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:
AA00016037:00101


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Simmons, Edgar Liewellyn; Residence Bldg. #34, Rio Abajo;
Post Office Estafeta Farque Lefebre.


Unto whom this may concern in the Isthmian Historical
Society. The below signature here by do highly appreciate
and praise the sponsors of such a great competition in order
to find out the limited time and work, or work places, and
the sort of work, and where first began.

It was 1908. Yesisir, on the 26 day of the afore
mentioned year we steam out of the little harbour called the
Carlisle Bay at Barbadoes. It was on the Royal Mail boats
called the Magdalina on which we made the trip. We made about
three stoppage, if memory affords me rightly. One at Safforn-
nilla, La Guira, and Cartagena. After a few more days and
nights, we finally reach our destination Colon. It was about
4A30 to five o'clock when we docked. They huddle us up in
box cars, I think it was. Well, about an hour and a half had
elapse. When an engine bearing I.C.C. No. 614 couple on to
us, and we were on our way. I re;aember passing a few sections
of which a little one was call Lion-Hill. As we rolled along
the train came to almost a dead stop, slowly moving along, to
which I heard after that it was a place called Black Swamp and
the train ha s to slow down. From there we came to little
place called Ahorca L.garto, a Spanish name. Then to Bohio,
and Friojoleo, then Tabernilla, of which I think they drop
off some eamagnrrents. Then comes the next and final one for
me (San Pablo) The evening of the first day of June 1908.
It was just about 6 to 6:30 in the evening, when we were
greeted with quite a fow white friends which had a few colored
boys, jaunitoro and watdh men. '4e departed for the East side
of San Pablo where our difficulties began. It was to roses
over a little swing bridGe over the Chargres River. We were
scare to death, couldn't make it until the same watchmen and
jaunitors came and release us of our Grips and bags and show
us how to walk on the bridge At any rate, we pot over
trembling of fear, because the little bridge was swining from
side to side. So, you can judge for yourselves what it was
like, i.e., if any of t'e white folks are yet alive who remem-
ber the little extension cable bridge across the Chagres
River. So, after being told of the hour to turn out the
following day, we took to camp. Morning came, and at six we
got ready. Just a while after a whistle blew, we turn out
only to meet scme white faocs again. This time they had time
books, padc, and bri'aco checks, and also meal tickets, ect. ebb.
We were lined up in two long lines clad to the best of our
ability. They be&3an to pick every other until they had about










Sinmmons, E. L, p.2

12 or 15 men, handing them picks and shovels, so, off they
went. I did not see than again until evening. The same thing
went on picking every other. By this time, another man came,
not a white man, one of our own i;est Indian fellow men came
smiling, looking me in the face, I now believing I would fair
off better than with pick and shovel, follow me, he said,
about 9 or 11 of us left, to my surprised I was given a spade
and to a Western dumnp car we went. It was loaded with coal,
he made us put the coal on one:side, then knocked off a ring
around a link of chain, and not aware of what would happen,
suddenly I was up to my knees inr coal. Pulling my feet out,
we began clearing the track to puch the car out. We finally
got through. After that, I think we went on to load up a
steam shovel; about 11 or 12 oclock we took lunch, and one
o'clock we turn back with the same wood and coal to which we
made our first day. Next day, we were off laying down ties
for track line. We oomplete4 another day. By this time, my
friends had heard that I was'at San Pablo. They came for me
and by seven oclock that evening I was in Tabernilla. My
friends took me to their Bosse' s. One called Bungo, and the
other one Watson, colored men, they were. But Mr. Bungo, I
stood with him for some time. Finally I decide to look for
my father, wrho wes here from 1906. I had heard he were at
the West Indian Barracks. It was right where the Corunda
Hospital was; for two day I did not find him. I steal into
the camp the first night and slept until next morning, I was
off again, finally I met a friend and he told me he were over
in 21 Street Central. I found him, so, after resting up a
little, my father got a water boy job for me, just where the
Corunda Laundry are now, on a dump call Tivoli dump, from
which I was transferred to a gang called the floating gang
which used to cut drains to lead off water settling around
the sections. We reach as far as Pedro Miguel and was laid
off, this wast'some iart of 19Q9. Not doing anything I went
to Mayflowers. The morning then the tunnel fell in, I was
stopping at a cousin, Julian Phillips, right under the bank.
I went up and had a look. They said only one man was missing.
Well, about a week or so after, 1 decided to return to Taber-
nilla. I took the train labour at Mayflowers and got off at
Paraiso, where I began walking down through the Cut until I
had reach P-iadachin, where 1 began the tract line walk. I
finally reach Tabernilla around 2 o'clock. I put up in Camp
until next morning from whiich I went to the little yard-
office ran by Miedcalfe, while Mr. George Wagner, Silver and
Mr. Herman were tract foremans under Greenslades, as Chief of
Section, if I remember rightly. So, Mr. Silver pick me this










