The Canal is saying a regretful farewell to a group of its oldest and most faithful workers.
They are the remnants of the small army of over 45,000 men who were recruited and brought to the Isthmus under contract to help build the Panama Canal. Within the next few months all but a few will be mustered out of service.
Most of the offices and field units will be affected by the program of retirement for all local-rate employees over the age of 65. This program was begun in August and is scheduled to be completed by next March. The first group was retired in September and 87 more left the service at the end of October.
When the program was begun there were approximately 475 in service above 65 years of age. Of these about 100 had passed the 70-year mark and there were a few who were 80 years old or older.
When this program is completed it is planned to begin a more gradual retirement program for the men and women in the age group of 62 to 65. There are now about 500 of this age group in service. The retirement of these will be "permissive" and those in good health who have special ability may be retained in service at the option of their supervisors.
The retirement of the employees in the older age group was not instituted until after the recess of Congress because favorable indications that the legislation to increase disability relief payments would be passed. The legislation is a Canal administration measure and Governor Seybold has announced that he will vigorously urge its speedy passage when Congress reconvenes in January.
It is regarded as a temporary measure and the Canal administration is asking the enactment of retirement legislation for its non-U.S. citizen workers. This measure provides for compulsory retirement at the age of 62 years and if this is passed, the group of 500 employees above 62 years would be automatically retired upon its passage.
All of those being retired during the current program will benefit under any legislation raising the cash relief payments.
Majority From Barbados
Most of those being retired now over 65 years of age are from Barbados since the great majority of workers who were brought to the Isthmus during the construction period under contract and retained in service were from there.
The Canal Record in August 1914, published statistics on the number of contract laborers brought to the Isthmus during the Canal construction period. It showed that a total of 45,107 were brought under contract to help on the Canal project.
Of this number 19,900 were employed in Barbados. Other large groups were: Spain, 8,298; Martinique, 5,542; Guadeloupe, 2,053; Italy, 1.941; Colombia, 1,493; Trinidad, 1,427; Greece, 1,101; St. Kitts-Nevis, 942; and Cuba, 500.
Most of the European laborers were repatriated or left the service for construction projects elsewhere in Latin America at the close of the Canal construction period. Many thousands of those from the West Indies also were repatriated.
In addition to the 45,000 who were brought under contract for work on the Canal, thousands of others came to the Isthmus at their own expense to get jobs. Notable among this group were men and women from Jamaica.
Legal restrictions in some of the British West Indies required the contract recruitment program to be centered mostly in Barbados and the French islands.
There are no statistics available now on the number still in service who were brought to the Isthmus under contract.
It is notable that the first and last group of contract laborers brought to the Isthmus during the construction period were from Barbados. A total of 404 were employed in 1904 during the first year of construction, and 528 were employed in 1913, the year before the Canal was completed.
Four From Building
Typical of the employees over 65 years of age who are now being retired are the four whose pictures are published on this page. All four are from Barbados and came to the Isthmus during the early construction period. These are, incidentally, the only four who began work in the Administration Building when it was opened in 1914 and have been continuously employed there since.
Two of these old-timers, Chesterfield Mayers and Prince H. Walcott, both Janitor Foremen, were retired at the end of September. The other two, Aubrey E. Todd, Office Helper in the Administrative Branch, and Robert J. Atherley, Station Messenger on the third floor, retired at the end of October.
Another old-timer at the Administration Building who retired at the end of last month was Josiah Douglas, Messenger on the "Governor's Station" for the past 35 years. He is from Jamaica and came to the Isthmus in 1909.
Most of those over 65 who are now being retired have 40 or more years of service with the Canal organization. A few boast of 45 years or even 50 years of service, since some were employed by the Panama Railroad or with the French Canal Company when the United States began the Canal work on May 4, 1904.
The loss of these old-timers will be sorely felt in the units where they have spent such a great part of their lives.
They go with a fond but regretful "adios" from their associates in the Canal enterprise.
December 22, 1998