Treasures of Panama Canal history reside at UF

For the centennial of the completion of the canal, the University of Florida will be sharing a valuable collection of canal memorabilia and oral histories with the public.

08/09/2014 6:29 PM

08/09/2014 6:30 PM

The University of Florida, which will hold a three-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal next weekend, has perhaps the richest collection of canal memorabilia outside Panama.

Many of the items came from the old Panama Canal Museum, which finished transferring its massive collection from its storefront in Seminole, a town near St. Petersburg, to the UF library system in 2012.

Since then, it has been a process of sorting, cataloging and collecting data on thousands of items, from old photos, letters and other documents to accounts of daily life during the American era of the canal, which ended Dec. 31, 1999, with the turnover of the canal to Panama.

“The centennial celebration gives us the opportunity to display a lot of the collection,” said Lee Herring, communications assistant for the collection.

But its future is as a research collection for scholars and source material for classes. Many items have been digitized and are available for viewing online at

The digital collection includes more than 40 oral-history interviews with former residents of the Panama Canal Zone. Here are excerpts from those histories and other stories archived by the Panama Canal Museum that illustrate key moments in the history of the Panama Canal:

One day while reading the daily paper I saw where they were digging a Canal from ocean to ocean on the Isthmus of Panama and needed thousands of men. My parents were against the idea. They told me about the yellow fever, malaria and small pox that infested the place but I told them that I and my pals are just going to see for ourselves.

My nice clothes and shoes that I brought was not for down here in the heavy rain and mud. I sold all my clothes, my black derby, took the money and bought high-top boots and blue jungree suits and then started on the job.

Every evening around 4:30 one could see #5 engine with a box car and the rough brown coffins stacked one upon the other. The death rate was high. The most deaths were from pneumonia and malaria; some from accidents.

Albert Peters, a Bahamian laborer who worked on canal construction from 1906 until April 1913. Excerpted from his prize-winning essay in a 1963 contest organized by the Isthmian Historical Society for best stories about construction of the canal.

In the canal zone we were living in a quite benign system of socialism. Everybody was salaried who lived there. Salaries were squashed together. There were no fancy big houses; there were no slums. The canal zone schools were better and even maybe considerably better than most schools in the United States. Lot of kids of blue-collar workers ended up going to very good schools in the States.

— Dr. Richard Cheville, whose first stint in the canal zone was 1961-63 as an intern in tropical medicine. He came back to work as a doctor and raise his family from 1970 to 1994.

By the time we came back in 1970, it was clear that the United States’ hold on the canal was going to end some time. I was involved in the visit for President Carter in 1977, and five kids at the University of Panama died that night in demonstrations against him. But it wasn’t until [former Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega [took power] that things really turned sour.

Lots of people whose grandparents or great grandparents came down here to build the canal looked at [the Canal Zone] as their birthright, their homeland. And they simply didn’t want the canal to go. I think the people who were neutral or for the treaty were a good deal more than probably was thought because those who were against the treaty were very outspoken.

I lived through all of everything (during the turbulent final years of the zone).

— Cheville, who also was president of the Pacific Civic Council, the zone equivalent of an elected mayor, from 1976 until just after the Panama Canal treaties took effect in 1979.

Too many people have made up their minds for or against the Panama Canal treaties based on too little knowledge of the facts and issues. The country is suddenly awash with instant experts with simplistic answers to the very complex issues involved. There are instant experts who once transited the Canal on a cruise ship, those who have had one-day briefings in Washington, Congressmen who have spent two days in Panama and the Canal Zone and those whose Uncle George was stationed in the Canal Zone during World War II.

There are some good reasons to support ratification of the treaties and some good reasons to oppose the treaties. The public really isn't hearing these.

— Marjory Burns Shanard, first and only woman to be a member of the board of directors of the Panama Canal Co., writing on the debate over ratification of the new Panama Canal Treaties in 1977.

The army brass were decked out in jungle battle fatigues, no dress blues, no traditional army ceremonial change of command with honor, just a drab blur of military battle fatigues marching into history after nearly one hundred years of a proud history in Panama. Where were the brass bands, the large massing of troops, the dignitaries, where was American pride?

My mind turned to another historical withdrawal, that of the British from Hong Kong. What fanfare, what building crescendo as the turnover approached.

What a contrast as we see the United States demonstrate its withdrawal from a historical presence that brought untold benefits in terms of world trade to every country of the world. Certainly the conception, construction and operation of the Panama Canal that bridge two oceans is one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.

One has to wonder why the British were able to march out of Hong Kong with pride and honor while the United States has chosen to slink out of Panama. I cannot dispute the ultimate disposition of the Canal to Panama, the partners in this enterprise from the start, but I surely can feel betrayed by the ignominious withdrawal by a once great nation.

— C.W. “Chuck” Hummer Jr., who lived in the Canal Zone and traced his family history to the construction of the canal.

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