The Panama Canal, which has been called one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” is celebrating its 100th birthday this week.
But Panama, where the steamship SS Ancon made the first official transit of the American-built canal on Aug. 15, 1914, isn’t the only place planning a big centennial celebration.
Beginning Friday, the University of Florida will salute the 100th anniversary with three days of special exhibits and lectures, a Panama Canal Zone Day at the Florida Museum of Natural History and a chamber orchestra performance directed by James Brooks-Bruzzese, who grew up in the old canal zone.
The centerpiece of more than a dozen exhibits set up around the Gainesville campus is the recently acquired Panama Canal Museum Collection, a treasure trove of documents, photos and memorabilia that focuses on the American era at the canal — from the start of construction in 1904 until high noon on Dec. 31, 1999, when the United States turned over the canal to Panama.
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After the turnover and just before, many former residents of the Panama Canal Zone, a 436-square-mile swath on both sides of the 51-mile-long canal, headed to Florida.
Among them were Joe and Beverly Wood. Both were born and raised in the Zone, and by the time they left in 1995, Joe had risen to the third-most-important post in the U.S.-administered zone, and Beverly was working in the marine director’s office.
With the Torrijos-Carter Treaties giving control of the canal to Panama set to take effect in 1999, “we just knew we had to go and find someplace else,” Beverly Wood said. “Many of us took early retirement.”
But not before Panamanian employees had been recruited and trained to take over the canal’s operations. “It was a seamless transition,” said Joe Wood, 77.
The Woods moved to Tallahassee, where they have remained active in Zonian activities.
Many former Zone residents settled in the Tampa Bay area, where the Panama Canal Society had been operating since 1932 when the first wave of canal retirees began arriving in the state. The society now has about 3,000 members around the world, said Mike Coffey, its president.
Concerned that a significant slice of unique American history would be lost, Wood and a group of former Zonians established the Panama Canal Museum in 1998 in the Pinellas County community of Seminole.
It became a depository for sepia-toned photos of workers planting dynamite to blast through rock during construction, the railroad that ran along the floor of the canal to supply workers, steam shovels toppled by floods and cave-ins, and lots of pictures of social life and everyday activities.
Other objects include maps, documents, animated stereographs, construction drawings, newspapers, ledgers, letters, 1,400 molas — the indigenous textile art that has become a signature of Panama — license plates, workers’ badges, school yearbooks, accounts of life, pre-Columbian pottery, work by Panamanian and American artists and even the desk purportedly used when the first Panama Canal treaty was signed in New York in 1903.
“During the economic downturn, supporters of the museum wanted to raise money for a new building, and they were having problems,” said Lee Herring, communications assistant for the collection at UF.
Talks to transfer the collection to UF so it would be preserved and made available for education began in 2009. In 2012, the rented Seminole museum shut its doors and the last items were shipped to UF, which already had a strong Latin American collection.
At last count, there were 16,478 objects, including more than 7,000 photographs, in the museum’s collection. It continues to grow.
“We don’t really know how much we have because it’s still being processed,” Herring said. On average, it takes 2 ½ hours to get an item into the UF database. “It’s been a huge job,” she said.
One recent donation included a cache of letters from Buddy Hallett, whose grandfather “Slim” worked on canal construction and wrote many, many missives to his fiancée. In one, he describes witnessing the passage of the Ancon, Herring said.
“These are considered primary resources, so scholars just eat them up,” she said.
Next weekend is the first time many of the items from the canal museum collection will be on public display at UF.
Other highlights of the UF celebration include the premiere of an orchestral piece dedicated to the centennial, presentation of new fossil discoveries unearthed during the current expansion of the canal, a 40-foot model of the canal and a display and lecture on molas.
A Teddy Roosevelt impersonator will make an appearance at the Saturday night banquet. The Isthmus of Panama was part of Colombia when President Roosevelt began hankering for a U.S-controlled canal. When Colombia didn’t agree to U.S. terms, a coup by Panamanian rebels was engineered. The United States immediately recognized the new Republic of Panama and signed the treaty to build the canal.
Many former supporters of the museum continue to collaborate with UF by raising funds to preserve the collection and seeking additional items. Wood, the museum’s founding president, now serves as president of the Friends of the Panama Canal Museum Collection at UF.
“It’s amazing to witness how enthusiastic they are about their history,” Herring said.
Wood said among the reasons there is such a strong bond among former Zonians is that the “canal was the focal point for everything — everybody worked for the canal or military, and everything revolved around the canal.”
Many Americans who lived and worked in the Zone remember their years in Panama as an idyllic time. In the cocoon of the Zone, everyone had a job, poverty wasn’t an issue, the lawns were neatly clipped, healthcare was excellent and the schools were good.
In the narrow isthmus, you could go to beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans all in the same day. It was life in a tropical paradise — kept orderly by American law.
But the American era at the zone also coincided with a period of tumult in Panamanian history. There were dictatorships, anti-American riots, and Operation Just Cause — the 1989 invasion by 24,000 U.S. troops that ousted Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega.
The tipping point for the invasion came when four U.S. military personnel en route to a dinner in downtown Panama City were surrounded by Panama Defense Forces. One Marine was killed and another was wounded.
But well before that, tensions between the United States and Panama had escalated to the point that the U.S. had imposed economic sanctions on Panama. Noriega responded by telling Panamanians who worked for the canal that they were no longer eligible for government services, Wood said.
That meant they could not get driver’s licenses or plates for their cars or pay for any government service. Some were jailed and tortured for nonpayment of debts, Wood said.
Because the U.S. Navy contracted for school buses to transport Zone children, those buses couldn’t get plates, either. Wood recalls the time when the Defense Forces stopped a bus with 40 kids aboard and pointed guns at them. U.S. troops responded and helicopters hovered overhead until the situation was defused.
“My son was on that particular bus,” said Wood. “It was one of the more scary moments, but that sort of thing went on a lot while Noriega was in power.”
Despite it all, he said, Panamanians and Americans got on well and liked each other.
Times also were difficult during the 1904-14 construction of the canal; 5,609 lost their lives to disease, cave-ins, explosions of unstable dynamite and other accidents. An additional 20,000 workers died — many of malaria and yellow fever — during France’s unsuccessful attempt to create a canal through the jungle in the 1880s.
A disproportionate number of the workers who died were West Indian laborers, and for a long time they were segregated by both color and status. Most white workers were “gold roll” employees, paid higher wages than the non-Americans on the “silver roll” — sometimes for doing the very same job.
Gold roll employees received their higher wages in gold coins, while silver rollers were paid in Panamanian silver coins. They bought their provisions at separate commissaries, ate in separate dining facilities and lived in separate towns.
This segregated history is often reflected in documents and photos included in the Panama Canal Museum Collection.
Some photos showing both black and white workers identify only the white workers by name; one 1915 ledger makes reference to the 10 and 16 cents an hour rate of the silver men and included a handwritten note that silver rolls were much easier to keep than gold rolls, for which sick leave and vacation leave had to be calculated.
“It illustrates the history of discriminatory practices going on in those days, and gives you insight into the prevailing attitudes of the times,” Herring said.
More than 1,000 photos and other resources from the Panama Canal Museum Collection have been digitized and can be viewed at ufdc.ufl.edu/pcm. Last year, the site received 3.2 million views.
“It’s one of our most popular collections — and we have a lot of collections,” Herring said. “One of our librarians likes to say this collection comes with a fan club.”