmna and needed thousands of men. I and two
of my pals re:.d it over and we su a-ost:-d to t-'ke a trip over.
JWe wcre all easier for some adventure and experience. %y
parents were.aca.lnct the idea. They told me about the Yellow
Fever, Malaria and S-.all pox that infested the place but I
told them that 1 and my pals are just going to see for our-
selves. Well we arrived in Colon August 31st 1-906, I was 21
years and there 1 got my first surprise, board walks for
streets. We moved around the place a couple of days then took
the train for Tatern.illa where they had just started the new
relocated track. I got a job as a straw boss with 30 men.
Grading I knew nothing- aboUt a railroad, but being a carpenter
I knew uhat grading was. The big boss was a man amned Joyce.
Now here was. my second surprise. :.y nice clothes and shoes
tbht'I brought was not for down here in the heavy rain and mud.
.1 was ashamed to go back as I had spent all the money I had'
so .1 made up my mind to face it. I sold all my clothes, my
black derby, took the money and bought high top boots and blue
jungree suits then I started on the job. The pay was 2 Bal-
boas a day, those B.alboas equal 504 U.S. currency. I kept
well for a bout one month, then I got Malaria. Went to the
hospital which was up on a high hill and thitt was another sur-
prise. .The hospitals were a row of Army tents and the beds
Army cots. The first nib:ht in there the ;ian 'next to me died
and that's the time I remembered my partento plea and wished
I hp.d taken their advice. After 5 days living6 mostly on
quinine I c:;.mc out and ;:ent back tc work. In another 15 days
I was back in thcre c:.ain 8 days this time. ';ihen I came out
I found that ::y pals h had left for Colon, so I decided to get
out of that mud and rain myself. The latter part of November
I went to Colon and found one of my pals work1l-ng.in .the corral,
he told me the bo-U0 waintcd a "nan I told i'ua I don't like
working around mnulec. They are bad. and can't be trusted.
They didn't 'ba.ve any respect for Our Savour, vwha you think
of me. Anyw'a.y bein, vcry easy to be led I took the job just
feeding thc-n ,with i'.: and oats. After one nonth I g6t used
to the:n and seeing tlhe other fellows handle them I decided
to drive. They gave ;ie a big aches color one, I named her
Sar.?.h and after a while she really knew her name. She would
follow me like a dof;. .,'ell I took sicd: agaln ('-lalaria) went
to Colon hospital fever 10. They put me in the European
ward with the Italians. That first night in there I again
2 image0012.jpg
Peters, A. p.2
remembered my parents plea not to go. About 2 A.M. the third
morning I was sure roasting with fever, I saw an Ordely place
a screen around my bed. It was a saying around town that when
you are poorly they screen you around and the doctors cut you
to see what is really wronE. As snic' as I was I said to my-
self no operating on :ie. i/on the Ordely came back he took
off my pajamas and placed :me on a rubber sheet I was stark
naked on the bed, nick but ready for action. lie came back
with a towel in the b::..sin I didn't know what it was, he soaked
the towel in the basin, never said a word to me, just plastir-
ed it right over my whole face. I don't Imow where I got the
strength from, but I drew my two feet up and ltt him have it
straight in the chest. He fell back knocked down the screen
and I was up on my feet asking him what he is doing. Both of
us mad ot eahb other, but when the nurse came and told me they
were bringing down my tempocture, I apologised to him. I really
thought it was something like ether to put me to sleep until
the doctor came to cut, but it was ice water. When I came out
I went back to work but found out .that they had changed my
mule and gave me another that they said won't cross over a
bridge where water ir. I had to drive over a bridge with
-water too in my dttiving and it was a lie. This mule never gave
any trouble until one day driving on a narrow board walk about
,9 ft. wide and 2 ft.j up from the ground there were small
cottages close to the board walk suddenly a newspaper blew
from between them a.nd floppod riL-ht over the mule's head and
face, he reared and jumped sideways, the right wheol went off
the board walk then capsized, threw roe right in a woman's front
door I manage to get up and cut the girth with the help of
some others who wcre around got the mule out of the mud. Well
that was experience and the last for me and mules. A few
weeks later a friec; of mine driving 2 mules shiod on a bridge--
at 9th and D street Colon, everything went over in the muddy
water both muleu were drowned before they could rescue them.
