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:
AA00016037:00057


This item is only available as the following downloads:


Full Text







Hodges, George; 5th Cuba Ave. St., Hee 2,4-17, Guachapali,
Panama, R.P.


My arrival on the Isthmus May 21st, 1906; landed in
Colon from on board the steam ship Tagus. Then I were trans-
fered to the Panama Rail Road train; when saying train, I
don't mean passenger train; it was box car train, myself and
many many more. While coming up from Colon, one box car was
cut off to each section until we got to Pedro Miguel that
night. Then on that same night, we were taken to Cocoracha
Section; from there, we were also taken to the Mess Hall;
where we were well treated that night. From thence we were
again taken to the Goverment Camp to sleep. We were told by the
boss in charge who was an American man to get ready to report
to work by 6 o'clock the following morning. After we were
reported on that morning, he said to us, now boys, each one
of you get hold of a pick and. shovel and follow me. We did
obey his orders; and he then took us up to Paralso yard where
the water company was digging a ditch to put down a big water
pipe. As far as I can remember, that ditch was about 5 feet
deep, just about exactly where the.Club House and Commissary
in Faraiso right now in the-mid road. Around that very spot
where that Commy & Club House is built now, there was a coal
bunker where the night huslero used to coal up engines at
nights. Should there be any doubts on that, you can please
refer to records in Balboa. Heights. The name of the Superin-
tendent was Hir. Walker so far as 1 can remember. The general
foreman of that Divission was one Mr. Taylor, the Chief Time-
keeper name was :r. v;inter, who then gave to us ICC check to
work with. At the very spot where the High School built right
now, there was a small lake of water where they usually used
to dump garbage came from the section. Very few people of
to-day knows that. I worked about nix (6) months with that
division as far as/ my mc;-ory served me. I left there and
went and got a job in a Hotel in that same Section (Paraiso).
The Hotel Manager name wan .r. 3eigl, whom I worked for about
eight (8) months.

After working eight wontls at the Hotel, I went and got
a job in another Hotel In : mpire. This particular Hotel was
one of the Old irornch 7icr' ; building of which was occupied
temporary. It wa.s a.round. October 1907. During that same year
December, we were transferld over in an a new Hotel which was
built at or near th)e ianr.mn-. Rail -Foad Station in Empire. The
Manager's name -vas ',r. Gondolfo. I worked there about 10 months;










Hodges, George p.2


then I left there on account of payment was too small; for in
those days, they were only paying $15 a month.

After I had left the tiotel, I arain picked up a job at
Rio Gronde Car Fepairing (21U1. The Foreman's name was Mr.
Rosegrant, whom I've worke] for over an year.

From there, I got a job in Colebra Cut, in the year 1909.
From here I can give you some brief experience about Colebra
Out, during those days. The Foreman, whom I got the job, his
name was Jack Adams. I was employed there as a powder man.
I worked there from 1909 to 1914. I can remember in the year
1913,- of which I cannot recall the date, but it was on a
Saturday, we were notified by the boss from the Friday after-
noon, to report to work Saturday morning early, because we
were going to have an important task to be carried out that
day. In those days there were seven (7) powder gang working
from Paraiso, Colebra Cut flown to Empire Cut. The following
names were the Foremen's to each gang. 1st, Jack Adams,
2nd. Jeffry, 3rd. Moony, 4th. Cushing, (two brothers). Well,
these five powder men rot together to make a shot that Satur-
day. On that day we all met together, both bosses and work-
men. After we had all gathered together ;r. Adams, who was
my boss called to me, Hodges come here; he ask me as you all
the time been going to the powder house, please let me know
what kind of powder do you have up there; I intern said to
him that I have key-stone, du-pont and Trojan. He again ask
me Hodges, what kind of powder do you think best to used to
shoot those holds to-day? I immediately told him to take my
advise and use the Trojan powder.

