Today’s Blog Post was 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.
The first blog on Service Record Cards, 1904-1920 (National Archives ID 7226556) revealed the contributions service women made to the Panama Canal. The following selected cards document the service of employees from other countries. Many European, Asian, West Indian, and East Indian immigrants toiled on the Isthmus of Panama to ensure that the Canal was built. One European immigrant in the service cards is Dimitie Corsit from Greece, a country well known for its shipbuilding prowess. He was employed as a Shipwright Foreman. A shipwright builds or repairs ships and as a foreman, Mr. Corsit undoubtedly supervised employees working in this area. This occupation may not automatically come to mind when thinking about the type of work conducted on the Canal Zone, but the Canal operation owned their own ships, which were used to transport personnel, supplies and equipment to the Canal Zone so it would seem perfectly normal to employ people in this capacity. The card notes Mr. Corsit’s death, and although it does not give the cause of death, the information serves to remind us of the dangerous health and working conditions on the Canal Zone. The National Archives does have death certificates for those who died while in the Canal Zone.
The next Service Card relates to Louis Philippe Orsini who was born in France. Mr. Orsini arrived on the Isthmus in 1905, and was employed as a clerk. Bureaucrats and clerks in offices in connection with the engineering and construction work of the Panama Canal were essential to a well-run operation. Louis Philippe Orsini was 47 years old and, I wonder, were there labor conditions in France that made the Canal Zone a better employment opportunity? Why he would have gone to work on the Canal Zone? Further research is necessary to answer this question.
The annotation on his card states that he began his career as a clerk with the office of the Collector of Revenue and earned $1,080.00. Reading further down in the card it is noted that he later earned $1,300.00 per year.
The Service Cards reveal a wide variation in pay ranging from $60.00 a month for a nurse to 56 cents an hour for a shipwright foreman to $1300.00 per year for a clerk. I wonder what was the average yearly salary for Canal Zone employees, and if the majority of employees were able to earn what we know as a living wage in the early construction days of the Panama Canal.
This Service Card is for Akira Awoyama, from Japan, who was a resident engineer. He may have been the only Japanese engineer that served on the Canal Zone. He was only 26 when he started and was employed from 1904 to 1912. He resigned two years before construction of the Canal was completed. His last position was a draftsman at $175.00 per month. During his tenure he would have seen much improvement from the primitive living conditions first encountered in 1904. I wonder what drew him to this foreign land and what eventually caused him to leave.
These Service Cards provide important information on the individual employees that worked on the Canal Zone and give us a broader understanding of exactly who built the Panama Canal. Service Record Cards is just one series of records in the National Archives that can provide information on Panama Canal employees. Additional Panama Canal records relating to employees will be discussed in future blogs.