Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers


Material Information

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
Afro-Antillean Museum ( donor )
Isthmian Historical Society
Place of Publication:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


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:

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Full Text

De la Rosa, Isaias Antioco; Casa #23, Maria Eugenia, Chilibre,

In the year of 1906 the immigration started to increase on
the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Canal.

In the refilling of Tabernilla dump No. 1 department I
started to work as a waterboy with Mr Green as my foreman for
the I C C company in 1907 till 1909.

In 1909 in Cucaracha I worked as waterboy and switcher
with Mr. Galliger as my foreman till 1911. From there I passed
to Paraiso Municipal Engineer pick and shovel.

In 1911 till 1912 I worked for the construction of Balboa
Dike 10 fdet of profundity. In 1913 till 1914 I worked on the
construction of the new railroad tracks after the Balboa dike
was filled with water. I worked.as a wagon checker in Frijoles,
The water was brought on train in big tanks from the mountains
to be given out afterwards to the employers. Our salary was
10t an hour. In the system of the work the empty wagons pushed
the fill ones.

We made ditches for the. dike. The salary was 18 an hour.
Dynamite were use for the escavation of the dike when necessary
and pumps to drain out the water when needed. The compresors
were heated by burning lumbers and steam drills for the

In Rio Grande I worked there breaking rocks for road and
construction. As a wagon checker I use to check up to 60 cars
per day.

In 191, till 1915 I worked on the new railroad tracks with
Mr. Machnill as pick and shovel from Su:mit to Gamboa.

IP 39154

This is a brief resume of my different jobs I had on the
Isthmus until 1915. My participation for the best prize story.

De la Rosa, I. A. p.2

I'll start by saying where I first worked on the Isthmus.
I began on the refilled of Tabernilla dump No. 1, during the
excavation of dirt out of the Canal, my job was water boy of the
I00 company in 1907 having Mr. Green as supertendent until 1909.
From there I passed to Cucaradha during the construction of the
Canal as water boy and switch man in 1909 until 1911 having Mr.
Galliger as principal boss. In 1911 I passed to Paraiso Munici-
pal Engineer doing pick and shovel with Mr. Boyd as my foreman.

In 1911 to 1912 I worked during the construction of Balboa
Dike which had a profundity of 10 ft. In 1913 to 1914 I worked
on the new railroad lines as a oar checker in Frijoles.

The difficulty with the water was that we had to bring it
from a hill 18 ft high filled in tanks on the train afterwards
to be able to be given out to the employers.

We worked 9 hours and gained 10 $ an hour. As a switcher
I had to open the switch in that way the empty car that passed
help the fill ones gain force .by pushing them

Making ditches for the dike in Balboa was very dangerous
we had to pump out the water and put tubes in it.

In Rio Grande we braked stones for construction material
and transport the stones in cars. In a day I use to check up
to 60 cars In 1914 1915 I worked on the old railroad as
pick and shovel from Summit to Gamboa.

This is a small resume about my working time from 1907 -
1915 on the Isthmus.


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