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:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Holding Location:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the source institution.
System ID:
AA00016037:00014


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Full Text






Belgrave, Allan C.; Box 1624, Colon, R.P.


I arrived in Panama a Sunday at 330 P.M. the 12th of
September 1905. A group of us were -taken in mule wagons to
Camp in Old Cristobal, (Kaki tents for Camps) these were
erected near .a swa mp of alligators, frogs, and mosquitoes
in abundance.

Monday the 13th I start to work for the engineers divis-
ion in Cristobal under /l1 office near Columbus Statue before
it removed to Colon, that site is now occupied between the
freight house and #10 pier. As a carpenter, I were put to
work to cut and point stakes for the engineers, one Mr. Evans
was in charge he was quite a gentleman, his speech was gentle,
and understandable. I worked with him for two weeks, the fol-
lowing week I was transfored to a carpenters gang, foreman's
name can't remember, but he was of a different temperament to
the other man, he was rough, and so he could curse, I could
only work with him six and a half days, malaria fever began
to worry me, I went to the rest camp, got quinine treatment
for two days, I return to work the fourth day, could only work
two hours, six to eight, fever and my bowels took me in such
a way that I had to be taken back to the rest camp, My condi-
tion began to get worse, then the doctor sent me off to the
hospital with eirht other sick, we. were admitted, but our
wards were tents, the few wood buildings were filled, then
around eight o'clock the name night the doctor came to me he
sat on the cot; may I say here, the cot had on it a nice
mattress, and sheets (2) one to lay on and the other to cover,
and a pillow. The doctor question me as to how my feelings
were, I told him, #2 if I had chills? 'f3 how my times my
bowels move for the day? ;'4 w.hcre I works, and kind of work?
5 what 'Rind of food? 6 who prepares it? 7 does you work in
the sun and rain answer in the affirmative now he examined
me thoroughly and leave, about ten o'clock the doctor came
with another doctor, they examined over again and leave, nine
o'clock the nurse gave me two kind of medicines, the following
morning I felt a little better, eight o'clock the doctor on his
rounds came to me and rsked how I was feeling, I told him a
little better, ie said to me Stay in bed, and told the nurse
to see to it that I don't pet out of bed. I had to remain in
bed two weeks before I could go outside. In the third week.the
doctor told me I can sit up in a wheelchair, then I ask him
his name, and he told me doctor Deverly, the nurse name Miss
Byers, both of them wore kind and courteous. The fourth week
I was discharged, on leaving the doctor told me to be careful










Belgrave, A. 0. p.2


in what I eat, and don't get wet, of course I knew this was
impossible, because we had to work in sun and rain, when it
rain for more ,than fifteen minutes our time would be out
accoArding to the duration of the rain. Twelve days after I
returned to work I wras stricken rain with the same troubles
malaria and dysentry, this time I meet with another doctor
and nurse (name doctor Taylor and nurse Smith they were
equally nice people. They did their best for me, when I
began convelesing, doctor Taylor with doctor Eno said to me
one morning Belrave would you 1'ike to work for the hospital?
before I could make up my mind to answer, doctor Taylor said
to me if you go back to work you won't last very long, so I
answered in the affirmative, he said you can work for a few
months in the hospital, you will be out of the rain, and we
can check on you more often, when the doctor was about to
discharge me, that morning, he brought Major Lee Superintend-
ent, and Miss Pritchard chief nurse to my bed, and they said
the same thing over again of what the doctor told me, I thanked
them for their kind consideration. all this happened during
the .early months of 1906. from thence I began to work for the
health division up to 1909. I got married, I need more money
to support a family, during that period my salary was t20 with
subsistence. I must Eay here, that, during the period I worked
in the hospital, I work with Dr. Nolan Chief Surgeon in the
dressing room, and so I c;'.me in contact with some very liberal
minded white men, one of thcm by name James Woodside, one day
while attending to him, he questioned me about where I'm from,
how I liked the Isthmus, how long was I working in the hospital
and many other questions, at the end he asked me if I would
like to work for him? I rnkcd him what kind of work? he said
that he was a boiler-maker and shipfitter foreman at the mount
hope dry dock, no I said y:-s sir, and then again he said I'll
be out of hospital in a few days and I'll let you know, so it
did happened, I gave a week notice, the week following I met
Mr. Woodside at his office and he employed me as a boiler maker
helper at 12/ per hour 10 hre. per day, start work at 6 A.M.
to 11:00 A.M. and from 1:00 F.-i. to 5:00 P.;!. Employment
began on or about the middle of January 1910 through 1914 -
August 25th.closed the C:ianal Construction, or in other words,
the opening of the Canal for business.

