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Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards (Part 1)

by on July 30, 2013

Today’s Blog Post is written by Patrice Brown, Archivist (Special Assistant) in the Evaluation and Special Projects Division, National Declassification Center at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

In 2014, the Panama Canal will celebrate its 100th anniversary.  There are many records in the custody of the National Archives that document the well known story of the creation and construction of this tremendous engineering feat.  Also in our custody are records documenting the equally important but seldom highlighted story of individuals who worked to not only build the canal but who operated and maintained it.

The Service Records Cards, 1904-1920 (National Archives Identifier 7226556) series, in Record Group 185 Records of the Panama Canal, 1848-1984, contains information on those who worked in the Canal Zone during the construction of the Panama Canal.  The Service Cards usually include a summary of an employee’s work history, and personal information, such as: place of birth, date of birth or age, home address, Canal Zone address, occupation, and rate of pay, and length of service.  In some cases the name and address of the employees’ relatives are also noted.

      Miss Anna L. Doolittle June 21, 1907 Service Card

Miss Anna L. Doolittle’s Service Card  (June 21, 1907)


The information recorded on the cards also reveal the variety of jobs available to women and men, and the numerous nationalities (including West Indian, European, Chinese, and American immigrants) who were recruited to work in the Canal Zone.

back view of Doolittle's service card

back view of Doolittle’s service card

In 1907, the central infrastructure of the Canal Zone was still under construction. Workers were still building government buildings, stores, schools, hospitals, streets, and roads.  The tropical insects that infested the Canal Zone made it necessary to employ a medical staff quickly. With so many deadly diseases, one may not think that a female would apply to be a nurse in this area.  Yet, Anna L. Doolittle was one of many females who served as nurses in Canal Zone hospitals.  Miss Doolittle was only 23 when she left the comfort of her home in West Virginia to venture to a rough and tumble area of the world. This Service Card documents the hiring of Miss Anna L. Doolittle as a nurse at Ancon Hospital in 1907.

Ancon Hospital Ward #9 (National Archives Identifier 6120319)

Ancon Hospital Ward #9 (National Archives Identifier 6120319)

Miss Doolittle is one of the many stories of the many women who worked in other capacities such as store clerks, stenographers, laundresses, and housewives who performed jobs vital in supporting the construction work on the Panama Canal.  Why these women came to such a desolate area cannot be determined from Service Cards alone, but the records may provide insight into genealogy research, local social history, etc. and so additional research elsewhere is necessary to possibly answer such questions.



Lisha Penn August 2, 2013 at 3:56 PM

Great blog, Patrice. Sounds like an interesting ROOTS newsletter article or a Women’s History Month presentation!

Kathie Mcdevitt-parks August 2, 2013 at 9:12 PM

How can I search these records by name?

Ligon August 8, 2013 at 11:27 AM

The service cards records are arranged alphabetically by last name. If you need additional assistance, please contact the National Archives Textual Reference Division at

JANE January 8, 2014 at 5:03 PM

I would like to search these records. Can you do it online or do you have to physically go to DC?

Netisha January 10, 2014 at 10:36 AM

These records are not yet digitized, but they are available to pull for research at the National Archives in College Park, MD. If you would like more information before coming, please contact

Robin Zenger January 22, 2014 at 4:00 PM

I found an interesting reference to other American nurses who came to work in Ancon Hospital. See: Eyra Marcela Reyes Rivas, _El Trabajo de las Mujeres durante la Construcción del Canal de Panamá (1881-1914)_. Panama: Editora Sibauste, 2000.

On page 53 she notes that nurses were active “in U.S. imperialism” [her sources in brackets]:
Helen Fairbanks had worked in the Philippines
Genevieve Russell and Adelaide P Mackereth worked on Red Cross hospital boats during Russo-Japanese war [_Yearbook of the Society of Chagres_ ,Vol 1 p. 127, 128]
. . . nurses arrived with active service in all parts of the worlds—Philippines, Cuba, Africa, China, Japan, England, and Canada.[_Yearbook of the Society of Chagres_, Vol III, p. 51]
Perhaps there are service record cards for them as well.

Gail Holder August 6, 2014 at 3:56 PM

Good day, are the records of those leaving Barbados for Panama digitised? If so, please share link. Looking for Watermans

Ligon August 11, 2014 at 9:24 AM

Good Morning,
There are a couple of Waterman’s from Barbados in the Photo Metal Check series. And these are digitized on

If you have additional questions, please contact our reference staff at

eevest 8 fiverr June 11, 2015 at 4:55 PM

I really liked your post. Much thanks again. Awesome.

Angel Lisa July 27, 2015 at 7:14 AM

Got so much knowledge to know that Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards.Thanks for sharing.

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