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:
AA00016037:00066


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Lawson, D. T. p.2


mine. I took possession, slept there-in and felt at home. I
left next morning in interest of securing employment, again I
was fortunate, I approached one tr, Christian an American,
Foreman, placed my-request and wao employed the same day in the
Labor and Quarters depar't.nnt as a Utility-man at 10/ per hour,
February 23, 1906.
In the early construction days, conditions were deplorable*
Sanitation very bad, snakes, malaria fever, yellow fever and
other insect pest were a grave menace to the life and health
of all employees regardless of color. Another uncomfortable
thing was that of a six months yearly rain-fall. Suitable
drinking water wa., a thing of the past. Had fever and.
diarrhea for sev-eh' days. There were two -sources of watbr
which was harnassed and purified for drinking purposes and
otherwise. One at the Atlantic end, and the other at the
Facifio.' it. Hope was at the Atlantic end, and Miraflores at
the Pacific. Miraflores water was pumped fr-om the Chagres
River at Gamboa through underground main pipe a distance of
approximately six miles and stored in several chambers, chem-
ically treated for drinking. I had tra to do my own cooking1
my clothes washing I had to do that on Sundays where river
streams could be found, forced dry, pressing -by sleeping on
them for Monday morning preparation.
From the day I got on board the ship, a de&)ti passenger,
there was absolutely no way of me changing hwbat I had been
wearing until the night of FEbruary 22.
The Canal Zone was purely under military rules and regu-
lations. There were no Community nor recreation centers.
Between the years 1906 and 1908 from wniat I had seen
daily, I manifest my doubt as to whether th'e death toll on
the Canal Zone had, and could be correctly estimated. As for
me personally I escaped death three times, lCy train, hand-car
and by drowing in the Chagres trying to reBsore telephone
service across the river with the use of a canoe which could
not ford the river aiid drifted to an embankment whan.I had
to jump for safety.
The heaviest one-time death-toll was between 1910 and
1912, this occurred between Obiopo and Empinre. It was a
great dynamite explosion which shook the whble place, taking
everything in its wake. Leaths by accident, mangled bodies,
accidental- amputation of limbs, feot and hands by trains.
Nationals of every trite, race and color from all parts
of the world contributed to the building of the great
water-way.
In early days the canal was clarified under the heading
of Isthbmain Canal Comnission. Labor had buiilt the greatest
engineering feature in the world and is still operating it.










Lawson, D. T. p.3

The greatest technical advise the greatest labor brain are
the Americans with their monc. whom 1 personally considered.
There was a great Governor preceded my term of employ-
ment, his name was Thatcher, a high-way is built in commeration
of his honor. Chief EnCineer J. F. Stevens succeeded him, I
worked under his administration.
About the later p:\rt of 1906 and early 1907- a great man
of renown, cal;m, principled, diGnified, hi.h rank and quality.
in the person of Col. G. W.. Goethals, was sent from America
to undertake the great task of constructing the great water-
way. He came first as Col. then General and after Governor.
His first residence was in Culebra a.nd finally mxzz removed
to Balboa Heights.
Prior to Governor Goethals arrival and assumption and
the formation of his cabinet there was an executive adviser
embude with outstanding ability in person Mr. C. A. McIlvaine,
legal adviser to all governors.
Governor Goethals first designate his cabinet on taking
charge. He divided the canal strip into three divisions,
Atlantic, Central and Pacific. Col. Sibert wan then appointed
to the Atlantic Division, Col. Gaillard to the Central and
Col. Williamoon to the Pacific. Notable among the bet'"brains
were Col. Hodges and Col. Gorp-as. Col. Hodges was Governor
Goethals Aid-e-camp naid Col Gorgas the health department,
creditably he performed, his work, hence the great Gorgas
Hospital. Preliminary pljns gets undervw.ay, heavy locomotives,
steam shovels, dump trains, drilling machines and other minor
equipment. There were many doubts manifested as to the real-
ity of the completion. Some of the railway stations mentioned
had fallen in the canal prism and are under water, some no
excavation work was carried out, the area was bare low-land
and need no excavation. The ;:'osttroublesome part during
construction was the Culebra Gut, through it heights on both
sides, there wnas always a continued sliding and more-so
toward the east. Dredgcing was necessary during dry season
and worst in the wet, land slides blocking the channel and
necessitate dredging to clear the silt which blocked the
water-way.
As ,ork on the canal protresced and proved a reality
provisions wore :.ide for the inhabitants who were residing
on the wer:t side to cross; by the construction of a pedestrian
crossing at E-mpire. There was also a swinging bridge at
Paraiso, this bridge was later removed to the north end of the
Pedro Miguel Locks.
A relocated railw.Pvy line w;as constructed and diversion
of train followed from Catun to Gamboa. A Gamboa a Dike was
built as a blockade aU.-ainst the rising of water from the










