120 Years of the Parnahyba Hydropower Plant: The Workers

Explore the centenary history of the Parnahyba Hydropower Plant, located in the outskirts of São Paulo. (Part 2/3)

By The Energy and Sanitation Foundation


Workers in the construction site of the main penstock (1900-07-19) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Today, these pictures serve as a public testimony of the workers who built the Plant, brick by brick. 

The workforce

The individuals behind the history of the Parnahyba Plant, the workers were depicted by the photographs of the construction site. At the time, such pictures would help with the advertisement of the Light company in face of the criticisms directed at their monopolistic practices, earning them the nickname of “Canadian octopus”, with tentacles sprawling over and smothering different public services. 

The gigantic proportions of the components used in the Plant’s construction are staggering, such as the steel tube whose diameter is taller than the average adult person.

Number 1 Damof the Parnahyba Plant (1905)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation

The grandiose pictures,

with a distinct spirit of modernity,  let through, in its details, the social inequities of the time and the absence of laws that, today, oversee workplace safety. 

The technical staff, composed mainly by engineers and foreign supervisors, at the upper portion of the dam. 

By contrast, in the lower portion of the dam, the workforce, mostly composed by local laborers and immigrants.

Workers at the mineral extraction site, near the Number 1 Reservoir (1900-03-11)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation

The size of the stones is as stunning as the number of laborers, having been mobilized, at certain moments of the works, the workforce of up to 1,200 people at the same time.

Despite the practice being forbidden these days, it was commonplace in the early 20th century to employ minors in construction sites and factories. In the lower-class communities, there was no established notion of childhood, and child labor was widely exploited.

General overview of the excavation of the foundations of the Casa de Força (Powerhouse) (1900-01-12) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

In the landscape, workers, stones, and draft animal carts all blend into one another.

The steam drill, a technological advancement of the time. 

Child labor, commonplace at the time, is observable in many images.

Workers at the westmost portion of the Number 2 Dam (1900)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Cross section view of the Tietê River, at the location of the Number 1 Dam (1900-01-12) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

During the construction, the workers suffered with the absence of adequate tools, which forced surveyors and diggers to remove the rocks of the Tietê riverbed with their own hands. 

Portion of the penstocktunnel between the two reservoirs of the Parnahyba Plant (1900-03-06) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Notwithstanding the danger of the labor itself, there was also the imminent threat of outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever.

Access to drinkable water was also an issue to the workforce, with reports of intense diarrhea among the individuals working on site, which forced the Light company to supply mineral water and beverages (beer, for example) to its employees.

Solid rock excavation for the foundations of the Number 2 Reservoir (1900-04-18) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Construction of the Parnahyba Plant’s Number 2 Dam (1900)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Quarries for the construction of the Number 1 Dam (1900)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation

  The relationship between workers and employers was also controversial.

An example of it is the case of worker Arthur Nicolini, which took place in 1900. A mason at the Parnahyba Plant’s construction, the Italian immigrant, following a dispute with the head engineer Cooper, suffered physical punishment, was fired, fined, and arrested by soldiers, who were stationed at the Plant’s construction site.

Having his innocence proven, he was released, and when attempting to retrieve the payment for his days of work, he was victim of another aggression, followed by incarceration. Once again acquitted, Nicolini was freed and sought the Italian Consulate and the editorial staff of the Diário Popular newspaper, in order to make the facts known to the public.

View of the positioning of the water intake tubes of theParnahyba Plant’s Casa de Força (Powerhouse) turbines (1901-01-04)The Energy and Sanitation Foundation


Although poorly documented, the workplace accidents at the construction site were not sparse.

There was even the death of some workers, whose memories ended up unknown.

At a point in history in which labor legislation had not been truly developed, an accomplishment to be reached decades from that time, the workplace accidents at the Plant’s construction site were the result of, mostly, lack of proper training in the usage of dynamite in blasts, or in the transportation of the gigantic stones used in the construction.

Panoramic viewof the Parnahyba Plant (1916-07) by Guilherme GaenslyThe Energy and Sanitation Foundation

The Plant

A byproduct of the interaction between human action and the environment...continue to Part 3.

Credits: Story

Energy and Sanitation Foundation

Administrative Council
President Renato de Oliveira Diniz
Executive Director Rita de Cassia Martins Souza 

Supporting companies, sponsors and partners
Danillo Sene | Enel
José Renato Domingues | CTG Brasil
Mario Luiz do Nascimento Oliveira | EMAE
Renato Erdmann Gonçalves | Sabesp
Sergio Fernando Larizzatti | CESP 

Community with notorious ability
Gildo Magalhães dos Santos Filho
Renato de Oliveira Diniz
Sergio Augusto de Arruda Camargo
Sueli Angelo Furlan 

Employee Representative
Denis Quartim De Blasiis 

Fiscal Council
Daniel Jesus de Lima | EMAE
Francisco José Cavalcante Júnior | Sabesp
Lucas Penido Alipio | CESP 

The Energy and Sanitation Foundation Collection
Curatorship: Danieli Giovanini | Tatiana Ishikawa
Exhibition Project: Danieli Giovanini
Collection research and selection: Alexia Rodrigues | Danieli Giovanini | Tatiana Ishikawa
Texts: Danieli Giovanini | Tatiana Ishikawa
Translation: Gabriel Almeida Couri
Review: Mariana de Andrade Dias da Silva
Graphic Designer: Fernando de Sousa Lima
Technical Support: Camila Cury (Google Arts & Culture)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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