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:
AA00016037:00090


This item is only available as the following downloads:


Full Text









Plummer, Enricue; Box 169, Panama, E.P.


I was born in Gorgona on August 16th 1889. I started
working for the Ictmian Canal Commission (which was later change-
to the Panama Canal) in 1905, as a messenger at 7V per hour, in
an office in Empire for the Central Division. The Canal was
decided in three sections, Bacific, Central, and Atlantic di-
vision.

When I started to work, Mr. W. D. Bolick was head of
affairs, there was only myself and an American in the office
then, During the cource of business the office was transferred
to a big two story building with an office force of about:75
men, devided in different sections, such as Administration, time-
keeping, transportation etc.

Mr. Bolick did not stay very long, he went back to the U.S.
Col. D. D. Gaillard finally became head of affairs, and Mr. A. E.
Bronk who was Chief Clerk was promoted to General Foreman of the
Division and Mr. W. I. Beam replaced him.

Duting the construction men was imported from Jamaica, Bar-
bados, Spain, and some coloured U.S. citizens. The coloured
Americans did not stay very long however, they were shipped back
home because they were making trouble. In those days there were
no motor vehicles, all we had was horses and mules. The majori-
ty of them was employed as team drivers, and.when delivering
goods would refuse to unload same, claiming they were no labour-
ers, they were team drivers. They also were tutering the other
employee to act accordingly. In view of the fact, they were
sent back home.

The Spaniards wcre given s!pcial meals, such as a bean call
Galbansas e.nd wine etc.

Sanitation in those days were terrible, some of the U.S.
citizens got sick with yellow fever, and some of them died. Col.
Gorgas took charge of the Sanitary Division, and finally clean
up things. The sistem used was to have men go from house to
house sealing up all seams with paste and paper, place a pot of
sulfer in each house, li'ht it and leave it to burn killing any-
thing alive. Before doing so the people had to take out all











Plu-mmer, Enrique p.2


their clothes ect. to avoid them getting discoloured. Then he
would have men go through all the swampy land, digging drains, to
which they would hang cans of mosquito oil dripping and spred-
ding all through the area.

Its the opinion of the majority that the french had aban-
doned the canal entirely, it is'nt so, they were s6ill doing a
little work although they v;ould never finish'at the rate they
were going, They would line up a string of cars near: the bank,
and men would go and fill them with picks and shovels. After
they are filled and the men given credit for their work the oars
would be pulled out and another set replaced.

Inasmuch as the U.S. figgered on a lock and dam canal, the
americans did not have to do very much digging, as the ditch
were pretty deep when they took over, for which they used steam
shovels, dirt trains, danirnite etc.

There was quite a lot of people killed by accidents of dif-
ferent kinds, but more so of denimite going off ahead of time.
Sometimes dozens of men were blown up in the air, impossible to
know what arm or leg or head belonged to what body. Bothe the
injured and the dead were loaded on cars and taken to Ancon
Hospital (the majority labourers).

During the constroctton, (I emagin) the french dug through
a big hill, leaving two hills on each side. The hill on the east
side were called Gold Hill and the hill on the west were called
Contractors Hill. Gold Hill gave the americons quite a boxing
lesson, it was always sliding and blocking the ditch. After do-
ing everything possible enoluding driving piles which was to no
avail, they called a meeting of all the officials to give their
idias of how to overcome same. Somebody sogested that they
install big water hose on the opposite side of the hill, keep
pumping water continually on same which would losing yp the
dirt on that side eventually causinC the weight to overhang on
the opposite side of the canal. Thcat did the job.

The locks were build by a contracting firm name The maoklin-
tic Marshal Co. If they did not luse money doing it, I am sure
they did not make all they should, because I know their time-
keepers carried a lot of m en to whom they would issue metal
checks who would only come around on pay days to collect without
working. One of the boys who worked with me as messenger quit
his job and went to work for them as timekeeper to do likewise.













