A Meeting in Hell

A Steam shovel removes dirt from the Culebra Cut

Submitted by Betsy Bemis and John Nemmers, Panama Canal Museum Collection

The engineers and laborers tasked with constructing the Panama Canal in 1904 literally had to move a mountain in order to create the waterway across the Isthmus of Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal was designed with a system of locks to raise ships 85 feet above sea level so that they could transit artificial lakes before being lowered again on the other end. There were many obstacles in the path of the new Canal, but perhaps the most daunting was the need to cross the Continental Divide and its chain of mountains that rose to 300 feet above sea level. Engineers selected Culebra as the best site to excavate the mountain range creating an artificial valley that could be filled with navigable water. By the time the project was completed, the Cut was approximately nine miles long and 300 feet across at its widest point.

A postcard showing the land removed in the Culebra Cut
This postcard’s caption reads: “The great Culebra Cut (dotted line shows amount of dirt removed), Panama Canal.” Brad Wilde Postcard Collection.

Workers removing rock from the Culebra Cut

Every aspect of Canal construction was unbelievably challenging, but the excavation of Culebra Cut was all the more remarkable because it was primarily achieved with dynamite, picks and shovels, steam power, and a huge amount of human labor. The project was supervised by U.S. Army engineer Lt. Colonel David D. Gaillard, who was tasked with excavating over 100 million cubic yards of rock and soil. Dynamite and drills were used to break up the mountain, and steam shovels were used to load the excavated material onto trains to be transported to the coast to create new land around the entrance to the Canal. Innovative new machinery such as unloaders, dirt spreaders, and track shifting machines were invented specifically for the massive earth-relocation project.

As many as 160 trains and 700 rock drills were operating in the Cut daily, and 700,000 pounds of dynamite were used per month on average. Over 17 million pounds of dynamite were used in three years alone.

Dynamite blasts the side of the Culebra Cut
Blasting rock on Contractor’s Hill, View Looking south – January, 1912

The labor force consisted primarily of people of Caribbean descent (e.g., from Barbados and Jamaica) who were hired and brought to Panama specifically for Canal construction. Over 6,000 workers were active in the Cut daily during peak times. The workers faced countless challenges and horrors including mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever, torrential rains, and the cacophony of noise from the hundreds of workers, drills, trains, and other equipment. There was no protection from the sun, and the heat could fluctuate from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to as much as 120 degrees on the bottom of the Cut. With the possibility of deaths or serious injuries caused by dynamite blasts, landslides, and other work-site accidents, it is easy to see why the workers began referring to the Cut as Hell’s Gorge.

The work at Culebra Cut was of incredible interest to people around the world. Newspapers regularly printed articles and photos documenting progress. Tourists and spectators were even permitted to visit the work site, such as this visit by Florence Neville Miller.

On May 20, 1913, steam shovels working from opposite directions met at the bottom of Culebra Cut at the new grade level, approximately 40 feet above sea level. The photograph documenting the event was selected for inclusion in a special anniversary booklet, Celebrating Ten Years, published for the 10th anniversary of the Panama Canal Museum Collection at UF. The collection has thousands of books, photos, and archival records relating to Canal construction and Culebra Cut. The current exhibition in the Albert H. Nahmad Panama Canal Gallery, The Digging is the Least Thing of All: Health & Medicine at the Panama Canal, includes exhibits on the dangers faced by workers in Culebra Cut, including disease, injuries, amputations, and death. The upcoming 2023 exhibition in the Gallery will focus on engineering and will include objects relating to the excavation of Culebra Cut.

The S.S. Ancon became the first ship to pass through the Culebra Cut on the inaugural transit of the newly opened Canal, August 15, 1914.
A little over a year after the two steam shovels met, the S.S. Ancon became the first ship to pass through the Culebra Cut on the inaugural transit of the newly opened Canal, August 15, 1914.

Additional Resources:

The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration has incredible film footage created by the U.S. Army that gives some idea of what it was like to work in Hell’s Gorge.

The Panama Canal’s forgotten casualties” by Caroline Lieffers, focuses on the laborers who lost life and limb in the Cut.

The Panama Canal Authority provides historical and statistical information about the Cut.

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