THEY WANTED YOUNG MEN
The Panama Canal Review - October, 1953
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Things on the Isthmus were "in a devil of a mess" when Robert J. Atherley, station messenger at the Administration Building at Bolboa Heights, came from Barbados to work on the Panama Canal.

The description of Canal affairs, voiced by President Theodore Roosevelt to a new chief engineer in 1905, is echoed in substance by Atherley and other Administraion Building messengers and office helpers whose Canal service started that year and up to as late as 1913.

Oldest in service among the group of long-timers in the Administration Building messenger force, Atherley arrived on June 26, 1905, to see the first of a long line of "steam shovels and Governors coming and going."

Two days later, Enos Augustus Finn, distribution messenger, arrived, also from Barbados.

Homas George Gibson, foreman messenger and clerk in the Administration Building mail room, came from Jamaica about eight months later, arriving February 27, 1906.

Percy Archibald Eugene Hinds, clerk, in the basement Document Room of the Record Section, arrived from Barbados in April 1906.

The following year, on June 16, 1907, Ernest Edwin Holder, station messenger on the third floor, came from Barbados.

Aubrey Edgar Todd, office helper in the mail room, came from Barbados in 1908.

Alexander Josiah Douglas, messenger on the "Governor's Station," came from Jamaica in January 1909.

Ethelridge Daniels, also at the Governor's Station, is the junior member of the messenger force, with only 38 years on the Isthmus. He arrived from Barbados in February 1913.


"They wanted young men to build the Panama Canal," Atherley says, and the young men came in droves- many on two-year contracts - and a lot of them went back home soon after their arrival.

"Rain, mud, steam shovels, drills, dump trains going up and down . . . digging the Canal right where we lived . . ." Finn offers as explanation of his first days on the Isthmus. He was a jockey in Barbados and signed a contract for Canal work because "racing was dropping through" at home.

He was a carpenter in the Building Division at Culebra when he first arrived and held a dozen or so different jobs before he became a Record Bureau messenger in 1918.

A forgotten "first" brought to light by this former jockey was the first horse race in the Canal Zone run on the Fourth of July in 1907. The two entries, he says, were owned by two steam shovel engineers and the race was run on the old Culebra dump between the Lirio planing mill and the Comimissary. "Diamond," ridden by Finn, was the winner.

Atherley was apprenticed to a tailor in Barbados and mixed concrete at Rio Grande for a short time after his arrival on the Isthmus. Then he started a long period of service as mail messenger during which he carried the mail bags, first on his head and shoulders, then on a mule, then in a wagon, and finally in a Ford automobile. In 1917 the chief clerk taught him to ride a motorcycle and Atherley became the Canal's first motorcycle messenger.

"NEITHER SNOW NOR SLEET"

Starting as mail messenger at Culebra in 1906, he carried the mail bags from the post office to the railroad on his head and shoulders at first because there was no road. There were a lot of wrecks and delays on the railroad in those days -caused partly because the blasting and digging for the Canal upset the area generally, he thinks- and he spent many nights at the railroad station waiting for the delayed trains to come in so he could deliver his mail and go home.

Later there was a mule to ride to carry mail to the station and sometimes, Atherley recalls, he and the mail bags rode the Governor's horse. Then about 1908 a mail wagon was acquired, and about 1915 the Ford. And all this time the postal service was growing by leaps and bounds as Canal digging got underway on a big scale and there were great increases in the employee force.

In 1930, after aboout 13 year's service as a motorcycle messenger, Atherley became a distribution messenger at the Administration Building. He has been a station messenger on the third floor for about a year.

Gibson was a checker on banana boats in Jamaica before he came to the Isthmus to visit his cousin. He just didn't like the place in those days - Panama was a little better than Colon, he thinks - but his father in Jamaica died while he was in Panama and Gibson stayed to take a job and help his mother at home.

CORPSES BY THE CARLOAD

A friend of the family offered him "protection" and help in getting a job and Gibson went to work in the Chief Sanitary Office of the Canal, at that time in the present Obarrio Building in Panama. One of his early memories of those first days on the Isthmus was the sight of Colonel Gorgas and other medical personnel unloading a carload of dead and injured workmen brought to Panama from an explosion along the line of the Canal. "I was terribly scared then," he recalls.

Although he deliverd many messages from the sanitary office in Panama and later in Ancon, to Colonel Goethals at Culebra, he remembers the famous Canal builder primarily for his straw hat.

Gibson became a messenger for the executive offices at Balboa Heights in 1914 and he has been clerk and foreman messenger since 1920. For many years he operated a photography shop and industrial training class for apprentice photographers in the basement of the La Boca Clubhouse.

Hinds had such a strong premonition of disaster when he arrived on the Isthmus that he sent his clothes back home on the same boat. He contracted malaria in a few weeks. "You had to drink water and moss - whatever you could get then," he explains. The fever "made him jump" and he made up his mind to go home just as fast as he could get there, despite the taunts of a friend who called him "chicken" for wanting to leave. Hinds went home nevertheless and the friend died soon after.

"BACK HOME TO PANAMA"

Back home in Barbados, he worked for a foundry and a doctor, then spent two years in Brazil and in 1912, "came back home to Panama." He helped mix concrete for the lock walls at Miraflores, worked in the Mechanical Division, and became an executive department messenger in 1918. He has been an office helper since 1921.

Holder wasn't working when contractors were recruiting Canal labor in Barbados so he signed a contract and came to the Isthmus, where he became a blacksmith in the Mechanical Division shops at Empire. Later he served as cook in the Supply Department at Culebra Cut, La Boca, then left the Canal to become a bartender in the Hotel Normandie in Panama.

A Canal official who used to play poker at the hotel asked Holder if he would like to come back to work in the Canal Zone, and he took a job in 1911 as mesenger in the Executive Department at Culebra. He left Canal service again in 1920, worked in the Metropole Bar and drove his own bus in Panama until 1940, when he came back to his present Canal job.

Todd's first job for the Canal was in the "feeble ward" at Ancon Hospital "farm" in the area now occupied by the houses of the Health Director and Lieutenant Governor, at Balboa Heights. It was commonly called "the farm" Todd says, because at some earlier time the land had been used to raise foodstuffs for the hospital.

As attendant at the hospital, Todd says he saw them "come in droves with dysentery, malaria, and typhoid."

GORGAS A "SWEET GENTLEMAN"

Colonel Gorgas, later General, the Canal's famed first Chief Health Officer, was "a sweet gentlemean who never lost his temper and always had a smile and talked nice." Todd says his daughter, "Miss Eileen," was the same way.

When the present Administration Building at Balboa Heights was opened in 1914, Todd was transferred to the Record Bureau as messenger. He became a clerk in 1919 and since 1926 has been an office helper. Douglas came to the Isthmus in 1909 with his mother to join his brother who was already working for the Canal.

He worked in Panama as clerk and watchman for a short time, then became an attendant at Ancon Hospital, where his brother was working. He first worked in the "private" wards where the nurses quarters are now located, then in the isolation wards, at that time located near the present site of the Governor's house at Balboa Heights. He remained there until 1918, then took over his present job as messenger for the Executive Department in the Administration Building.

Daniels is a second generation Canal employee who came to the Isthmus to join his father who had been here since 1907. Daniels' first Canal job was that of janitor in the old Administration Building at Ancon -the present District Court Building at Ancon He became a messenger in the present Administration Building in 1918 and has been at the "Governor's Station" since March 1930.


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December 22, 1998
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