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:
AA00016037:00042


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Dottin, Alfred E.; Estafeta del Chorrillo, Panama, R.P.



I arrived on the istJn;ius of Ponama on Sept. 20, 1909 with
the S.S. Ancon. My first job with the U.S. Government was on
November. 15 of the sn;.e year, as a carpenter, for the Pacific
terminalslin Pedro Miguel under a fore-man by the name of Mr.
Sneed. Other bosses that came :andl went dluring'my time were:
Jim M4ayne, George, i'errott, McClean, Scott, Stanford and
others.

The working condition In those days were so horrible it
would stagger your imagination. I don't think I could ever
find words to express the true conditions that existed. Death
was our constant companion. I shall never forget the train
Toads of dead men being carted away daily, as if they were
just so much lumber. Malaria with all its horrible meaning in
those days was just a household word. I saw mosquitoes, I say
this without fear of exag-erating, by the thousands attack one
man/ There were days that we could only work a few hours
because of the high fever racking our bodies--it was a living
hell. Finally, typhoid fever got me and I was laid up for 9
weeks in Ancon iHospital hovering between life and death. My
fore-man, >'lr. Snoed, treated me like a. king while I was recup-
erating. He-saw to it that I fot plenty of sleep and food--
good food I enjoyed it very much. Speaking of food, any man
who was living in that era will always cry when he sees the
high prices on today's food.

When I came here to work I saw tools that I never saw
before in my life such as the Jack Ha;;mer, star drills, steel
square, etc., I acquired new skills, such as mixinC cement,
using the jack-hamnmer, working the star drills. I had to learn
how to cook by force and wash my clothes because of the scar-
city of women in the Empire Section of the Canal, where I lived.
Sunday was my day and wash dny at the .a-ne time. The drinking
water was so bad that you dared not drink it with out first
sterilizing it, und to stci I lize the water was one hel of a
job. Salaries were fant--.tically low ,0.16 to v;0.20 was the
going rate for hourly employees with 1(0.25 for the sub-foremen.
Going to work on the labor train was like mingling with cattle
on a drive. If you were ever nsen getting of the trains before
they stopped you would be arreTcted and sentenced to 10 days in
jail--it was horrible. There a .I e tii:ec w-hen we would get
soaked in the rain doinG a rush job and then right after have
to hustle to catch the train home or you would have sleep on












Dottin, A. E. p.2


the job site. I tell you it was no bed of roses. The slide
at Culebra was something that I would like to explain but
can't unless there was tsome way that I could go to the "Out"
and demonstrate. Bclicve me the men that died in the slide
were numbered among the hundreds. My job after the slide was
to watch for dump trains. One evening after working overtime
iln the Canal, four of un were going home walking on the tracks
when to our surprise we saw the 'engine 227 creeping up behind
us we just had time to jump into some soft mud 18 inches deep.
We were saved by the mercy of God.

In closing, I must say that I am glad to see the Ohanges
that has come over the Canal Zone and Panama, I am glad to see
the progress that my foster country has made in the-field of
human Justice, I am glad to see how the U.S. Government has
progressed in the field of labor relations, which was non-exis-
tent in those days, I glad to see that all my sweat, my tears.
and all those deaths were not in vain.

I thank you,

God-Bless America.


unsigned




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Dottin, Alfred E.; Estafeta del Chorrillo, Panama, R.P.
I arrived on the istJn;ius of Ponama on Sept. 20, 1909 with
the S.S. Ancon. My first job with the U.S. Government was on
November. 15 of the sn;.e year, as a carpenter, for the Pacific
terminalslin Pedro Miguel under a fore-man by the name of Mr.
Sneed. Other bosses that came :andl went dluring'my time were:
Jim M4ayne, George, i'errott, McClean, Scott, Stanford and
others.
The working condition In those days were so horrible it
would stagger your imagination. I don't think I could ever
find words to express the true conditions that existed. Death
was our constant companion. I shall never forget the train
Toads of dead men being carted away daily, as if they were
just so much lumber. Malaria with all its horrible meaning in
those days was just a household word. I saw mosquitoes, I say
this without fear of exag-erating, by the thousands attack one
man/ There were days that we could only work a few hours
because of the high fever racking our bodies--it was a living
hell. Finally, typhoid fever got me and I was laid up for 9
weeks in Ancon iHospital hovering between life and death. My
fore-man, >'lr. Snoed, treated me like a. king while I was recup-
erating. He-saw to it that I fot plenty of sleep and food--
good food I enjoyed it very much. Speaking of food, any man
who was living in that era will always cry when he sees the
high prices on today's food.
When I came here to work I saw tools that I never saw
before in my life such as the Jack Ha;;mer, star drills, steel
square, etc., I acquired new skills, such as mixinC cement,
using the jack-hamnmer, working the star drills. I had to learn
how to cook by force and wash my clothes because of the scar-
city of women in the Empire Section of the Canal, where I lived.
Sunday was my day and wash dny at the .a-ne time. The drinking
water was so bad that you dared not drink it with out first
sterilizing it, und to stci I lize the water was one hel of a
job. Salaries were fant--.tically low ,0.16 to v;0.20 was the
going rate for hourly employees with 1(0.25 for the sub-foremen.
Going to work on the labor train was like mingling with cattle
on a drive. If you were ever nsen getting of the trains before
they stopped you would be arreTcted and sentenced to 10 days in
jail--it was horrible. There a .I e tii:ec w-hen we would get
soaked in the rain doinG a rush job and then right after have
to hustle to catch the train home or you would have sleep on
2 image0109.jpg
Dottin, A. E. p.2
the job site. I tell you it was no bed of roses. The slide
at Culebra was something that I would like to explain but
can't unless there was tsome way that I could go to the "Out"
and demonstrate. Bclicve me the men that died in the slide
were numbered among the hundreds. My job after the slide was
to watch for dump trains. One evening after working overtime
iln the Canal, four of un were going home walking on the tracks
when to our surprise we saw the 'engine 227 creeping up behind
us we just had time to jump into some soft mud 18 inches deep.
We were saved by the mercy of God.
In closing, I must say that I am glad to see the Ohanges
that has come over the Canal Zone and Panama, I am glad to see
the progress that my foster country has made in the-field of
human Justice, I am glad to see how the U.S. Government has
progressed in the field of labor relations, which was non-exis-
tent in those days, I glad to see that all my sweat, my tears.
and all those deaths were not in vain.
I thank you,
God-Bless America.
unsigned


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