Canal’s lost documents found at a Kansas City library

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Dirt spreader on Naos Island Breakwater 1910.

Dirt spreader on Naos Island Breakwater 1910.

Documents related to the Culebra Cut, a key section of the Panama Canal project that cut through the Continental Divide, that were thought to be lost forever were found at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri, United States.

The papers belonged to A.B. Nichols, an engineer who worked on the Culebra Cut, and were inaccessible for more than 80 years. “They were technically lost,” said Lisa Browar, the library’s president. “If something isn’t cataloged, the general public or the research public can’t find it. And you can’t use what you can’t find.”

His collection comprises about 1200 photographs, 1300 blueprints, 100 maps and more than 100 journals. Before they came to the Linda Hall Library, they were decaying on shelves in New York.

Engineers A. B. Nichols and John C. Trautwine, Jr. in Philadelphia, 1905.

Engineers A. B. Nichols and John C. Trautwine, Jr. in Philadelphia, 1905.

Nichols, of Philadelphia, was first hired by the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1899 to survey a Nicaraguan route. In 1904, he was assigned to the Panama Canal. In 1906, he was appointed official engineer there and retired in 1914.

The engineer’s documents are part of a series of remembrances commemorating the Panama Canal centenary which includes artifacts from the library’s Nichols Collection, a scale model of the Canal Zone, a model of a working canal lock, and rare books from the library’s “History of Science” collection. The exhibition will be accompanied by a free public lecture series, exhibition tours, and an educational website.

The centennial exhibit has more than 100 items. Co-curators Eric Ward and Donna Swischer said Nichols’ records were meticulous, down to the amounts of dynamite used and the number of cubic tons of earth moved.

“He has books that look like Excel spreadsheets for daily excavations, the costs of every part of the operation in tiny little pencil marks, and cross-references to different books,” Swischer said.

The Linda Hall Library is a privately endowed American library of science, engineering and technology located in Kansas City, Missouri, sitting majestically on a 14-acre (5.7 ha) urban arboretum. It is the largest independently funded public library in North America and among the largest science libraries in the world.

The Linda Hall Library is a privately endowed American library of science, engineering and technology located in Kansas City, Missouri, sitting majestically on a 14-acre (5.7 ha) urban arboretum. It is the largest independently funded public library in North America and among the largest science libraries in the world.

“This is first-person history,” Browar said. “The artifacts in the Nichols collection represent what one man who was eyewitness to the entire project felt was important to save.”

One journal records Nichols’ thoughts about an explosion of 44,000 pounds of dynamite on Dec. 12, 1908, that killed 26 people and wounded 49. Speculation about the cause included a chemical reaction with acidic water, but Nichols had his own theory.

“It is practically certain that the powder man in charge of loading the holes was drunk the night before the explosion and he was also seen in a saloon in Bas Obispo drinking about 9 a.m. the day of the explosion,” Nichols wrote. “This is probably the sort of chemical action which caused the explosion.”

Nichols’ papers had been warehoused at the Engineering Societies Library in New York. When it closed in 1995, most of the library’s material was moved to the Linda Hall Library, the largest privately funded library devoted to science, engineering and technology.

The library has digitized the Nichols collection for its website, and on Aug. 15, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal, will post a digital version of the centennial exhibit.

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