The Panama Canal Service Medal - The "Junk" Medal
by Todd Wheatley
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The Roosevelt Medal with one bar
Issued to Joseph Pratt - #3164
Bar is #1326, 1911-1913

Photo Courtesy of Bill Miller

During 25 years of medal collecting, I have run across perhaps half a dozen Panama Canal Service Medals without ever knowing the story behind them.  Recently, I acquired a three-bar badge (No. 1872) denoting eight years service as an employee of the Isthmian Canal Commission and named to Walter J. Humphrey.   The three 2-year service bars were also each numbered and dated.

Curiosity about the badge led me to a publication called The Canal Record, published weekly at Ancon, Canal Zone, under the authority and supervision of the Isthmian Canal Commission.  Publication of the bulletin began in 1908, and it continues to the present with only slight modifications from the original.  The paper is a mirror of life on the Isthmus during the period of canal construction.  Its pages contain articles dealing with such diverse subjects as health conditions, dredging operations, athletic events, Commission notes, canal construction statistics and cost data, obituaries, ship arrival/departure information, social events, and so on.  It is from the pages of The Canal Record that data for this article were obtained.

In the fall of 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Canal Zone and, in a speech at the close of his visit to Cristobal, he said:

"I shall see if it is not possible to provide for some little memorial, some mark, some badge, which will always distinguish the man who for a certain space of time has done his work well on this Isthmus."

On December 1906, the New York Tribune was authorized to publish the following statement released from the White House:

Medals of a suitable character are to be given to all citizens of the United States who have served the government satisfactorily on the Isthmus of Panama for two years.  A competent artist will be engaged and the design for a medal prepared.  President Roosevelt is anxious that suitable tribute to, and recognition of service shall be shown by the government, and believes the effect will be salutary and wholesome."

At a meeting of Isthmian Canal Commission on 28 March 1908, Lieutenant Colonel George W. Goethals, Commission Chairman, read a letter from President Roosevelt, dated 23 December 1907 "... directing that the details of the scheme be perfected by the Commission."  Commissioners H.H. Rousseau and Jackson Smith were appointed by Colonel Goethals as a Committee to "... consider the matter and make recommendations to the Commission at a subsequent meeting."

The report prepared by Commissioners Rousseau and Smith was presented to the Commission and unanimously adopted by that body on 27 April 1908.  The full text of the report follows.

Lieut. Col. Geo. W. Goethals,
  Chairman and Chief Engineer,
    Isthmian Canal Commission,
       Culebra, Canal Zone


In accordance with your instructions, at the 142nd meeting of the Commission appointing the undersigned a committee to consider the matter of medals to be given to all citizens of the United States who have rendered two years satisfactory service on the Isthmus, we have the honor to submit the following recommendations:

1.  American citizens, alone, shall be eligible for medals and for naturalized aliens, medal service shall count only after acquiring citizenship.

2.  Medal service shall begin with American occupation, employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission and Panama Railroad to be equally eligible after that date. [The second French failure ended and the American occupation began on 4 May 1904, when 2nd Lieutenant Marke Brooke, Corps of Engineers, United States Army, signed a receipt for all property and equipment belonging to the de Lesseps Company, at the French Hotel in Panama City]

3.  Medals shall be numbered consecutively in the order in which they have been earned.

4.  Continuous service on the Isthmus, alone, shall count for medal longevity.

5.  Service shall have been satisfactory.

While not exactly covered by your instructions, we should like to submit our views in regards to the medal itself, as follows:

(a)  It shall be approximately the size of an American silver dollar and shall be of composition of bronze from old French canal scrap.

(b)  One one side shall be a medallion head of President Roosevelt, and on the other side the seal of the Canal Zone.

(c)  The medal shall be inscribed, "For Two Years Continuous Service on the Panama Canal" and "Presented by the President of the United States."

(d)  Each medal shall be engraved with the name of the employee, the number of the medal and the years included by his two years service.

Among the ideas which have been considered, is whether provision shall be made for additional service bars for each two years continuous service.  While this idea has some attractive features, we believe that it will be better to defer action on same for the present.

