From the Panama Canal Review, Oct. 1. 1954
If the powers that were in 1904 and 1905 had been able to figure out an inexpensive and practical method of reaching the top of Ancon Hill, Ancon would not look anything like it does today. Glowing from the summit of the 654-foot hill would be the lights of homes and hospitals instead of today's constellation of aircraft warning lights.
For months after the United States took over the rights and properties of the French Canal Company in 1904, American officials discussed some feasible way of reachng the hilltop. They agreed that it was a perfect location for anywhere from 14 to 25 houses and two sanitariums.
They considered and discarded the idea of a regular railway, a cog railway, a cable railway, and a macadam road "with a stage runnng at frequent intervals." The plans which were suitable to the steep ascent were unsuitable because of cost. Finally in April 1905, they abandoned all idea of the summit site and settled on the lower slopes of the hill for their town.
The name Ancon, which means roadstead or anchorage, goes back hundreds of years in Isthmian history. In 1545 Gonzalo Pizarro, seeking to control the Isthmus of Panama and its rich ports, sent two expeditions from Peru. The first pillaged the old city of Panama before it was recalled. The second was divided into two forces, one of which, under Rodrigo de Carbajal, landed at Ancon, a small cove two leagues from Panama.
In 1674 the new city of Panama was laid out beside this cove; 200 years later the French Company selected a hillside overlooking the roadstead as the site of its hospital. When the Americans came they used the name, "Port of Ancon" for what was later to be the Pacific terminus of the Canal.
The first town of Ancon was one of five Canal Zone municipalities, each administered by a mayor and council. According to the Isthmian Canal Commission, it was to be " the seat of the government of the Canal Zone and the place of residence of a large proportion of the Americans on the Isthmus." Although headquarters for the Canal construction force were moved to Culebra three years later, Ancon did remain the main governmental and medical center for the Canal Zone throughout the construction period. In 1912 a local writer commented that there were people in Ancon who had never seen the Canal construction except from the windows of railroad cars.
The first American construction in Ancon was the repair and expansion of the rambling 500-bed French hospital. Some of its wooden wards dated back to 1883; they were reconditioned and pavilions and second floors added. By 1907 Ancon Hospital had 96 buildings, 47 of them wards.
All these were in what was known as the Hospital Grounds. A gate across its palm-bordered entrance road, approximately opposite the present residence of the Episcopal bishop, separated the hospital grounds from the rest of Ancon. It was kept locked at night and late comers had to ring a bell for admission.
The first housing was crude. Married officers detailed to the Ancon police station lived in tents. One three-family house had only one bathroom. New quarters were built or old French buildings made fit for habitation as fast as possible and by 1908 Ancon was a village of 1,508, it housed the offices of the Civil Administration and of Sanitation, which until that time had been in Panama City.
ANCON IN 1907
A supreme court and a circuit court were located near the present post office in an old French building, and a corral for the horses and mules which pulled official transportation was close by. Officials of the Isthmian Canal Commission were housed in large quarters on Fourth of July Avenue; the quarters once occupied by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, the Commission's Secretary, are now the residence of the District Judge. The quarters of the Chief Health Officer were on a knoll behind St. Luke's Cathedral, then a steepled wooden chapel; other doctors and officers of the civil administration lived in the large houses still standing on Columbia Road.
A frame building on Reservoir Hill, levelled two years ago when the present housing was laid out, was the elementary school. One of the teachers in that school was Mrs. Ora Ewing, now housemother for the junior college dormitory.
She lived in a four-family house on Fourth of July Avenue, looking out over a large field where the National Institute now stands. There was no commissary in Ancon, she recalls. Each week she made out food orders for six days and sent them a $15 commissary book to Cristobal. The orders were delivered each morning after the train arrived from the Atlantic side.
Unlike most other towns, there was no clubhouse in Ancon and therefore, no planned amusement. The people made their own fun. The men went to the varous lodges, like the Masons, Kangaroos, or the Knights of Pythias, which had space over a quartermaster storehouse; the women belonged to the very active Woman's Club and later, to the Ancon Morning Musicale Society, disbanded only a few years ago.
The Tivoli was the scene of regular cotillions; the Ancon Amusement Association, of which Mr. Ewing was a charter member, arranged dances, picnics, sports, and even, once, charterd a large ocean-going steamer for a trip to the Pearl Islands. Round trip was $2.00 a person; children under six went free.
Society was fairly formal. Calling cards were part of every lady's equipment, and oldtimers remember one woman who always wore a hat to her own tea parties.
By 1907 Ancon was beginning to spread beyond its original confines of Hospital Grounds and Tivoli. Fourteen buildings were constructed in what is now the San Juan Place area to house the insane patients who had been cared for originally at the hospital proper and later in a building near Miraflores. About 1915 the patients were transferred to Corozal and the buildings converted to quarters. For years they enjoyed the dubious distinction of being haunted by crazy ghosts which, anyone knows, are worse than regular ghosts.
