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:
AA00016037:00020


This item is only available as the following downloads:


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Brewster, Joseph; c/o P.O. Box 361, Colon, R.P.


Urged with the desire to travel and to earn a living, I
left the Island of Barbados, on Royal Mail "Bolan", and arrived
in the City of Colon, Rep. of Panama, on May 1, 1906. I was
only 16 years old.

Immediately on my arrival I went to work at Peter Miguel,
on the track lines, under the supervision of Mr. Little, who ad
as his assistant, one Mr. Miller, commonly known as "One Hand
Miller." These men were both American Citizens, On this job
I worked for a .couple of years. At that time in order to main-
tain our health against malaria and dysentery, which were
taking the lives of the workers daily, we were given quinine
liquid, twice a day. The quinine was carried to the camps by
members of the health department, and were transported in can-
teens carried on the backs of the dispenser. Each section had
a rest house to which workers at the slightest sign of dysentery
were carried, and a mess hall where the wcrkcrz w~ro fed. I can
remember seeing Gen. Geo. Goethals and Major Gaillard visiting
our camps daily, and wb at times would observe them standing on
"Gold Hill", now called "Contractor's 111il", covering the men at
work digging the Big Ditch.

During these days each employee provided himself with a
small- bottle containing kerosene and coconut oil, which was
rubbed on the exposed parts of their bodies to keep away sand-
flies and mosquitos. Our drinking water was usually boiled
before using.

Carrying dynamite powder for a man. called Cushing, an Amer-
ioan, I fell and had my knee fractured. After my recovery was
transferred to the electrical department, as a blasting wireman
helper, under the supervision of Mr. Spiker, whose foreman was
Mr. Lipton.

I recollect on one occasion shovel 210 fell over covering
6 men. The crane had to be brought to raise this shovel. All
the men died. I was transferred to a place call Diablo, as
machinist helper, about the year 1908, working under Mr. English,
as machinist helper, and did pipe fitting work with him. Mr.
English was transferred to the Cristobal Coaling Station and












Brewster, J. p.2


took me along with him. At the Coaling Station Mr. McFarlane
was supervisor and Mr. Morgan his assistant. The work done
there was the digging of caissons for the building of the Coal-
ing Plant. Our work was to look after the 'Emerson' pumps.
Many lives were taken in.the building of the caissons. After
many years of work at the Coaling Station I was promoted fore-
man for reloaders (those who fill coals on ships).

During the 1922, worked as wiper on the "Tavernilla"', and
thereafter transferred to the boathouse under supervision of
Capt. Westoott. When President Theo. Roosevelt came here on
his inspection of the cut, I was one of the workers who operated
the pump car, carrying him from Culebra to Empire.

During the digging of the cut, we had rain every day. The
workers had difficulty keeping their clothes dry. We worked
rain or shine, day and night. It was Pres. Roosevelt, if I
remember Well, who recommended that a dry-house be built in
every section so that the men would.be able to have their
clothes drgid mfr replacement. During these days the Ancon
hospital maintained a hearse drawn by two horses, to convey the
dead through the day, to the cemetery.

While ht the boat house I had the pleasure of taking sever-
al Congressmen on trips to the Chagres. I had the opportunity
of working while the Prince of Wales and a Governor General of
Canada, on different occasions, of course, were taken to the
Chagres Spillways.

While at the boat house I served under the following Port
Captains: %iestcott, McNair, Junker, Schmidt, Simmerton,
O'Leary, Parson. After having passed several years working on
the U.S. "Rodman", where I had the pleasure of attending Govern-
or Schley and many other Governors of the Panama Canal, retired
under Capt. Schmidt, in 1951I.


JCSEI1h BREWSTER




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Brewster, Joseph; c/o P.O. Box 361, Colon, R.P.
Urged with the desire to travel and to earn a living, I
left the Island of Barbados, on Royal Mail "Bolan", and arrived
in the City of Colon, Rep. of Panama, on May 1, 1906. I was
only 16 years old.
Immediately on my arrival I went to work at Peter Miguel,
on the track lines, under the supervision of Mr. Little, who ad
as his assistant, one Mr. Miller, commonly known as "One Hand
Miller." These men were both American Citizens, On this job
I worked for a .couple of years. At that time in order to main-
tain our health against malaria and dysentery, which were
taking the lives of the workers daily, we were given quinine
liquid, twice a day. The quinine was carried to the camps by
members of the health department, and were transported in can-
teens carried on the backs of the dispenser. Each section had
a rest house to which workers at the slightest sign of dysentery
were carried, and a mess hall where the wcrkcrz w~ro fed. I can
remember seeing Gen. Geo. Goethals and Major Gaillard visiting
our camps daily, and wb at times would observe them standing on
"Gold Hill", now called "Contractor's 111il", covering the men at
work digging the Big Ditch.
During these days each employee provided himself with a
small- bottle containing kerosene and coconut oil, which was
rubbed on the exposed parts of their bodies to keep away sand-
flies and mosquitos. Our drinking water was usually boiled
before using.
Carrying dynamite powder for a man. called Cushing, an Amer-
ioan, I fell and had my knee fractured. After my recovery was
transferred to the electrical department, as a blasting wireman
helper, under the supervision of Mr. Spiker, whose foreman was
Mr. Lipton.
I recollect on one occasion shovel 210 fell over covering
6 men. The crane had to be brought to raise this shovel. All
the men died. I was transferred to a place call Diablo, as
machinist helper, about the year 1908, working under Mr. English,
as machinist helper, and did pipe fitting work with him. Mr.
English was transferred to the Cristobal Coaling Station and
2 image0070.jpg
Brewster, J. p.2
took me along with him. At the Coaling Station Mr. McFarlane
was supervisor and Mr. Morgan his assistant. The work done
there was the digging of caissons for the building of the Coal-
ing Plant. Our work was to look after the 'Emerson' pumps.
Many lives were taken in.the building of the caissons. After
many years of work at the Coaling Station I was promoted fore-
man for reloaders (those who fill coals on ships).
During the 1922, worked as wiper on the "Tavernilla"', and
thereafter transferred to the boathouse under supervision of
Capt. Westoott. When President Theo. Roosevelt came here on
his inspection of the cut, I was one of the workers who operated
the pump car, carrying him from Culebra to Empire.
During the digging of the cut, we had rain every day. The
workers had difficulty keeping their clothes dry. We worked
rain or shine, day and night. It was Pres. Roosevelt, if I
remember Well, who recommended that a dry-house be built in
every section so that the men would.be able to have their
clothes drgid mfr replacement. During these days the Ancon
hospital maintained a hearse drawn by two horses, to convey the
dead through the day, to the cemetery.
While ht the boat house I had the pleasure of taking sever-
al Congressmen on trips to the Chagres. I had the opportunity
of working while the Prince of Wales and a Governor General of
Canada, on different occasions, of course, were taken to the
Chagres Spillways.
While at the boat house I served under the following Port
Captains: %iestcott, McNair, Junker, Schmidt, Simmerton,
O'Leary, Parson. After having passed several years working on
the U.S. "Rodman", where I had the pleasure of attending Govern-
or Schley and many other Governors of the Panama Canal, retired
under Capt. Schmidt, in 1951I.
JCSEI1h BREWSTER