Plummer, Enrique p.3


Although I was a silver roll employee, I had some of the
most responsible jobs in our office. I was file clerk (I kept
the records of forty-four and silver employees, My emedi-
ate boss kept the record of the gold employees). I was mail
clerk (I mailed all letters, copy of letters, reports, etc. to
their destination) I was property clerk (I was responsible for
all the property around the office) I was stationary clerk (I
had to order and maintain a supply of stationary to suply both
our office and the outside) and also in charge of messengers (I
had seven boys who assisted me in performing my duties.

Mr. Staley, my emediate boss and the only man who knew the
combination of the vault that kept all our file cases, had the
habit of playing head and tail in same gamblingn) He opens the
vault in the morning, and I who uses it last close it in the
evening. One day unknown to me, they were in there playing.
After getting out the mail I closed the outter door and throw
off the combination. They did not make an emediate alarm, think-
ing I was having a joke on them. After I got hame, the watchman
came running out of breth to let me know there was someone in
the vault. I rushed up, and luckily the inner steal door was
not closed (which is about thee feet apart from the outter
door). The result, he was able to stay in the inside and tell
me how to open same. Imagine the fright we both had.

There were a Mr. hobbs of the transportation section. As
file clerk any letter referring to an individual, the chirf clerk
would mark on it PP (meaning personal papers) which a messenger
would bring to me and I get same and send it to him. One day a
letter of the kind came to me, but Mr. Hobbs had the papers
wanted. The boy went to mr. Hobbs for same and was told Mr.
Bronk had already gotten same. Later Mr. Bronk called again for
the papers and the boy told him what Mrl Hobbs said, Mr. Bronk
told him to tell Mr. hobbs he was a god dam lier. Not Iwanting
to use the exac words, the boy wont back for the papers. In
return Mr. Hobbs said something disrespectful to him who in turn
told him the exac words Mr. Bronk said, He raised his hand to
strike the boy, who ducked and came up with him by the legs, he
over balanced, knocked down my typewriter and caused quite an
uproar. Men came running from the different sections to the
fight. Mr. Bronk who is very strict, sat at his desk watching
all that was going on. After all eyes turned and saw him, they
all walked away. Mr. Bronk then came to my section, and before,













Plummer, Enrique p.4


saying anything, :4r. Hobbs told him that nigger called me a
god dam lier and I slapped him. Without answering, Mr. Bronk
turned to me and said Plummer I want a written statement of what
happened around here, and to Mr. Staley he said the same thing.
The result, Mr. Hobbs was suspended for a couple of days.

Being risponsable for all property around the office, I was
accosationally Checked up to see if all was well. On one such
occasion I was short a typewriter, there was a Judge Garrison
a nabour of mine. Having nothing to do at nights, he would come
over and kill time with us. I said nothing to anyone in the
office of my shortige. That night I told the Judge of my troubles,
and the next day he sent a dective to me to investigate. Mr.
Hobbs seeing the die. talking to me, after he left came to find
out what it all about. After telling him, he said you little
darn fool, why dindt you say something about it. I borrowed the
typewriter and have it at home. The result: another suspension
for Mr. Hobbs.

About ten to fifteen years ago, I read something about the
oldtimers in the daily papers. I had a picture of the whole
office force, and one of the head of affairs which I sent .to the
official fotographer of the administration building.

I also read in the papers sometime ago that some graves were
discovered somewhere around Paraiso on the opposite side of the
canal. I can inform you that after the war with Panama and
Colombia, there were an epedemic of small pox, the french had some
buildings abondaned in that nabourwood where the sick was iso-
lated. and I imagine they hurried the deads around there. Hence
the graves discovoured.



When the canal was finished, the Central division was abol-
ished, leaving a 7r. Greenslade as general foreman to finish up
little things to be done. myself and a Mr. Potter was left to
take care of the office, which was transformed to the administra-
tion building in Culebra, and was called the fourth Div.

During the construction they had men going through the canal
feeding all the employes with Quinine.

