Refelction #4 – Federico Ellington Smith’s Reflections on The Dredging Division

The Panama Canal is known mostly as the world’s premier man made inter oceanic transit waterway, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Lesser known, and recognized are the men who built (1904 – 1914) and maintain this one of the modern seven wonders of the world. Under the direction of the United States, thousands of workers from around the world participated in this undertaking. Over 130,000 West Indian Blacks, mostly from Jamaica and Barbados made up this formidable workforce. While accounting varies in the literature, it is safe to say at least 30,000 lost their lives due to hazardous and inhospitable conditions. Descendants of these early Caribbean workers continued to be a major part of the Panama Canal Company’s maintenance force.
Dredging debris, dirt and rocks continues to be an indispensable function to allow safe and rapid transit of vessels (including today’s PANAMAX SHIPS). This is the primary function of The Dredging Division of the Panama Canal Company. For 22 years after the opening of the Panama Canal, this operation was located in Paraiso Canal Zone. Gamboa proved to be a more strategic location for accessing problem areas as well as dump sites. Thus in 1936 Gamboa Canal Zone became home to the Dredging Division.
While these reflections provide general information on the role of this division, more importantly, they recognize and honor the men whose service and sacrifices (sometimes fatal) made its function possible. As a Panamanian descendant of Afro-West Indians, like hundreds of Gamboans and other Canal Zone “Silvertowns” residents, I proudly share our heritage and legacy. Our story is more accurate and complete when those who shaped its key events play an active/participatory role to inform the narrative. I was born and lived my formative years in Colon, Republic of Panama with my Panamanian mother and my siblings. My great-aunt, Maud Ellington and her husband Wentworth Charles Ellington;These Jamaicans residing in Santa Cruz Canal Zone, adopted my younger sibling Alberto and me at an early age. My adopted father was an employee of The Dredging Division until his retirement when I was in my late teens. Through him and other adults, I learned first hand about the Dredging Division.
Mr. Ellington told me that, as a young man, he migrated from Jamaica and began working for the Panama Canal Company as a “waterboy”. During my early teens, he took me inside the boiler room of a giant crane (The Hercules) to proudly show me his work. I remember what seemed like boils on his face from the heat. Although I was proud of him and thankful for his sacrifices, I decided instantly, that I was not going to do this type of work.
An honest review of the Panama Canal’s Dredging Division requires a clear understanding of the socio-economic as well as the political climate and setting under which it was operated. Racial segregation, discrimination, and unfair labor practices were embedded in the Panama Canal’s paternalistic system of employment supported by the accepted norms of the Panama Canal Zone Government. The Hercules and its twin, The Ajax were housed and maintained at the dredging division. This division also housed dredges, tugboats, launches, barges and other equipment needed for Panama Canal operations. There were specialty shops like machine shops, foundry. blacksmith shops, paint shop, sand blasting, carpentry, welding and others.
The workforce for these Dredging Division operations consisted mostly of men from Santa Cruz (Gamboa’s Silvertown). They were skilled, dependable, loyal, and hard working. Employee dismissals were almost non-existent. Between 1947 and 1973 there were nine or more seriously injured Dredging Division ‘Silver Workers’, including seven known fatalities. Despite stellar work performance under continuous hazardous conditions,opportunities for advancement or journeyman status were available only to White US citizen employees, some of whom had to be trained by these hard working, non- complaining, “Helpers”.

Consider this true story of “Limpy”and The Governor”:
Mr. Bowen and Mr. Herrera were security guards at the Dredging Division. They were both kind and fun-loving men who took their jobs very seriously. They did not miss work for any reason. Among their responsibilities was to ensure only authorized personnel and workers entered this vital and at times hazardous work place. Only persons with official business and proper identification (Panama Canal ID) were allowed
Mr. Herrera was called Limpy because he walked with a limp.
One day Limpy was at his guard post (a small shack) at the entrance to the Dredging Division. He was either “under the weather” or “under the influence” when an official Panama Canal Company car with a passenger in the rear seat approached the gate. The driver expected unimpeded entrance to the Dredging Division since his passenger was the Canal Zone Governor. .. Limpy denied entrance and requested the passenger’s ID. The cold-feeted driver whispered to Limpy,”Do you know who this is ? It’s the Governor”.
Limpy replied, “does he have an ID ?” “I don’t care who he is. He needs an ID to enter here”. .. The Governor presented his ID and Limpy waved him in. The driver proceeded with a sigh of relief, but when the incident was reported to Limpy’s supervisor, he started preparing termination papers. The Governor was informed and overruled the decision, stating, “the Panama Canal is in good hands if all its employees performed their duties like Mr. Herrera. Word of the incident spread through town like wildfire. Young folks shouted, “Rahtid ! Limpy stopped the Govervor !

