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:
AA00016037:00032


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Full Text





Clarke, Aaron; D.R. i76580; Colon Post Office, H.P.


I arrived at Dock #2, known as the Royal Mail Dock at
Colon on a monday morning December 17, 1906; was placed on
board a train and ta.kcn to Gatun. We got off the train at
Gatun north of Jamaica town, a section where people lived east
of the Panae.ma Rail Lroad track. We were told to take any of
our baggage that we cold hanidlc conveniently; and anything
that was heavy to leave, as it would he taken care of by the
Labour and Quarters Doet. W1o were escorted over a large
pasture of land, crossed a ditch made by two steam shovels
No. 102 and 104, the first making its first cut to provide
a railroad track so that the other shovel traveling behind
could load the material in Oliver dump cars used at that time,
until later they was replaced by a heavier and larger type
known as Western Dump. The ditch mention above grew to be
the Gatun Cut, and later became the (Gatun Looks) Atlantio,
Locks. In reffering to the pasture that I had crossed we
reached the camps; were the first labouters of non United
States citizen to dwell in houses built by the Isthmian Canal
Commission in Gatun. Our predecessors lived in tents After
the Authorities saw that each of us had had a bunk, we journey-
ed back the way we had came and taken to a mess kitchen and
given each of us an enamel plate and cup also a. spoon; we
then formed a line and wns served with rice and red beans
with beef and gravy of some sort also tea and bread, the
meals was of very low standard a.s far as cooking was concerned.
After dinner the Authorities approach us and selected twenty-
five of us for the Building and Construction Department. So
I went to work the name day I arrived here in the lumber yard
my immediate foreman's name was ,r. L V. Thomas, the Superin-
tendent Mr. 11. 11 Storm. My first metal check was a diamond
shape No. 54074 So I worked for the Bidg and Constrn Dept
until the job was terminated e.hoOt the middle part of 1907.
The water we drank Curing that time was sterilized; the place
where it was sterilized was situated about three quarters of
a mile south of Oatun old railroad station, and pumped in a
tank south of thee first hotel that was in Gatun; it was there
the majority of people got their drinking water. The Labour
and Quarters Doept ha.d a mulo c.art that carried water around
to the several ilnitrd Otates citizen qui-rters until the
reservour wafs instituted at M.t iloce which furnish the Atlantic
side residents with water. iLatr a rescrvour was built at
Agua Clara to reinforce the amount of water for the use of
Atlantic residents whose number had urc-atly increased. Some-
time in 1910 while working nt U;o 1 Concrete Mixture which was
then situated on the west bank and is now the midde level of









Clarke, A. p.2


Gatun Locks wheie the Locomotive shed and toilet is now
situated; I was going toward the cement shed when I passed a
man, soon after something caused me to look back and was in
time to see the said man fell on the third rail (rail carrying
electric current) a car No 5, the first to be equipped with
trolly poles to run from overhead wires was approaching him
I shouted and rv.n to his aosist1,nce but the car overtook him
and had pushed hij: about eight or ten feet and had stopped
just as I reached the ca.r, 1 reversed the switch but the car
was dead the power being, off. Myself and others pushed the
car off him he was taken to P. first aid station south of the
Power Plant when the doctor stated one of his hands (I don't
remember whether it was his right or left hand) was broken
two places and a cut in his head he wan rushed to Colon
Hospital immediately; about three months after I was called
to the Administraxtion Building in Gatun to the Claim Agent's
Office and asked to give a statement of what I had seen happen
to that man at the time of the accident' I did so, and was
told by the Claim Officer that my statement had agreed with my
former testimony, but the reason for calling me, the man had
said he was blast by dynamite. Some time at a later date I
was working in a gang cleaning, oiling, and greasing the cars
which ran on the Automatic Rail Road to carry the cement, sand,
and gravel to the No 1 mixture our working hours was from 11
o'clock A.M. to 7 o'clock P.t. and one evening some time after
five o'clock P.;i. I heard a thump and when I looked I saw a
man by the name of Francins loyte was lying on the third rails
I shouted a man is on the third rail the boss was standing
near the switch and he pulled it, it uas just about a minute
but when we lifted him -from the rail he was dead, you see he
recieved a triple shock, firot struck by the overhead wires
by an iron bar he had had in his hand to dig out the hard
substance that accu;nc.alated in the cars from time to time during
the day, second from the shock of the third rail on which he
fell; (the third rails were first installed to convey the
current to the cars for their opporation) and third the heavy
blow he recieved on the back part of his head when he fell on
the third rails caused his death immediately. After my
service with the 13uildin.- and Construction Dept had terminated
I worked a little time in 2indi with the Eng and Constn Depart-
ment the name of the Siipcrvisor was ;>r. Clarke, but I did not
strny there very long m;y next employ icnt was with the Sanitary
Dept under the ':!pcrvis-on oi 'K.r. Br-ady I dug ditches
dropped mosquito oil ,are d]rr'ins, dug cr,.ves acted as pall
bearer and sometimes when we could afford the time I performed
a short religious ceremony. My experience as far as I can
remember I will go b.ck to my life in the camps and that goes









