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