Simmons, E. L. p.3


time. We were divided up, Barbadian Jamaicans, and Frenchmen,
while on the.oLher side '.-e had Greeks, Italians,. and Spaniards,
but we work in harmony although we did not under-stand each
other. This was in 1909. Sometimes I am on 202 Engine and
LedgerWood throwing aprons, when the ploutgh pull it off on the
dump. Sometimes I am on 229, other time on 254 doing the same
work, while Engine 244 pulls the spreader and spreads the dirt,
which are unloaded from flatcars, which are composed of about
15 flatcar. Thon, in 1910, Ja.nuary I decided to go to Gatun
where they had began the Spill-way job. They took on 3 shifts
of brake-men, fire-men and engineers, as they were called.
I got on with a man name Farewell, a fireman, myself and
another brakeman name lHudiren Moss. To which I. acted as brake-
man and conductor. Spotting my own train under the shovel
steam load it, and then take it out the dump, our train was
composed of 4 small Western dump car, Come back, waite in the
clare for orders. All this under supervision of Mr. Keatap
and Hughes, if I remember the latter man rightly. The-shifts
were split up again, and some were played off. Mr. Keater put
me with Mr. John Hannah as switch tender up the west wing wall,
where they were dump up the back fill. There was a man called
Tolia operates a derrick there which lifts the concrete
buckets from flatcars drawn by small engines, from the mixture.
These sanall engines are couple to two little flatcars, each
car a bucket Ny work here is to look out for trains, the
derrick, and the concrete engines. I has 3 flags, green, yellow
and red. I keep my eyes on the Tower. If a green flag are
sticking out of the window, Ill give -Mr. Tobey my red glag.
If any obstruction that may not be cleared in ten or 15 minutes,
Ill wave my red flat to the Tower to hold the train. When all
are cared I give the Tower my green flag to proceed on. Well
after working around for some time, I went and got a job in the
powder gang at Gatun, w~icr.e all those hugh trees were blown up
with dynamite that I succeeded a job. After blowing up the
trees, we had axe men to cut holes in each tree. Some trees
has up to 15 holes or more. After the holes are cut, two or
3 sticks of dynamite are plRce in the holes, with a cap and
coil, about 18 inches lon-, and covered with mud. So all are
set for evening. After the 5:15 passenger train pass for
Panoma, we start lighting. Some of us has up to 65 or 72
holes to light c,nd find our way out. So, to you the Sponsors
of the isthmian Historical Society, you can judge the situation,
when 9 of us start out, eoch one with two sticks of fire in
our hand, running and lihbting, at the same time trying to clair
ourselves before the first set begin bursting on us. Then its
like Hell. EIxcuse me of this assertion, but its a fact. On
one occasion, myself and a fellow called Stanley Shockness had










Simmons, E. L. p.4


to jump in the river that run down to the old Pump Station
and hide ourselves under the wild mango roots until all is
over. So, it was something to -.watch and see the pieces of
trees,-flying in the air. They --sed to call us the fire ha8s.
After this the regular gcang would pile it up. Then days, or
weeks after, we the same li.ihter. would go around with crude
oil and a long brass torch, spilling the oil all over the
heap, then apply our torch. Sir, another Hell roar again,
Again, you may pardon me. And co, day after day and week
after weeks, months after months, we went on piling up and
burning up until we had that placo where forms the Lake now,
it were all flared of trees. After this the gang were
scattered about, and some was played off. Just then I decided
to leave Gatun. Not many days passed by when I left for Las
Cascadas. It was February early, 1911. When I got up at
Cascadas I went around the yard office. One of my friends
pointed me out to Mr. Sarnetto the yard master. I spoke to
him, and asked him if he could help me in a job as brakeman,
Where did you worked last. At Gatun Sir I.give.him my
cloarence. He assigned me to Engine 246, down in the Cut at
steam showel 263, Conductor Heartwig, and Engineer Jungle.
After a short time, I was put on Engine 603 running to gatun,
Conductor Lanning and Dealand Engineer.' The engine went in
the shop, I was rut on 26) with a man name Palmer, used to
wear a thick soul shoe. I don't remember the Engineer.name.
1My train was made up of 25 small Western dump car, running to
Caimita Junution or dump. Cne ;-crning after our first load
out, when we return they gave us a right-through flag to
Culebro at 228 and 229 chowels facing each other, they load
you in about 10 or 15 minutes. '/When getting ready to pull
out, we receive news that Lirio had fell in. Lirio is little
river, as I would call it, north east of Empire Bridge, I
think. They were too much v;at'.r in the Cut now. So, we got
on at tcwer N to cut off, run around and to Balboa, but,
arriving at Pedro .'iguel yaa.d raster Cillram to head in at
Mayflowers dump, the place.which are now call Fort Clayton.
On our way back we got orders to tie up at Pedro Miguel.
Engineer and Conductor %went bac to Las Cascadas, while I
remained at V.1iguel under Gillam, as relieving brake-man at
times. Finally I was put on tho switch engine. Change to
night, coaling up engines and filling up tanks for next day.
Again I was put back on day spell, running to Flemenco dump,
all that place now call Fort Amador and La Boca, we dump it
up. Soon after I wqs sent to .W-yflowecrs under Fenmann as
yard master, to w,.ork with Jerry, and .uldoone as Conductor
on Engine 298, which pulls two- flat cars, with steel tanks
on them. Our work was to gc to Val Paraiso and fill those








