Photo Gallery: Working on the Panama Canal

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The life of workers in the Canal Zone was filled with hardships: constant rain, backbreaking work, racial tensions between West Indian and white laborers, and the constant fear of debilitating illnesses such as yellow fever or malaria. Early working conditions were so harsh that nearly all skilled American workers deserted within a year. As work on the canal progressed, however, the Isthmian Canal Commission improved facilities and provided incentives for workers to stay. This photo gallery provides a look into the everyday life of the people that lived and worked on the canal from 1904 to 1914.

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Laborers work on a Sunday at the Cucaracha slide. Working six days a week, most men got Sundays off. Engineers designed the workflow on the canal to never stop. When day workers returned to their barracks, coal train operators and maintenance crews would work through the night.

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The large majority of the laborers along the Panamanian Isthmus came from the West Indies, especially from the sugar producing island of Barbados. By 1907, the labor force consisted of 24,000 men, more than 75% of whom hailed from the West Indies. Here, West Indians work with tripod drills at the upper Miraflores Locks.

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The vast majority of West Indian workers were given labor-intensive jobs, such a digging ditches, cutting brush, carrying lumber, operating rock drills or fumigation equipment, or dynamiting.

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A group of U.S. laborers in front of a tent. 1907 saw a 100% turnover of white staff.

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To reduce the number of defectors, the ICC built schools, YMCAs, and a bakery, as well as comfortable two-story homes with iceboxes, modern plumbing, and electricity.

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European workers were paid well at $.20 an hour and earned a reputation as some of the hardest and steadiest workers. They slept in less crowded barracks and enjoyed special dining areas complete with tables and chairs which were a rarity.

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A member of Colonel William Gorgas’ 4,000-man sanitation squad sprays oil on a breeding spot for mosquitoes. These "mosquito brigades" screened patients, fumigated houses, and killed mosquito larvae by dousing drains and cesspools with oil. Gorgas’ $2 million campaign to eradicate yellow fever began in 1905.

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White managers mingle with West Indian concrete workers. Segregation in the Canal Zone was defined by gold and silver status -- largely white, "gold" workers were skilled craftsmen who were paid in gold. "Silver" workers, mostly black, were typically unskilled and paid in local silver currency.

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As more U.S. workers remained in Panama for longer periods of time, they formed organizations such as the "Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen" and "The Oddfellows." Only white skilled laborers -- those on the Gold Roll -- were allowed access to these clubs. Here men practice bowling at the YMCA in Gatun.

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Wash men were in the middle of the pay scale in the "roughneck" category, alongside steam shovel-men, plumbers, and mechanics. Above them on the pay scale were division heads, engineers, supervisors, accountants, and inspectors.

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Considered the worst task, dynamiting was a job that most West Indian workers had to do at some point. Uncertain of their return, those sent to dynamite would leave their personal belongings with friends. In this image, a laborer stands knee-deep in dynamite debris.

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West Indian homes in Cristobal, a camp near the city of Colon. West Indian sleeping quarters provided by the ICC were 50x30-foot shacks with three layers of bunk beds to sleep 72 men. While some West Indian workers found their own accommodations in the jungle, the majority of West Indian workers lived in tenements such as these.

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Work in the Culebra Cut was hot -- temperatures often rose to 120 degrees. It was also incredibly loud, with dynamite explosions and the noise from hundreds of machines echoing off the walls of the mountain. Frequent landslides in the Cut buried both heavy equipment and slow-footed workers.

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Gold roll employees line up for dinner at the Commission Hotel in Gorgona. By 1906, white workers had the option of buying a meal at a mess hall for $.30 or visiting one of the many bachelor "hotels" along the canal route.

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Pouring concrete at the Pedro Miguel locks in the fall of 1911. Laborers often worked on top of the lock basins, bustling along the edge of 80-foot-high walls. Unlike the electric-powered concrete pouring system at Gatun, laborers at the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks poured concrete manually, using giant cranes parked on the lock's floor. Together, the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks required 2.4 million cubic yards of concrete.

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The first American women in Panama were nurses, such as these posing in front of Ancon hospital. Others worked as teachers, copyists, clerks, and laundresses. By 1912, over 4,000 U.S. women and children -- including employees and family members, lived on the isthmus.

|National Archives

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH