Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers


Material Information

Letters from Isthmian Canal construction workers Contest solicitation, overview and entry requirements
Series Title:
Isthmian Historical Society competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Afro-Antillean Museum ( donor )
Isthmian Historical Society
Place of Publication:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


Scope and Content:
The Contest: In 1963, as the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal drew near, the Isthmian Historical Society decided to make a collection of stories of personal experiences of non-U.S. citizens during Construction Days by means of a contest. This contest was publicized in local newspapers, by notices in the food packages given to Disability Relief recipients, and in newspapers in the Caribbean area. The following letter was sent to a total of 15 newspapers in Jamaica, Barbados, British Honduras, Trinidad, Antigua, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Grenada: "The Isthmian Historical Society is trying to collect the personal experiences and viewpoints of those West Indians who served in the labor force that dug the Panama Canal. Very little has been written by them or about them. Soon it will be too late to obtain personal accounts. In the hope of making a permanent record of their experiences during the construction of the Canal, our Society is sponsoring a competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction years. It would be much appreciated if you would assist us in publicizing our competition. I am enclosing a separate sheet with the information for this." The information sheet: "The Isthmian Historical Society announces a competition for the-best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal. The competition is open to West Indians and other non-U.S. citizens who were on the Isthmus prior to 1915. Entries may be handwritten but must be legible. Anyone who is infirm may have his story written for him by someone else, but in this case it must be stated on the entry that it has been written for him in his own words by someone else. Give name, address, year arrived in Panama, where employed there, and type of work done. All entries must be in the mail by November 1, 1963. The winners will be announced in December. All entries become the property of the Isthmian Historical Society. First prize will be: $50 (U.S.); second prize: $30 (U.S.); third prize: $20 (U.S.)…” Brief notices of the contest were placed in several thousand food packages ("Food for Peace" packages have been distributed monthly by the Panama Canal Company-Canal Zone Government). These notices read: "Competition -- For West Indians & other non-U.S. citizens who worked on the Isthmus before 1915. For the best true stories of life & work on the Isthmus during the Canal construction there will be awarded prizes: 1st PRIZE: $50; … Give year arrived in Panama, kind of work & where, name & address. Write of interesting experiences & people, living & working conditions, etc… The Entries: The majority of the contest entries were handwritten. In some cases the handwriting was difficult to read. In making copies of the entries, it occasionally was necessary to omit an undecipherable word, leaving a blank space to indicate the omission. Although an effort was made to reproduce the letters exactly as they were written, it is probable that there are errors. However, they will detract little from what these Old Timers wanted to say. It should be remembered that these letters were written by individuals who labored on the Isthmus prior to 1915. They are no longer young. Some are handicapped by the infirmities of age: failing eyesight, unsteadv and arthritic hands that find it laborious to form words and sentences, and minds that know what they want to say but communicate it imperfectly. Generally, unfamiliar spellings need only to be sounded and their meaning becomes clear. In cases where the entrants wrote as they speak, there may be dropped "H"8s so that "has" is written "as". Other features of West Indian speech will be noted. As spoken language, there is no English more colorful. Mr. Albert Banister's interesting letter is a good example. The Society is most grateful for all the entries and we regret that there could not be a prize for everyone. Ruth C. Stuhl Competition Editor

Record Information

Source Institution:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Holding Location:
Afro-Antillean Museum
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the source institution.
System ID:

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Full Text

Wheatley, Simeon T. (Cedula #13915); Frangipani St., Bid. 51,
Room 21; Estafeta No. 1, Caledonia, Panama, R.P.'

I arrived in the Isthmus in the Month of March 1907. I
start to work for the canal Commision. The Quarter Master De-
partment Corral as a Teamster driving mule wagon. My duty was
to Deliver coal, kindle, ice and furniture around the Quarters
of the White folks Sometime Commisary Supplies at a section
call Empire over the Westbank, where the main force of the
workers live on the Pacific side of the Canal. The White
people section were different to the Colored I have to draw
feed for the animals to a place that is call Mandinga where the
Government raise these animals, horses, mule, and cattle. In
the Corral there were many Teamsters employ, and all hauling
was done by mule and horses until trucks and automobile were
brought in later after the Canal was open August 1915. Sanita-
tion was very poor and many people died from malaria fever and
other ailment such as Dysentry typhoid etc. There were many
death's from accident train collision Then they start to build
the road from Fort Amador to Flamingo Island through the Sea.
Train haul the rocks and debris from the Canal were use to
build the road. They were people got kill and injured by Steam
Shovel, and train in the Canal there was an explosion from a
powder house where Dynamite was kept, not far from Empire which
kill many people, that section was call Bas Obispo. The wages
paid to laborers was 10 cents per hour, making 8 and 10 hours
per day. Some people were paid Monthly wages I were paid month-
ly making k40 per month. Mess hall was provided for the Colored
workers, meals were served three times per day at a cost of 20
cents per meal ticket which were pay roll deduction the meals
were good and much food was given, Coal Stove were used in these
Mess Kitchen, and also in the homes of the white people They
were Government Schools for the white children and we have to
drive them to and from schools in special wagon. The Colored
children had to go to private school there were also churches.
A bridge was constructed at Paraiso across the Canal from east
to West bank over which the train ran the old Railroad between
Panama and Colon connecting the atlantic and Pacific continue in
opereration until the Canal was completed, by that time it had
required its present route.

D.R. 3164

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