Last Survivor of Panama Canal Construction Remembers Endeavor
by Ariyuri H. de Mantovani
The Panama Canal Spillway - August 14, 1998

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Much has been said about the deeds of the Panama builders and their ability, cunning leadership and vision.  Stevens, Goethals, Gorgas and Gaillard are only some of the leaders' names from the Canal construction period.  However, nothing would have been accomplished without the effort and dedication of the extraordinary work force that worked on its construction.

More than 75,000 men and women arrived in the Isthmus from different parts of the world to accomplish a feat never imagined.  Many of these workers came from the impoverished islands of the West Indies and from Europe and Asia while others arrived from Colombia and Costa Rica with the promise of a steady job and a promising future.

More than 45,000 manual workers were hired for the excavation of the Canal.  To provide these workers with the best standard of living, it was necessary to build dining halls, and cafeterias, dormitories and bathrooms, stores to buy household items and clothes, post offices, etc.

The Canal construction project was divided into three parts - the construction of the Atlantic side locks, the excavation of Gaillard (Culebra) Cut and the construction of the Pacific side locks.  Canal constructions brought about widespread engineering challenges, like the excavation of the channel through the Continental Divide, the construction of the most gigantic locks and miter gates ever conceived and the solution to enormous environmental problems.

However, no other phase of the Canal construction captured as much attention as the excavation of Gaillard Cut or Culebra, as it was originally called, where armies of workers and large mechanical shovels opened a path between the hills.  Without a doubt, this was the biggest challenge for Canal builders.

Building the three sets of locks took four years, while completing the excavation of Culebra Cut took seven years.  It was not uncommon to find that landslides had occurred in areas excavated the day before, or to find tracks covered with rock and earth along the 8.75 miles that made up the Cut, which extends from Gamboa to Pedro Miguel locks.  Nevertheless, the dedicated Canal builders excavated again, time and time again, without losing spirit or enthusiasm.

One of these valiant Canal builders and only survivor is 104-year old Alexander Bernard Heron.  Mr. Heron arrived in the Isthmus of Panama from Colombia in 1908 along with his father, who was looking for job opportunities.  when he was 16, he heard about the construction of the interoceanic waterway and went to see the work.  Some laborers asked him if he wanted to work and he accepted.  His first job was with the Construction Division, as spade and shovel worker, digging out the ditch for the Canal .

Despite his advanced age, Mr. Heron remembers those days of the construction.   "Excavating Culebra Cut was a difficult task.  We sweat blood while building the Canal," he explains.  Among Mr. Heron's memories there is much sadness, as many of his friends died in the attempt to accomplish this incredible feat.   "There wasn't any drainage or sewage system, not potable water; many people became ill," he recalls.

Mr. Heron considers himself very fortunate to be alive and he says he hopes to see the transfer of the Canal to Panamanian hands.  "I never thought Panama would take over the administration of the Canal," he says, adding, "I want to live to see how they do it."

When thinking of the amount and characteristics of the work and the diversity in the composition of the work force that built the Canal, one must admit that bringing together and inspiring enthusiasm and team work spirit in tem was maybe one of the major accomplishments during the Panama Canal construction.  The Canal will always be considered one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century.  The legacy of all Canal builders, be they supervisors or laborers, will remain through the years as an example of their cunning vision and determination to overcome nature to accomplish an undertaking for the benefit of mankind.

[Ed. Note:  Mr. Heron was featured in the Discovery Channel's documentary The Panama Canal: Eighth Wonder of the World]

Reprinted in The Canal Record - December, 1998

Presented by CZBrats
December 24, 1998

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