Geraldine Barry became an “icon” in California’s real estate investment community after emigrating from Ireland. Geraldine Barry, an Irish mother of two, passed

What is the weirdest object you’ve ever found?

Over 10 years ago I bought three vintage suitcases (over 100 years old) at various second hand stores and flea markets. When cleaning one of them I found a Panama Canal Medal in an inside pocket.

I learned a lot about the canal and the men & women who built it. In addition to the heavy manual labor involved, the heat, humidity, Malaria and insects were oppressive. In their time off, there was nothing for workers to do except drink… and many became alcoholics. Eventually a pool hall and theater were added. Local labor was used as well as the US Army since the local men were accustomed to the conditions and the soldiers assigned to the Canal Zone had no choice but to stay. Going AWOL was pretty much out of the question as there was no way to return to the States. For civilians who signed on voluntarily to work there, most left after a few weeks or months.

Of over 50,000 men and women who worked on the Panama Canal, only 7,404 received this medal, and 3,885 of those received a bar indicating the four years of service. The one I found, Roosevelt bronze medal #5205, was awarded by President Roosevelt for 2 years (1909-1911) continuous service building the Panama Canal; the bronze service bar #3228 was added for two additional years of service (1911-1913). Name inscribed on the medal: W. H. Stone

I noticed several Roosevelt Panama Canal medals for sale on eBay and online coin shops at prices ranging from $500 to $750. I believed that the owner was unaware the medal was in the suitcase pocket when he sold it. I also realized that if he was old enough to be working in Panama in 1909, it was impossible that he would still be alive over 100 years later. The extra money would have been nice but I decided I would not sell it until I had done everything in my power to reunite the medal with the family of the man who earned it. Little did I know the search would take me nearly 10 years. Every time I seemed to hit a wall, I stopped the search for days or weeks and sometimes months, until I came up with a new idea or another approach.

I tried fruitless searches using various terms on Google and Facebook. I didn’t want to advertise that I had the medal for fear that someone would falsely claim it only to sell it. I really had no idea how to find descendants of someone who lived over 100 years ago when I knew nothing about him (or her??) except initials and a rather common last name. No full name, no birth date, no hometown, etc.

When my sister took a cruise through the Panama Canal, I sent the medal inscription information with her and requested that she query the canal expert who was lecturing on board how I might locate the rightful owner’s family. He didn’t know, but referred me to the George A. Smathers Libraries’ Panama Canal Museum Collection at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Online, at the George A. Smathers Libraries website, I found an entry for William H. Stone on page 188 of the Panama Canal Personnel Records matching his medal number. So at least now I had a first name in place of initials. Still, the search would have been so much simpler if he had a less common first or last name. There are many, many people online named William Stone including the governor of the colony of Maryland from 1649 to 1655, and a William Henry Stone who was a patriot during the American Revolution. Neither of them were related to the medal’s owner.

I eventually found his canal Service Record Card online through the genealogical records of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. I gleaned bits and pieces of information and unrelated factoids about him along the way, but made little progress in locating his descendants.

A message from Rebecca Fitzsimmons at the George A. Smathers Libraries in response to my voicemail there suggested that I contact the Archives in College Park, MD, which keeps construction period records on personnel employed by the Isthmian Canal Commission, Panama Railroad Company, or the Panama Canal from 5-4-1904 through 12-31-1920. However, she noted, they did not keep records on workers once they left work in the Canal Zone so would probably be unable to help me find anything about his living descendants.

Weeks passed. I finally received a response to my email from an Archives Specialist at the National Archives Building in College Park MD stating that their Panama Canal records had been relocated to the National Archives in St. Louis, MO and suggesting I contact them since they also had military records and many Panama Canal employees subsequently joined the military.

I contacted the St. Louis Archives. They reported that they had no relevant information but referred me to the National Personnel Record Center archives website. There I read: “On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the NPRC destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files. The records affected 80% of the records on Army Personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1980.” According to a notation on his Panama Canal service record, William H. Stone was discharged in 1919 so that was most likely a dead end. (Hmm… I had to wonder: How could a fire in 1973 destroy records of personnel discharged in 1980?)

I followed up with a phone call, hoping William H. Stone’s records were among the 20% that were not destroyed in the fire. The administrative Aide I spoke to took lots of information from me that she said she “would relay to staff who would get back to me in a couple of weeks”. Six weeks later, I received a letter stating that they do not provide services to locate living individuals. (So, does that mean that they provide services to locate dead ones?)

Once I’d learned that “W” stood for “William”, a Google search of “William H. Stone”with “Panama Canal” turned up an entry on a William H. Stone, Jr. which, in spite of his name being the same, his being the right age to be William’s son, and having joined the Army to serve in the Canal Zone, turned out to be a red herring. No relation at all. Dead end.

I had already determined that William was not in the Army between 1909 and at least 1913 while in Panama. He had to have worked on the Canal as a civilian since only civilians were awarded the medals and military personnel working on the canal were specifically excluded from receiving them, as they were “just doing their jobs”.

