Tag Archives: Culebra Cut

“Colored” troops disembarking from a steamer returning from the war in Cuba

Rare footage recorded on Thomas Edison Moving Picture paper film in May 1898 at Tampa, Florida.

This film records African-American troops walking down a steep plank as they disembark a troop steamer in May 1898 returning from fighting in Cuba during the short-lived Spanish American War. The plank was especially steep because the disembarkation occurred during high tide. The white men in command seem to ‘encourage’ the black troops down a very steep and dangerous plank.

Henry Plant, his railroad, and the Port of Tampa on the west coast of Florida won the battle against Henry Flagler, his railroad and the Port of Miami for the lucrative contracts associated with the Army and Navy staging the American disembarkations to Cuba.

News accounts reflect that the Army dispatched survey parties to determine which coast and railway would serve the military better. One of the east coast surveyors, Captain David Gaillard, a cousin of the Florida canal company’s Henry Gaillard, would later supervise the grueling work of cutting through a mountain in constructing the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal.

The Florida canal company also won a lucrative contract over Henry Plante to move mortars and large guns via the unfinished Florida east coast canal, later to be known as the Florida portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

President Theodore Roosevelt operating a Dredge in the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt operating what appears to be a dipper elevator dredge in the Culebra Cut in 1906,

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt operating what appears to be an elevator dredge in the Culebra Cut in 1906.

The Culebra Cut was the most difficult of all the dredging operations in the digging of the Panama Canal.  Capt. David Gaillard, of French Hugenot ancestry, was chief of dredging operations at the Cut and a cousin of Henry Gaillard.  Henry had been one of the four original incorporators of the Florida canal company, the longest serving director, and a St. Augustine state senator.  Henry’s political importance in securing the million acres of state land promised for dredging what would become the Intracoastal Waterway cannot be overstated.  Without Henry’s political clout after the death of Dr. John Westcott, it is doubtful the company would have been successful.

The Culebra Cut was essentially a cut through a solid mountain.  So arduous was the work, including dynamiting and the building of a railway to remove the rock and debris, it left David a broken man.  David was hospitalized for the balance of the Panama Canal work.  He died before the opening ceremonies. Here, Roosevelt operates an elevator dredge, which required level ground and the laying of railway steel and wooden ties.  The Florida canal company used elevator dredges in the northern extension of the Florida waterway from St. Augustine to Jacksonville.  Courtesy, Library of Congress, American Memory.