Lawson, D. T. p.4


northern end, and prevent or visa vera from the other or
southern end, and permit train service crossing over.
At this junction the passenger trains had was to do some
reversing until the Dike was removed. In or during the month
of October 1913, this Dike was blown up by President Woodrow
Wilson in America, there was a submarine cable laid down be-
tween Panama and America, two wires were taken from that
cable by a cable-splicer of whom I was a helper Mr. John
Strauss, the ends out were on the west side of the Dike the
regular method of blasting was carried out after I was told.
that the ends of the two wires leading by their colors to
America was connected to a push button thus enable the opera-
tion to be carried out. I was an eye-witness to this notable
incident. My boss, learninC that a special train was'to have
ran on the occasion for the white Americans entreat me to
board the train with tool bag and other pieces of tools. It
was a packed train, I had was to stand between two coaches
on the platform. I was not opposed. The great Governor
Goethals was on the scene, thousands of spectators with wrist
watches and cameras were all alert watching and waiting for
the final minute, the specified time was less than two minutes,
then the blast, water and dirt were hurled into the air, coming
down spraying everybody in its wake.
There was a necessity for distinction between skilled and
*un-skillod, or common labor-resulting in the. division of
employees into two categories, the skilled were classified
as Gold and the un-skilled or common, Silver.


En:PLCYlENT

Years. Place Dept. or Div. Occupation Foremen
1906-1907 Culebra Labor & Quarters Utility-man Messrs
R.E. Wood
Stewart
Christian
1907-1909 F.l..;. Commsy. Store & Fred
Saleman Morris
1909-1910 On line F.*. Tel.Tel. Lineman Kratz &
Anderson
1910-1912 Empire Clerk M/C8115
1912-1917 On Line Consolidated Cable Spl. Strauss
Tel. & Tel. H1pr. Denny
1917-1918 Bal. Old Electrical Repairman Granberry
Stm. Plnt
1918-1920 "


c juerk


J_7J.\^ --t.;?L W












Lawson, D. T. p.5


1920-1930 Mira. Old Electrical Office Hlp. Lawton
Stm. Plant Hazeldine
M/023474
1930-1932 Pedro Mig. Else. Shop Youchim
1932-1938 Mira.
Diesel Sta. Electrical McCaslin
House
Ward
1938 Voluntarily retired my employment through impaired
health after working 32 years and 2 months continued
service mingled with hard life and very little rest.

Suddenly emergency calls some days terminate into nights
away from home without proper food and water sometimes shelter.
Uncomfortable night, at times in wet clothes, especially when
got left by last means of transportation for home.
Married for betterment, my wife took sick, enter the
Ancon Hospital,'stayed forty days and forty nights. Late one
day for five minutes through her sickness. Death of my only
child. Buried in Culebra.
Pay checks were issued to all employees. Apart from two
terminal pay offices a monthly pay train is operated to pay
all others at different locations.
Departmental chrngen, transfers, change of foreman, was
all for the good of my service and thus enable me to familiarize
and acquaint myself vith the various places worked and views.