About Col. Gaillard, he was quite a gentleman. He never--













Plummer, Enricue p.5


spoke to a lady with his hat on. Ee acted at times however as
thow he was a little off in the head. I read in the papers some
time ago that he finally died in an asylum. Once there was a
dirt train conductor recently transferred from the Paciflo Div.
to the Central div. Col. Gaillard who issued orders that no one
ride on a dirt train without a pass, one day got on his train.
to be mean (I think) the Conductor asked him for his pass, after
telling him who he was, he looked him over and said you Col.
Gaillard? a little son of a b came on my train a week ago and
said he was Col. Gaillard, Now you say you are Col. Gaillard.
I'll be dorn if I don't take a day off and find out who in hell
IB Col. Gaillard. In the meanwhile you get the hell off my train,
He did take a day off to find out who was Col. Gaillard, and was
suspended. But he appealed and won.

Invthose days there was no kind of requation, *the...,arried
couples would have weekly parties, and the bachelers would kill
time gambling, after a while they would start playing base ball,
and it finally got to the stage that they would emport ball play-
ers from the U.S. and give them jobs so as to have them to play
ball. Then they started friendly orgization, and I made some
extra money printing circulars.

After all was finished, the fourth division was closed, and
I was.transferred to the Quartermaster's office which was taking
stock inthe different store houses, and my job was to make copies
of the different articles and sizes on a typewriter. On the same
day I want to the chief clork and told him I could not do the job,
it needed a regular stanagrapher who could read and write at the
same time. he told me if he was satisfied he saw no reason why
I was not. The third day, tired of sitting, I got up to stretch
my legs, and was talking to the timekeeper who I knew, while do-
ing so, I noticed my name on the pay roll for forty dollars. I
called his attenclon to it, telling him my rete was sixty dollars.
He said that's what he was told to pay me. I went to the chief
clerk and told him I was entitled to sixty dollars, inasmuch as
I was transferred. He inform me that he had no job for me at
present, but wanted to hold me until he could find one, and all
the present job could pay was forty dollars. I thank him and
told him 7 was reduced from seventyfive to forty when the central
division was closed, and now to be reduced again was more than I
could take. I went to the timekeeper and found out that I had
enough for a five dollar commissary book which I got and said
goodby to the panama Canal.




