Guide to the William B. Tragsdorf, Sr. Panama Canal Zone photographs and scrapbook, 1905-1934 (bulk 1905-1906) MS 067
The materials that constitute the Tragsdorf Panama Canal Zone Photograph Collection were created and/or gathered by William E. Tragsdorf, a native of Neillsville, Wisconsin, who lived from January 11, 1882 to February 14, 1948. The eldest of seven children and son of a successful merchant in Neillsville, he first after high school worked in his father’s store. In 1903 at the age of 21, he enrolled in the Minneapolis Business College, completing the course in nine months and in 1904 writing a civil service exam for stenographic work. In August of 1905, he became one of the early civil service employees to be stationed at the Isthmus of Panama.
It had been only one year earlier that the United States, after supporting Panamanians in their successful battle for independence from Columbia, agreed to pay the new country $10 million per year in order to continue the work begun by the French for building a canal at the isthmus. Also in 1904 the U.S. paid the French $40 million for their equipment and excavations.
American engineers and the workers they supervised needed ten years to complete the canal, which was by far the largest American engineering project of that or any previous era. William Tragsdorf remained in the Canal Zone for the duration of the building and until 1918, when he returned to Neillsville. Over the years he advanced through several positions, finishing as a baggage agent with the Panama Railroad Company. He remained in the States during the 20’s, owning a theater in Neillsville, which he sold, and working for the DuPont Company. In January 1932, he was back in the Canal Zone, employed by the railroad as a clerk in the records bureau. Once again he advanced through several positions, transferring to the office engineering division as a clerk in 1935, being named principal clerk in 1941, and retiring from that position in 1944. After a stay of several months in Neillsville, he settled in Cocoli in the Canal Zone where he died in 1948.
Excerpted partially from "Good Old Days" column in Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI, Feb. 19, 2003, pg. 23, http://wvls.lib.wi.us/ClarkCounty/clark/news/OldDays/2003_2_19.htm, accessed May 7, 2012.
This collection consists of photographs and printed materials concerning the Panama Canal and the Isthmus of Panama, collected by William E. Tragsdorf. Series I, the photographs, is made up of three small albums, 5-1/2 x 7 inches, and sixteen large, mostly 8 x 10 inch, loose photographs, all black and white. The small albums are numbered 1, 2, and 6 and are marked with particular dates in 1905 or 1906. Most of the small photographs are marked “W.E.T.,” indicating that they were taken by Tragsdorf. Two that lack this mark may be of the photographer himself. The photographs in these albums, sixteen in each, are scenes of places and people in Panama that give an idea of how the area looked before the canal was built. The men pictured in business attire are obviously individuals who came to work or visit during the construction. Most of the 8 x 10 photographs document stages of the project. Those that are dated are marked 1908, 1910, 1911, 1922, and 1933.
Series II, a scrapbook, contains material collected, apparently by Tragsdorf, in keeping with his lifelong interest in the Isthmus of Panama. The earliest document is a photocopy of a fourteen-page pamphlet titled “A Few Words for the Traveller over the Isthmus of Panama,” apparently published in 1851 with a topographic map of the area. A second photocopy is of a seventeen-page narrative by Julius H. Pratt titled “To California by Panama in ’49.” “49” in the title refers to the 1849 gold rush. Next are eleven 8-1/2 x 10-1/2 inch color plates showing ships passing through the completed canal and scenes around it. Another item is a twenty-two-page pamphlet, 7-3/4 x 8-7/8 inches, titled “Following the Floating Road: One of the World’s Greatest Travel Thrills.” One of its photographs is dated January 1933. The final item is an article from The New York Times Magazine of August 12, 1934, titled “In 1934 as in 1914, the Canal is an Epic.”
The materials in the Tragsdorf Panama Canal Zone Photograph Collection reflect not only fascination with and appreciation of the engineering feat that the building of the canal was, but also a deep interest in the history of attention paid to the Isthmus of Panama. Along with photographs taken by Tragsdorf himself are a photocopy of an 1851 text written for travelers over the Isthmus and another of a narrative about going to California in 1849 by way of Panama. Altogether the collection documents an individual’s lifelong fascination with being part of the work that transformed the Canal Zone into the pathway of the Panama Canal.
Conditions Governing Access note
This material is open for research.
Conditions Governing Use note
Permission to publish from this material should be facilitated through the Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
William B. Tragsdorf, Sr., Panama Canal Zone photographs and scrapbook, MS 067, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University
Received as a gift from Lawrence University, March 2012.
Detailed Description of the Collection