Simmons, E. L. p.5


tanks, and distribute it up at Coronal, Deablo, Balboa and part
of Ancon. Then 6o back and run labour train from dykes siding,
also ran as material train. Some time after, transfer to
Balboa, where I again met Mr. Gilam. lHe again put me on the
switch engine, whore I ended my tiie in transportation in 1914,
somewhere In IMarch. About a nonth or so rolled by. Not work-
ing, I met a friend called Clarence Jones who took me aboard
the 85 dredge. About six oclock the Captain came down and
Jones said isomething to him. He asked me a few question.
Firstly, can you pull a boat? I did not know what to say.
Anyhow Clarence told him Ill brake him in chief. So, I was
on. Clarence warned me not to get in tVhe way, when I see the
Captain going ashore, because anyone he oee first got to jump
in' the boat, no I bide about until Clarence tell me I am ok.
Finally I was partly a No. 1 man different to a fellow call
yellow. Bill leervin was Captain, and Jordan as chief mate,
bette known ns Cracker Jack. We datup up Albrook Field Balboa
Flat, Corunda, and even near under the present beer factory
at San Miguel now. 'Ihen we started, it was out in the Channel
until we re-oh up under the Captain of Port Building. This
was up to the end of 1914- Well a reduction came, and some of
us w .s played off. Jobs 50ot scarce', a couple of months after I
heard of a little job open at (-amboa, chopping and painting
barges. i succeeded of Setting on. it wa. tough, pounding the
decks all day with sleidge hammers some maes half day, didn't
come back, *cmr.e one day, come two days some fall sick of the
red lead and the hot sun, some on account of the Boat-swain
call Duncan. No time to blow for him, I fight a long because
I was in kneed, I never paid him any mind, finally they remove
him and put him on Clappet 6 as Captain. He reccomend me to
:r. Cratz where I was made l3oatswain of same gang. George S.
Yates as gSneral foreman, a Wrapper craneman; also G-illis,
another crancman. Thin was about 1915 March or April. I work
up to 1917 and la.y off. The German boat- from Crietoba1l came
to Ralboa for -repeirs. V.irst, before this -gotted on the
tugboat !ariner with Captain Ewencon, but it did not last too
long, I we. off a'rain. It was here that I heard of the Cae.an
boats job. I tried, but to no avail. 1 heard it was ?r-'
Jor-.an on there ns chief :mate. So, one morning after picokgIp
a few men, HP c get orders to clec-r the deck for they were
hundreds of -2en trying, but, striving my we.y through the crowd,
I manage to reach the hurr icar--deck where Mr. Jordan was, I
shouted him, Ah :.r. Jorusn. He in turn told Captain Stuart,
here is a good man. eill, I was in a job again. Cleaning up
the Captain room and Chief mate room, which was Jordan room.
Scsetimes I am on the 4 boats, cleaning up and dwn into the
bildge, measuring up water with Mr. Jordan, old Cracker Jack,









Simmons, E. L. p.6


the man whom I had left on the 3 dredge. These, boats were
the Savoia, Saxonwald Princess Jungmond, and Grunewald, but
most of my time was on the Gruncwald; when it was almost com-
pleted there was not a man, white or black to climb the mast
to put up the small calbe to hanr; the wireless unto. No one
volunteer to Go. They was afraid! the Germans didsomething up
there. Cracker Jack told them, 1 hired you all as sailors
said, Well someone will have to '-o. Turning to me, Wbhat about
you, Shine, a name he used to call me on the 85 dredge. I
paused a little, looked up at the mast, and then said, 1'll
go. He ran to Captain Stuart, I get a man who will go. Who?
That fellow we call Shin. The dangerous part of it was about
12 to 15 feet, with hands And feet. So I beg.n, I got a bale
of quarter inch rope, tied around my wait and scraper, I
began climbing every body stop and watching. Before I got to
the last part of the ldders, Cracker Jack hollow to me, rest
a little Shine. I eLarted for the final part, I reach',it.
locking my foot around the mast, holding with my left hand
pecking at the sheave block cutted into the mast. I got it
to move, finally I got it spinning. Threading the rope through
the sheave, I pull it down till it reach the deck where they
made gg fant the small calbe and an-oil can. From deck they
began pulling whilst 1 squirted a little oil in-the sheave,
and that was dcne. Came down, :rest off, and about 2 oclock,
up I went to the after mast, and it was finish. I was highly
praised and reccomended for the risk taken. So, we began
cleaning up and cl-ring deck until the Grunewald was declared
sea worthy for the trip. If chbory serves me riCht, I think
it was the 26th of ;ay 1917, about 11 oclock, I don't remember
the day. After lockin through ;-ayflowern and Pedro Miguel
and unto Gatun, it must to have been about six in or 7 &olock
in the evening when we reach&Cristobal. ;ie tied up over night,
take some cargo, next day we left. I think the battleship
Charlestone went ahc.d of us as an escort because of the war.
Days and nights n '.iin under bl.ck out ciders we reach New
York. Docked at 65 ,pier, and shift to 67. Well, we were
taken off, and carried to 507 Weot and 14 Stieet Sailor Home,
or Seaman's Institute. eC were told if We like the place we
are free to go where ever ,e w..nt to go or .,'hen the ready to
return, you will, be-taken b1.,,.ck. For about 3 weeks and days,
we went at 24 St:tec Buildinl; for our weekly allowance, till
the ship was ready for its return. i'e had a crew of 72, white
and black, only 22 of us return Culy difference was we went
or on the Grunewald and returnoC on the same ship whose name
was change to Gencral? C. W. Goei-th.la. On our return trip at
Cristobal we received our dischaorge papers, and also railway
tickets to our home, sif-n by Chinrlqy Manne, Foreward end








