The Panama Canal Review . . . August 7, 1953

Hundreds of thousands of dollars passed throught the hands of Edward Howell in the 47 years he worked for the Canal before he left the organization at the end of July. He had been a clerk and money counter in the Treasurer's Office at Cristobal for 36 of those years.

Unlike most amateur money handlers and self appointed financiers, the long-time clerk believes that he has made very few mistakes. "If I had made money," he explained realistically during the last month of work, "I probably wouldn't still be around."

He frequently found around the office money a caller dropped from a billfold, perhaps, in the process of cashing a check. Once he discovered $50 neatly hidden beneath a blotter near the cashier's cage. In that case, the cashier remembered having paid someone that amount during the day and, with a little detective work, found the rightful owner.

Cashiers in the Canal organization also have had reason for gratitude to the long time money counter. The bags of money that they send to the Treasuer's office sometimes contain a few pennies or a few dollars more or less than they have accounted for. Of course, that's Mr. Howell's job - to catch and rectify such errors.


It was money that attracted Mr. Howell to the Canal Zone when he first came in 1906. He heard the stuff was "growing on the trees like apples" and came to see for himself. He was a bellhop in the Marine Hotel at home in Hastings, Barbados, when he made the great decision. He assumes he missed the money trees; the main things he remembers seeing when he got to the Isthmus were mudholes and mosquitoes "so big that when they stuck you, you saw blood."

He first lived in a tent city labor camp, Otro Lado, on the "other side" of the Canal from Paraiso. He started to work digging holes, first for tower construction at Red Tank, then on a powder gang in the Mining Division, he said, where the holes he dug were filled with dynamite for the charges that blasted away the earth to dig the Panama Canal.

His hands were soft and "peeled up" easily, he said, and he and his bosses decided that he wasn't husky enough for that kind of work. So he became a water boy, lugging big buckets equipped with drinking dippers to and from a spring in Paraiso, up hill and down hill, over the railroad tracks in the Canal prism and on slippery boardwalk "streets" in the towns.


He explains that the boards used fr walkways later were equipped with wooden cleats to make them a little less slippery after tropical rains. And it seemed to him that rain fell in those days continuously for two weeks - at a rate of about a bucket a drop.

That job wasn't easy either, but it had its special compensations. He liked the foreman and the foreman liked liquor and paid the water boy from his pocket to bring Scotch as well as water on his rounds. On Sundays the men in the labor camps shared their "bathroom" with alligators, making use of the Rio Grande River for baths and weekly laundry.

The old timer also recalls that in those early days the laborers were given lodging checks after a day's work in the Canal. If they didn't work, they didn't get a check and couldn't sleep in the camps. If they weren't in camps, they were picked up by the police and were provided their night's lodging in jail.


In 1907, he quit his water-carrying job and decided to try working on the other side of the Isthmus. "Clearances for jobs weren't necessary then," he says. "No one checked up on you."

On the Atlantic side, he went to work for a Health Department sanitary inspector. The inspector condemned old rotten buildings in the town and his helper pulled them down and burned them. That work wasn't easy either, and one Saturday when his bones ached he stayed home to rest up for Monday. He rested, but had no job when he returned to work.

So he went to work for somebody else, this time the District Quartermaster at Cristobal and served as janitor and night watchman at the old Lincoln House from 1914 - 1917. Working on so-called "scavenger gangs," which cleaned Canal offices and quarters, he also did some of the cleaning work at the Cristobal Treasuer's office. Someone there became acquainted with the janitor and when the office needed a money counter, he was given the job that he held for the next 36 years.

Presented by CZBrats
January 15, 1999

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