Very respectfully,
H.H. Rousseau
Jackson Smith

There was an esprit among the employees of the Canal Company which was manifested in part by enthusiasm over the proposed medal for service on the Isthmus.  Chief of Police George R. Shanton's letter to The Canal Record (6 May 1908) praised the Chief Executive and stated that "... President Roosevelt is the father of the Isthmian Canal Commission and that we should honor him as much as possible in this badge ..."   Shanton proposed further that a bar be authorized by each subsequent year of service with the date and year served engraved on the bar.  He also suggested that the medal be the size of a ten dollar gold piece and, as the Committee recommended, "... should be made of old French scrap ..." and designed so "... that it could be either used as a badge or worn as a watch fob."  Shanton later received Medal No. 36.

On 20 May 1908, a letter signed "Eligible" advanced the notion that the medal be made of aluminum or silver because most who served in the Zone "... have enough of the French junk to exhibit as souvenirs without caring to carry a piece of scrap iron the size of a silver dollar ..."  "Eligible" went on to say that he "... would cheerfully contribute a Panamanian dollar to have it (his medal) cast from."

... and correspondence continued to arrive at the offices of The Canal Record.

The edition of 3 June 1908 contained two interesting letters with differing views regarding the proposed badge.  William Bodette voiced the opinion that silver medals be given to two-year men and a medal of Panama gold to individuals with four years of service.  He further suggested incorporating the American flag into the design and having not only the recipient's name engraved on the badge but also his title and/or position within the Canal Company.

The second letter was signed "Check No. 35,434" and proclaimed that silver medals the size of a half-dollar "... are too common and too trafficky for such a noble purpose ..." and "... possess neither novelty nor sentiment."   He ended his correspondence by endorsing the "French junk" concept as originally proposed by the Rousseau/Smith Committee.

On 14 October 1908, The Canal Record announced that "A ton of copper pipe collected from old French excavators and locomotives, some bronze bearings taken from (railroad) cars, locomotives and excavators, and 200 pounds of tin found in one of the old French warehouses ... has been collected and will be sent to the Philadelphia Mint, to be used in casting the bronze medals ..."  The announcement stated that the medals should be ready for distribution early in 1909.

The Canal Record edition of 25 November 1908 contained a frontpage article giving notice that the design for the medal had been completed.  It was described as being "... the size of a Panama silver dollar (the diameter of the medal measures 30.5 mm, or 5.5 mm less than the diameter of a Panamanian silver dollar), and will be struck in bronze.  On the obverse there will be a portrait of President Roosevelt ... facing to the left.  Around the border will be the inscription, 'For two years continuous service on the Panama Canal.'  The reverse of medal bears a ... view of Culebra Cut ... with steamers passing through, with Gold Hill to the left and Contractor's Hill to the right.  Above the horizon ... is inscribed, 'The Land Divided, The World United' ... around the rim, 'Presented by the President of the United States..'  Below appears the shield of Panama, [The description relating to the shield is incorrect.  It is not that of the Republic of Panama, but rather the arms of the Canal Zone as authorized by Executive Order 2204 of 8 June 1915, a portion of which heads: "The seal consists of a shield, showing in the base a Spanish galleon of the fifteenth Century under full sail coming head on between two high banks, all purple, the sky yellow with the glow of sunset; in the chief are the colors of the arms of the United States.  Under the shield is the motto:  'The land divided; The world united!'"] and under it will be the name of the recipient ... Each medal will be numbered in a circle below the portrait, and will be numbered in a circle below the portrait, and will hand from a suspension bar.   With each year's additional service on the Canal a bar will be added."

On 10 February 1909, The Canal Record announced that 1000 pounds of "French scrap" had been sent to the Director of the Mint at Philadelphia by the Chief Quartermaster of the Isthmian Canal Commission.  The article went on to say that an estimated 2400 medals had been earned through 1 January 1909 and suggested that approximately 500 per annum would probably be earned by an unannounced cut-off date.   Concerning distribution, the article observed that medals earned by former employees of the Commission and the Panama Railroad Company would be distributed from the Commission office in Washington, and those earned by present employees would be issued from Culebra.