He said to me, why should you choose Trojan powder, and
leave out key-stoy; & du-pont the best? I told him that I
know that they are the best, but I prefer Trojan powder,
because you have a better chance with Trojan than the other
two powders. In case of dmngfer, Trojan powder will give you
a sign. He ask me, what do you mean by a sign? I told him
that the sign in that when the Trojan powder gets into the
hole, that it boils like a pot because you can nlaturally
hear it. But not key stone and du-pont. When ever they get
hot, they fired off ri;-ht away. Then, one of the boss who
name was Jeffrj, naid to hbi:i, he's right; Trojan powder is
the best one to use today to do that job. And they all had
came to an agreement, to use Trojan powder. Then, Jack took
out his pocket book: and wrote a note to the watchman whose
name was Brown; the note said, please to deliver to these
men 175 boxes of dynamite. Each box contains 50 lbs. and it








Hodges, G. p.3


carries 5 packages for which each pack carries 20 sticks.
When the powder was delivered on the spot, he told me person-
ally, see to it that they are protected and cover over from
the engine's sparkles. And so I did. Then at the same time
Mr. Cushing sai(3, "Well boys, this chot is to be made day,
don't play around; for if it even take us up to midnight
tonight, it has to be done." Now the loading started; now
take a note of what I am saying now; some of the holes were
30 ft. vertical, and come wero less. The toe holes, what they
have called toe holes, some were 10 ft. to 12 ft. ddep. When
we were about midway in the shot, one of the Cushing called
to a man by the name John Sandyford, and told him to take some
men with him and go back and start to load the toe holes.
About 5 minutes after they had started loading those holes,
I heard Sandyford shouted out, "look out fellows'" And when
we did look, we saw the. holes started to discharge one by one
without any electrical wire attached to them. Then it was that
time we had realized what was going to happen. And what did
really happen, the bosses and all the men had to run to save
their lives. So, I was the man who advise the boss to use
that Trojan powddr, and if they did not heed my advise, -I
would not be alive today to tell the story what had hthpnt
happened that day. By saving 5 powder gang, 3 track line
gang lives, praise txtfa be to the Almighty God, not one man
never get hurt nor even a scr-atch from that shot. And through
my good advise, I was honored by both white and black in the
gang. And the following payday, I gotted a collection from
mostly all the co-workers and the 5 white men.

After everything were over, the Monday morning when we
went to work, I Zotted a big shake hand from almost every man
in the gang by saving their lives after God.

1.r. Joseph Little was the Superintendent, and one hand
Miller was the supervisor. Mr. Caligo was the General Foreman
for the Steam Shovel. Ar. C'"Neil was the General Foreman for
the track. Line. Mr. Hill was the General Foreman for the
Tripod Drilling gang. 1Mr. Woodmian was the General Foreman for
the Star Drill. If there should be any question to be ask,
you can please let me know.

Again I have seen by my own eyes there were some men
were drilling some holes with the Tripod Drill one afternoon,
of which I cannot remember the date; it was about 10 to 15
minutes after 5, of which in those days we use to work until
5 o'clock; they were working over-time that evening. On my








Hodges, G. p.4


way up the track, about 50 ft. from them, I witnessed a stone
about the size of a flour barrel pitched out the cliff, as if
it had been thrown by some one, and drop on a colored man's 8
back, while he was cranking a Tripad Drill Machine; and killed
him dead dead on the spot.