I lft the corral, got a job as camp watchinan for the con-
tract men working on Pier 11 stayed on that job 13 months
until they all left for their homes in 1908. 1.very man who
worked for l;be Fi. or the I.C.C. and lived in the camps had
to have a lodging, check '.ith month 'ud. date. That was to keep
non employees out. L're-.yO.y the ti:nokeeper would issue them
along with the ic.al tickl'-ou, 3 Ic.l a day for 30. at the
kitchens. If anyone was found in the camp w.-ithout a lodging
ticket, h'd have to tell the jud-e : why and that's where it
ends with a 5.00 fine.. Every evening around j1:30 one could
see i5 engine with a box car :a.nd3 the rough bronn coffins
staked one upon the other oound Yor 'it. Hope which was called
Money Hill in those days. The death rate was high. The most
3 image0013.jpg
Peters, A. p.3
deaths were from pneum'nonia and malaria, come from accidents.
There were no Yellow fever ,.t that time that I knew of. If
you had a friend that you always see and missed him for a week
or two, don't wonder, he's either in the hospital or at Monkey
Hill resting in peace.
I tbok a tlip home- sent 5 ;,;onthn a-nd returned in Febru-
ary 1909 worked on -ier 11 as ,. copper 14 months Kn&xrna tnfI
then went at Gatun took a job cutting steel for reinforcements
didn't stay there too long. everyday rain and had to work in
it for 10, per hour. WThile on this job I made up my mind to
go over on the other side. I remembered that I'd need a Com-
missary book so I ordered a .!5.00. In those days you had to
have mxnEX in more time than the value of the book to get it.
I received the book in the morning worked the whole day and
never went back to work or even for the few cents in 1910.
Then I went over and worked as a diver Ifydraulic-Excavatin,
worked there until job was finished 2 years. That was at Mir-
albres. Before that I had worked a few months on La Boca
docks. That work at Miraflores consisted of'Concrete-Barges
which could float, each has a auction pump and a discharge
pipe line then 6 inch Nozzels cutting down the banks and wash-
ing the silt toward the. barges which dumps it out in swamps
and low lands. Here is something that couldn't happen today.
It was one operator, one oiler and 4i divers on each barge it
wasn't necessary for all four divers to go overboard at the
same time. As the shift was 8 hours we made an agreement for
each man to dive 2 hours only, only unless its something very
nhxxxy heavy for him to bring up then everybody will give a
hand. The operator didn't mihd as long as he g;ot the suction
clear. Well this particular day was payday,. the pay car was
on the other side of the bank paying. The ruling was, if you
don't net your pay whilo the pay car was on the road, you
could t get it until it has finished, then get it at the
Administration Building in Ancon. The other ten got their
pay, they went across the brid.-e which -.'as about 100 yards
down the cut. It was my 2 hours shift, and that old pump
had me overbuomrd every 3 or 1 minutes. Sock Ond grass choking
it. Everytimne 1 come up I watch the ct.-r on the opposite bank,
all of a sudden 1 hoe.rd it blew ito wfr-istle for going, I ran
out on the end of the b:;v--"- n:n wavcd my handr and hollered.
They saw me raid rltop. I ;-rbbhc' cap che-ck ::.n' brasss, check
put it in my ca.. :.,nd slid on C. w.i.r. overboard swam across then
had to climb a ju, dy hi0ll about Zi0 ft. ':hen I got to the top
the pay car was about 20 ft. in front of me I was so exhausted
the policeman took ,my cap -nd helped me in the car there was
my pay in front of me on the counter. I was as naked as I
came in this world, except for my cap and Balboas and the last
4 image0014.jpg
Peters, A. p.4
one paid at that suction that day.
Those days no woman are seen around those places and men
are working half naked all around. At that job sometimes a
man may only have to go over board 3 or 4 times during his 2
hours, then somettines every 3 or 4 minutes according where and
how the nozzols are cutting. While we- wri e cutting midway
between Miraflores ?nd Corozal we came across a huge rock.
After washing all the earth away and riot down to about 35 ft.
there was the skelton of a ohip could see the ribs and keel
plainly. They assumed that one day it might have been a
chanel through there and th-.t chip might have struck that
rock and sank as one end of it was up to the rock. At that
same spot one morning the labor train lift Panama with about
20 box cars taking the men to work an far as Culebra. It ran
through a wrong switch and was heading right for the big ditch
which was about 150 ft. away. The sudden stop threw men off
the tops and doors. The track was strewn with dead and
injured. 1 came back to Colon in December 1912 and worked at
Pier 11 until April 1913. Then left to work for the United
Fruit Co. where I'm still employed as a Carpenter and painter
at their buildings ;%t Brazos Heirghts.
I solemny swcar that every word herin is correct, with
no exavarating and -written by me, typed by a friend.
I remain respectly,
ALD3 IT PETERS


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