The same edition published for the first time the following award criteria for the medals which had been approved at the 143rd meeting of the Canal Commission.

"1.  American citizens alone shall be eligible for medals, and for naturalized aliens medal service shall be reckoned from the date on which citizenship was acquired.

2.  Employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission and of the Panama Railroad Company shall be equally eligible for the medal, but service prior to May 4, 1904, the date of the American occupation of the Canal Zone, shall not be considered.

3.  Medals shall be numbered consecutively, in the order in which they were earned.

4.  Continuous service on the Isthmus alone shall count for medal longevity.

5.  Service shall have been satisfactory.

6.  For each two years' additional service a bar will be awarded, to be attached to the medal."

The commission went further and added interpretations to the award rules as follows:

"1.  In numbering the medals the order of precedence of employees whose medal service began on the same date shall be determined by lot.

2.  Service on the Silver Roll shall count equally with service on the Gold Roll.* [Employees on the Gold Roll consisted of the Commission members and technical, administrative, and supervisory personnel of the Canal Company, the Panama Railroad and its relocation force, and the management and staffs of the Departments of Administration, Construction and Engineering, Health and Sanitation, and the Canal Zone Government.   Colonel George Washington Goethals, United States Army, was the Commission Chairman and Chief Engineer.  All were American nationals.  In contrast, the Silver Roll embraced the labor force who performed the actual canal construction duties and other non-exempt personnel in these departments.  The majority of the labor force came from the West Indies and the Republic of Panama.  There was, however, a smattering of laborers from the United States and some few from nations in southern Europe.   Another distinction dealt with the pay of the groups.  Silver Roll employees were paid in Panamanian dollars; Gold Roll personnel received United States currency.]  

3.  Authorized leave will be considered equivalent to service (on the Isthmus).

4.  For employees appointed in the United States medal service shall be reckoned from the date of arrival on the Isthmus.

5.  It will be considered that any person retained in the employ of the Commission or the railroad for two consecutive years has rendered satisfactory service during that period, although he may have been discharged subsequently for misconduct or incompetency."

For the net several years starting with the 10 January 1909 issue of The Canal Record, lists of the Isthmian Canal Commission and Panama Railroad Company employees deemed eligible for the new badge were published.  These lists were in chronological order starting with 4 May 1904 -- the first day of American occupation of the Zone.  In addition, corrections to the lists appeared periodically involving such things as name changes and eligibility date corrections.

The issue of 14 April 1909 announced that samples of the medal had been received on the Isthmus and that minting of the first 5000 pieces had begun at the Philadelphia Mint.   Personnel were again admonished to correct any errors found in the eligibility lists previously published.  A change in the naming and dating of badges was also announced.  Each medal was to have the name of the recipient engraved below the portrait of President Roosevelt and the obverse, and the exergue on the reverse was to contain the medal number and years of qualifying service.

On 26 May 1909, a progress report appeared on the front page of The Canal Record informing Commission employees that the  names of all eligible personnel prior to 31 December 1908 had been sent to the States on May 20th, and that engraving of the medals would begin immediately.  A list of the first 100 recipients was also published.  Heading the list was W. T. Brewer of the Panama Railroad Company, who would receive Medal No. 1 with a 2-year service bar.  Brewer's service dated from the first date of American occupation of the Zone, 4 May 1904.  The first award of a Panama Canal Service Medal to a woman was also noted.  M. Eugenie Hibbard would later be presented with Badge No. 73.

The Isthmian Canal Commission meeting of 10 June 1909 resolved the question of engraving the 2-year service bars.  Acceding to wishes of numerous employees, the Commission passed the following resolution, as announced in The Canal Record of 23 June 1909:

"That Canal Medal bars be numbered consecutively to show the order in which each is earned, and that the years of service represented be also indicated thereon."

On 3 September 1909, the steamship Colon arrived on the Isthmus with the first batch of 2264 medals and bars covering service between 4 May 1904 and 1 January 1909 (The Canal Record, 8 September 1909).  Distribution of the medals began immediately.