Respectfully submitted,
D. T. LAWSON




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Lawson, D. T. p.2
mine. I took possession, slept there-in and felt at home. I
left next morning in interest of securing employment, again I
was fortunate, I approached one tr, Christian an American,
Foreman, placed my-request and wao employed the same day in the
Labor and Quarters depar't.nnt as a Utility-man at 10/ per hour,
February 23, 1906.
In the early construction days, conditions were deplorable*
Sanitation very bad, snakes, malaria fever, yellow fever and
other insect pest were a grave menace to the life and health
of all employees regardless of color. Another uncomfortable
thing was that of a six months yearly rain-fall. Suitable
drinking water wa., a thing of the past. Had fever and.
diarrhea for sev-eh' days. There were two -sources of watbr
which was harnassed and purified for drinking purposes and
otherwise. One at the Atlantic end, and the other at the
Facifio.' it. Hope was at the Atlantic end, and Miraflores at
the Pacific. Miraflores water was pumped fr-om the Chagres
River at Gamboa through underground main pipe a distance of
approximately six miles and stored in several chambers, chem-
ically treated for drinking. I had tra to do my own cooking1
my clothes washing I had to do that on Sundays where river
streams could be found, forced dry, pressing -by sleeping on
them for Monday morning preparation.
From the day I got on board the ship, a de&)ti passenger,
there was absolutely no way of me changing hwbat I had been
wearing until the night of FEbruary 22.
The Canal Zone was purely under military rules and regu-
lations. There were no Community nor recreation centers.
Between the years 1906 and 1908 from wniat I had seen
daily, I manifest my doubt as to whether th'e death toll on
the Canal Zone had, and could be correctly estimated. As for
me personally I escaped death three times, lCy train, hand-car
and by drowing in the Chagres trying to reBsore telephone
service across the river with the use of a canoe which could
not ford the river aiid drifted to an embankment whan.I had
to jump for safety.
The heaviest one-time death-toll was between 1910 and
1912, this occurred between Obiopo and Empinre. It was a
great dynamite explosion which shook the whble place, taking
everything in its wake. Leaths by accident, mangled bodies,
accidental- amputation of limbs, feot and hands by trains.
Nationals of every trite, race and color from all parts
of the world contributed to the building of the great
water-way.
In early days the canal was clarified under the heading
of Isthbmain Canal Comnission. Labor had buiilt the greatest
engineering feature in the world and is still operating it.
3 image0155.jpg
Lawson, D. T. p.3
The greatest technical advise the greatest labor brain are
the Americans with their monc. whom 1 personally considered.
There was a great Governor preceded my term of employ-
ment, his name was Thatcher, a high-way is built in commeration
of his honor. Chief EnCineer J. F. Stevens succeeded him, I
worked under his administration.
About the later p:\rt of 1906 and early 1907- a great man
of renown, cal;m, principled, diGnified, hi.h rank and quality.
in the person of Col. G. W.. Goethals, was sent from America
to undertake the great task of constructing the great water-
way. He came first as Col. then General and after Governor.
His first residence was in Culebra a.nd finally mxzz removed
to Balboa Heights.
Prior to Governor Goethals arrival and assumption and
the formation of his cabinet there was an executive adviser
embude with outstanding ability in person Mr. C. A. McIlvaine,
legal adviser to all governors.
Governor Goethals first designate his cabinet on taking
charge. He divided the canal strip into three divisions,
Atlantic, Central and Pacific. Col. Sibert wan then appointed
to the Atlantic Division, Col. Gaillard to the Central and
Col. Williamoon to the Pacific. Notable among the bet'"brains
were Col. Hodges and Col. Gorp-as. Col. Hodges was Governor
Goethals Aid-e-camp naid Col Gorgas the health department,
creditably he performed, his work, hence the great Gorgas
Hospital. Preliminary pljns gets undervw.ay, heavy locomotives,
steam shovels, dump trains, drilling machines and other minor