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Plummer, Enricue; Box 169, Panama, E.P.
I was born in Gorgona on August 16th 1889. I started
working for the Ictmian Canal Commission (which was later change-
to the Panama Canal) in 1905, as a messenger at 7V per hour, in
an office in Empire for the Central Division. The Canal was
decided in three sections, Bacific, Central, and Atlantic di-
vision.
When I started to work, Mr. W. D. Bolick was head of
affairs, there was only myself and an American in the office
then, During the cource of business the office was transferred
to a big two story building with an office force of about:75
men, devided in different sections, such as Administration, time-
keeping, transportation etc.
Mr. Bolick did not stay very long, he went back to the U.S.
Col. D. D. Gaillard finally became head of affairs, and Mr. A. E.
Bronk who was Chief Clerk was promoted to General Foreman of the
Division and Mr. W. I. Beam replaced him.
Duting the construction men was imported from Jamaica, Bar-
bados, Spain, and some coloured U.S. citizens. The coloured
Americans did not stay very long however, they were shipped back
home because they were making trouble. In those days there were
no motor vehicles, all we had was horses and mules. The majori-
ty of them was employed as team drivers, and.when delivering
goods would refuse to unload same, claiming they were no labour-
ers, they were team drivers. They also were tutering the other
employee to act accordingly. In view of the fact, they were
sent back home.
The Spaniards wcre given s!pcial meals, such as a bean call
Galbansas e.nd wine etc.
Sanitation in those days were terrible, some of the U.S.
citizens got sick with yellow fever, and some of them died. Col.
Gorgas took charge of the Sanitary Division, and finally clean
up things. The sistem used was to have men go from house to
house sealing up all seams with paste and paper, place a pot of
sulfer in each house, li'ht it and leave it to burn killing any-
thing alive. Before doing so the people had to take out all
2 image0009.jpg
Plu-mmer, Enrique p.2
their clothes ect. to avoid them getting discoloured. Then he
would have men go through all the swampy land, digging drains, to
which they would hang cans of mosquito oil dripping and spred-
ding all through the area.
Its the opinion of the majority that the french had aban-
doned the canal entirely, it is'nt so, they were s6ill doing a
little work although they v;ould never finish'at the rate they
were going, They would line up a string of cars near: the bank,
and men would go and fill them with picks and shovels. After
they are filled and the men given credit for their work the oars
would be pulled out and another set replaced.
Inasmuch as the U.S. figgered on a lock and dam canal, the
americans did not have to do very much digging, as the ditch
were pretty deep when they took over, for which they used steam
shovels, dirt trains, danirnite etc.
There was quite a lot of people killed by accidents of dif-
ferent kinds, but more so of denimite going off ahead of time.
Sometimes dozens of men were blown up in the air, impossible to
know what arm or leg or head belonged to what body. Bothe the
injured and the dead were loaded on cars and taken to Ancon
Hospital (the majority labourers).
During the constroctton, (I emagin) the french dug through
a big hill, leaving two hills on each side. The hill on the east
side were called Gold Hill and the hill on the west were called
Contractors Hill. Gold Hill gave the americons quite a boxing
lesson, it was always sliding and blocking the ditch. After do-
ing everything possible enoluding driving piles which was to no
avail, they called a meeting of all the officials to give their
idias of how to overcome same. Somebody sogested that they
install big water hose on the opposite side of the hill, keep
pumping water continually on same which would losing yp the
dirt on that side eventually causinC the weight to overhang on
the opposite side of the canal. Thcat did the job.
The locks were build by a contracting firm name The maoklin-
tic Marshal Co. If they did not luse money doing it, I am sure
they did not make all they should, because I know their time-
keepers carried a lot of m en to whom they would issue metal
checks who would only come around on pay days to collect without
working. One of the boys who worked with me as messenger quit
his job and went to work for them as timekeeper to do likewise.
3 image0010.jpg
Plummer, Enrique p.3
Although I was a silver roll employee, I had some of the
most responsible jobs in our office. I was file clerk (I kept
the records of forty-four and silver employees, My emedi-
ate boss kept the record of the gold employees). I was mail
clerk (I mailed all letters, copy of letters, reports, etc. to
their destination) I was property clerk (I was responsible for
all the property around the office) I was stationary clerk (I
had to order and maintain a supply of stationary to suply both
our office and the outside) and also in charge of messengers (I
had seven boys who assisted me in performing my duties.
Mr. Staley, my emediate boss and the only man who knew the
combination of the vault that kept all our file cases, had the
habit of playing head and tail in same gamblingn) He opens the
vault in the morning, and I who uses it last close it in the
evening. One day unknown to me, they were in there playing.
After getting out the mail I closed the outter door and throw
off the combination. They did not make an emediate alarm, think-
ing I was having a joke on them. After I got hame, the watchman
came running out of breth to let me know there was someone in
the vault. I rushed up, and luckily the inner steal door was
not closed (which is about thee feet apart from the outter
door). The result, he was able to stay in the inside and tell
me how to open same. Imagine the fright we both had.
