Photo of the Week
April 28, 2018

Either it was too hot for these diggers or they just didn't want to get their clothes dirty.  In all the years that I have been studying the history of the Panama Canal and the tens of thousands of photos I have reviewed, this is the first photo like this one and nor have I ever heard of men digging in the nude.  This is just plain crazy! I have censored the one man as it was a little too much up front ... if you know what I mean.

I have been reading a book about the French effort to build a Canal in Panama these past couple of weeks and ventured over to one of my favorite websites; which houses the photo and document collections of ( A.B.) Aurin B. Nichols. Mr. Nichols was appointed by the Isthmian Canal Commission (I.C.C) as Assistant Engineer under the Chief Engineer John Wallace in 1904 when the U.S. formally took possession of the Panama Canal.  The above photo was with a large group of French era photos in the collection and I surmise that the photo was taken during the French days.  In my reading,  I never realized how much corruption and poor planning took place when the French made their attempt.  The failure just about put the whole country of France into a major economical crash.

The small Decauville dirt dump cars were one of the methods that the French used to remove excavated dirt from the excavation sites.  The U.S. also use some of the usable left over dirt cars at first and were great for getting into places that the heavy equipment could not get into ... yet.  Using these dirt cars was on heck of a labor intensive way of removing dirt, but it worked for a long time for the French.

Me and my treasure hunter buddies found parts of these old dirt cars in the jungle and underwater in the lake during our exploring days.  We were actually able to assemble a few complete cars that we used as yard ornaments in Gamboa.  I know of one car that made it to Arkansas and sits in a friends yard today.  I have a set of the wheels in my yard here in Florida for old times sake.

About A.B. Nichols:

After the U.S. formally took possession of the Panama Canal on May 4, 1904, A.B. Nichols was one of the first employees to arrive in Panama and one of the few who stayed throughout the Canal project. At the time, Nichols was 59 years old, making him one of the oldest employees on the project.

Nichols had joined the Isthmian Canal Commission (I.C.C.) in 1899. His first assignment was to lead a surveying party in Nicaragua when the U.S. was considering it as a possible canal route. On May 13, 1904, Nichols was summoned to a meeting with I.C.C. members in Washington where he was appointed an Assistant Engineer at the Panama Canal and told to choose a group of men and prepare for departure. His move to Panama was swift. His group set sail on the S.S. Allianca from New York on May 24, arriving in Colón, Panama, on May 31. From there, they left almost immediately for Gatun to begin surveys. Upon arrival, having no other option, they set up a camp and “built a shack in the tropical style” in which the party lived for almost a year.

Nichols began his tenure at the Canal under Chief Engineer John Wallace, leading survey teams at Gatun looking for a viable location for a dam. In 1905, he was promoted to Resident Engineer in charge of technical studies and posted to the town of Empire. In 1906, Chief Engineer John Stevens promoted Nichols to Office Engineer at the I.C.C. headquarters in Culebra, where Nichols remained until his departure in October 1915.

As Office Engineer, Nichols was in charge of a staff that prepared maps, charts, blueprints and diagrams; compiled statistics; and kept the official photographs and records for the project. In September 1907, Nichols observed that the photographs of the project were not systematically labeled and numbered. He proposed a system to Chief Engineer Goethals that two copies of each photo be submitted to the office, one copy “to be kept for current use and the other kept in the vault as a permanent record.” Throughout his tenure, Nichols was fascinated with the cause of the continual landslides and he performed numerous core samples in an attempt to find a solution to the problem.

Credit for information and photos: 

Below is a photo of A.B. Nichols during the Canal construction days.


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