Clarke, A. p.3


for all of us who was living there. The camps was fitted with
bunks for normal acco:.-modation for eighty four men, and if
pressed for accommodation twelve more men-aa;,dded. In those
days the latrine or out office for sanitary convenience was
about one hundred and seventy five feet from some of the
camps, you were not allowed to use a bason or any other xxknx
utensil in the camp so you can imagine the hardship and diffi-
culties that we. encountered in those days especially on nights
when the rain was falling. We 'were not charged any fee for
quarters or medical services, but was supposed to eat at the
mess kitchen, every evening after work the foreman gave each
man a ticket, that ticket was good for your supper said even-
ing and would also serve as a lodging check in case the police-
man and watchman came around at night as very often they did;
also you wa.: furnish breakfast and dinner the following day
with the ticket you had relieved the previous day after which
it was destroyed. You were given a ticket each day from
monday.to friday.while on Saturdays you recieve two, tickets,
or should a holiday occur you was also given a ticket to cover
the holiday. As I had mention above you didn't pay for living
in the camps but you better be sure to have a lodging check
if the police and watchman come around for they didn't accept
excuses and once taken away you were charged for loitering and
the magistrate showed no sympathy, most of the time it was
thirty days in jail for such offense. Tis true at that time
work was plentiful but some men suffered so badly from fever
and was so ignorant,to shun the hospital that many times they
fell victims through their own errors, fever in those days
played a havoc of men, for I in.Edxkznr landed here on the 17th
day of December 1906 and on the 31st December 1906 I was in
Colon Hospital, but although I have had fever several times
the longest time I had spent with fever was ten days. The
signal for out lirtht at 9 oclock P.M. was given by knocking an
old angle bar kept at the kitchen for that purpose. During
khxktima those early days you could get work any place, but
although fever attack many men yet there were men who were
callous of work v.nd a police officer whose name was Mr. Smith
ftyip (Ginger) it was his delight totrack down men who were
not working whether they were sick or lazy, and if proven
well they suffered the penalty .:r. Smith- used to ride a
roan pony that nec;ed to be up to all tricks, but as the
years roll on things ch,.np-:ed some men lived in the camps and
provided their o:In mealf and was not molested. I endured the
life living in the camp until sometime in 1908 1 went and
lived in New Gj.tun west of where the Third Locks cut was made,
the convenience for sanita.ry facilities was alright but I still
had a tough job especially with my laundry more particular









Clarke, A. p.4


when the rainy season was on sometimes I had two or three
suits of clothes working all wet not a dry piece to put on
when morning came for I to go to work. But the majority of
us used a scheme to put on those wet clothes, that .is we took
the clothes to the bath room with us and immediately leaving
the shower without drying our skin we put the wet clothes on,
took our breakfast and was off to work for anoth day of hard
toil. Now coming to the late period of Construction days
About 1913 and 1914 work was scarce, because most of the con-
struction was completed, McClintio Marshall Construction Com-
pany who built and hang the gates was practically finish, even
the Bridge Company who built the emergency dams was completed,
so men wandered here and there in search of work; and very
often was arrested by policemen for loitering and when placed
before the magistrate who never used reason in those day,
they wore sent to prison. I remember one morning I went out
looking a job. not hearing anything I pass by the present
Rail Road Station at Gatun myself and another man, and when
we was nearing the bridge I heard a whistle and turned in the
direction the sound had came from and saw it was a policeman,
I placed.my right hand to my stomach in a manner implying-if
its me he wanted, he (the policeman) pointed to my companion,
so I in turn told my companion the policeman wanted him, as
the policeman was coming our way we waited until he reached us.
He ask my companion if he was working? He (my companion) said
no'. The policeman in turn told him to come and let the
Serjeant know why he is not working So the policeman took
him another course while I kept on- home .and when I heard from
him again I learned- he was serving a term of thirty days in
jail, I really never knew what was his surname but I used to
hear the folks call him Arnie. Such is what I can truthfully
tell you of my experience during the construction days of the
Isthmian Rxni Canal Commission which in later years gained the
name of Pa.nama: Cane.l from which I was retired May 31 1954
from .the Atlantic Locks my D.R. !No is 6580

