Culebra Cut – Part II

A line of “powder men” carrying 50 lb. boxes of dynamite on their heads; all West Indian. 

Images: Top- a West Indian dynamite crew in Culebra Cut
Bottom- a dynamite “magazine” or storage unit.

The amount of dirt excavated at Panama has been calculated in many different ways. Some engineers have measured it by the number of dirt cars that carried the soil, rock and other debris out of the construction area. Generally, it has been said that an entire train of dirt cars would be able to circle the world four times at the Equator if we were to understand the massive excavation undertaking.

However the amount of dirt and debris was estimated it was certainly a major engineering challenge and much of the load was found in Culebra Cut. To move or “cut” this massive amount of material from this area, however, men, pick and shovel and steam shovel power would not be enough; an unprecedented amount of dynamite also had to be used.

All told, more than 61,000,000 pounds (27,669,130.89 kilograms)* of dynamite would go into the construction of the canal; more dynamite, it has been noted, than all the explosives used in the American wars until that moment. The eagerly awaited “dynamite ships” started arriving in Colon laden with their precious and very deadly cargo with as much as 1 million pounds divided into 20,000 fifty pound boxes per each ship. These boxes then had to be unloaded by hand, usually by West Indian men, and carefully, very carefully, loaded onto special trains to then be moved to specially constructed, large “magazines” or sheds made of concrete, where they were stored for future use.

Clearly, at least half the work force was engaged in “dynamite work” at this stage of early construction, and without a doubt, the undaunted West Indian laborers were, by far, the most widely used group for the dangerous work of explosives. Even the occasional groups of visitors or tourists, mostly from the United States, who toured parts of Culebra Cut at this time, often saw “long lines of black men” marching with boxes of dynamite on their heads, groups of men on the rock drills, and even “more men doing nothing but loading sticks of dynamite into the holes” they had drilled.

Of course, with this intensive use of dynamite death, like an unwelcome guest, would stalk the construction sites leaving very frequent reminders. Added to the death toll from tropical disease and dysentery, train accidents where the victims were often caught beneath the wheels of the rail cars, being struck by flying rocks or crushed to death by the infamous “slides,” too many men were blown to bits by dynamite. Often the deaths from explosions were caused by what were known as “premature explosions”- although the fuses would be set for triggering at a predetermined time, they would often be set off accidentally killing men and destroying equipment.

Sometimes, much to the horror of workman and foreman alike, the dynamite was so volatile as to warrant only a slight move to detonate its destructive force. Until the Canal administration and engineering department got together to enforce more scientific handling of this highly volatile material, hundreds of men were being killed year after unforgettable year, and, those who survived, were often gruesomely injured. One of the worst explosions, in fact, occurred on the 12th of December in 1908 at Bas Obispo, on the west bank of Culebra Cut. It was one of those very lethal “premature” explosions and left in its wake 23 men killed and 40 injured. Most of the accidental explosions, in fact, occurred at Bas Obispo.

“Man die,” remembered one black worker, “get blow up, get kill or get drown.” Although the West Indian laborers and other men who braved the dynamite brigades posed a stoic front, they often remembered the fallen. If someone asked “where is Brown? He died last night and bury,” would be the response. “Where is Jerry? He dead a little before dinner and buried.” Another West Indian worker woefully recalled “The flesh of men flew in the air like birds.” It is not surprising that the psychological strain began taking its toll for many of these workers.

We will soon see that, added to the death and destruction from dynamite blasts, the notorious “slides” would become another source of great anxiety to all the men involved in the construction of the canal.

*Some of our facts and references were gleaned from the excellent book by David McCullough, Path Between the Seas, Simon and Schuster Publishers, 1977.

This story will continue.

3 responses to “Culebra Cut – Part II

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    I understand the complexities of dynamite!I grew up on a farm and we stored dynamite. I remember it was used for stumps and big rocks to clear the fields.

    It was stored in a underground cellar, out in a field.

    Grandpa use to take the sweat from the dynamite and toss it on the ground. It would pop and crackle like firecrackers, or better yet sometimes like cherry bombs.

    I can not imagine the heat and humidity in that area & how they even stored the dynamite properly. The hotter it got the more nitro would sweat out. We had low humidity most of the year and much cooler temperatures to store our dynamite!

    I have decided that the job the West Indies were doing here was not a very fun job. :))

    The picture of the men carrying dynamite is scary. One man dropping a box and you have a chain event of explosions.

    That is around 30,500 tons of explosives. Now That is a Big fire cracker!

    Kyle & Svet

  2. Kyle and Svet,

    Thank you for bringing up the point about the “sweat” from dynamite and the fact that humidity caused it to sweat even more. That only adds to my incredulity as to how all that dynamite was handled mostly by my ancestors. There were too many deaths resulting from the “premature” blasts, but it is a wonder that much worst disasters did not occur with all that dynamite sitting around.

  3. Pingback: Alfred Nobel- The Dynamite Trail to Panama | The Silver People Heritage Foundation