equipment. There were many doubts manifested as to the real-
ity of the completion. Some of the railway stations mentioned
had fallen in the canal prism and are under water, some no
excavation work was carried out, the area was bare low-land
and need no excavation. The ;:'osttroublesome part during
construction was the Culebra Gut, through it heights on both
sides, there wnas always a continued sliding and more-so
toward the east. Dredgcing was necessary during dry season
and worst in the wet, land slides blocking the channel and
necessitate dredging to clear the silt which blocked the
water-way.
As ,ork on the canal protresced and proved a reality
provisions wore :.ide for the inhabitants who were residing
on the wer:t side to cross; by the construction of a pedestrian
crossing at E-mpire. There was also a swinging bridge at
Paraiso, this bridge was later removed to the north end of the
Pedro Miguel Locks.
A relocated railw.Pvy line w;as constructed and diversion
of train followed from Catun to Gamboa. A Gamboa a Dike was
built as a blockade aU.-ainst the rising of water from the
4 image0156.jpg
Lawson, D. T. p.4
northern end, and prevent or visa vera from the other or
southern end, and permit train service crossing over.
At this junction the passenger trains had was to do some
reversing until the Dike was removed. In or during the month
of October 1913, this Dike was blown up by President Woodrow
Wilson in America, there was a submarine cable laid down be-
tween Panama and America, two wires were taken from that
cable by a cable-splicer of whom I was a helper Mr. John
Strauss, the ends out were on the west side of the Dike the
regular method of blasting was carried out after I was told.
that the ends of the two wires leading by their colors to
America was connected to a push button thus enable the opera-
tion to be carried out. I was an eye-witness to this notable
incident. My boss, learninC that a special train was'to have
ran on the occasion for the white Americans entreat me to
board the train with tool bag and other pieces of tools. It
was a packed train, I had was to stand between two coaches
on the platform. I was not opposed. The great Governor
Goethals was on the scene, thousands of spectators with wrist
watches and cameras were all alert watching and waiting for
the final minute, the specified time was less than two minutes,
then the blast, water and dirt were hurled into the air, coming
down spraying everybody in its wake.
There was a necessity for distinction between skilled and
*un-skillod, or common labor-resulting in the. division of
employees into two categories, the skilled were classified
as Gold and the un-skilled or common, Silver.
En:PLCYlENT
Years. Place Dept. or Div. Occupation Foremen
1906-1907 Culebra Labor & Quarters Utility-man Messrs
R.E. Wood
Stewart
Christian
1907-1909 F.l..;. Commsy. Store & Fred
Saleman Morris
1909-1910 On line F.*. Tel.Tel. Lineman Kratz &
Anderson
1910-1912 Empire Clerk M/C8115
1912-1917 On Line Consolidated Cable Spl. Strauss
Tel. & Tel. H1pr. Denny
1917-1918 Bal. Old Electrical Repairman Granberry
Stm. Plnt
1918-1920 "
c juerk
J_7J.\^ --t.;?L W
5 image0157.jpg
Lawson, D. T. p.5
1920-1930 Mira. Old Electrical Office Hlp. Lawton
Stm. Plant Hazeldine
M/023474
1930-1932 Pedro Mig. Else. Shop Youchim
1932-1938 Mira.
Diesel Sta. Electrical McCaslin
House
Ward
1938 Voluntarily retired my employment through impaired
health after working 32 years and 2 months continued
service mingled with hard life and very little rest.
Suddenly emergency calls some days terminate into nights
away from home without proper food and water sometimes shelter.
Uncomfortable night, at times in wet clothes, especially when
got left by last means of transportation for home.
Married for betterment, my wife took sick, enter the
Ancon Hospital,'stayed forty days and forty nights. Late one
day for five minutes through her sickness. Death of my only
child. Buried in Culebra.
Pay checks were issued to all employees. Apart from two
terminal pay offices a monthly pay train is operated to pay
all others at different locations.
Departmental chrngen, transfers, change of foreman, was
all for the good of my service and thus enable me to familiarize
and acquaint myself vith the various places worked and views.
Respectfully submitted,
D. T. LAWSON