Simmons, E. L. p.7
receiving Angencies. Thus ends the General G. W. Goethals who
was sold to the Black Star Line Company. Well, at home again
and doing nothing quite a while. I had some friends on the
U.S. Culebro, and one day I dotted notice to come and see
Captain Howard, they about to leave for Peru to tow down some
German intern ship. So I got on. We left, I think it was
the 18 day of Septembre 1918. We spent about 40 to 45 days
for the trip. But on arriving it appears the Germans must
have heard we came for the ships. Suddenly the Peruvian
Government had to huosle them off, they began to destroy the
ships. We reach Callao, then went to a place call Molliendo
for one of the ships. They had some Peruvians engineers and
labours fixing up the rudders and straightening propellers for
the %S tow.. So, finally all set, we left Callao, when I do
not remember. But we had the Luxor Nubisana Racotes, one
behind the other,' with one inch cable I think it was, not
much difficulties, only the rear ship would be one way, and
middle ship the other way at times. It looks as if it were a
milelong. At any rate we reach.back at-Balboa. Just about
the following day all the whistles started blowing the War
had finish, Novembre llth. So, after working around for a
couple of months, I was figuring to back up to New York and
stay. Me and the steward go away, and the Captain discharge
me. Why, even the steward tell him to let me have back my
job, because he was wrong to strike me first. Well, he was
hard, so, I just didn't beg too much. This was somewhere in
1919. After hunting around for a job I finally pick up one in
the La Boca Co-missary a storeman delivering thing to the
sections. The after I was made salesman in the Cold Storage
department under the management of Diamond who was Inspector
of Commissaries one time. Not very long after, 2 sections was
close down one of the storeman and 2 salesmen and an order
man was out, so, I had to g-\'- another
-seeejs.a job. Not much time
had passed when I decided to return to see Mr. George S. Yates,
who succeeded A. B. Cratz because he was called off to the War.
Mr. Yates gave back my job right away. And one day he call
me, "Simmons, you want to take charge of one of the barges.
OK I said, you'll work a little longer. So I got barge 16 to
run to tore point carrying sand and gravel They gave me
supply and I was off to tor point, where I spent about 16 to
17 days. On my return went up the river, or taking a load at
the gravel plant waiting for a tug. Some time aftei the
Reliance came for me, pull me out under bridge and kitchen,
at the same time, we had a Tipperrary scow., a thousand yard
scow, barge 16 and a coal barge towing to Cristobal. This was
the very morning when the Cristobal ran into the Tipperrary












Simmons, E. L. p.8


scow off Darien. We were cut loose from the Tipperary and
left her hanging on to the boo'. Even when dumped the scow
she still cling on to thb bow. The Cristobal bow was ripped
as if it was cardborrd. :o, "cnt on our way with the rest
of the load. .'ll 1 r c-h C.r t.tobal and I think tug boat La
Boca towed me over to to. poi t. I return back at the gravel
plant where I was living in V. ilding 27 only to be lay off
not long after. In quarters cnt had to bB paid, so, I
accepted a temporary job in t o box car commisary as salesman
and order man. A couple of &. ,ths and out again. This time
a little job I didn't li:-e so nuch. I was with one hand
Rawlson as boatman killing lilies and picking them also.
Sometimes spraying w:-ith :.renc., of which the arcenic was too
harsh, we had to put one by 11 boards at times and walk on
the same lilies. Up the Ch *:e iandengo, :iatachin, Basobis-
po, and many other place. iTc pay was small, and the same.
water bad for the foot. an;; uLies you drop in the arcenio
water, which scratches my fee, plenty, I work, but I was
looking somewhere else. And, -.o I started out on a walk from
Gamboa to Pedro Miguel, I :topped a spur 40, at Mr. Joe
Lindsey, Signal department. Pe took my name and where I live.
Any telephone near where you live, yes sir, the Gravel Plant.
I'll give you a call later oi And so he did, I came, and put
me on a Speeder, running; mai.tcinance from Summit to the rail-
way crossing in Fanoma. Thi' was about 1921 to 1923 reduction
came. But, before it come 1 had visited Ir. Dave Moore house
in Miguel and asked him to h Ip me in a job if possible he
ask me if I could a boat, of course I can sir, very well, you
say you can pull a boat, I (3'ot mean to pull it with a rope;
with oars, what I meant. He told me to come around, so, I
think it was the 13th day of Ausuit 1923, and right away I
was cent off to the Centre w .11, to a boatswain called Frio.
They were about to ;;o o"ff f r boat just as I got there I
shouted the boatA.v, hold it t.,cre, For que, were the answer,
Mr. IMoore send me i thr hbe?,. I r."abh'ed oars, shew me how
you want it, I c.id to t,h on-c :ho tus the rope. He told me
to go right out, .r, if .ou n;Xin' to cross the ship bow, and
turn ,your boat bow to .flo-'ers ri unit for the ship crew
thro you a hcivirn line. -.nd it 'wnsc done. The other boatman
meantime claigin:n:. no:- .i. go o".t to help me. Then .Ir. Fito
went to Fred Dr::dlc; .'n n thi- fellow io a sure and reliable
boatman. A couple of 0 .ys. after I \.as transferred to the
East side wall :ith JP.ko ifac :el. 'Where I remain for about 16
years as boat' nn, "d i:L.om the bc:at I ias recco.niended by -.tr.
Fred Bradley to :Kr. ErnRnto Doyle as electrician helper in
Center wall tunnel, whe:-e 1 ;pcnd anoth 14 years and month.










Simmons, E. L. p.9

When I retired in 1953 October, thus ended my service for the
Panama Canal Company. So, to the Editor and Sponsors of the
lsthmian Historical Society, I hope and trust that this will
meet your approval and judgement.
EDGAR LLEWELLYN SIMMONS

Born in the Island of Barbados
B.W.I. on the 15 day of December
1886.




