In the decade-long American effort to construct the Panama Canal, tens of thousands of laborers
worked, sacrificed and died while building the largest canal the world had seen to date. Combating harsh terrain, disease, and deplorable living conditions, workers from around the world held a variety of different jobs in the canal zone, their pay and quality of life often directly related to their ethnicity.
Long before the U.S. attempt at building the Panama Canal began in 1904, workers from around the world had been coming to the isthmus. In the early 1850s, the Panama Railroad Company imported thousands of African and Chinese workers to lay the tracks for the railway lines that would make the construction of the Panama Canal possible. Most would die from malaria or suicide.
Throughout both the building of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s and the French excavation 30 years later, workers from Jamaica were recruited heavily. In 1881, French recruiter Charles Gadpaille ran advertisements throughout Jamaica, offering wages much higher than average on the Caribbean island. The campaign showed the “Colón Man,” a Jamaican who had gone to work in Panama, returning to his home country a rich and prosperous man. This ideal caught on quickly in the largely working-class country, and drove a huge migration of Jamaicans to Panama in the latter half of the 19th century. But the promise of riches was an empty one: in reality, West Indians earned $0.10 an hour and the work was treacherous. During the eight-year French excavation period, of the more than 20,000 workers who died, most were West Indians. Strikes proved fruitless, as there were always more men eager to take the jobs. Despite the heavy recruitment of laborers from the West Indies, Colombia, and Cuba, only one in five workers stayed on the job longer than a year.
The U.S. Gathers a Workforce
When the United States announced its plan to build in Panama, promises of grandeur breathed fresh life into workers recruited to the area. “You here who are doing your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise are standing exactly as a soldier of the few great wars of the world’s history,” Teddy Roosevelt announced to workers during his trip to Panama in 1906. “This is one of the great works of the world.”
In December of that year, two years into the project, there were already more than 24,000 men working on the Panama Canal. Within five years, the number had swelled to 45,000. These workers were not all from the United States, but from Panama, the West Indies, Europe, and Asia.
The base of the workforce, however, once again came from the West Indies. After experiencing the empty promises of the French in the 1880s, most Jamaican workers were unwilling to try their luck on the American canal project, and so in 1905 recruiters turned their attention to the island of Barbados. West Indian labor was cheaper than American or European labor, and a West Indian worker was eager to believe a rags-to-riches tale spun by a recruiter. The “Colón Man” was reborn as representatives from Panama boasted of a rewarding work contract, including free passage to Panama and a repatriation option after 500 working days. By the end of the year, 20 percent of the 17,000 canal workers were Barbadian.
West Indians recruited with promises of wealth and success confronted a very different reality upon arrival at the Isthmus. The dense and untamed jungle that covered the 50 miles between coasts was filled with deadly snakes. The venom of the coral snake attacked the nervous system, and a bite from the ten-foot mapana snake caused internal bleeding and organ degeneration. The rainy season, which lasted from May to November, kept workers perpetually wet and coated in mud.
Initially, accommodations for canal employees provided little protection against the wet weather or jungle life. The Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) housed most workers in dilapidated barracks built two decades earlier by the French. Some employees opted instead to pay for rent in one of the two coastal cities, although options there were not much better. Others who could not find housing near their work site pitched tents or lived in old boxcars or barns.
The living conditions exacerbated the poor hygiene in the area, and newcomers quickly learned about the serious threat of disease on what was dubbed “Fever Coast.” Smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, dysentry, hookworm, cutaneous infections, and even the bubonic plague infected workers throughout the American excavation period, but yellow fever was the most treacherous ailment, both physically and mentally. Just the mention of an outbreak caused such panic that defection rates were higher than mortality from the disease itself. Experts predicted that yellow fever would kill hundreds of workers each year. Malaria, while less lethal, was more common. A strain of the disease called “Chagres Fever” led to jaundice, coma, and severe internal hemorrhaging. Even more damaging was its ability to recur after a patient had recovered. Statistics on illness among workers were staggering: in 1906 alone 80% of the total workforce was hospitalized for malaria.
As work on the canal entered its second year, the death toll for laborers was four percent and 22,000 were hospitalized. Every evening, a train traveled to Mount Hope Cemetery by the city of Colón, its cars brimming with coffins, forcing the men to confront the great odds against their survival.
U.S. citizens were used sparingly in Panama because they were both disease-prone and demanded higher wages. In North America, however, the transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869 and produced many U.S. workers adept at rail jobs: switchmen, signalmen, locomotive drivers, mechanics, electrical engineers, and foremen. Skilled U.S. laborers came to the canal with the promise of a generous pay package that included free benefits and services, 42 paid vacation days and 30 days paid sick leave — much more than the majority of West Indian canal workers could expect.
The local Panamanian citizens were initially tapped as a logical and cheap source of unskilled labor. Though more resistant to yellow fever than the foreign workers, locals proved to be equally susceptible to malaria and pneumonia. Worse, local laborers suspicious of Americans’ power-grabbing ambitions did not prove to be the most enthusiastic workers, earning them a reputation as lazy and irresponsible. Open hostility between workers ultimately added to Panamanians’ dissatisfaction, and they did not make up a large percentage of the work force.