Experiences. (1) The way in which Colonel Gorgas improved
the health conditions on the Isthmus, through his ingenuity,
places that were A harbinger for alligators, frogs, toads, and
worst of all, man's most inveterate enemy the mosquito that
create yellow fever, and malaria fever, were transformed into










Belgrave, A. C. p.3

habitable areas.

2 The rapid way in which the then Construction Quarter-
master erected proper housing for all Canal employees.

3 For people, those that I got in contact with, Some
were pleasant to get along with, and others were to the
contrary.

4 Living and working conditions (personal) was not
favorable, (reason) The boiler-makers and shipfitters fought
for shorter working hours, and an increase in pay, they won,
ten hours was changed to eight hours per day, from 7 o'clock
in the morning to 11 o'clock, and from midday 12 o'clock to
4 o'clock in the evening, with the understanding that, any
time worked after 8 hours will be overtime .(time and a half).
The helpers had to worked 8 hours, but whenever called to
work after 8 hours, had to work straight 10 hours before
getting overtime. So, when there was no overtime which was
seldom, I. found living conditions difficult, even when com-
modities were at reasonable prices, because of indoquate
salary, I was unable to support my family properly.


ALLA1 C. BELGRAVE




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Belgrave, Allan C.; Box 1624, Colon, R.P.
I arrived in Panama a Sunday at 330 P.M. the 12th of
September 1905. A group of us were -taken in mule wagons to
Camp in Old Cristobal, (Kaki tents for Camps) these were
erected near .a swa mp of alligators, frogs, and mosquitoes
in abundance.
Monday the 13th I start to work for the engineers divis-
ion in Cristobal under /l1 office near Columbus Statue before
it removed to Colon, that site is now occupied between the
freight house and #10 pier. As a carpenter, I were put to
work to cut and point stakes for the engineers, one Mr. Evans
was in charge he was quite a gentleman, his speech was gentle,
and understandable. I worked with him for two weeks, the fol-
lowing week I was transfored to a carpenters gang, foreman's
name can't remember, but he was of a different temperament to
the other man, he was rough, and so he could curse, I could
only work with him six and a half days, malaria fever began
to worry me, I went to the rest camp, got quinine treatment
for two days, I return to work the fourth day, could only work
two hours, six to eight, fever and my bowels took me in such
a way that I had to be taken back to the rest camp, My condi-
tion began to get worse, then the doctor sent me off to the
hospital with eirht other sick, we. were admitted, but our
wards were tents, the few wood buildings were filled, then
around eight o'clock the name night the doctor came to me he
sat on the cot; may I say here, the cot had on it a nice
mattress, and sheets (2) one to lay on and the other to cover,
and a pillow. The doctor question me as to how my feelings
were, I told him, #2 if I had chills? 'f3 how my times my
bowels move for the day? ;'4 w.hcre I works, and kind of work?
5 what 'Rind of food? 6 who prepares it? 7 does you work in
the sun and rain answer in the affirmative now he examined
me thoroughly and leave, about ten o'clock the doctor came
with another doctor, they examined over again and leave, nine
o'clock the nurse gave me two kind of medicines, the following
morning I felt a little better, eight o'clock the doctor on his
rounds came to me and rsked how I was feeling, I told him a
little better, ie said to me Stay in bed, and told the nurse
to see to it that I don't pet out of bed. I had to remain in
bed two weeks before I could go outside. In the third week.the
doctor told me I can sit up in a wheelchair, then I ask him
his name, and he told me doctor Deverly, the nurse name Miss