A next accident that I have w-:itnessed again, it was one
evening about 5:10 P.-1.; we had already loaded some holes to
make a shot; but as a rule, the shot could not be fired,
until 'after 5 when everybody are cleared away from that area.
So whenever time he is going to make a shot at that hour, he
generally sommed the Trackline gang to clear the track, and
also be on the laert for whenever the shot is fired. Because
should in case the shot affect the Trackline, they can repair
it immediately after the shot; for the Train to pass the
following day. On that very some evening, there was an engine
coming up on the same track; the number of the engine was
288. I saw one of the men from the Trackline gang was standing
in the center of the track; and all .the call his own Country-
men called to him to get off the track; but he kept on looking
at the coming engine coming towards him. If that engineer did
not check up on his speed he was comining, that man would of been
a dead dead man in pieces on the spot. The engine came up on
him and pushed him some 15 to 20 feet in the track from where
he was standing; but be was still alive, with mostly all his
skin was striped off like a piece of ham bone. All I could of
heard him said, "Mi.'HMadre, Mi hadrel" Which means, "My Mother,
My Mother!" The engine immediately took him to S n Ancon
Hospital, as it was called during those days. That gang was
only all Spain Spaniard working together. After he was taken
to the Hospital, 1 did not get know report on his recovery.

Again, here is another accident happened while I was
working in Rio Grande; there was an engine f1261 was hauling
crush stones to Colebra and other Sections. While going one
evening about after 5 o'clock, the train cut apart; one half
in front with the engine, and the other half coming behind
near by; there \as a ilontserration man tried to hop on the
first half of that tbain; he then minscd his step and fell
down rigJt at the wheel of the second train which was coming
behind, and cut his body right in two ihalves. One half went
one side of the track and the other went the other side, as if
he had been chopped with a i.nachctte. lie wasn't dead at the
same time, because he was gasping for breath. So from those
experiences, of ,.lIicl I hau witlien: with my own eyes, I can
recall on lots of details of what had happened during the
digging of the Pajnama Canal.












Hodges, G. p.5

As I have already stated, these happenings should be
recorded in Balboa Heights. The only thing that bother me,
the dates I really cannot remember. Should there be any
slight doubt on these, pleaec refer to records; for I am
certainly sure that they are recorded. Maybe, not as I explain,
but they are there along with -any many more.

These happenings are just part of all what I have seen
during those days. There are lots :more I can say, but it
will take me cuite a timo.

So as I am a Retired Old Timer, I am giving thanks to
the United States of America, and may God bless them all.


