Researching the Panama Canal

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Q. My great-grandfather allegedly worked on the Panama Canal. How should I research this?
A. Built by the United States between 1904 and 1914, the 48-mile-long Panama Canal was one of the biggest and most challenging engineering projects in history. The US continued to operate the canal and control the Canal Zone through 1999.
You can learn more about the workers who built and ran the canal in materials accompanying PBS’ American Experience episode on the topic <>.
Because of the US government’s deep and lengthy involvement with the Panama Canal, the National Archives has a wealth of records about its construction and operation. You can view a complete list at <> and read a guide to using some of these records at <>. has an index and online images for the most important records in this group relating to
employees: United States, Panama Canal Zone, Employment Records and Sailing lists, 1905–1937. It includes employee records (service history cards), sailing lists of contract laborers, and employee identification records (metal check cards and applications). Records may include name, age, birthplace, residence, change in status, position or job, service dates, salary, where appointed, file number and remarks. You can search or browse the records at <>.