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

Peters, George; Cativa, p.P.; post Cffice, Colon, R.P.

I landed in Colon R.P. from the Island of Dominica B.W.I.
on the 14th of Dec, 1908 few days after I was employed by one
Mr. Crawl in DEmpire steam shovel repair shop at 10$ hour. In
those days it rain from 6 to 6 you get on the job ringing
wet and so you remain till y'ou finished. About 3 months after
one Mr. Bates succeeded Mlr. Crawl and then I was transferred to
one Mr. Safa a (Russian) mechanic trouble shooter for steam
shovels in Culabra Cut between Gold Hill and Constructor here
we work in two labor train car for the shop. I also have to
watch the steam shovels at work, that is for break down when
there is a break down they displayed a red flag. Then I notify
Mr. Safa he will go on a h;.nd pump car two :men will pumnp him
mile a minute, and then the two men will return to me for what
ever repair parts they need that has to be done like lightning
quick. Condition in the Cut was very bad rain all day and
then mud-mud-mud and more mud. Blasting every minute no
shelter in the Cut one has to run for a fair distant 'every
once a while some one will get head. injuries no steel hats
those days. That .art I work wan near to the slide every once
in a while we have to abandon the shop for the 2 cars lyin 450
the tracks will raised to 6' to 10' then all hands with shovel
to clear the tracks for the steam shovels to move in you have
to be waist deep in. Somc time the slide is twice a week. On
Sunday I run with the supplies train delivering moaterals
waste soap grease and what every they ordered. Here I work till
middle of 1910 and suddenly one morning a letter was handed to
me to report to one :ir. Watson Qt master in Cristobal I must
catch the first train so I did arrived in Cristobal I handed
the letter to Mr. :Watson he then told me that I was late and
there will not be aEnother WJlzGe untill 2 o'clock then I ask
him where I will be Going he told me Toro point (Sherman)
2 o'clock I bo-rded the .?iCe anl nhe pull cut for Mindi there
she was loading and never le've till 6 o'clock 8.30 I reach
Toro point there wore about 30 ioen on the barge I herd my
name called and I '.proch .an it :zs. '4r. C T Lindsay aesst,
Qu:.artermasters. Here 1 "work Ps Store .nan 37.50 month I supply
all the materel fo: the P.rat.c 'ter here I work until 1912.
Dec, I resign 1 was six yearn an. Taxi driver in Colon in 1918
I was reemploy by :,r. L:unbcrt as a chaufer here I work until
the strike in 1920 when the strike was over I cot employment
with the Electrical division on the 5th of Nay 1920 with one
Mr. Martin supe-rvisor then Pr. Coil, Mr. Yetzber, Mr. Smith

Peters, G. p.2

I have serve as district wire m:an helper under Mr. January,
Mr. Jurest, Mr. ., Mr. Lane, John Williams Mr. Van, and
last man Mr. in all I put 33 years 5 months and some
days with the Electrical Division. Retired with good conduct,
never was laid off and never was fired. I have four years
Construction work with Canal.

Your humble servant

Idenfication Card DR 61h8

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