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title Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers
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date 2013
distributor University of Florida Digital Collections
email ufdc@uflib.ufl.edu
idno http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00016037/00101
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Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers
publisher Isthmian Historical Society
pubPlace Panama
All rights reserved by the source institution.
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Simmons, Edgar Liewellyn; Residence Bldg. #34, Rio Abajo;
Post Office Estafeta Farque Lefebre.
Unto whom this may concern in the Isthmian Historical
Society. The below signature here by do highly appreciate
and praise the sponsors of such a great competition in order
to find out the limited time and work, or work places, and
the sort of work, and where first began.
It was 1908. Yesisir, on the 26 day of the afore
mentioned year we steam out of the little harbour called the
Carlisle Bay at Barbadoes. It was on the Royal Mail boats
called the Magdalina on which we made the trip. We made about
three stoppage, if memory affords me rightly. One at Safforn-
nilla, La Guira, and Cartagena. After a few more days and
nights, we finally reach our destination Colon. It was about
4A30 to five o'clock when we docked. They huddle us up in
box cars, I think it was. Well, about an hour and a half had
elapse. When an engine bearing I.C.C. No. 614 couple on to
us, and we were on our way. I re;aember passing a few sections
of which a little one was call Lion-Hill. As we rolled along
the train came to almost a dead stop, slowly moving along, to
which I heard after that it was a place called Black Swamp and
the train ha s to slow down. From there we came to little
place called Ahorca L.garto, a Spanish name. Then to Bohio,
and Friojoleo, then Tabernilla, of which I think they drop
off some eamagnrrents. Then comes the next and final one for
me (San Pablo) The evening of the first day of June 1908.
It was just about 6 to 6:30 in the evening, when we were
greeted with quite a fow white friends which had a few colored
boys, jaunitoro and watdh men. '4e departed for the East side
of San Pablo where our difficulties began. It was to roses
over a little swing bridGe over the Chargres River. We were
scare to death, couldn't make it until the same watchmen and
jaunitors came and release us of our Grips and bags and show
us how to walk on the bridge At any rate, we pot over
trembling of fear, because the little bridge was swining from
side to side. So, you can judge for yourselves what it was
like, i.e., if any of t'e white folks are yet alive who remem-
ber the little extension cable bridge across the Chagres
River. So, after being told of the hour to turn out the
following day, we took to camp. Morning came, and at six we
got ready. Just a while after a whistle blew, we turn out
only to meet scme white faocs again. This time they had time
books, padc, and bri'aco checks, and also meal tickets, ect. ebb.
We were lined up in two long lines clad to the best of our
ability. They be&3an to pick every other until they had about
2 image0030.jpg
Sinmmons, E. L, p.2
12 or 15 men, handing them picks and shovels, so, off they
went. I did not see than again until evening. The same thing
went on picking every other. By this time, another man came,
not a white man, one of our own i;est Indian fellow men came
smiling, looking me in the face, I now believing I would fair
off better than with pick and shovel, follow me, he said,
about 9 or 11 of us left, to my surprised I was given a spade
and to a Western dumnp car we went. It was loaded with coal,
he made us put the coal on one:side, then knocked off a ring
around a link of chain, and not aware of what would happen,
suddenly I was up to my knees inr coal. Pulling my feet out,
we began clearing the track to puch the car out. We finally
got through. After that, I think we went on to load up a
steam shovel; about 11 or 12 oclock we took lunch, and one
o'clock we turn back with the same wood and coal to which we
made our first day. Next day, we were off laying down ties
for track line. We oomplete4 another day. By this time, my
friends had heard that I was'at San Pablo. They came for me
and by seven oclock that evening I was in Tabernilla. My
friends took me to their Bosse' s. One called Bungo, and the
other one Watson, colored men, they were. But Mr. Bungo, I
stood with him for some time. Finally I decide to look for
my father, wrho wes here from 1906. I had heard he were at
the West Indian Barracks. It was right where the Corunda
Hospital was; for two day I did not find him. I steal into
the camp the first night and slept until next morning, I was
off again, finally I met a friend and he told me he were over
in 21 Street Central. I found him, so, after resting up a
little, my father got a water boy job for me, just where the
Corunda Laundry are now, on a dump call Tivoli dump, from
which I was transferred to a gang called the floating gang
which used to cut drains to lead off water settling around
the sections. We reach as far as Pedro Miguel and was laid
off, this wast'some iart of 19Q9. Not doing anything I went
to Mayflowers. The morning then the tunnel fell in, I was
stopping at a cousin, Julian Phillips, right under the bank.
I went up and had a look. They said only one man was missing.
Well, about a week or so after, 1 decided to return to Taber-
nilla. I took the train labour at Mayflowers and got off at
Paraiso, where I began walking down through the Cut until I
had reach P-iadachin, where 1 began the tract line walk. I
finally reach Tabernilla around 2 o'clock. I put up in Camp
until next morning from whiich I went to the little yard-
office ran by Miedcalfe, while Mr. George Wagner, Silver and
