Alfred Nobel- The Dynamite Trail to Panama

Alfred Nobel 1833-1896. Image thanks to

When we hear the name Alfred Nobel we immediately associate it with the revered Peace Prize that is awarded every year in Stockholm to a number of deserving candidates in the arts or sciences who have earned the recognition through their hard work and professional achievements. Actually, since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature as well as for peace. What we don’t associate his name with is the explosive- and I mean this literally- history of the substance known as dynamite, which he improved and named and which made him an extremely wealthy individual.

Born into an affluent Swedish upper class family, Alfred was to follow in his father, Immanuel’s, footsteps, a brilliant and ambitious Swedish businessman who carved out an arms business. Immanuel Nobel was one of the first developers of naval mines which were used in the Crimean War. Alfred, however, was of a different philosophical persuasion and was a true poet at heart hoping to develop his literature rather than go into business with his father.

Immanuel Nobel’s aspirations for his family and his enterprise won out, however,  and Alfred soon became a world traveler, visiting Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. It was France, however, that he liked the best and he was soon apprenticing in the private chemistry lab in Paris of Professor T.J. Pelouze, a renowned chemist of his time. It was in this lab that he would also meet the Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, who had developed the highly volatile liquid known as nitroglycerine just a few years previous to their meeting.

Due to its extremely unstable and volatile nature, nitroglycerine was not then considered a practical alternative to gun powder, that is, until Alfred Nobel developed a much more stable form of this powerful explosive. After years of experimentation alongside his father, a bankruptcy in the family business, and several fortuitous explosions that took the life of his brother, Emil, in 1864 he started mass production of nitroglycerine.

He addressed the safety issues of handling this substance by coming up with a blend of nitroglycerine and kieselguhr which would turn the compound into a paste which, in turn, could be encased in rods which could then be placed into drilled holes waiting for the signal to be given to “blast!” In 1867 he patented this substance under the name of dynamite; he also invented the detonator peculiar to dynamite setups under the name “blasting cap.” All told, Alfred Nobel is credited with 355 patents.

Of course, at a time when such inventions as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill had come into wider use, together they substantially reduced the cost of “blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.” Dynamite soon saw another momentous proving ground in the construction of the Panama Canal.

It has been generally established that over 60,000,000 pounds of dynamite was used in the excavation and construction of the Panama Canal and most of the handling of this volatile substance which the Yankee builders seemed to prefer in their haste for making strides in the building of the Canal, was done by black West Indian workers.

A crew of West Indian "Powder Men" transporting 50 lb. boxes of dynamite on their heads.

A crew of West Indian “Powder Men” transporting 50 lb. boxes of dynamite on their heads.

Harry Franck, the census taker turned Zone Policeman back in 1912, gave a colorful and more intimate account of his encounters with the famed “Powder Men” as they are pictured in my previous article The Panama Canal Death Tolls. As a Census taker he enumerated the variety of jobs associated with the handling and placement of dynamite. There were the powder men who unloaded and transported the 50 lb. Boxes of dynamite from the “Dynamite Ships,” generally on their heads once they arrived at their work site.

Then there were the drillers who might also have functioned as powder men who drilled holes into the sides of rocky crags very common to Panama’s terrain. The Dynamite sticks were then placed in these holes all linked by wires that were connected to a central switch area where detonation took place. Franck noted that blasts were set off at 11:30 AM and 5:30 PM when “workmen were out of range,” but there were many accidental detonations that took the lives of too many men to make us aware that safety restrictions were not always observed. The noise from these blasts, to say the least, was deafening.

The switchmen or the “switch-eros,” says Franck were ususally black men and just before a blast they would take cover under “sheet iron wigwams for protection from flying rock” and debris. Franck rather flippantly narrated about how some of these powder men or switcheros or even drillers would handle the dynamite sticks in an uncomfortably non-chalant manner making them the brunt of jokes among the white men and were considered individuals to generally steer clear of. Whenever white men would hear the approach of these intrepid souls, they would immediately clear the path or head in the opposite direction. It was my impression that they believed the West Indians to be almost suicidal in their handling of dynamite. I’m more convinced that their Yankee foremen didn’t give them adequate training in the safe handling of this material until much later and after much loss of life- West Indian life. I´ll quote our own article in giving you a picture:

Sometimes, much to the horror of workman and foreman alike, the dynamite was so volatile as to warrant only a slight move to detonate its destructive force. Until the Canal administration and engineering department got together to enforce more scientific handling of this highly volatile material, hundreds of men were being killed year after unforgettable year, and, those who survived, were often gruesomely injured. One of the worst explosions, in fact, occurred on the 12th of December in 1908 at Bas Obispo, on the west bank of Culebra Cut. It was one of those very lethal “premature” explosions and left in its wake 23 men killed and 40 injured. Most of the accidental explosions, in fact, occurred at Bas Obispo.

Back to Alfred Nobel. He eventually became a very, very wealthy man focusing on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, and other substances which would eventually lead up to the dvelopment of plastics.

Influenced by Countess Bertha Kinsky, his lifelong friend who became increasingly critical of the arms race, Alfred Nobel included in his final will a provision for a generous prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. As a result of her famous book, Lay Down Your Arms, she became a prominent figure in the peace movement. Some years after Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, in fact, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha (Kinsky) von Suttner (1904).

It seems ironic, however, that the inventor of the widely used blasting material that gave rise to so many horrible and violent deaths among thousands of black West Indian workers in the building of The Panama Canal, would have turned his ambitions towards the end of his life to the promotion of peace. I think that the memory of the thousands of dead West Indian workmen deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for having sacrificed life and limb for the construction of the international waterway that has generated so much commercial wealth and progress in the world today.

One response to “Alfred Nobel- The Dynamite Trail to Panama

  1. Tehachapi News

    Your style is very unique in comparison to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this page.


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