The edition of 15 December 1909 contained an announcement inviting interested individuals to a meeting at the Ancon Lodge Hall on Sunday, 19 December 1909, to organize what was to be called The Isthmian Canal Medal Association.  The Canal Record of 29 December 1909 recapped the events of the December 19th meeting and informed the readers of the next meeting to be held on 30 January 1910 to consider a constitution and by-laws for the new organization.  E.F.J. Goldsmith was elected temporary Chairman of the Association.

Early in January of 1910, the Commission addressed the problem of medal eligibility of Panama Railroad Relocation personnel and employees of the Commissary Department.  The review determined that these men were also entitled to the service medal and bars under the same rules and regulations as other employees of the Canal Company.  This decision was announced in the 26 January 1910 edition of The Canal Record.

In March of 1910, the Isthmian Canal Medal Association completed its organization and filed for incorporation in the Circuit court at Culebra.  Officers were elected for the year 1910 and consideration was given to establishing branches in the United States (The Canal Record, 9 March 1910).

Of particular interest to this study is The Canal Record of 29 October 1913.  A brief history of medal was presented and statistics pertinent to its production and issue were reviewed.  Included was the information that the designer was Francis D. Millet - no stranger to collectors of American medals, especially those of the United States Army.   The medalist was identified as Victor M. Brenner.  It was also disclosed that the initial shipment of "French scrap" included "... 25 pounds of staybolts, 30 pounds of excavator bearings, 24 pounds of bushings, another lot of 28 pounds of excavator bearings, and 35 pounds of  locomotive driver bearings, all taken from old French equipment.:  The article noted further that the Director of the Mint had advised the Commission that the only acceptable metal (for coinage purposes) was contained in the staybolts.  As a consequence, and as previously noted, 1000 pounds were shipped to Philadelphia and "... this amount ... sufficed for the manufacture of all medals and service bars ..."  The article goes on to point out that the engraving was done by contract with Mr. Alva Nelson of New York City "... at a cost of 22 cents each for the medals, and 14 cents each for the service bars ..."   Production costs at the Mint totaled $350.00 per thousand medals and $80.00 per thousand bars.  Tissue paper and individual boxes added an additional 19 cents per thousand so that each medal represented an outlay of approximately 50 cents.   "The expense (was) paid out of a special appropriation made by Congress for (this) purpose."

A recapitulation of medals and bars issued from 1904 through 1912 shows the following:

Number of Medals:  6489
Number First Bars: 2831
Number Second Bars: 952
Number Third Bars: 74

On 14 October 1914, the announcement was made that "... medal and service bar services ceases to be earned after December 31, 1914."  this was probably a Canal Commission action, although I could find nothing to confirm this.  It was a fitting date, however, because all major construction had been completed and the first ship had crossed the Isthmus on 15 August of that year. [The first ocean-going vessel to transmit the Isthmus was the SS Ancon; however, the tugboat Gatun was successfully used 11 months earlier in a test transit on 26 September 1913.]  What remained was simply a maintenance activity.

The last entry in The Canal Record appeared in the 10 February 1915 edition, which contained a list of personnel qualifying for first, second, third, and fourth service bars.  The bulletin of 3 February 1915 - one week earlier - tabulated recipients of the medal for the 12-month period ending 31 December 1914.  The following final recapitulation indicates the total number of medals and bars issued.


# of Medals


Second Bar


Fourth Bar

1904-1906 232        
1905-1907 885        
1906-1908 1,147 146      
1907-1909 1,384 536      
1908-1910 943 704 92    
1909-1911 959 830 362    
1910-1912 939 615 498 74  
1911-1913 294 384 376 192  
1912-1914 406 433 333 295 42
Total 7,189 3,648 1,661 561 42

First Published:  The Medal Collector, Vol. 34, No. 11, November 1983
CZBrats thank Mr. Todd Wheatley for his kind permission to publish this article.

Roosevelt Medal Descendents

Presented by CZBrats
March 16, 1999
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The author retains all rights to this article.   Reproduction without permission is strictly forbidden. Should you wish to use, copy or publish this article elsewhere, please contact CZBrats.