Mr. Herman were tract foremans under Greenslades, as Chief of
Section, if I remember rightly. So, Mr. Silver pick me this
3 image0031.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.3
time. We were divided up, Barbadian Jamaicans, and Frenchmen,
while on the.oLher side '.-e had Greeks, Italians,. and Spaniards,
but we work in harmony although we did not under-stand each
other. This was in 1909. Sometimes I am on 202 Engine and
LedgerWood throwing aprons, when the ploutgh pull it off on the
dump. Sometimes I am on 229, other time on 254 doing the same
work, while Engine 244 pulls the spreader and spreads the dirt,
which are unloaded from flatcars, which are composed of about
15 flatcar. Thon, in 1910, Ja.nuary I decided to go to Gatun
where they had began the Spill-way job. They took on 3 shifts
of brake-men, fire-men and engineers, as they were called.
I got on with a man name Farewell, a fireman, myself and
another brakeman name lHudiren Moss. To which I. acted as brake-
man and conductor. Spotting my own train under the shovel
steam load it, and then take it out the dump, our train was
composed of 4 small Western dump car, Come back, waite in the
clare for orders. All this under supervision of Mr. Keatap
and Hughes, if I remember the latter man rightly. The-shifts
were split up again, and some were played off. Mr. Keater put
me with Mr. John Hannah as switch tender up the west wing wall,
where they were dump up the back fill. There was a man called
Tolia operates a derrick there which lifts the concrete
buckets from flatcars drawn by small engines, from the mixture.
These sanall engines are couple to two little flatcars, each
car a bucket Ny work here is to look out for trains, the
derrick, and the concrete engines. I has 3 flags, green, yellow
and red. I keep my eyes on the Tower. If a green flag are
sticking out of the window, Ill give -Mr. Tobey my red glag.
If any obstruction that may not be cleared in ten or 15 minutes,
Ill wave my red flat to the Tower to hold the train. When all
are cared I give the Tower my green flag to proceed on. Well
after working around for some time, I went and got a job in the
powder gang at Gatun, w~icr.e all those hugh trees were blown up
with dynamite that I succeeded a job. After blowing up the
trees, we had axe men to cut holes in each tree. Some trees
has up to 15 holes or more. After the holes are cut, two or
3 sticks of dynamite are plRce in the holes, with a cap and
coil, about 18 inches lon-, and covered with mud. So all are
set for evening. After the 5:15 passenger train pass for
Panoma, we start lighting. Some of us has up to 65 or 72
holes to light c,nd find our way out. So, to you the Sponsors
of the isthmian Historical Society, you can judge the situation,
when 9 of us start out, eoch one with two sticks of fire in
our hand, running and lihbting, at the same time trying to clair
ourselves before the first set begin bursting on us. Then its
like Hell. EIxcuse me of this assertion, but its a fact. On
one occasion, myself and a fellow called Stanley Shockness had
4 image0032.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.4
to jump in the river that run down to the old Pump Station
and hide ourselves under the wild mango roots until all is
over. So, it was something to -.watch and see the pieces of
trees,-flying in the air. They --sed to call us the fire ha8s.
After this the regular gcang would pile it up. Then days, or
weeks after, we the same li.ihter. would go around with crude
oil and a long brass torch, spilling the oil all over the
heap, then apply our torch. Sir, another Hell roar again,
Again, you may pardon me. And co, day after day and week
after weeks, months after months, we went on piling up and
burning up until we had that placo where forms the Lake now,
it were all flared of trees. After this the gang were
scattered about, and some was played off. Just then I decided
to leave Gatun. Not many days passed by when I left for Las
Cascadas. It was February early, 1911. When I got up at
Cascadas I went around the yard office. One of my friends
pointed me out to Mr. Sarnetto the yard master. I spoke to
him, and asked him if he could help me in a job as brakeman,
Where did you worked last. At Gatun Sir I.give.him my
cloarence. He assigned me to Engine 246, down in the Cut at
steam showel 263, Conductor Heartwig, and Engineer Jungle.
After a short time, I was put on Engine 603 running to gatun,
Conductor Lanning and Dealand Engineer.' The engine went in
the shop, I was rut on 26) with a man name Palmer, used to
wear a thick soul shoe. I don't remember the Engineer.name.
1My train was made up of 25 small Western dump car, running to
Caimita Junution or dump. Cne ;-crning after our first load
out, when we return they gave us a right-through flag to
Culebro at 228 and 229 chowels facing each other, they load
you in about 10 or 15 minutes. '/When getting ready to pull
out, we receive news that Lirio had fell in. Lirio is little
river, as I would call it, north east of Empire Bridge, I
think. They were too much v;at'.r in the Cut now. So, we got
on at tcwer N to cut off, run around and to Balboa, but,
arriving at Pedro .'iguel yaa.d raster Cillram to head in at
Mayflowers dump, the place.which are now call Fort Clayton.
On our way back we got orders to tie up at Pedro Miguel.
Engineer and Conductor %went bac to Las Cascadas, while I
remained at V.1iguel under Gillam, as relieving brake-man at
times. Finally I was put on tho switch engine. Change to
night, coaling up engines and filling up tanks for next day.
Again I was put back on day spell, running to Flemenco dump,
all that place now call Fort Amador and La Boca, we dump it
up. Soon after I wqs sent to .W-yflowecrs under Fenmann as
yard master, to w,.ork with Jerry, and .uldoone as Conductor
on Engine 298, which pulls two- flat cars, with steel tanks
on them. Our work was to gc to Val Paraiso and fill those