GEORGE HODCES
Old Timer




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Hodges, George; 5th Cuba Ave. St., Hee 2,4-17, Guachapali,
Panama, R.P.
My arrival on the Isthmus May 21st, 1906; landed in
Colon from on board the steam ship Tagus. Then I were trans-
fered to the Panama Rail Road train; when saying train, I
don't mean passenger train; it was box car train, myself and
many many more. While coming up from Colon, one box car was
cut off to each section until we got to Pedro Miguel that
night. Then on that same night, we were taken to Cocoracha
Section; from there, we were also taken to the Mess Hall;
where we were well treated that night. From thence we were
again taken to the Goverment Camp to sleep. We were told by the
boss in charge who was an American man to get ready to report
to work by 6 o'clock the following morning. After we were
reported on that morning, he said to us, now boys, each one
of you get hold of a pick and. shovel and follow me. We did
obey his orders; and he then took us up to Paralso yard where
the water company was digging a ditch to put down a big water
pipe. As far as I can remember, that ditch was about 5 feet
deep, just about exactly where the.Club House and Commissary
in Faraiso right now in the-mid road. Around that very spot
where that Commy & Club House is built now, there was a coal
bunker where the night huslero used to coal up engines at
nights. Should there be any doubts on that, you can please
refer to records in Balboa. Heights. The name of the Superin-
tendent was Hir. Walker so far as 1 can remember. The general
foreman of that Divission was one Mr. Taylor, the Chief Time-
keeper name was :r. v;inter, who then gave to us ICC check to
work with. At the very spot where the High School built right
now, there was a small lake of water where they usually used
to dump garbage came from the section. Very few people of
to-day knows that. I worked about nix (6) months with that
division as far as/ my mc;-ory served me. I left there and
went and got a job in a Hotel in that same Section (Paraiso).
The Hotel Manager name wan .r. 3eigl, whom I worked for about
eight (8) months.
After working eight wontls at the Hotel, I went and got
a job in another Hotel In : mpire. This particular Hotel was
one of the Old irornch 7icr' ; building of which was occupied
temporary. It wa.s a.round. October 1907. During that same year
December, we were transferld over in an a new Hotel which was
built at or near th)e ianr.mn-. Rail -Foad Station in Empire. The
Manager's name -vas ',r. Gondolfo. I worked there about 10 months;
2 image0136.jpg
Hodges, George p.2
then I left there on account of payment was too small; for in
those days, they were only paying $15 a month.
After I had left the tiotel, I arain picked up a job at
Rio Gronde Car Fepairing (21U1. The Foreman's name was Mr.
Rosegrant, whom I've worke] for over an year.
From there, I got a job in Colebra Cut, in the year 1909.
From here I can give you some brief experience about Colebra
Out, during those days. The Foreman, whom I got the job, his
name was Jack Adams. I was employed there as a powder man.
I worked there from 1909 to 1914. I can remember in the year
1913,- of which I cannot recall the date, but it was on a
Saturday, we were notified by the boss from the Friday after-
noon, to report to work Saturday morning early, because we
were going to have an important task to be carried out that
day. In those days there were seven (7) powder gang working
from Paraiso, Colebra Cut flown to Empire Cut. The following
names were the Foremen's to each gang. 1st, Jack Adams,
2nd. Jeffry, 3rd. Moony, 4th. Cushing, (two brothers). Well,
these five powder men rot together to make a shot that Satur-
day. On that day we all met together, both bosses and work-
men. After we had all gathered together ;r. Adams, who was
my boss called to me, Hodges come here; he ask me as you all
the time been going to the powder house, please let me know
what kind of powder do you have up there; I intern said to
him that I have key-stone, du-pont and Trojan. He again ask
me Hodges, what kind of powder do you think best to used to
shoot those holds to-day? I immediately told him to take my
advise and use the Trojan powder.
He said to me, why should you choose Trojan powder, and
leave out key-stoy; & du-pont the best? I told him that I
know that they are the best, but I prefer Trojan powder,
because you have a better chance with Trojan than the other
two powders. In case of dmngfer, Trojan powder will give you
a sign. He ask me, what do you mean by a sign? I told him
that the sign in that when the Trojan powder gets into the
hole, that it boils like a pot because you can nlaturally
hear it. But not key stone and du-pont. When ever they get
hot, they fired off ri;-ht away. Then, one of the boss who
name was Jeffrj, naid to hbi:i, he's right; Trojan powder is
the best one to use today to do that job. And they all had
came to an agreement, to use Trojan powder. Then, Jack took
out his pocket book: and wrote a note to the watchman whose
name was Brown; the note said, please to deliver to these
men 175 boxes of dynamite. Each box contains 50 lbs. and it
3 image0137.jpg
Hodges, G. p.3
carries 5 packages for which each pack carries 20 sticks.
When the powder was delivered on the spot, he told me person-
ally, see to it that they are protected and cover over from
the engine's sparkles. And so I did. Then at the same time
Mr. Cushing sai(3, "Well boys, this chot is to be made day,
