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:
AA00016037:00049


This item is only available as the following downloads:


Full Text




Garner, John; Estafeta Juan Diaz, Panama, R.P.


I came to the Isthmus from Barbados on S.S. Solent May
1908, service contract #16477 and began work for the Isthmian
Canal Commission as laborer "First Class" stationed at Taber-
nilla. I set to work with a three piece suit, a pick, shovel
and a claw bar, servicing R.R. tracks for train taking dirt
from the Canal to Dump area, my immediate Foreman was Mr Joe
Jalaney and IMr Melvin C. Mack General Foreman. I worked
along with men who had done this work before so I did not take
very long to break in. We worked nine hours per day and some-
times a double shift especially when a new dump area was about
to be opened and happen to be crossing over the Panama Rail
Road main line this work had to be done by night to avoid any
delay of the Passenger Train, so we had to hustle. In those
days it rained every day and almost all day, never-the-less the
work went on and there were no lost time.

In the month of April 1909 I had the first touch of
malaria fever and was treated by the Doctor at the Tabernilla
Rest House. This place was equipt with beds to take care of
about 20 men for a matter of three days and if not better in
three days you would be sent to Hospital. I had spent- three
days at this rest house and although not quite better and did
not want to go into Hospital I asked the Doctor for my dis-
charge which he gave me. I believe I had enough Quinine in my
body to cure two men. That Quinine had me grogy and I was
unable to walk down the stairs alone so I asked a man to help
me down the stairs and out into a path which led to the Camp.
It was about 9 o'clock Jn the day and I had to hide around
until five o'clock Tbecause it was not allowed to be around the
Camp during work hours. Then I reach the camp it was very near-
6 o'clock for the fever had me down and almost out. When the
boys at the Camp saw me they came and lifted me up the steps
they wanted to give me something to eat but I had no appetite
so they drenched me with Bay Rum and had me drink some also.
The following day they assisted me to the labor train and put
me off where my gang was suppose to work. The Foreman had me
sit around until I could join the ranks again. The boys in
this gang were very jolly and we got along nicely together. We
had talk very much about the "Big Ditch" but none of us has
ever seen the Canal up to this time.

Some of us decide to take time out and see what the Canal
look like so the following Sunday I left Tabernilla and went to
Pedro Miguel where I met with friends who were working in the
Canal and they encourage me to stay at that end and get a job
in the Canal. On monday I walked along the Canal to Paraiso
and got a job with the Burveys. The Engineer in charge was Mr
W. N. Tenny with a staff of 6 State Rate men and 18 Local








Garner, J. p.2


Raters the office a wooden structure with a concrete vault for
a dry room. The building has been removed but the vault remain
up to present time in Paraiso.

I went to work with this outfit as laborer cutting and
clearing bush for cross section -.-ork placing grade stakes for
steam shovel cut running base lines putting up'station tar-
gets etc. The limit of our run was from Pedro Miguel to Empire
Suspension Bridge. We had quite a lot of difficulties with
slides along the Canal, the East and West Culebra slides were
the most troublesome, a gang had to be stationed there at all
time the steam shovels weie kept busy day and night. Years
rolled on the "D" day was at hand, the Dyke was built across
the Canal from Mandinga Eiver to Chagres River. This dyke con-
trolled all waters from Gatnli Lake and the Chagres River and
protect the Dry Excavation on the south side of the Dyke. By
this time Colonel Gaillard had gone back to the States and a
new set of Engkneers took over. Quite a lot of changes took
place the men I worked for was also gone, I was transferred to
this new Office. The head of staff this time was W. B. Comber
Resident Engineer, James Mncfarlane Supervisor and C. L. Vande-
burg Engineer in charge of Dredging from Atlantic to Pacific.
This new office was also in Paraiso but a different location
and much bigger. I had to be broken in to this type of work as
I knew nothing about sounding with leadline. In this gang they
were 12 States Rate and 70 Local Raters split up into several
units, Graded thus Foreman, Carpenter, Leadsman Chainman,
Boatman Storeman and Laborer. I got along with these men very
well and after a year working I was promoted to Foreman, a Fore-
man in this outfit was supposed to be able to take notes on
Hydrographic and Topographic Surveys also receive and carry out
orders correctly. I uork ;,long with these men and years rolled
on, sometimes in the Cut for a while another time in Balboa
or Cristobal. In 1914 ;Mr Vanrdebvrg went out and in came Mr.
John G. Claybourn. 1 worked along under his supervision just
the same, 1937 the entire outfit was transferred to Gamboa
while at this office I was promoted to Time Keeper and after-
wards Clerk. 1 had to take care of Files, Maps, Daily report
of Dredges, Labor distribution, time cards etc.

By this time Mr. Claybourn was about to be retired from
the service, his term in office as Superintendent was 26 years.
The Dredging Division is one of the oldest organization of the
Canal, created under the Inthmian Canal Couission, this Divis-
ion has received brilliant citation from Colonel Goethals,
Chief of the Isthmian Canal Commission and First Governor of









Garner, J. p.3


the Panama Canal for its outstanding work covering the slide
period and Ather achievements throughout the years. Mr. P. A.
White became Superintendent in 1948. In 1953 6 men came down
from the United States to evaluate the Canal from 1904 to 1953.
I was assigned to work with these men furnishing data required.
The name of the Chairman w:'; Mr True, I don't remember his
first name. I worked under the supervision of these men and
was retired from service in 1954' a term of 46 years.

My. motto was and still is Perform the fullest measure
of work first and expect reward after.