5 image0033.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.5
tanks, and distribute it up at Coronal, Deablo, Balboa and part
of Ancon. Then 6o back and run labour train from dykes siding,
also ran as material train. Some time after, transfer to
Balboa, where I again met Mr. Gilam. lHe again put me on the
switch engine, whore I ended my tiie in transportation in 1914,
somewhere In IMarch. About a nonth or so rolled by. Not work-
ing, I met a friend called Clarence Jones who took me aboard
the 85 dredge. About six oclock the Captain came down and
Jones said isomething to him. He asked me a few question.
Firstly, can you pull a boat? I did not know what to say.
Anyhow Clarence told him Ill brake him in chief. So, I was
on. Clarence warned me not to get in tVhe way, when I see the
Captain going ashore, because anyone he oee first got to jump
in' the boat, no I bide about until Clarence tell me I am ok.
Finally I was partly a No. 1 man different to a fellow call
yellow. Bill leervin was Captain, and Jordan as chief mate,
bette known ns Cracker Jack. We datup up Albrook Field Balboa
Flat, Corunda, and even near under the present beer factory
at San Miguel now. 'Ihen we started, it was out in the Channel
until we re-oh up under the Captain of Port Building. This
was up to the end of 1914- Well a reduction came, and some of
us w .s played off. Jobs 50ot scarce', a couple of months after I
heard of a little job open at (-amboa, chopping and painting
barges. i succeeded of Setting on. it wa. tough, pounding the
decks all day with sleidge hammers some maes half day, didn't
come back, *cmr.e one day, come two days some fall sick of the
red lead and the hot sun, some on account of the Boat-swain
call Duncan. No time to blow for him, I fight a long because
I was in kneed, I never paid him any mind, finally they remove
him and put him on Clappet 6 as Captain. He reccomend me to
:r. Cratz where I was made l3oatswain of same gang. George S.
Yates as gSneral foreman, a Wrapper craneman; also G-illis,
another crancman. Thin was about 1915 March or April. I work
up to 1917 and la.y off. The German boat- from Crietoba1l came
to Ralboa for -repeirs. V.irst, before this -gotted on the
tugboat !ariner with Captain Ewencon, but it did not last too
long, I we. off a'rain. It was here that I heard of the Cae.an
boats job. I tried, but to no avail. 1 heard it was ?r-'
Jor-.an on there ns chief :mate. So, one morning after picokgIp
a few men, HP c get orders to clec-r the deck for they were
hundreds of -2en trying, but, striving my we.y through the crowd,
I manage to reach the hurr icar--deck where Mr. Jordan was, I
shouted him, Ah :.r. Jorusn. He in turn told Captain Stuart,
here is a good man. eill, I was in a job again. Cleaning up
the Captain room and Chief mate room, which was Jordan room.
Scsetimes I am on the 4 boats, cleaning up and dwn into the
bildge, measuring up water with Mr. Jordan, old Cracker Jack,
6 image0034.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.6
the man whom I had left on the 3 dredge. These, boats were
the Savoia, Saxonwald Princess Jungmond, and Grunewald, but
most of my time was on the Gruncwald; when it was almost com-
pleted there was not a man, white or black to climb the mast
to put up the small calbe to hanr; the wireless unto. No one
volunteer to Go. They was afraid! the Germans didsomething up
there. Cracker Jack told them, 1 hired you all as sailors
said, Well someone will have to '-o. Turning to me, Wbhat about
you, Shine, a name he used to call me on the 85 dredge. I
paused a little, looked up at the mast, and then said, 1'll
go. He ran to Captain Stuart, I get a man who will go. Who?
That fellow we call Shin. The dangerous part of it was about
12 to 15 feet, with hands And feet. So I beg.n, I got a bale
of quarter inch rope, tied around my wait and scraper, I
began climbing every body stop and watching. Before I got to
the last part of the ldders, Cracker Jack hollow to me, rest
a little Shine. I eLarted for the final part, I reach',it.
locking my foot around the mast, holding with my left hand
pecking at the sheave block cutted into the mast. I got it
to move, finally I got it spinning. Threading the rope through
the sheave, I pull it down till it reach the deck where they
made gg fant the small calbe and an-oil can. From deck they
began pulling whilst 1 squirted a little oil in-the sheave,
and that was dcne. Came down, :rest off, and about 2 oclock,
up I went to the after mast, and it was finish. I was highly
praised and reccomended for the risk taken. So, we began
cleaning up and cl-ring deck until the Grunewald was declared
sea worthy for the trip. If chbory serves me riCht, I think
it was the 26th of ;ay 1917, about 11 oclock, I don't remember
the day. After lockin through ;-ayflowern and Pedro Miguel
and unto Gatun, it must to have been about six in or 7 &olock
in the evening when we reach&Cristobal. ;ie tied up over night,
take some cargo, next day we left. I think the battleship
Charlestone went ahc.d of us as an escort because of the war.
Days and nights n '.iin under bl.ck out ciders we reach New
York. Docked at 65 ,pier, and shift to 67. Well, we were
taken off, and carried to 507 Weot and 14 Stieet Sailor Home,
or Seaman's Institute. eC were told if We like the place we
are free to go where ever ,e w..nt to go or .,'hen the ready to
return, you will, be-taken b1.,,.ck. For about 3 weeks and days,
we went at 24 St:tec Buildinl; for our weekly allowance, till
the ship was ready for its return. i'e had a crew of 72, white
and black, only 22 of us return Culy difference was we went
or on the Grunewald and returnoC on the same ship whose name
was change to Gencral? C. W. Goei-th.la. On our return trip at
Cristobal we received our dischaorge papers, and also railway
tickets to our home, sif-n by Chinrlqy Manne, Foreward end
7 image0035.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.7
