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:
AA00016037:00093


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Riley, T. H.; Apartado 1427, Colon, R.P.


I arrived in Panama on or about the 25th day of August in
the year 1909. I was employed by the Commissary Division at
Culebra C.Z. on the 2th of September the same year, as a deliv-
ery man, as far as I can remember. I was assigned to making
deliveries of food stuffs to the American employees living in
that area, including Col. Goethals, Gqilliard, Hodges, Admiral
Rosseau and others like Dr. Crabtree, the Goldmarks, etc.
There were several men employed for the purpose of soliciting
orders from the families living there. The items ordered and
paid for were parcelled and tagged for delivery to the parties
concerned, and had to be made within 24 hours wether it rain
or shine. In those days there were no such things as Auto-
trucks or the like hence those things had to be delivered by
means of a wagon and a couple of mules. Culobra was not by
far a level Section, and it was necessary to push the wagon
helping the mules on many ocassions.

The years went by and going through Culebra, deep orackes
here and there were noticeable. I can remember one of the
boys remarked "See those Cracks?" they are indications that all
here will be deep water. The cracks were so far from the Cut
itself that he was told, .'an if the Colonel should hear you say
that you will be arrested. The digging of Oulebra out contin-
ued and it happened that houses around the same area had to be
pulled back due to slides. I can remember house no 122 or 123
was-pulled back some distance with the families intact. It is
a sure guess that those Cracks eare now in the Canal due to
slides. Speaking of slides, Culebra is the Section subjected
to it. On the fourth of July in. the Year 1913 or there-about,
there was a big slide in the Cut not far from Gold Hill, so
called in those days, and I witnessed a Steam shovel completely
covered except for the tip of the handle of the bucket. This
was a fortunate incident as it happened on the fourth of July
when no one was at work on that day.

There were many fine American Citizens living in Culebra
among them were as far as I can remember, The Bevingtons, Tras-
dorfs, Ramsoeys, Cormollys, Higgins, Meehans, Littles, and many
others. Gold Hill at one time looked as if it would just top-
ple over and block the Canal, however it was not so as every-












Riley, T. H. p.2


thing was done to prevent that. I witnessed water pouring down
by means of large hose washing away loose earth that may have
caused serious slides. This water pouring continued for some
time, but the slides continued none the less. Coming to the
end of the natural digging of Culobra Cut, a portion of earth
remained between Gold Hill and Cacaracha, in the center of the
Cut. It was thought that in letting in the water that portion
of earth would be washed away by the force of the water, but it
was not so. The Day came when the Dykes were broken and the\
water poured through the Canal, and with the excitement of every
one the water remained divided when it reached Culebra, where
this portion of earth formed an island. Col. Gailliard must
have been very much upset at this point, and the dredging of
this part of the Canal went into full force. Barges upon
Barges loaded with rocks and dirt were daily seen to and fro
through Culebfa Cut. Speaking of Bridges, there was a tempory
bridge across the Canal between Culebra and Empire, but trans-
portation was not on a large scale as far -as I remember.

The building of the locks was one of the most important
project in the Canal construction, this was done by the
McClentic Marshall Company. .in working these locks received
better pay than the average laborers in those days, but were
faced with many accidents specially operating those Electric
drills. From time to time men were seen returning home earlier
from work than usual due to the fact, some one fell from the
scaffold which resulted in death, and in such cases work would
be suspended for the balance of that day to show respect to a
fellow worker. The family of those men working on those locks
were always fearful as to who may be next to fall.

The digging of the Panama Canal is a wonderful accomplish-
ment, when taken into consideration the many phases of opera-
tion; a railroad track had to be laid for the steam-locomotive
with at least four or five dumpcars attached The steam-shovel
keeps digging up dirt and rocks filling those cars one by one
while the train moves along gradually placing each car in range
with the shovel to be filled, when all have been filled the
train pulls out to places designated for the dumping of these
materials. The next train follows to be filled in like manner
day by day. The shoveling of these rocks and dirt was not
always easy, for those powerful shovels, hence it was necessary













Riley, T. H. p.3


to use dynamite blast to soften up rocks and solid earth.
Gangs of men were employed with electric star drills boring
holes in rocks and solid earth in preparation for the dynamite
blast this continued until the desired depth of the Canal was
attained. The men working in the powder gang suffered many
casualties.

The digging and opening of the Panama Canal was not all to
be accomplished, there were jungles converted into good resi-
dential areas by dumping, and good sanitation throughout the
entire Canal Zone from Colon to Panama. The Break-water at the
Cristobal harbor entrance is a visable feat in the Canal con-
struction, and was built no doubt from rocks and other mater-
ials dug from the Canal. There were changes in the running of
the trains from Panama to Colon and vise-versa, Oulebra, Em-
pire and Lascascadas were actually isolated from the main line
hence'it was necessary to inagurate a shuttle service between
Pedro Miguel and Paraiso. The train leaving Panama for Las-
cascadas had to await the train leaving Colon for Panama for
the transfer of passengers or other materials destined to
these Section in question. These transfers were made possible
by means of a swinging bridge at Paraiso, this Bridge swings
open for the passing of ships and closes for the passing of
the trains. This alone is a job well done.

