“We don’t have zero weather nor sleigh rides but we have other things that take their places. How about going on an alligator hunt, getting up at 2 a.m. to start?” —Alice B. Gilbert, Canal Zone resident, about 1910

Who Built the Canal?

The vast majority of the 50,000 workers on the isthmus during the American construction period were unskilled laborers recruited from islands throughout the Caribbean. Workers also came from other parts of the world, with Spain, Greece, Italy, and India supplying help in varying numbers. Engineers and skilled workers such as machinery operators were American and numbered about 6,000. Chief Engineer John F. Stevens tried to use Chinese labor, which had proven itself invaluable in building railroads in the western United States, but strong anti-Chinese sentiments both at home and in Panama made this impossible.

Canal Zone life focused on work. Ten-hour days Monday through Saturday were the rule, with work and equipment repairs often spilling over to Sundays.

The Isthmian Canal Commission shaped the lives of all workers in the Canal Zone. To succeed in building the canal, the Commission needed stable, healthy, and contented employees. Generous pay, free housing and medical care, and subsidized food prices helped ensure a highly motivated American work force with an overwhelming sense of purpose.

The Canal Record was the Commission's official newspaper.The weekly publication carried formal notices and news of the “social life of the Zone, its amusements, sports, and other activities.” One popular feature was the record of excavation, which spurred fierce competition between steam shovel and dredge crews as they dug their way through Culebra Cut.

The Isthmian Canal Commission instituted a commissary system so that its work force would be adequately fed, clothed, and supplied. Company stores offered skilled (“gold”) and unskilled (“silver”) workers a variety of meats, dairy products, and vegetables from cold storage as well as an array of canned goods and household items. Steamers arrived from the States every two weeks with fresh supplies.

The Canal Record kept shoppers apprised of weekly prices. Workers had money deducted from their pay for coupons with which to buy commissary goods.

Some American Canal Zone residents complained about the drab institutional housing. As might be expected, Elizabeth Kittredge Parker, the wife of the Superintendent of Labor, Quarters, and Subsistence, noted approvingly “how each house took on its own individuality with gay curtains, different pictures on the walls, bright spreads on the beds, [and] the same furniture arranged differently.”

To promote a stable work force, married workers were encouraged to bring their wives and families to the Canal Zone. Married U.S. workers received rent-free quarters in single cottages and two- and four-family dwellings. Bachelors among the skilled (“gold”) workers were crowded into large, also rent-free, barracks-like quarters with screened porches.

Countless job seekers were drawn to the isthmus. The resulting oversupply of labor made it possible for many American households to have domestic help. Nearly all had electricity, a luxury still unknown in most stateside homes.

Unskilled (“silver”) bachelor workers were also provided space in barracks-like buildings. Some housed as many as 72 workers in folding transport bunks such as these. Conditions were spartan and lacked even the simplest amenities found in the skilled (“gold”) bachelor quarters, including window and door screens. Housing for married “silver” workers was little better, leading many to seek living quarters elsewhere at their own expense. Still, the accommodations were often an improvement over how they had lived at home.

Fulfilling a promise President Roosevelt had made during his 1906 visit to Panama, the Isthmian Canal Commission gave a presidential medal to every U.S. citizen who worked two years on the canal. Minted from copper and bronze salvaged from abandoned French equipment, the medal featured an image of Roosevelt and the recipient’s name on one side. The reverse gave the recipient’s years of service and a serial number and depicted Culebra Cut surrounded by the words: “The land divided / The world united.”

Readily available cameras and film let workers assemble extensive records of their life in the Canal Zone. Snapshot albums usually focused on an individual’s particular role in the project as well as the tropical setting.