In 1910 the corral was moved to a location not far from the Insane Asylum where it remained until 1938 when it was moved to Gaillard Highway.
As the Canal neared completion, Ancon's future was uncertain. Finally, in 1914 The CANAL RECORD announced the official decision that the settlement at Ancon be continued indefinitely. The permanent force to be housed there was to be about 161 families and 130 bachelors. A number of quarters were brought in from Culebra, Empire, and Bas Obispo and re-erected in Ancon and some new houses were built.
The present commissary was built in 1914 on the site of an old French building; for years tradition had it linked by a tunnel to the hospital buildings. Plans were drawn up for a new school, still in use, and a clubhouse, the town's first, was built near the commissary. This clubhouse, a two-story frame structure, was burned to the gound in 1924 in Ancon's most spectacular fire.
Capt. R.E. Wood, Chief Quartermaster, Dr. A. B. Herrick, then Acting Superintendent of Ancon Hospital, and Samuel Hitt, Canal architect, were appointed to a committe to submit recommendations for reconstructing the hospital. The first of the hospital's present buildings was authorized in 1915. The Ancon restaurant, later known as the Clubhouse, was built in 1917.
Up to that time the streets had no official names. Houses were numbered, and not very logically at that, and locating a particular residence was difficult. C.A. McIlvaine, then Executive Secretary, suggested a number of somewhat poetic names, - Lovers Lane, High and Low Roads, Sleepy Hollow, and Palm Court - but his suggestions were not adopted. It was not until 1920 that Ancon Boulevard, Gorgas Road, Columbia and Culebra Roads, for instance came into official being.
For a decade the town went on its quiet way. Its only excitement in the early 1920's was a rash of burglaries committed by a daring character named Peter Williams. Oldtimers declare that he used to notify the police in advance of the location of his next burglary. Whether or not that is true, he eventually fell afoul of the law and was shot and killed by the police while fleeing along an Ancon drainage ditch.
FISHBOWL, DOCTOR'S KNOB
By the early 1930's the Ancon housing situation was acute; newcomers had no place to live except "vacation quarters" for sometimes as long as two years. Twelve two-family houses and two cottages were built near the hospital for doctors' quarters. The section was immediately and obviously christened the "Fishbowl."
The early 40's brought the completion of the houses in the Old Corral area; emergency 12-family housing on Frangipani Street and new quarters for the doctors on Herrick Heights. Unnamed for some time, this section near the Ancon Courthouse was irreverently referred to in official files as "Doctor's Knob."
Then came the war. Like other towns, Ancon lived through blackouts, air-raid alerts, civil defense drills. Makeshift sandbag shelters appeared under houses and in side yards; starred service flags swung in windows. Planes from North and South America landed and took off from the Air Terminal on Gaillard Highway, now the Civil Affairs Building. Almost overnight a huge building appeared over the edge of the hill below the Tivoli; built by the USO for use of the thousands of local and visiting servicemen, it is now the Pacific Clubhouse.
After the war, building was again resumed in Ancon. About 1950 the new "GYN-OB" building was added to the Gorghas hospital group, and a site cleared for a clinic building, still to be built.
The haunted old quarters and the beautiful trees on San Juan Place fell before the bulldozers. Reservoir Hill, for many years a residence for women bachelors, was so levelled that it can no longer be called a hill. Ancon Boulevard was relocated and the dreary old four-family houses which had stood flush with its sidewalks became debris. Army flame-throwers burned some of the wreckage where it lay.
Today some parts of Ancon look like the gap-toothed mouths of little boys. Old houses are being torn down as they are vacated, and it will not be many months before they are all gone.
Where Ancon begins and ends is a matter of question. On one side it is separated from Panama by Fourth of July Avenue, whose name dates back at least to 1909 and probably earlier. The border, generally, is the Panama-side curb of the avenue. On the other end of town the dividing line between Ancon and Balboa, for taxi-fare purposes, is the Administration Building. For school purposes, however, the Fishbowl, San Juan Place, and the Old Corral area, and everything west of these sections, are considered in the Balboa elementay school area.
It has three churches, all well patronized. Sacred Heart Chapel and the Cathedral of St. Luke began their lives as chapels inside the hospital gounds. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, on Ancon Boulevard was once the Ancon courthouse. It was moved to its present location in 1916 and has since been enlarged.
Ancon has a greenhouse, the only one in the Canal Zone. It has the only hotel in the Canal Zone, though it is now known as the Tivoli Guest House. Its hospital is the only one on the Pacific side. The marriages, adoptions, divorces, and estates of hundreds of its citizens are recorded in the files of its District Court.
It also has some of the most voracious deer outside a jungle. One resident has an electrified fence around his yard to keep them out of his garden.
Many of the people who live in Ancon have never lived anywhere else. Nor do they want to. Once an Anconite, always an Anconite, they'll tell you.
Last update: December 19, 1997
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