The Panama Canal was officially open on August 15th 1914
with the S.S. Ancon as the first ship to transit the Canal
from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

In closing, I join with all of Fanama with the chorus of
God Bless America for the God-inspired ability in building
the Panama Canal, and making Panama such a healthy place to
live in.

respectfully submitted,
T. H. E.ILEY
D.R. 6294




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Riley, T. H.; Apartado 1427, Colon, R.P.
I arrived in Panama on or about the 25th day of August in
the year 1909. I was employed by the Commissary Division at
Culebra C.Z. on the 2th of September the same year, as a deliv-
ery man, as far as I can remember. I was assigned to making
deliveries of food stuffs to the American employees living in
that area, including Col. Goethals, Gqilliard, Hodges, Admiral
Rosseau and others like Dr. Crabtree, the Goldmarks, etc.
There were several men employed for the purpose of soliciting
orders from the families living there. The items ordered and
paid for were parcelled and tagged for delivery to the parties
concerned, and had to be made within 24 hours wether it rain
or shine. In those days there were no such things as Auto-
trucks or the like hence those things had to be delivered by
means of a wagon and a couple of mules. Culobra was not by
far a level Section, and it was necessary to push the wagon
helping the mules on many ocassions.
The years went by and going through Culebra, deep orackes
here and there were noticeable. I can remember one of the
boys remarked "See those Cracks?" they are indications that all
here will be deep water. The cracks were so far from the Cut
itself that he was told, .'an if the Colonel should hear you say
that you will be arrested. The digging of Oulebra out contin-
ued and it happened that houses around the same area had to be
pulled back due to slides. I can remember house no 122 or 123
was-pulled back some distance with the families intact. It is
a sure guess that those Cracks eare now in the Canal due to
slides. Speaking of slides, Culebra is the Section subjected
to it. On the fourth of July in. the Year 1913 or there-about,
there was a big slide in the Cut not far from Gold Hill, so
called in those days, and I witnessed a Steam shovel completely
covered except for the tip of the handle of the bucket. This
was a fortunate incident as it happened on the fourth of July
when no one was at work on that day.
There were many fine American Citizens living in Culebra
among them were as far as I can remember, The Bevingtons, Tras-
dorfs, Ramsoeys, Cormollys, Higgins, Meehans, Littles, and many
others. Gold Hill at one time looked as if it would just top-
ple over and block the Canal, however it was not so as every-
2 image0018.jpg
Riley, T. H. p.2
thing was done to prevent that. I witnessed water pouring down
by means of large hose washing away loose earth that may have
caused serious slides. This water pouring continued for some
time, but the slides continued none the less. Coming to the
end of the natural digging of Culobra Cut, a portion of earth
remained between Gold Hill and Cacaracha, in the center of the
Cut. It was thought that in letting in the water that portion
of earth would be washed away by the force of the water, but it
was not so. The Day came when the Dykes were broken and the\
water poured through the Canal, and with the excitement of every
one the water remained divided when it reached Culebra, where
this portion of earth formed an island. Col. Gailliard must
have been very much upset at this point, and the dredging of
this part of the Canal went into full force. Barges upon
Barges loaded with rocks and dirt were daily seen to and fro
through Culebfa Cut. Speaking of Bridges, there was a tempory
bridge across the Canal between Culebra and Empire, but trans-
portation was not on a large scale as far -as I remember.
The building of the locks was one of the most important
project in the Canal construction, this was done by the
McClentic Marshall Company. .in working these locks received
better pay than the average laborers in those days, but were
faced with many accidents specially operating those Electric
drills. From time to time men were seen returning home earlier
from work than usual due to the fact, some one fell from the
scaffold which resulted in death, and in such cases work would
be suspended for the balance of that day to show respect to a
fellow worker. The family of those men working on those locks
were always fearful as to who may be next to fall.
The digging of the Panama Canal is a wonderful accomplish-
ment, when taken into consideration the many phases of opera-
tion; a railroad track had to be laid for the steam-locomotive
with at least four or five dumpcars attached The steam-shovel
keeps digging up dirt and rocks filling those cars one by one
while the train moves along gradually placing each car in range
with the shovel to be filled, when all have been filled the
train pulls out to places designated for the dumping of these
materials. The next train follows to be filled in like manner
day by day. The shoveling of these rocks and dirt was not
always easy, for those powerful shovels, hence it was necessary
3 image0019.jpg
Riley, T. H. p.3
to use dynamite blast to soften up rocks and solid earth.
Gangs of men were employed with electric star drills boring
holes in rocks and solid earth in preparation for the dynamite
blast this continued until the desired depth of the Canal was
attained. The men working in the powder gang suffered many
casualties.
The digging and opening of the Panama Canal was not all to
be accomplished, there were jungles converted into good resi-
dential areas by dumping, and good sanitation throughout the
entire Canal Zone from Colon to Panama. The Break-water at the
Cristobal harbor entrance is a visable feat in the Canal con-
struction, and was built no doubt from rocks and other mater-
ials dug from the Canal. There were changes in the running of
the trains from Panama to Colon and vise-versa, Oulebra, Em-
pire and Lascascadas were actually isolated from the main line
hence'it was necessary to inagurate a shuttle service between
Pedro Miguel and Paraiso. The train leaving Panama for Las-
cascadas had to await the train leaving Colon for Panama for
the transfer of passengers or other materials destined to
these Section in question. These transfers were made possible
by means of a swinging bridge at Paraiso, this Bridge swings
open for the passing of ships and closes for the passing of
the trains. This alone is a job well done.
The Panama Canal was officially open on August 15th 1914
with the S.S. Ancon as the first ship to transit the Canal
from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
In closing, I join with all of Fanama with the chorus of
God Bless America for the God-inspired ability in building
the Panama Canal, and making Panama such a healthy place to
live in.
respectfully submitted,
T. H. E.ILEY
D.R. 6294