Respectfully

JOHN GARNER


D.R. #6436




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Garner, John; Estafeta Juan Diaz, Panama, R.P.
I came to the Isthmus from Barbados on S.S. Solent May
1908, service contract #16477 and began work for the Isthmian
Canal Commission as laborer "First Class" stationed at Taber-
nilla. I set to work with a three piece suit, a pick, shovel
and a claw bar, servicing R.R. tracks for train taking dirt
from the Canal to Dump area, my immediate Foreman was Mr Joe
Jalaney and IMr Melvin C. Mack General Foreman. I worked
along with men who had done this work before so I did not take
very long to break in. We worked nine hours per day and some-
times a double shift especially when a new dump area was about
to be opened and happen to be crossing over the Panama Rail
Road main line this work had to be done by night to avoid any
delay of the Passenger Train, so we had to hustle. In those
days it rained every day and almost all day, never-the-less the
work went on and there were no lost time.
In the month of April 1909 I had the first touch of
malaria fever and was treated by the Doctor at the Tabernilla
Rest House. This place was equipt with beds to take care of
about 20 men for a matter of three days and if not better in
three days you would be sent to Hospital. I had spent- three
days at this rest house and although not quite better and did
not want to go into Hospital I asked the Doctor for my dis-
charge which he gave me. I believe I had enough Quinine in my
body to cure two men. That Quinine had me grogy and I was
unable to walk down the stairs alone so I asked a man to help
me down the stairs and out into a path which led to the Camp.
It was about 9 o'clock Jn the day and I had to hide around
until five o'clock Tbecause it was not allowed to be around the
Camp during work hours. Then I reach the camp it was very near-
6 o'clock for the fever had me down and almost out. When the
boys at the Camp saw me they came and lifted me up the steps
they wanted to give me something to eat but I had no appetite
so they drenched me with Bay Rum and had me drink some also.
The following day they assisted me to the labor train and put
me off where my gang was suppose to work. The Foreman had me
sit around until I could join the ranks again. The boys in
this gang were very jolly and we got along nicely together. We
had talk very much about the "Big Ditch" but none of us has
ever seen the Canal up to this time.
Some of us decide to take time out and see what the Canal
look like so the following Sunday I left Tabernilla and went to
Pedro Miguel where I met with friends who were working in the
Canal and they encourage me to stay at that end and get a job
in the Canal. On monday I walked along the Canal to Paraiso
and got a job with the Burveys. The Engineer in charge was Mr
W. N. Tenny with a staff of 6 State Rate men and 18 Local
2 image0126.jpg
Garner, J. p.2
Raters the office a wooden structure with a concrete vault for
a dry room. The building has been removed but the vault remain
up to present time in Paraiso.
I went to work with this outfit as laborer cutting and
clearing bush for cross section -.-ork placing grade stakes for
steam shovel cut running base lines putting up'station tar-
gets etc. The limit of our run was from Pedro Miguel to Empire
Suspension Bridge. We had quite a lot of difficulties with
slides along the Canal, the East and West Culebra slides were
the most troublesome, a gang had to be stationed there at all
time the steam shovels weie kept busy day and night. Years
rolled on the "D" day was at hand, the Dyke was built across
the Canal from Mandinga Eiver to Chagres River. This dyke con-
trolled all waters from Gatnli Lake and the Chagres River and
protect the Dry Excavation on the south side of the Dyke. By
this time Colonel Gaillard had gone back to the States and a
new set of Engkneers took over. Quite a lot of changes took
place the men I worked for was also gone, I was transferred to
this new Office. The head of staff this time was W. B. Comber
Resident Engineer, James Mncfarlane Supervisor and C. L. Vande-
burg Engineer in charge of Dredging from Atlantic to Pacific.
This new office was also in Paraiso but a different location
and much bigger. I had to be broken in to this type of work as
I knew nothing about sounding with leadline. In this gang they
were 12 States Rate and 70 Local Raters split up into several
units, Graded thus Foreman, Carpenter, Leadsman Chainman,
Boatman Storeman and Laborer. I got along with these men very
well and after a year working I was promoted to Foreman, a Fore-
man in this outfit was supposed to be able to take notes on
Hydrographic and Topographic Surveys also receive and carry out
orders correctly. I uork ;,long with these men and years rolled
on, sometimes in the Cut for a while another time in Balboa
or Cristobal. In 1914 ;Mr Vanrdebvrg went out and in came Mr.
John G. Claybourn. 1 worked along under his supervision just
the same, 1937 the entire outfit was transferred to Gamboa
while at this office I was promoted to Time Keeper and after-
wards Clerk. 1 had to take care of Files, Maps, Daily report
of Dredges, Labor distribution, time cards etc.
By this time Mr. Claybourn was about to be retired from
the service, his term in office as Superintendent was 26 years.
The Dredging Division is one of the oldest organization of the
Canal, created under the Inthmian Canal Couission, this Divis-
ion has received brilliant citation from Colonel Goethals,
Chief of the Isthmian Canal Commission and First Governor of
3 image0127.jpg
Garner, J. p.3
the Panama Canal for its outstanding work covering the slide
period and Ather achievements throughout the years. Mr. P. A.
White became Superintendent in 1948. In 1953 6 men came down
from the United States to evaluate the Canal from 1904 to 1953.
I was assigned to work with these men furnishing data required.
The name of the Chairman w:'; Mr True, I don't remember his
first name. I worked under the supervision of these men and
was retired from service in 1954' a term of 46 years.
My. motto was and still is Perform the fullest measure
of work first and expect reward after.
Respectfully
JOHN GARNER
D.R. #6436