A Trip Down Memory Lane
The memories of
construction-day employees of the Canal enterprise provide an insight into what it was
like in the Zone at that time.
During the Theodore Roosevelt Centennial on the Isthmus in November 1958, a number of construction-day employees of the Canal organization were on hand for the activities associated with the observation.
The Isthmian Historical Society
called a meeting of the construction-day employees in the Tivoli Guest House, during which
each of those present was asked to say in a few words about his or her "most vivid
The memories recounted by those in attendance at the meeting were tape-recorded and later transcribed. The transcription is on file at the Canal Zone Library. A few of the quotes follow.
Edmund T. Paterson, Mechanical Department shop worker, 1904-1907: "I came with Col. Frank J. Hecker ... We spent about two months making a preliminary survey of ... the French machinery and equipment and material ... (We experimented) with various types of old machinery ... The old French excavating machines ... were put into service ... (but) the castings would break shortly after they were put into use and it seemed conclusive that those machines were obsolete ... The Belgian locomotives ... were found to be remarkably well built ... and they were interchangeable in their various parts ... For locomotives that were largely hand-built ... they very greatly impressed our engineers as to their skilled workmanship and building."
Stephen Latchford, clerk, 1905-1911: "My most vivid recollection is when, as a young man of 22, I had just arrived and decided that I'd like to call on Dr. Amador, the President of the Republic. So I went around to his office and after a few preliminaries they told that he was eating his breakfast but when he got through he'd be glad to see me. So they took me up to the diplomatic reception room and I waited. I could see him at the breakfast table dressed in his bathrobe and his bedroom slippers, and when he got through he beckoned me to come in and we had a most enjoyable conference lasting about an hour. He was most gracious in every possible way ... I've always had a most pleasant recollection of that visit."
Charles F. Williams, planner and estimator in Balboa ships, 1905-1907 and 1912-1939: "When I pulled into Colon we could see the old station in Colon. There was an engine -- we had heard lots about fever, malaria, and yellow fever and other tropical diseases and of course it was in our minds -- and ... next to the engine was a car, a coach, baggage coach, marked with large letters ... 'Funeral Car.' The one behind that was the Hospital Car. I ... wondered what that meant, until we started down the road and we would pick (up) the dead ones as we went along, and the sick would go in the Hospital Car, the dead in the Funeral Car ... That was regular equipment on the Panama Railroad."
John J. Murray, mechanical supervisor, 1906-1946: "One of the biggest jobs I had (during the early days) ... was helping put in the Baracoas Bridge, in 1908. On Good Friday of 1908 we put in the first span, on Easter Sunday we put in the second span, and the following Sunday we put in the third span ... About 1910 I was transferred over to the Engineering Division of the Panama Railroad on various jobs on steam shovels ... During the time I was on the shovels, out on relocation, a rock rolled down on one of the pitmen one day and we didn't know how we were going to get it off ... I put a dobie (charge of dynamite) on it and shot it off and the man came back and worked later ... (The rock weighted) several tons. It flattened the man out like a board .. It was a rock about six by six."
Reed E. Hopkins, railroad conductor, 1907-1921: "one of things ... was the hardships that the wives and the women underwent ... In Gatun ... I've seen them walk down to the Commissary, which was clear down to the lower locks, and wade in the mud over their shoetops, getting to the Commissary, and then carry their groceries up the hill. there were no means of transportation ... We had a standing order that any conductor was to cut off his engine and pick up a flat car if somebody got hurt and take him to the hospital .... That happened every day. There was many a blast shot off with no warning; you would always hear a blast, then duck under a car or something to get out of the way of the rocks that were falling. There weren't many safety devices in that day."
Morris M. Seeley, surgical nurse, 1907-1942: "Colonel Goethals held court on Sunday morning. If you had a complaint you could go before the Colonel no matter what your status was .... He called me as witness to a couple of investigations that he was carrying on .... The second time he called me ... I said, 'Colonel Goethals, I understand this is a private investigation and I am not compelled to testify if I do not want to.' He said, "Why, certainly, you don't have to testify if you don't want to." I said, "Well, in this particular case, I'd like to ... refuse to testify.' He said, "Mr. Seeley, you are excused.""
Stuart G. Carkeet, clerk, 1910-1915: "I have many vivid memories of the days I spent here, but the one I cherish most ... of the trip made from the Atlantic side to Gamboa on the day that the dike was blown. I came up in a motorboat with several -- I guess it was a semi-official party .... We came as close to the dike as were permitted to come ... say five, six, seven, eight hundred feet from the dike. We sat there and saw the dike blown up and we remained until the water almost found a level, and then we crossed over into the Pacific waters."
E. W. Baldwin, supervisory engineer, 1911-1916: "My most vivid memory, I believe, is the time when ... I found a very serious error in the design .... They had a return track (at Miraflores Locks) ... built on fill out of Culebra Cut .... That fill came in big lumps and I knew it was going to weather down and sink for years .... I wanted to put piers up -- I even went to the trouble of drawing up a set of piers under it .... About a week or 10 days later we got a revised plan. But if you'll check today, you'll find there's one less pier in the upper lock under the return track ... than is shown on your Canal drawing -- my design was a little different from theirs." (Mrs. Baldwin explained that part of the return track area had been poured according to his plan before the revised plans came through. Engineering and Construction Bureau officials say there were many on-the-scene changes made which, as Mr. Baldwin said, are not shown on the plans.)
Gertrude B. Hoffman, teacher, 1908-1912: "My most vivid memory is the premature blast at Bas Obispo .... The father of one of my scholars was able to get into the dipper of a steam shovel .. and his steam shovel was completely covered with broken rocks. I used that as an illustration of quick action when I wanted to hurry the youngsters along."
Col. David R. Wolverton, statistician, 1905-1916: "My most vivid memory of those days was when Colonel Roosevelt -- that is, President Roosevelt -- came to visit the Canal Zone ... I was at Paraiso ... and when he came by ... we started loading ... cars from the steamshovels ... The President was so pleased that he raised his hand and opened his mouth, showing all his teeth, and said, 'Keep up the good work!' And that's what we did ... I left the Canal ... in 1916 and since then I have been doing my own work as a lawyer."
From: The Panama Canal Review - April 7, 1961
Presented by CZBrats
September 27, 1998