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.

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