Fespectfully submitted
AAriON CLAI.KE




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Clarke, Aaron; D.R. i76580; Colon Post Office, H.P.
I arrived at Dock #2, known as the Royal Mail Dock at
Colon on a monday morning December 17, 1906; was placed on
board a train and ta.kcn to Gatun. We got off the train at
Gatun north of Jamaica town, a section where people lived east
of the Panae.ma Rail Lroad track. We were told to take any of
our baggage that we cold hanidlc conveniently; and anything
that was heavy to leave, as it would he taken care of by the
Labour and Quarters Doet. W1o were escorted over a large
pasture of land, crossed a ditch made by two steam shovels
No. 102 and 104, the first making its first cut to provide
a railroad track so that the other shovel traveling behind
could load the material in Oliver dump cars used at that time,
until later they was replaced by a heavier and larger type
known as Western Dump. The ditch mention above grew to be
the Gatun Cut, and later became the (Gatun Looks) Atlantio,
Locks. In reffering to the pasture that I had crossed we
reached the camps; were the first labouters of non United
States citizen to dwell in houses built by the Isthmian Canal
Commission in Gatun. Our predecessors lived in tents After
the Authorities saw that each of us had had a bunk, we journey-
ed back the way we had came and taken to a mess kitchen and
given each of us an enamel plate and cup also a. spoon; we
then formed a line and wns served with rice and red beans
with beef and gravy of some sort also tea and bread, the
meals was of very low standard a.s far as cooking was concerned.
After dinner the Authorities approach us and selected twenty-
five of us for the Building and Construction Department. So
I went to work the name day I arrived here in the lumber yard
my immediate foreman's name was ,r. L V. Thomas, the Superin-
tendent Mr. 11. 11 Storm. My first metal check was a diamond
shape No. 54074 So I worked for the Bidg and Constrn Dept
until the job was terminated e.hoOt the middle part of 1907.
The water we drank Curing that time was sterilized; the place
where it was sterilized was situated about three quarters of
a mile south of Oatun old railroad station, and pumped in a
tank south of thee first hotel that was in Gatun; it was there
the majority of people got their drinking water. The Labour
and Quarters Doept ha.d a mulo c.art that carried water around
to the several ilnitrd Otates citizen qui-rters until the
reservour wafs instituted at M.t iloce which furnish the Atlantic
side residents with water. iLatr a rescrvour was built at
Agua Clara to reinforce the amount of water for the use of
Atlantic residents whose number had urc-atly increased. Some-
time in 1910 while working nt U;o 1 Concrete Mixture which was
then situated on the west bank and is now the midde level of
2 image0093.jpg
Clarke, A. p.2
Gatun Locks wheie the Locomotive shed and toilet is now
situated; I was going toward the cement shed when I passed a
man, soon after something caused me to look back and was in
time to see the said man fell on the third rail (rail carrying
electric current) a car No 5, the first to be equipped with
trolly poles to run from overhead wires was approaching him
I shouted and rv.n to his aosist1,nce but the car overtook him
and had pushed hij: about eight or ten feet and had stopped
just as I reached the ca.r, 1 reversed the switch but the car
was dead the power being, off. Myself and others pushed the
car off him he was taken to P. first aid station south of the
Power Plant when the doctor stated one of his hands (I don't
remember whether it was his right or left hand) was broken
two places and a cut in his head he wan rushed to Colon
Hospital immediately; about three months after I was called
to the Administraxtion Building in Gatun to the Claim Agent's
Office and asked to give a statement of what I had seen happen
to that man at the time of the accident' I did so, and was
told by the Claim Officer that my statement had agreed with my
former testimony, but the reason for calling me, the man had
said he was blast by dynamite. Some time at a later date I
was working in a gang cleaning, oiling, and greasing the cars
which ran on the Automatic Rail Road to carry the cement, sand,
and gravel to the No 1 mixture our working hours was from 11
o'clock A.M. to 7 o'clock P.t. and one evening some time after
five o'clock P.;i. I heard a thump and when I looked I saw a
man by the name of Francins loyte was lying on the third rails
I shouted a man is on the third rail the boss was standing
near the switch and he pulled it, it uas just about a minute
but when we lifted him -from the rail he was dead, you see he
recieved a triple shock, firot struck by the overhead wires
by an iron bar he had had in his hand to dig out the hard
substance that accu;nc.alated in the cars from time to time during
the day, second from the shock of the third rail on which he
fell; (the third rails were first installed to convey the
current to the cars for their opporation) and third the heavy
blow he recieved on the back part of his head when he fell on
the third rails caused his death immediately. After my
service with the 13uildin.- and Construction Dept had terminated
I worked a little time in 2indi with the Eng and Constn Depart-
ment the name of the Siipcrvisor was ;>r. Clarke, but I did not
strny there very long m;y next employ icnt was with the Sanitary
