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A Post Newsboy at the Panama Canal

Published: March 7, 2012

The Roe Family

The Roe family before going to Panama.

This 1905 photo was recently sent to us by Matt Kindred. The lives of the Roe family of Iowa were about to change dramatically, as the following year, the father would land a good-paying job on a major project: the building of the Panama Canal. The little girl holding the flowers was Matt’s grandmother, and the boy in the dark suit was her brother Otis Edward Roe. Young Master Roe would have a new job, too: selling issues of The Saturday Evening Post to workers at the Panama Canal.

Otis Edward Roe at the construction of the Panama Canal.

Otis Edward Roe at the construction of the Panama Canal.

While researching family history, Matt discovered a 1972 Saturday Evening Post story about former newsboys. His Great Uncle, Otis Edward Roe, had sent in a photo from his newsboy days in Panama. The canal was not a project taking a few weeks or months, but years, and Otis and his siblings spent a portion of their childhood in Panama. The photo shows young Roe standing on the edge of the Gaillard Cut, “which sliced through the Continental Divide and was the most hazardous phase of the canal project.” The 1972 issue reported the Roe had “a brisk business, selling the Post to those workers who were so far from their homeland for so long.”

April Fools by J Leyendecker From April 3, 1909

“It appears in the above photo young Roe is holding this April 3, 1909 issue of the Post. Post staffer Ron Dowdy points out that a five-cent issue in Panama “was not an inexpensive purchase for the American worker. The common laborer was paid 90 cents per day. The workers worked 9 hour days. So the magazine would be worth a half an hour’s wage.” The fact that you could get three meals a day for about 30 cents adds perspective. So does the fact that in the days before radio, the Post with its many fiction stories, serials and welcome news from the States would have been one of the few sources of entertainment and distraction, so it was well worth that hard-earned nickel!

Otis Edward Roe - 1972

Otis Edward Roe in 1972.

Like his father, Otis Roe had worked for a railroad, and at the time of the ’72 article, he was retired and living in Tallahassee, Florida. He recalled that among his Post customers was the man in charge of the canal construction, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Goethals. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Goethals chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907. Construction was completed in 1914.

Selling The Post at the Canal Construction payday

Selling The Post at "the Canal" Construction payday.

Young Roe wasn’t the only Post presence at the building of the great canal. This 1908 photo from Our Teams, a magazine for newsboys, shows a boy making collections at a pay-car. A large posted sign reads “The Saturday Evening Post—5 Cents a Copy.” “One thousand copies weekly are sold this way in the Canal Zone,” Our Teams reported, proudly boasting “Our Boys Are Everywhere.”

If you know of someone who was a Post newsboy or girl, we would love to share their story on our website.

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