receiving Angencies. Thus ends the General G. W. Goethals who
was sold to the Black Star Line Company. Well, at home again
and doing nothing quite a while. I had some friends on the
U.S. Culebro, and one day I dotted notice to come and see
Captain Howard, they about to leave for Peru to tow down some
German intern ship. So I got on. We left, I think it was
the 18 day of Septembre 1918. We spent about 40 to 45 days
for the trip. But on arriving it appears the Germans must
have heard we came for the ships. Suddenly the Peruvian
Government had to huosle them off, they began to destroy the
ships. We reach Callao, then went to a place call Molliendo
for one of the ships. They had some Peruvians engineers and
labours fixing up the rudders and straightening propellers for
the %S tow.. So, finally all set, we left Callao, when I do
not remember. But we had the Luxor Nubisana Racotes, one
behind the other,' with one inch cable I think it was, not
much difficulties, only the rear ship would be one way, and
middle ship the other way at times. It looks as if it were a
milelong. At any rate we reach.back at-Balboa. Just about
the following day all the whistles started blowing the War
had finish, Novembre llth. So, after working around for a
couple of months, I was figuring to back up to New York and
stay. Me and the steward go away, and the Captain discharge
me. Why, even the steward tell him to let me have back my
job, because he was wrong to strike me first. Well, he was
hard, so, I just didn't beg too much. This was somewhere in
1919. After hunting around for a job I finally pick up one in
the La Boca Co-missary a storeman delivering thing to the
sections. The after I was made salesman in the Cold Storage
department under the management of Diamond who was Inspector
of Commissaries one time. Not very long after, 2 sections was
close down one of the storeman and 2 salesmen and an order
man was out, so, I had to g-\'- another
-seeejs.a job. Not much time
had passed when I decided to return to see Mr. George S. Yates,
who succeeded A. B. Cratz because he was called off to the War.
Mr. Yates gave back my job right away. And one day he call
me, "Simmons, you want to take charge of one of the barges.
OK I said, you'll work a little longer. So I got barge 16 to
run to tore point carrying sand and gravel They gave me
supply and I was off to tor point, where I spent about 16 to
17 days. On my return went up the river, or taking a load at
the gravel plant waiting for a tug. Some time aftei the
Reliance came for me, pull me out under bridge and kitchen,
at the same time, we had a Tipperrary scow., a thousand yard
scow, barge 16 and a coal barge towing to Cristobal. This was
the very morning when the Cristobal ran into the Tipperrary
8 image0036.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.8
scow off Darien. We were cut loose from the Tipperary and
left her hanging on to the boo'. Even when dumped the scow
she still cling on to thb bow. The Cristobal bow was ripped
as if it was cardborrd. :o, "cnt on our way with the rest
of the load. .'ll 1 r c-h C.r t.tobal and I think tug boat La
Boca towed me over to to. poi t. I return back at the gravel
plant where I was living in V. ilding 27 only to be lay off
not long after. In quarters cnt had to bB paid, so, I
accepted a temporary job in t o box car commisary as salesman
and order man. A couple of &. ,ths and out again. This time
a little job I didn't li:-e so nuch. I was with one hand
Rawlson as boatman killing lilies and picking them also.
Sometimes spraying w:-ith :.renc., of which the arcenic was too
harsh, we had to put one by 11 boards at times and walk on
the same lilies. Up the Ch *:e iandengo, :iatachin, Basobis-
po, and many other place. iTc pay was small, and the same.
water bad for the foot. an;; uLies you drop in the arcenio
water, which scratches my fee, plenty, I work, but I was
looking somewhere else. And, -.o I started out on a walk from
Gamboa to Pedro Miguel, I :topped a spur 40, at Mr. Joe
Lindsey, Signal department. Pe took my name and where I live.
Any telephone near where you live, yes sir, the Gravel Plant.
I'll give you a call later oi And so he did, I came, and put
me on a Speeder, running; mai.tcinance from Summit to the rail-
way crossing in Fanoma. Thi' was about 1921 to 1923 reduction
came. But, before it come 1 had visited Ir. Dave Moore house
in Miguel and asked him to h Ip me in a job if possible he
ask me if I could a boat, of course I can sir, very well, you
say you can pull a boat, I (3'ot mean to pull it with a rope;
with oars, what I meant. He told me to come around, so, I
think it was the 13th day of Ausuit 1923, and right away I
was cent off to the Centre w .11, to a boatswain called Frio.
They were about to ;;o o"ff f r boat just as I got there I
shouted the boatA.v, hold it t.,cre, For que, were the answer,
Mr. IMoore send me i thr hbe?,. I r."abh'ed oars, shew me how
you want it, I c.id to t,h on-c :ho tus the rope. He told me
to go right out, .r, if .ou n;Xin' to cross the ship bow, and
turn ,your boat bow to .flo-'ers ri unit for the ship crew
thro you a hcivirn line. -.nd it 'wnsc done. The other boatman
meantime claigin:n:. no:- .i. go o".t to help me. Then .Ir. Fito
went to Fred Dr::dlc; .'n n thi- fellow io a sure and reliable
boatman. A couple of 0 .ys. after I \.as transferred to the
East side wall :ith JP.ko ifac :el. 'Where I remain for about 16
years as boat' nn, "d i:L.om the bc:at I ias recco.niended by -.tr.
Fred Bradley to :Kr. ErnRnto Doyle as electrician helper in
Center wall tunnel, whe:-e 1 ;pcnd anoth 14 years and month.
9 image0037.jpg
Simmons, E. L. p.9
When I retired in 1953 October, thus ended my service for the
Panama Canal Company. So, to the Editor and Sponsors of the
lsthmian Historical Society, I hope and trust that this will
meet your approval and judgement.
EDGAR LLEWELLYN SIMMONS
Born in the Island of Barbados
B.W.I. on the 15 day of December
1886.