Dept under the ':!pcrvis-on oi 'K.r. Br-ady I dug ditches
dropped mosquito oil ,are d]rr'ins, dug cr,.ves acted as pall
bearer and sometimes when we could afford the time I performed
a short religious ceremony. My experience as far as I can
remember I will go b.ck to my life in the camps and that goes
3 image0094.jpg
Clarke, A. p.3
for all of us who was living there. The camps was fitted with
bunks for normal acco:.-modation for eighty four men, and if
pressed for accommodation twelve more men-aa;,dded. In those
days the latrine or out office for sanitary convenience was
about one hundred and seventy five feet from some of the
camps, you were not allowed to use a bason or any other xxknx
utensil in the camp so you can imagine the hardship and diffi-
culties that we. encountered in those days especially on nights
when the rain was falling. We 'were not charged any fee for
quarters or medical services, but was supposed to eat at the
mess kitchen, every evening after work the foreman gave each
man a ticket, that ticket was good for your supper said even-
ing and would also serve as a lodging check in case the police-
man and watchman came around at night as very often they did;
also you wa.: furnish breakfast and dinner the following day
with the ticket you had relieved the previous day after which
it was destroyed. You were given a ticket each day from
monday.to friday.while on Saturdays you recieve two, tickets,
or should a holiday occur you was also given a ticket to cover
the holiday. As I had mention above you didn't pay for living
in the camps but you better be sure to have a lodging check
if the police and watchman come around for they didn't accept
excuses and once taken away you were charged for loitering and
the magistrate showed no sympathy, most of the time it was
thirty days in jail for such offense. Tis true at that time
work was plentiful but some men suffered so badly from fever
and was so ignorant,to shun the hospital that many times they
fell victims through their own errors, fever in those days
played a havoc of men, for I in.Edxkznr landed here on the 17th
day of December 1906 and on the 31st December 1906 I was in
Colon Hospital, but although I have had fever several times
the longest time I had spent with fever was ten days. The
signal for out lirtht at 9 oclock P.M. was given by knocking an
old angle bar kept at the kitchen for that purpose. During
khxktima those early days you could get work any place, but
although fever attack many men yet there were men who were
callous of work v.nd a police officer whose name was Mr. Smith
ftyip (Ginger) it was his delight totrack down men who were
not working whether they were sick or lazy, and if proven
well they suffered the penalty .:r. Smith- used to ride a
roan pony that nec;ed to be up to all tricks, but as the
years roll on things ch,.np-:ed some men lived in the camps and
provided their o:In mealf and was not molested. I endured the
life living in the camp until sometime in 1908 1 went and
lived in New Gj.tun west of where the Third Locks cut was made,
the convenience for sanita.ry facilities was alright but I still
had a tough job especially with my laundry more particular
4 image0095.jpg
Clarke, A. p.4
when the rainy season was on sometimes I had two or three
suits of clothes working all wet not a dry piece to put on
when morning came for I to go to work. But the majority of
us used a scheme to put on those wet clothes, that .is we took
the clothes to the bath room with us and immediately leaving
the shower without drying our skin we put the wet clothes on,
took our breakfast and was off to work for anoth day of hard
toil. Now coming to the late period of Construction days
About 1913 and 1914 work was scarce, because most of the con-
struction was completed, McClintio Marshall Construction Com-
pany who built and hang the gates was practically finish, even
the Bridge Company who built the emergency dams was completed,
so men wandered here and there in search of work; and very
often was arrested by policemen for loitering and when placed
before the magistrate who never used reason in those day,
they wore sent to prison. I remember one morning I went out
looking a job. not hearing anything I pass by the present
Rail Road Station at Gatun myself and another man, and when
we was nearing the bridge I heard a whistle and turned in the
direction the sound had came from and saw it was a policeman,
I placed.my right hand to my stomach in a manner implying-if
its me he wanted, he (the policeman) pointed to my companion,
so I in turn told my companion the policeman wanted him, as
the policeman was coming our way we waited until he reached us.
He ask my companion if he was working? He (my companion) said
no'. The policeman in turn told him to come and let the
Serjeant know why he is not working So the policeman took
him another course while I kept on- home .and when I heard from
him again I learned- he was serving a term of thirty days in
jail, I really never knew what was his surname but I used to
hear the folks call him Arnie. Such is what I can truthfully
tell you of my experience during the construction days of the
Isthmian Rxni Canal Commission which in later years gained the
name of Pa.nama: Cane.l from which I was retired May 31 1954
from .the Atlantic Locks my D.R. !No is 6580
Fespectfully submitted
AAriON CLAI.KE


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