Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards (Part 1)

Today’s Blog Post is written by Patrice Brown, Archivist (Special Assistant) in the Evaluation and Special Projects Division, National Declassification Center at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

In 2014, the Panama Canal will celebrate its 100th anniversary.  There are many records in the custody of the National Archives that document the well known story of the creation and construction of this tremendous engineering feat.  Also in our custody are records documenting the equally important but seldom highlighted story of individuals who worked to not only build the canal but who operated and maintained it.

The Service Records Cards, 1904-1920 (National Archives Identifier 7226556) series, in Record Group 185 Records of the Panama Canal, 1848-1984, contains information on those who worked in the Canal Zone during the construction of the Panama Canal.  The Service Cards usually include a summary of an employee’s work history, and personal information, such as: place of birth, date of birth or age, home address, Canal Zone address, occupation, and rate of pay, and length of service.  In some cases the name and address of the employees’ relatives are also noted.

      Miss Anna L. Doolittle June 21, 1907 Service Card
Miss Anna L. Doolittle
June 21, 1907 Service Card

The information recorded on the cards also reveal the variety of jobs available to women and men, and the numerous nationalities (including West Indian, European, Chinese, and American immigrants) who were recruited to work in the Canal Zone.

back view of Doolittle's service card
back view of Doolittle’s service card

In 1907, the central infrastructure of the Canal Zone was still under construction. Workers were still building government buildings, stores, schools, hospitals, streets, and roads.  The tropical insects that infested the Canal Zone made it necessary to employ a medical staff quickly. With so many deadly diseases, one may not think that a female would apply to be a nurse in this area.  Yet, Anna L. Doolittle was one of many females who served as nurses in Canal Zone hospitals.  Miss Doolittle was only 23 when she left the comfort of her home in West Virginia to venture to a rough and tumble area of the world. This Service Card documents the hiring of Miss Anna L. Doolittle as a nurse at Ancon Hospital in 1907.

Ancon Hospital Ward #9 (Spanish), Section C (NAID 6120319)
Ancon Hospital Ward #9 (Spanish), Section C (NAID 6120319)

Miss Doolittle is one of the many stories of the many women who worked in other capacities such as store clerks, stenographers, laundresses, and housewives who performed jobs vital in supporting the construction work on the Panama Canal.  Why these women came to such a desolate area cannot be determined from Service Cards alone, but the records may provide insight into genealogy research, local social history, etc. and so additional research elsewhere is necessary to possibly answer such questions.

12 thoughts on “Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards (Part 1)

  1. Great blog, Patrice. Sounds like an interesting ROOTS newsletter article or a Women’s History Month presentation!

  2. I found an interesting reference to other American nurses who came to work in Ancon Hospital. See: Eyra Marcela Reyes Rivas, _El Trabajo de las Mujeres durante la Construcción del Canal de Panamá (1881-1914)_. Panama: Editora Sibauste, 2000.

    On page 53 she notes that nurses were active “in U.S. imperialism” [her sources in brackets]:
    Helen Fairbanks had worked in the Philippines
    Genevieve Russell and Adelaide P Mackereth worked on Red Cross hospital boats during Russo-Japanese war [_Yearbook of the Society of Chagres_ ,Vol 1 p. 127, 128]
    . . . nurses arrived with active service in all parts of the worlds—Philippines, Cuba, Africa, China, Japan, England, and Canada.[_Yearbook of the Society of Chagres_, Vol III, p. 51]
    Perhaps there are service record cards for them as well.

  3. Good day, are the records of those leaving Barbados for Panama digitised? If so, please share link. Looking for Watermans

  4. Got so much knowledge to know that Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards.Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks for this – it has been difficult to find information as other genealogy sites are for people who arrived in the US via Ellis Island – my family left Barbados for Panama to work on/in the Canal. How do I find information on the Tappin family?

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