There were a Mr. hobbs of the transportation section. As
file clerk any letter referring to an individual, the chirf clerk
would mark on it PP (meaning personal papers) which a messenger
would bring to me and I get same and send it to him. One day a
letter of the kind came to me, but Mr. Hobbs had the papers
wanted. The boy went to mr. Hobbs for same and was told Mr.
Bronk had already gotten same. Later Mr. Bronk called again for
the papers and the boy told him what Mrl Hobbs said, Mr. Bronk
told him to tell Mr. hobbs he was a god dam lier. Not Iwanting
to use the exac words, the boy wont back for the papers. In
return Mr. Hobbs said something disrespectful to him who in turn
told him the exac words Mr. Bronk said, He raised his hand to
strike the boy, who ducked and came up with him by the legs, he
over balanced, knocked down my typewriter and caused quite an
uproar. Men came running from the different sections to the
fight. Mr. Bronk who is very strict, sat at his desk watching
all that was going on. After all eyes turned and saw him, they
all walked away. Mr. Bronk then came to my section, and before,
4 image0011.jpg
Plummer, Enrique p.4
saying anything, :4r. Hobbs told him that nigger called me a
god dam lier and I slapped him. Without answering, Mr. Bronk
turned to me and said Plummer I want a written statement of what
happened around here, and to Mr. Staley he said the same thing.
The result, Mr. Hobbs was suspended for a couple of days.
Being risponsable for all property around the office, I was
accosationally Checked up to see if all was well. On one such
occasion I was short a typewriter, there was a Judge Garrison
a nabour of mine. Having nothing to do at nights, he would come
over and kill time with us. I said nothing to anyone in the
office of my shortige. That night I told the Judge of my troubles,
and the next day he sent a dective to me to investigate. Mr.
Hobbs seeing the die. talking to me, after he left came to find
out what it all about. After telling him, he said you little
darn fool, why dindt you say something about it. I borrowed the
typewriter and have it at home. The result: another suspension
for Mr. Hobbs.
About ten to fifteen years ago, I read something about the
oldtimers in the daily papers. I had a picture of the whole
office force, and one of the head of affairs which I sent .to the
official fotographer of the administration building.
I also read in the papers sometime ago that some graves were
discovered somewhere around Paraiso on the opposite side of the
canal. I can inform you that after the war with Panama and
Colombia, there were an epedemic of small pox, the french had some
buildings abondaned in that nabourwood where the sick was iso-
lated. and I imagine they hurried the deads around there. Hence
the graves discovoured.
When the canal was finished, the Central division was abol-
ished, leaving a 7r. Greenslade as general foreman to finish up
little things to be done. myself and a Mr. Potter was left to
take care of the office, which was transformed to the administra-
tion building in Culebra, and was called the fourth Div.
During the construction they had men going through the canal
feeding all the employes with Quinine.
About Col. Gaillard, he was quite a gentleman. He never--
5 image0012.jpg
Plummer, Enricue p.5
spoke to a lady with his hat on. Ee acted at times however as
thow he was a little off in the head. I read in the papers some
time ago that he finally died in an asylum. Once there was a
dirt train conductor recently transferred from the Paciflo Div.
to the Central div. Col. Gaillard who issued orders that no one
ride on a dirt train without a pass, one day got on his train.
to be mean (I think) the Conductor asked him for his pass, after
telling him who he was, he looked him over and said you Col.
Gaillard? a little son of a b came on my train a week ago and
said he was Col. Gaillard, Now you say you are Col. Gaillard.
I'll be dorn if I don't take a day off and find out who in hell
IB Col. Gaillard. In the meanwhile you get the hell off my train,
He did take a day off to find out who was Col. Gaillard, and was
suspended. But he appealed and won.
Invthose days there was no kind of requation, *the...,arried
couples would have weekly parties, and the bachelers would kill
time gambling, after a while they would start playing base ball,
and it finally got to the stage that they would emport ball play-
ers from the U.S. and give them jobs so as to have them to play
ball. Then they started friendly orgization, and I made some
extra money printing circulars.
After all was finished, the fourth division was closed, and
I was.transferred to the Quartermaster's office which was taking
stock inthe different store houses, and my job was to make copies
of the different articles and sizes on a typewriter. On the same
day I want to the chief clork and told him I could not do the job,
it needed a regular stanagrapher who could read and write at the
same time. he told me if he was satisfied he saw no reason why
I was not. The third day, tired of sitting, I got up to stretch
my legs, and was talking to the timekeeper who I knew, while do-
ing so, I noticed my name on the pay roll for forty dollars. I
called his attenclon to it, telling him my rete was sixty dollars.
He said that's what he was told to pay me. I went to the chief
clerk and told him I was entitled to sixty dollars, inasmuch as
I was transferred. He inform me that he had no job for me at
present, but wanted to hold me until he could find one, and all
the present job could pay was forty dollars. I thank him and
told him 7 was reduced from seventyfive to forty when the central
division was closed, and now to be reduced again was more than I
could take. I went to the timekeeper and found out that I had
enough for a five dollar commissary book which I got and said
goodby to the panama Canal.