Category Archives: Panama Canal Workers

Did Your Ancestor Work at This Unique Site?: Where in the World Was I?

My regular post on Friday’s Family History Finds has been on hiatus for the last few weeks, as Dave and I were off on another travel adventure.

This is a combination fun post with picture clues and then links to websites for those of you who might have had an ancestor who worked here.

Clue #1


We are NOT in, or headed into, a port, although the tug is here to help!

Clue #2


View of Both Old and New

Clue #3


An Absolute Requirement

Clue #4


View from Our Deck 5 Cabin Window – Yes, That Is a Wall!

Clue #5


Both the Beginning and the End

Have you figured out where we were yet? If not, here is some text to accompany the photos:

The tugboat guided us through the waters of the “old” part and we saw the “new” part across the way. The little trains in Clue #3, called MULES because actual mules (the animals) first did the job, have ropes that attach to the ship to help the captain guide us through the VERY narrow area. The ship goes up and down as it moves forward – so far down that the wall can be seen through our cabin window and it’s only about ONE FOOT from the side of the ship (which by the way, did not pass through unscathed, but more on this in a minute.) This area has walls that widen, narrow and widen again.

ANSWER: It’s the Panama Canal transit via ship!

We sailed on the Island Princess through the old locks, built just over a century ago. The Island Princess is called a Panamax ship because it can pass through the original canal. Post-Panamax ships can now use the new locks located in the waterway seen in Clue #2. We watched a large barge pass through them.

I’ve been told that the only place in the world where a sea captain gives up control of the ship is in the Panama Canal, where a canal captain boards before the ship enters the locks. In spite of having a canal captain on board, the Island Princess had a big jolt – it felt like an earthquake – as the ship whacked one side of the locks during the transit. I guess that captain needs to head back to captain school!

At the next port, crew members were out with long-armed paint rollers painting over the scrape, which looked to be at least fifty feet long, with fresh white paint. Apparently, scrapes are not uncommon and a ship is said to have gained Panama stripes when it happens.

This is our second voyage through the Panama Canal (the first was also on the Island Princess), but it was still exciting to experience. Just to put this all in perspective, the Island Princess weighs 91,627 tons and is 965 feet long. This isn’t a small boat by any means. I think the biggest surprise for me was to learn that a Panamax ship like the Island Princess is only TWO FEET narrower than the canal, hence the reason for so many Panama stripes being earned!

We had a retired gentleman as our expert speaker on our first Panama Canal transit several years ago whose father actually worked on the canal.

If you think you might have an ancestor who helped build the Panama Canal, which was a horrifically difficult and dangerous project, here are some links to both the history and construction of the old locks, which were finally completed, after decades of effort, and opened on 15 August 1914.

First on your reading list should be David McCullough’s excellent book, The Path Between the Seas, available on Amazon. He does an excellent job recounting the time period from 1870-1914, covering everything from theories to how it could be built to the impossibilities and dangers to its completion.

There are many websites with lots of history about the canal:

Panama Canal Authority

Wikipedia: History of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal: The African-American Experience

More links are embedded in this blog post from 2015:
Part I: How to Use Panama Canal Personnel Records at the National Archives: My Grandfather Worked on the Panama Canal

A podcast:
Best True Stories of Life and Work on the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Museum

History Channel – Panama Canal

FamilySearch has a digitized collection of employment records AND sailing lists related to the Panama Canal.

Looking for an Ancestor in the Panama Canal Zone, 1904-1914

U.S. National Archives – Records of the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Record (full text of a book digitized on Internet Archive)

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve documented an ancestor who worked on the Panama Canal construction.