Metal Checks Catalog (CK)

Catálogo de Fichas de Identificación

Below is a catalog or list of all known metal checks relating to either Panama or the Canal Zone. There are certainly more out there. Please me if you have information regarding a piece which was not included in this catalog.


Metal Checks refers to small numbered pieces of metal, many of which were issued as "identification cards" for employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission, Panama Canal, Panama Railroad Company or other enterprise. These metal checks were needed by an employee to receive their pay, and to authorize them to use certain restricted facilities such as a commissary (grocery and department store). Other metal checks were tool checks to keep track of tools, dogs, hunting permits, etc. These pieces of metal are usually about the size of a silver dollar (or Balboa) and come in various shapes. They almost always have a hole or loop to make them easy to attach. They are generally made of brass.

Historical Background

Most of the metal checks in this catalog were created in connection with the Panama Canal. The Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) was the part of the U.S. Government responsible for building the canal. The ICC was ended in 1914 with the completion of the canal. Between 1914 and 1950, the official agencies were The Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad (PRR). The Panama Railroad was part of the property acquired by the U.S. from the French, but operated as a separate entity until 1950. In 1950 the Canal organization was reorganized by Congress, establishing the Panama Canal Company (the Canal operating organization) and the Canal Zone Government (the Zone government organization). The Panama Railroad was incorporated into the Panama Canal Company. Many of the other metal check-issuing companies were independent contractors working on building the canal.

The reason for the employee id metal checks was explained as follows by Stella Nida in her book Panama and Its "Bridge of Water":

"Because of the great variety of names and nations and the fact that a large number could neither read nor write their names, every employee was provided with a brass check, for identification, which he was required to present before he could draw his pay."

Farnham Bishop's explanation in Panama Past and Present is:

"The men are paid, not by name, because most of them cannot write, and many of them change their names whenever a new one strikes their fancy, but by the number on the brass check which every employee carries at his belt."

The following quote is taken from an article by Eugene Hamlin, Jr. titled "Canal Zone Brass Checks" which appeared in The Panama Collector (September, 1985):

"When the Panama Canal Zone was established by the 1903 treaty with the brand new Republic of Panama, one of the more curious results was the creation of an identification system for civilians in the Canal Zone unmatched in any organization of that time. This came about because of the desire of the U.S. government to protect its U.S. employees from the predatory practices of the native merchants. Even before the "Forty-Niners" crossed Panama en route to the California gold fields, local tradesmen were notorious for "milking" trans-isthmian traffic for all its worth. Uncle Sam established a chain of hotels and commissaries the use of which was limited to persons holding proper identification. Since cash sales were not permitted in these establishments, qualified personnel had to purchase coupon books (scrip) either by payroll deduction or from cashiers located in these establishments after presentation of their "check." So from the earliest days of the Isthmian Canal Commission the use of "metal checks" continued until August, 1938 when still another form of identification was introduced. The one exception to the foregoing was the issuance of photo badges during World War I."

David McCullough in his book The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870 - 1914 gives the following account. On July 26, 1905, John Stevens arrived to take over as Chief Engineer of the construction. With him was Theodore Shonts, Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission. They spoke with the the governor of the Canal Zone, Charles Magoon. Shonts asked: "Governor, what's the matter here?" Governor Magoon explained the food supply problem. Shonts said commissaries must be established immediately, to feed the men at cost. When Governor Magoon responded that that would be a violation of an agreement with Panama, Shonts responded "'s evident that you haven't heard the news... I've come down here to build the canal..."

And shortly after that the commissaries were built. But it is unclear the exact point that the metal checks started being used in 1904 or 1905. However, it is known that the Isthmian Canal Commission diamond-shaped checks (such as CK-2.1) were first issued in August, 1905 (which would have been when the commissaries were established).

Harry A. Franck worked for the Isthmian Canal Commission from January through June of 1912, and wrote the book Zone Policeman 88. He describes a scene at Gatun where a pay traincar arrived loaded with Panamanian silver. Workmen of many different nationalities, ethnicities and languages lined up, jingling their brass checks as they waited to collect their pay. Here is a similar scene in Colon:

Picture of Workmen Recieving their Pay
Workmen Waiting in Line at the Paycar - Colon, Republic of Panama

Franck worked first as a census enumerator and then as a Zone Policeman. He reports being issued a new brass check upon making that job change. Once Franck uses the phrase "..not worth his brass check" about a lazy workman. Franck mentions needing coupons (bought only with a payroll deduction, and not available to non-employees) to use the commissaries and hotels, but does not mention the brass checks in that connection. Finally, talking about the death on the job of a "gold" (white American) employee, Franck says:

"..On the cross is his new number; for officially a "Zoner" is always a number; that of the brass-check he wears as a watch-charm alive, that at the head of his grave when his canal-digging is over."

Numbering System: The Employee ID Checks have been designated with the letters "CK", and grouped by issurer. Each group is given a unique number. Within each group, each piece is given a unique number. So the first piece is CK-1.1 for Employee ID Check group 1 piece 1.

Click on the catalog number or description below to go to the full listing for that piece.

Metal Checks Catalog
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Image # Description Rarity 2007 Catalog Value
ICC Engineering and Construction Checks
CK-1.1 ICC Engineering Diamond Brass S (6) $ 100.00
CK-1.2 ICC Engineering Diamond Aluminum RR (2) $ 150.00
CK-1.3 ICC Engineering Trapezoid RR (1) $ 150.00
CK-1.4 ICC Engineering Triangle RR (2) $ 150.00
CK-1.5 ICC Engineering Round RR (1) $ 150.00
CK-1.6 ICC Engineering Figure-8 RR (2) $ 175.00
CK-1.7 ICC Engineering Oval RR (1) $ 150.00
Isthmian Canal Commission Checks
CK-2.1 Isthmian Canal Commission, Diamond, Small Numbers S (5) $ 75.00
CK-2.2 Isthmian Canal Commission, Diamond, Large Numbers C (11) $ 75.00
CK-2.3 Isthmian Canal Commission, Small Star C (26) $ 75.00
CK-2.4 Isthmian Canal Commission, White Metal Small Star RR (1) $ 125.00
CK-2.5 Isthmian Canal Commission, Large Star C (11) $ 75.00
CK-2.6 ICC Round, Large Numbers C (13) $ 60.00
CK-2.7 ICC Round, Small Numbers S (5) $ 60.00
CK-2.8 ICC Round with letter A RR (1) $ 100.00
CK-2.9 ICC Round with letters S.A. RR (1) $ 100.00
Panama Canal Checks
CK-3.1 Panama Canal Square C (16) $ 80.00
CK-3.2 Panama Canal Gold-Hatched Photo C (14) $ 125.00
CK-3.3 Panama Canal Octagon C (26) $ 45.00
CK-3.4 Panama Canal Round C (16) $ 50.00
CK-3.5 Panama Canal Height Chart Photo R (4) $ 105.00
Panama Railroad Checks
CK-5.1 Panama Railroad RR (2) $ 105.00
CK-5.2 Panama R.R.CO. Laborer RR (1) $ 125.00
CK-5.3 P.R.R.CO. Employee S (6) $ 80.00
CK-5.4 P.R.R.CO. Commissary R (3) $ 125.00
CK-5.5 P.R.R.CO. Dock Laborer R (3) $ 105.00
CK-5.6 P.R.R.CO. Balboa Dock Laborer RR (2) $ 150.00
CK-5.7 P.R.R.CO. Colon Agency Dock Laborer S (7) $ 76.00
Panama Pacific International Exposition Checks
CK-7.1 P.P.I.E. Works RR (1) $ 50.00
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