don't play around; for if it even take us up to midnight
tonight, it has to be done." Now the loading started; now
take a note of what I am saying now; some of the holes were
30 ft. vertical, and come wero less. The toe holes, what they
have called toe holes, some were 10 ft. to 12 ft. ddep. When
we were about midway in the shot, one of the Cushing called
to a man by the name John Sandyford, and told him to take some
men with him and go back and start to load the toe holes.
About 5 minutes after they had started loading those holes,
I heard Sandyford shouted out, "look out fellows'" And when
we did look, we saw the. holes started to discharge one by one
without any electrical wire attached to them. Then it was that
time we had realized what was going to happen. And what did
really happen, the bosses and all the men had to run to save
their lives. So, I was the man who advise the boss to use
that Trojan powddr, and if they did not heed my advise, -I
would not be alive today to tell the story what had hthpnt
happened that day. By saving 5 powder gang, 3 track line
gang lives, praise txtfa be to the Almighty God, not one man
never get hurt nor even a scr-atch from that shot. And through
my good advise, I was honored by both white and black in the
gang. And the following payday, I gotted a collection from
mostly all the co-workers and the 5 white men.
After everything were over, the Monday morning when we
went to work, I Zotted a big shake hand from almost every man
in the gang by saving their lives after God.
1.r. Joseph Little was the Superintendent, and one hand
Miller was the supervisor. Mr. Caligo was the General Foreman
for the Steam Shovel. Ar. C'"Neil was the General Foreman for
the track. Line. Mr. Hill was the General Foreman for the
Tripod Drilling gang. 1Mr. Woodmian was the General Foreman for
the Star Drill. If there should be any question to be ask,
you can please let me know.
Again I have seen by my own eyes there were some men
were drilling some holes with the Tripod Drill one afternoon,
of which I cannot remember the date; it was about 10 to 15
minutes after 5, of which in those days we use to work until
5 o'clock; they were working over-time that evening. On my
4 image0138.jpg
Hodges, G. p.4
way up the track, about 50 ft. from them, I witnessed a stone
about the size of a flour barrel pitched out the cliff, as if
it had been thrown by some one, and drop on a colored man's 8
back, while he was cranking a Tripad Drill Machine; and killed
him dead dead on the spot.
A next accident that I have w-:itnessed again, it was one
evening about 5:10 P.-1.; we had already loaded some holes to
make a shot; but as a rule, the shot could not be fired,
until 'after 5 when everybody are cleared away from that area.
So whenever time he is going to make a shot at that hour, he
generally sommed the Trackline gang to clear the track, and
also be on the laert for whenever the shot is fired. Because
should in case the shot affect the Trackline, they can repair
it immediately after the shot; for the Train to pass the
following day. On that very some evening, there was an engine
coming up on the same track; the number of the engine was
288. I saw one of the men from the Trackline gang was standing
in the center of the track; and all .the call his own Country-
men called to him to get off the track; but he kept on looking
at the coming engine coming towards him. If that engineer did
not check up on his speed he was comining, that man would of been
a dead dead man in pieces on the spot. The engine came up on
him and pushed him some 15 to 20 feet in the track from where
he was standing; but be was still alive, with mostly all his
skin was striped off like a piece of ham bone. All I could of
heard him said, "Mi.'HMadre, Mi hadrel" Which means, "My Mother,
My Mother!" The engine immediately took him to S n Ancon
Hospital, as it was called during those days. That gang was
only all Spain Spaniard working together. After he was taken
to the Hospital, 1 did not get know report on his recovery.
Again, here is another accident happened while I was
working in Rio Grande; there was an engine f1261 was hauling
crush stones to Colebra and other Sections. While going one
evening about after 5 o'clock, the train cut apart; one half
in front with the engine, and the other half coming behind
near by; there \as a ilontserration man tried to hop on the
first half of that tbain; he then minscd his step and fell
down rigJt at the wheel of the second train which was coming
behind, and cut his body right in two ihalves. One half went
one side of the track and the other went the other side, as if
he had been chopped with a i.nachctte. lie wasn't dead at the
same time, because he was gasping for breath. So from those
experiences, of ,.lIicl I hau witlien: with my own eyes, I can
recall on lots of details of what had happened during the
digging of the Pajnama Canal.
5 image0139.jpg
Hodges, G. p.5
As I have already stated, these happenings should be
recorded in Balboa Heights. The only thing that bother me,
the dates I really cannot remember. Should there be any
slight doubt on these, pleaec refer to records; for I am
certainly sure that they are recorded. Maybe, not as I explain,
but they are there along with -any many more.
These happenings are just part of all what I have seen
during those days. There are lots :more I can say, but it
will take me cuite a timo.
So as I am a Retired Old Timer, I am giving thanks to
the United States of America, and may God bless them all.
GEORGE HODCES
Old Timer