These noble men did what they had to do under very difficult conditions so their children and family could rise above a system and conditions that attempted to define and limit. We, their descendants, achieve because of their examples of integrity and performance. Mr. Herrera’s performance of his duty reinforced lessons taught by our parents, teachers and elders. 1. Treat others respectfully, fairly and equally regardless of their station or condition. 2. Whatever you do, do to the best of you ability 3. Fear no person – all are mortals….. Fear no condition – it can be changed .

Federico Ellington Smith

Reflection #3 – Dr. Ricardo Millett’s Reflections of the Dredging Division

Recent photos of its guarded entrance shows a sign which reads, “Welcome To The Dredging Division”. In the foreground, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the railroad crossing, the gate and the guardhouse that controlled entry to this industrial complex. To the average viewer, this photo is a rather mundane depiction of a heavy equipment site partially obscuring a water way barely seen in the background. To the Gamboa / Santa Cruz family it conjures up vivid memories of the wonderful community life we created and enjoyed despite all its complexities and contradictions. During the early days of “Silvertown” Gamboa, there was a heightened awareness that there could be calamitous consequences, including termination of employment for workers whose dependents dared to linger at, or attempt crossing into this restricted area. The thought of “potential consequences” settled in our subconscious and governed our everyday behavior. Unless delivering our father’s lunch, messages from our mothers or waiting for dad to “knock off work”, we stayed away from this gate. After all, there was no “Welcome” sign there.
As kids, we knew very little historical details about the construction of the Panama Canal. Although we grew with a sense of this history, we knew very little about the enormity of the extraordinary price paid in human suffering, death, loss of limbs, loss of sanity or general health of thousands of our ancestors. It was our great grandparents who tackled and conquered “The Mighty Culebra Cut” ( the section of the Panama Canal that frustrated the earliest French attempt and challenged the American construction effort). This section of Central America’s “Cordillera Central Mountain Range” was and remains an engineering, excavation and dredging challenge. Its location, not far from the Gamboa Dredging Division allows for quick access to ongoing rock slides.
Ironically, it was the Dredging Division’s relocation to Gamboa that brought some token semblance of inter racial accommodations in the Panama Canal Zone. No, it was not a civil rights, humanitarian impulse that prompted its first Superintendent, John Jeronald Claybourn (1914 to the early 1940’s) to make the case for shifting the Dredging Division operations from Paraiso Canal Zone to Gamboa Canal Zone. His principal preoccupation was to more efficiently address the frequent landslides and to trim back the mountains’s edges from the banks of the canal. For him, it was a viable solution for pulling together needed ‘Local rate’ and ‘US rate’ labor force for quick and timely responses to the continuous landslides and subsequently needed dredging effort.
The bigger challenge was how best to address violating the housing segregation residential policies and practices in the Canal Zone. Gamboa became the only Canal Zone town to house both predominantly West Indian local rate workers and exclusively white American US rate workers. Initially, the racial segregation tenants were easily accommodated by geography. White workers lived in the Gamboa hills, in air-conditioned quarters, easy access to their golf course, clubhouse and swimming pool. Evidence of outright segregation practices were the commissary, (one building divided in the middle with separate “Gold” and “Silver” entrances) and the US post office, with similarly segregated services and mailbox access.
Men from both sides of town worked for the Dredging Division where they remained segregated in a hierarchical order that limited ‘Silver’ workers to work that presumably required less ‘smarts and skills’.
While it is good to see the “Welcome” sign portrayed in this recent photograph, we must not forget the price our ancestors paid for our youthful recollection of the seemingly idyllic times in Gamboa / Santa Cruz. We owe it to our progeny to strengthen their resolve and capacity to ‘dredge’ and clear pathways to realizing the full potential of the world’s common humanity. This is the legacy we must bear now and for generations to come.