The apartheid system governed every aspect of a worker’s life. The distinction began as a division between “skilled” and “unskilled” laborers, but as time passed it evolved into a purely racial divide. Skilled employees went on the Gold Roll and were paid in gold coins. These workers earned paid sick and vacation time and were housed in better accommodations than their unskilled counterparts. Those on the Silver Roll, the unskilled workers, were paid in balboas, or local Panamanian silver. West Indian workers, plentiful in numbers and eager to work, could be paid 10 cents an hour — half of the salary of a European or white U.S. worker. Over time, the Gold Roll became comprised of white U.S. citizens exclusively, while the workers on the Silver Roll, by far the majority of the workforce by the end of the construction period, were largely non-white.
Discrimination extended to living quarters
made available to each group of workers. Barracks were distinctly worse for West Indians than for whites; as many as 72 West Indian men lived in a 50- by 30-foot hut. Mess halls for black workers had no tables or chairs and fed up to 8,000 men a day with unappealing, simple food. Inadequate housing and malnutrition made West Indian workers more vulnerable to injury and disease. Hospitals on the isthmus routinely located their black wards in the worst parts of the buildings. While the average death rate in 1906 was around 4% of the whole labor force, the rate for West Indian workers was closer to 5%.
In stark contrast, white workers had a luxurious life in the canal zone. The dismal quality of life in the first years of construction on the Panama Canal had sent American workers away in droves. When the turnover rate of skilled U.S. laborers reached 75% in the summer of 1905, the ICC realized they needed to create incentives for Americans to stay on the isthmus. One of the first projects was building a new cold-storage unit to keep fresh, perishable foods. Then, the ICC set to work improving the living conditions. In 1906, 2,500 structures were either renovated or built new, including two-story family homes that featured screened-in verandas, modern plumbing, and electricity.
A year later, American workers celebrated Independence Day on July 4, 1906 with games, athletic competitions, and dancing. This was the beginning of recreation in the canal zone. Baseball leagues, social clubs, and fraternal organizations sprang up to fill lazy Sundays. By that winter, the canal zone had paved roads, warehouses, dormitories, and dining halls.
Attractive enticements to keep white workers on the isthmus became the norm. New cottage homes, public schools, churches and bakeries opened in towns and camps along the route of the canal. Bachelor “hotels,” built to house single workers, turned into social gathering places filled with noise and smoke.
YMCA clubhouses charged Gold Roll employees $10 a year for access to bowling lanes, billiards tables, chess boards, and a host of organized social events. In 1911, workers published a yearbook titled The Makers of the Panama Canal that contained biographies of selected employees and pictures of clubs and brotherhoods on the isthmus. By 1913, there were dances and band concerts every Sunday, and nine women’s clubs.
White workers were encouraged to bring their wives and families to the isthmus with increasingly extravagant incentives. Housing for married workers was provided rent-free, and homes increased in luxury according to a worker’s place on the pay scale. In 1908, over 1,000 families were living on the isthmus and the ICC was spending $2.5 million a year for entertainment and games for white workers.
The ICC provided nothing, on the other hand, for the accommodation, provisions, or entertainment of Silver Roll employees.
Work on the Panama Canal could be dull and monotonous or deafening and treacherous. Laborers could be tasked to virtually any project in the canal zone, each with unique dangers and each requiring its own set of skills.
Perhaps the worst job — one to which almost all West Indians were assigned at some point — was dynamiting. The greatest danger lay with the material’s instability; it could blow up at any moment or malfunction upon detonation, remaining unignited until exploding later by accident. Laborers heading out for dynamiting duty frequently carried all their belongings with them, understanding their relatively low odds of a safe return to the barracks.
The worst accident to occur during the canal’s construction, in fact, was caused by the premature explosion of dynamite in the Bas Obispo cut on December 12, 1908, causing the death of 23 workers and injuring 40 others.
The most taxing physical labor was in the excavation of the Culebra Cut. Each day workers moved miles of construction track and filled the 160 spoil trains that ran in and out of the Cut. Landslides occurred in the Cut with little to no warning, often burying workers and equipment within seconds and wiping out months of progress.
In 1909, construction of the locks brought a new host of potentially lethal dangers. Eight stories up, riveters worked without safety harnesses on precarious scaffolding, which could become unhooked with any sudden movement. Falling materials would hit other sets of scaffolding on the way down, causing scores of deaths and injuries. A job on the railroad was no easier. Due to the number of train cars running from multiple directions around the clock, working by the spoil dumps on the rail track required constant vigilance so as to avoid getting run over or hit by a swinging boom. In 1914, 44 employees were killed by railroad accidents.
Although the ICC made significant improvements in the second half of the U.S. construction period, treacherous construction methods and deadly diseases took their toll: at least 25,000 workers died during the combined French and U.S. construction periods of the Panama Canal.