Extracts of True Stories of Life and Work on the Isthmus of Panama
Sponsored by the Isthmian Historical Society
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-United States citizens during the Construction Days by means of a contest. This contest was published on the Isthmus and in newspapers in the Caribbean area. Prizes were awarded in December, 1963.
Most of the 112 contest entries were handwritten. I have tried to reproduce the entries exactly as they were written but in some cases the handwriting was difficult to decipher and it is possible that there are errors.
The original entries are in the custody of the Canal Zone Library-Museum. Typewritten copies of the entries were given to that library and the Institute of Jamaica at Kingston, Jamaica.
From Amos E. Clarke,Colon, R.P.
.....My first experience was on May 4, 1904, when I heard the first whistle blast out to start work. Some of the old French workers and other nationalities such as Jamaican and a few native, danced and jumped about 2 feet high when they understood that the American Government were in charge of the new undertaking. This took place at Bas Matachin. On May 4, 1904 about 7:45am men, including French, Jamaicans and a few natives were taken on to work with machetes to cut down bushes and jungles around the French materials.
White and colored Americans were the first to start cutting down jungles and bushes. They came from the States with blue junarees and khaki pants, and wore derby hats on their heads. In those days they were no restaurants. Two colored women carried trays on their heads with hot coffee, bread and butter, to the work-place in the morning time, price 10 cents U.S. currency. . . . .In 1905 large numbers of West Indian, Greek, Italians and Spain Spaniards were contracted to work for the Panama Canal.
From Rufus Edward Forde,Captiva, R.P.
.....You turn to work in the morning with a gang about 125 men and by Eleven clock you will find about 40 men all the others fall down with malaria.....they spin all around like atop before they fall and that get you so frighten that at some times you don't come back after dinner, the cause of all of that, there are men going around with quinnine to every gang and give you to drink it is so bitter that when the next man come around, the gang say we got already. If six men come around for the day, I take six glass, and that is why the malaria keep off of me. Then I went to the pipe fitting one day we had some rush work to do and the boss had orders to work right through, we work three day and too night in water to our waist, but the boss was so good that he bring a quart of rum, he will say, boys take a shot before you all goes into the water, and he take a big shot because he had to be into the water, when we finished he said to us boys take the half day off, you all work hard, and see that you all come out in the morning . . . .I had never saw so much rain in all my life as I see in Gatun Cut, you had to go through the rain, and work all through the rain, I remember when I was in the drilling gang, the boss allway say keep the drills agoing so as to keep your body warm sometimes, you are so cold that your teeth keep rocking together, in the morning you had to put your clothes on damp no sun to dry them, what you are going to do, the men that living from that time should praise God morning, noon and night. . .
From Albert Banister,Colon, R.P., I.D. #5876
.....We had plenty to eat, food place to sleep, good medical attendance you get pay promp rain or shine pay day never put off. Their is not a man can say Uncle Sam rob or cheat him one black cent what you agree to work for that is what Uncle paid you. I was admitted at Ancon Hospital about 12 times God bless the officials that found out safty commetee. . .in Culebra Cut that is call Gaillard Cut that was where the Government had the stiffest job which I an others never believe will ever put through because today you dig and it grow tomorrow beside it slides every day the Government wash down the hill give it a bath night and day until the hill catch cramp then blass it up with dannimite.
Who got to Jail petty charge 10 days 10 cents step aside said the Judge you get fine and confne that was the law men and women would run for their lives through the bush if caught go to Jail pay a fine and get married many people get married for six months but it did no last for their was no love they just went for a short time but bad luck catch them so marriage did not last but it was the law of the Canal Zone don't stand for bad life. . . . .
We had many nice song during the time at work first song, steam boat Bill down Missippy, second I love you yes I do, third, if you don't like Uncle Sammy don't be ungreatfull to him and many more it take me a whole year to remember all on account of high cost of living I am not in a possition of a little money to perchase writing paper to write all that I remember. I there-fore bet Uncle Sammy to remember the disability releaf retirree. . .we will soon dead out but while we alive please give us a little to eat we cannot beg the other fellow he don't know us, everybody want the Canal, all you can hear gee me, gee me, gee me. . . nobody did help Uncle but Uncle and Uncle alone. I am nervus I will close. Uncle Sam had down hear big American horses and mules. Police use to keep duty on horse back the mules will be drawing big cart picking up garbage, the mules are trained, they know cachee blow at 11 oclock, when 11 oclodk they stick up their ears straight, if the driver was foolish to call him come on Jacky for a next load he will kick up, smash up the car and push you in jail....they fine you 25 cents, step aside you are charge for being cruel to dum annimals, better you was charge fighting with someone never you touch the mule he will look you up he will kick until Police come many men run away for a mule.
Now a days the men go to work with a lunch keet having a few pieces of bread one apple a bottle of hot coffee call it lunch, long before taht would not do that can't work that can't dig Uncle Sam Canal you have to carry a proper meals heavy meals and Uncle have it prepair for you the best of everything but we was tired with food so we generally wake up at 3 am sometimes 2 am cooking rice and pease and heavy perk-chop or beef stake or big junk of ham the meals is set we report to Uncle in the Mess Hallfor breakfast we had more plenty to eat,m they will take bread and the knife give the bread wap-wap take butter dump it in their a big piece of ham or cheese or beef stake double in there accompany with hot coffee...then you sit and eat it was very good - rough and regurlar that was the chief piece of tool which we use to dig Uncle Sam Canal. Uncle knows what he was doing he both kill malaria and open up our appitie and get this work done . . .
Presented by CZBrats
December 16, 1998