Beginning 8-24-1909, at the age of 28, he worked on the canal for at least four years from that date to earn the medal plus one bar. The last entry on the service record lists him as a Deputy Inspector on 2-1-15. Per the service record, he was a machinist in the engineering department who was initially paid 65 cents per hour, but it appears that was gradually increased to either $1.75/hour or $175 per month (which is the equivalent of about $1.10/hour if he worked a 40-hour week). From the record card, it’s unclear whether he had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army prior to work on the canal or joined the Army after 2-1-1915. However, it’s very unlikely that he was already a Lt. Colonel by age 28. More likely, he attained that rank after his work on the Canal. It notes that he was discharged from the US Army on 6-21-1919, but subsequent information on his military tombstone shows that he fought in World War II so either he was not discharged in 1919 or he joined up again after that.

At this point, I was stuck. I posted a question on Quora: “How can I locate and contact descendants of Lt. Col. William H. Stone (born 11-3-1880), a machinist who left his home in San Francisco to work on the Panama Canal from 1909 to at least 1913?” I received only one response but it was a great one. Alan Moll responded with links to the tombstones of William and his wife Annie and their mortuary records.

From these links I found photos of their headstones in the Golden Gate Natl. Cemetery in San Bruno, CA and their precise dates of birth and death, plus the mortuary records provided the name and address of their son, and more.

William Henry Stone, born 11-3-1880; died 9-9-1962 at age 81

California Lt. Col. US Army, US Army, World Wars I and II

His wife Annie Stone, born 6-23-1882; died 9-26-79 at age 97 (She died in Coral Gables, FL but she is buried beside William in San Bruno. Her inscription is on the back of his tombstone and they didn’t bother to include her maiden or married surname,)

Alan informed me that “a search of Google Books showed that William was a member of the Board of Local Inspectors for the Panama Canal in June 1916.” William’s Panama Canal Service Record card (above) lists him as “Deputy Inspector” there on 2-1-1915.

It was Alan Moll who discovered and shared with me the links to the headstones, the mortuary records, and other valuable information. I’m convinced that my search could never have succeeded without his help.

From the mortuary records I learned that William Henry Stone’s father, Thomas F. Stone, and his mother, Ellen Fallon Stone, were both born in Ireland. Thomas came to the US in 1859. I was never able to learn if he came directly to San Francisco at that time, perhaps for the Gold Rush, or whether he settled somewhere else in the US first. In San Francisco, he was employed by a company that made gold dredging machines. By 1870, the US Census located him in San Francisco, but his whereabouts between 1859 and 1870 are unknown, at least to me.

I eventually learned from his granddaughter that William Henry Stone was the third son in the family and it was traditional for the third son in an Irish Catholic family to become a priest. He did not want to do that, so he ran away from home at age 15 and lied about his age in order to join the California National Guard. That would have been 1895 or 1896. By 1909 when he went to the canal zone, he had been discharged from the National Guard. He must have joined the Army at some point after he received his 4-year bar in 1913 since the army inscribed on his headstone that he fought in both World War I and World War II.

All these facts were teased out one at a time from information I found online. Each document or narrative that gave me an additional fact allowed me to do another search by combining it with previously ascertained names, places, or other information.

William Henry Stone’s only child, William Francis Stone was born 6-4-1916 in Ancon in the Canal Zone. William Francis Stone was living in Los Angeles in 1935 and was single and living in Berkeley in 1940. He married Joyce Ellen Horgan (born in San Francisco 7-11-1918; she died there on 9-28-2003) who was a single medical assistant in 1940, living in San Francisco. And they had six children. Only their firstborn, Pamela A. Stone survived. Sadly, the other five babies were either stillborn or died the same day they were born. (Twin girls 8-22-1952; a boy 6-8-1953, a girl in July 1954, and another girl 8-25-1957.) William Francis Stone died 5-6-1992 in San Francisco.

Their daughter, Pamela Ann Stone, was born in San Francisco. She married and at 22 she had a son, Francis “Frank” also born in San Francisco. She and her husband divorced when Frank was young and she eventually relocated to Fresno, CA. Frank earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Davis. While a student there in the mid-late 1990’s, Frank was part of a group working on “Future Car”. From their report cover I found the names of the classmates he collaborated with and tried searches using his name with each of theirs in an effort to locate him.

I found a 2005 post where his friend Del mentioned that Frank was known as Frank the Tank and that he had moved from northern to southern California. He was working for a firm which makes shock absorbers and Del stated that Frank was a supporter and fan of racing and all things with wheels.

Another friend mentioned the name of Frank’s fiancée and that they were planning to marry in Puerta Vallarta in late 2008. When I did a search with Frank’s name and his fiancée’s, I found their engagement announcement in his fiancée’s hometown newspaper.

From a forum thread started by Frank’s friend Fred, I learned that the wedding was lovely but there was a tragic accident at the reception when Frank jumped into the pool and woke up days later in a San Diego Hospital, a quadriplegic.

I located a record of Frank selling his home, which provided his mother Pam’s address in Fresno. A fairly simple search then yielded a phone number and I learned she was back in San Francisco. We met shortly after that and I was finally able to return the medal to the family of W. H. Stone. Pam shared wonderful memories of her grandfather and planned to pass the medal on to her son.

Her happiness at receiving her grandfather’s medal and my thrill at finally solving the mystery meant far more to me than the money I might have gained by selling the medal.