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

Phillips, Arthur E.; Estafeta dcel Choirillo, Panama, R.P.
8-140 West 27th St., !oom 16, Chorrillo.

I arrived on the Istl:nus Gctobcr 1912. My first job was
in Empire Cut as Star Drill helper in november 1912, I worked
there about three weeks, then I was transferred to the Black
Smith Shop in the same Empire Cut, repairing star drill bit,
working there until the completion of that job. After that I
got a job in Gorgona Blacksmith shop in the latter part of
1913 when this job was closed I was transferred to Empire
Blacksmith shop, Mechanical Division. I worked until the early
part of 1914 when I was played off acnd I got another job in
Balboa Blacksmith shop and worked there until 1950, then was
transferred to Cristobal Blacksmith Shop Industrial Area and
worked there until August 1958 when I was retired.

Brief Story In Empire Cut days it was terrible. One had
to work in mud and rain. The American Government had a heavy
job on hand with the fighting of inosquitos, fever, cold and build-
ing of healthy condition in the whole area. The Health Depart-
ment daily distributed quinine to the people and flitted the
places with some preventative concuction for everyone health.

I recall one workday two brothers by surname, Phillips
were sitting under a dump truck train having lunch, after lunch
they fell asleep and the engine coupled up and moved, that was
the end of their lives.

Living condition was none the best, food stuff was very
cheap, for instance, a loaf of bread for 3%, rice was 12d for
4 Ibs, yes, the wages was sn. ill but cost of living very consid-
erate to all. My foremactn, ;,r. Webster and I got along well.
I also attended regularly the Episcopalean Churches in the
various areas of my residence, which was known as the Anglican
or Anglo-Catholic church.

Your truly,
D.E. 8540

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