Reflection #2 – Reva Richards Marcellin’s Reflections Of The Dredging Division

As I turn the clock back in time…. The year is 1947, when my dad, who was working at the Dredging Division on one of the tugboats, suffered a serious accident that severed his right leg, resulting in him being an amputee. The accident was caused by an ‘oiler’ who worked on the tugboat, and witnessed by Mr. Cornelius Gillings (aka Gunner), and other workers. My dad was released from the hospital after two months and remained at home until the medical staff at Gorgas Hospital and the U.S. Government were able to fit him with a prosthesis that allowed him to work.
A year after he returned to full duty, he was assigned to work at the Motor Boat Dock as a Launch Dispatcher. In the beginning, when my brother Butch and I dropped off his food, the security guard would call my dad, and he rode his bicycle to the guard station to pick it up. Since he worked rotating shifts, (11PM – 7AM and 7 AM – 2PM ), Mom gave us scheduled days in the evening, where we took turns taking Dad’s food to ‘the gate’. Over time, and after numerous trips, one of the guards, “Limpy” (uncle of “Bandido”), came to know us as well as our routine, so he allowed us to walk to the dock on our own.
My recollection of “the guard house” was getting the OK to enter a secure area, where only employees were allowed. Since we no longer had to stop at the gate, we looked forward to these trips that allowed us to enter the Dredging Division and walk directly to my dad’s office area.
Impressive for me at that age, as I approached the Dredging Division, were the huge cranes, “Ajax” and “Hercules” that loomed over the water’s edge. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Dan Hebbert, worked on the crane boat-Atlas. We saw large containers enclosed in metal buildings, and passed a variety of other equipment that were being warehoused. Dad took the time to give us a mini tour of his work area, and a surprised “bird’s-eye-view” of the Governor’s boat ! (Shh, no one knew that). We also stopped and stared in amazement at the large ships passing in both directions on both sides of the canal. I remember the Elliot brothers- Roy, Bobby, Eddie; Mr. Dunn, Mr. Ellington, Mr. Barber”Chippy”, Mr. Sampson, Mr. Wade, Mr. Brathwaite “Bammy”, to mention a few who also worked at the Dredging Division.
Sometimes I would have to wait at the railroad crossing gate. I purposely timed my trip to Dredging Division to coincide with the arrival of the evening trains, so I could wave at the passengers. Butch’s vivid recollection is of stopping on the way home to look at the “Whites Only” swimming pool. We were not allowed to swim there until much later (around 1959), when Mr. Jose French (Gym Teacher), finally made it possible.
As I reflect on this experience, I have a better appreciation for the privilege afforded me at the age of 8 or 9 to get a scenic view of the Dredging Division. … Back in the “good old days”, walking from ‘Dust Bowl’ as a child to ‘Front Street’ to get there, seemed like forever. What made the difference, was being allowed as young children to go anywhere in the Santa Cruz community without supervision. The village that raised us kept watchful eyes and ears, no matter where we were. I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting on the Dredging Division as a little girl growing up in the fantastic, special “Silvertown” of Santa Cruz Canal Zone. …I thank The Gamboa Reunion Group for asking me to recall, reflect and reminisce. … What an unforgettable journey !
NOTE: My brother, Butch devised a shortcut when we left building #276 to walk under the clothesline of building #281 (Thorne, Bellamy, Sobers, Wilson, etc.), pass the Stennet, Nurse, Rodney, Cox building, through Church Square, pass McFarlane Parkway, the dispensary, fire station, post office and commisary.

Reva Richards Marcellin

Reflection #1 – Carlos Alleyne’s Reflections on The Dredging Division

I must have been somewhere between six and eight years of age when my dad took us walking to the Gamboa train station. I believe there were only four of us siblings at the time ( We are a family of seven children ). It was after dark and as we stood on the train station platform, Dad pointed out the dredge vessel on which he worked. It was docked inside the chain link fence that bordered the Dredging Division. I later learned that his title was that of a “Boatswain” (pronounced Bo-sun). In layman’s terms, he was a Leading Seaman in charge of a small crew. I suspect he was recently given that title and was proudly showing his children the vessel on which he worked. As a young boy, I was delighted to be taken anywhere, but I remember being frightened by the loud clanging of the heavy metal forming parts of the dredge’s mechanisms. These industrial noises gave me the sense that my dad’s job at the Dredging Division was a dangerous one.
Dad worked rotating shifts. One week, 3PM to 11PM, the following week, 11PM to 7AM, then, 7AM to 3PM. My favorite was the 3PM to 11PM shift. Why ? Because, as a very mischievous child, punishment for most misdeeds would be delayed (“stay of execution”). I would leave for school while Dad was still resting and when I returned from school he would be at work. … Oh the torture, “waiting for the shoe to drop”. .. He would sometimes forget .. wink-wink.
It wasn’t long before my fears regarding work at the Dredging Division were validated. When I was eleven years old one of my friends lost his dad to a fatal work related injury. When I was sixteen, another friend and classmate lost his dad. Again at age seventeen, two of my friends’ dads were killed on the job. The Dredging Division in Gamboa was the primary source of employment for descendants of the Caribbean- born Panama Canal Builders work force. This employment allowed them to provide better lives for their children and on through to the fourth, fifth and sixth generations. They modeled a sense of duty in spite of unfair labor practices and racial injustices. .. without complaining to their families.
The Dredging Division was relocated from Paraiso Canal Zone to Gamboa Canal Zone in the year 1936. Eleven years later, in 1947, Mr. Clyde Richards became an amputee in a work related accident. In 1950 Mr. Lester Joshua’s head injury from falling debris, influenced the enforcing of rules regarding the use of hard- hats (helmets). In 1952 Mr. Augustus George was fatally injured. In 1958, two more community members lost their lives. They were, Mr. James “Tommy” Joshua and Mr. Oscar Jones. Seven years later (1965), Mr. Charles Mussa was fatally injured and seven years later (1972) Mr. Leroy Alleyne Sr. (My dad) lost his life. The following year ( 1973) Mr. Alvin Burnett died.
This year (2016) marks eighty years since the Panama Canal Company’s Dredging Division was established in Gamboa and the Silvertown of Santa Cruz continue to honor the memory of these men and their families.

Search