Byers, both of them wore kind and courteous. The fourth week
I was discharged, on leaving the doctor told me to be careful
2 image0060.jpg
Belgrave, A. 0. p.2
in what I eat, and don't get wet, of course I knew this was
impossible, because we had to work in sun and rain, when it
rain for more ,than fifteen minutes our time would be out
accoArding to the duration of the rain. Twelve days after I
returned to work I wras stricken rain with the same troubles
malaria and dysentry, this time I meet with another doctor
and nurse (name doctor Taylor and nurse Smith they were
equally nice people. They did their best for me, when I
began convelesing, doctor Taylor with doctor Eno said to me
one morning Belrave would you 1'ike to work for the hospital?
before I could make up my mind to answer, doctor Taylor said
to me if you go back to work you won't last very long, so I
answered in the affirmative, he said you can work for a few
months in the hospital, you will be out of the rain, and we
can check on you more often, when the doctor was about to
discharge me, that morning, he brought Major Lee Superintend-
ent, and Miss Pritchard chief nurse to my bed, and they said
the same thing over again of what the doctor told me, I thanked
them for their kind consideration. all this happened during
the .early months of 1906. from thence I began to work for the
health division up to 1909. I got married, I need more money
to support a family, during that period my salary was t20 with
subsistence. I must Eay here, that, during the period I worked
in the hospital, I work with Dr. Nolan Chief Surgeon in the
dressing room, and so I c;'.me in contact with some very liberal
minded white men, one of thcm by name James Woodside, one day
while attending to him, he questioned me about where I'm from,
how I liked the Isthmus, how long was I working in the hospital
and many other questions, at the end he asked me if I would
like to work for him? I rnkcd him what kind of work? he said
that he was a boiler-maker and shipfitter foreman at the mount
hope dry dock, no I said y:-s sir, and then again he said I'll
be out of hospital in a few days and I'll let you know, so it
did happened, I gave a week notice, the week following I met
Mr. Woodside at his office and he employed me as a boiler maker
helper at 12/ per hour 10 hre. per day, start work at 6 A.M.
to 11:00 A.M. and from 1:00 F.-i. to 5:00 P.;!. Employment
began on or about the middle of January 1910 through 1914 -
August 25th.closed the C:ianal Construction, or in other words,
the opening of the Canal for business.
Experiences. (1) The way in which Colonel Gorgas improved
the health conditions on the Isthmus, through his ingenuity,
places that were A harbinger for alligators, frogs, toads, and
worst of all, man's most inveterate enemy the mosquito that
create yellow fever, and malaria fever, were transformed into
3 image0061.jpg
Belgrave, A. C. p.3
habitable areas.
2 The rapid way in which the then Construction Quarter-
master erected proper housing for all Canal employees.
3 For people, those that I got in contact with, Some
were pleasant to get along with, and others were to the
contrary.
4 Living and working conditions (personal) was not
favorable, (reason) The boiler-makers and shipfitters fought
for shorter working hours, and an increase in pay, they won,
ten hours was changed to eight hours per day, from 7 o'clock
in the morning to 11 o'clock, and from midday 12 o'clock to
4 o'clock in the evening, with the understanding that, any
time worked after 8 hours will be overtime .(time and a half).
The helpers had to worked 8 hours, but whenever called to
work after 8 hours, had to work straight 10 hours before
getting overtime. So, when there was no overtime which was
seldom, I. found living conditions difficult, even when com-
modities were at reasonable prices, because of indoquate
salary, I was unable to support my family properly.
ALLA1 C. BELGRAVE