The Panama Canal's Cucaracha Signal Station, after almost half a century of continuous service, has been inactivated, a victim of progress. Widening of Gaillard Cut from 300 to 500 feet has done what slides in 1918 were unable to accomplish, and operation of Cucaracha Signal Station was discontinued last month.
The Cucaracha Signal Station, on Contractor's Hill, consisted of a small concrete structure with telephone, desk and chair inside, and mast with cones and balls on it outside. Before the Cut widening, this signal station was important as an aid to navigation. The widening of Gaillard Cut makes further operation of this station unnecessary.
In its nigh 50 years of existence, Cucaracha Signal Station has weathered slides, rock falls, and several moves. For the past 3 years this station has been situated some 352 feet above sea level at Contractor's Hill. But for many years the station was located south of its present site, low and close to the water at an elevation of some 100 feet.
The history of Panama Canal signal stations goes back to March 5, 1913, when Capt. Hugh Rodman, first Marine Superintendent of the Panama Canal, advocated six signal stations in a report on preliminary studies of the Canal he submitted to Colonel Goethals.
Cucaracha Signal Station, at the foot of Contractor's Hill, went into operation in 1914 along with its sister stations. The buildings were white, with red roofs, in order "to attract the eye as far as possible to aid navigation of ships through the Canal." One of the signalman's duties, outlined in his responsibilities, was to "report via telephone when land slides occurred within his vision and knowledge."
The 1918 slides at Gaillard Cut resulted in Cucaracha Signal Station's first move for, said a report, "The location at the foot of Contractor's Hill was too dangerous with rocks constantly breaking and rolling down, endangering the lives of mean assigned there."
The temporary signal station structure was replaced in July 1923 with the new Cucaracha Signal Station. Little more than a year later, on November 24, 1924, this station was threatened during a slide. A portion of the site of old Cucaracha Village was buried and the vicinity of the Cucaracha Signal Station covered with mud and rocks following torrential rains.
In May 1928 concrete structures were recommended for all Panama Canal signal stations, "which were a source of worry and required constant watching and repair on account of ants."
The importance of the Cucaracha Signal Station was recognized in 1930, when a news report termed this one of the vital installations along the Canal "From his position the signalman can see a great distance through the cut and it is his duty to report movements of ships north- and southbound, and record the time of each in his log. Without this station (Cucaracha) located here there would be many accidents as the channel is narrow and winding, and the ships cannot see each other in time to avoid collisions. The station, by use of the balls and cones, advises the pilots where ships will meet as well as the number to be met," the report explained.
The signals used in dispatching boats through the Canal are found nowhere else in the world, the report said, and only the workmen and pilots who come under the port captain's office need know their mean.
Three years later, in 1933, the signal system used at the Panama Canal signal stations was described in an official report as the most archaic feature of the Canal and a more modernized system was proposed.
In 1941 came Pearl Harbor and blackouts, and special instructions for the Panama Canal signal Stations. No lights, other than the signal lights ordered by the dispatcher, were permitted. Obstruction, residence, and all other lights had to be off, and as soon as the signal lights served their purpose, these, too, were turned off.
Abandonment of the Cucaracha Signal Station was proposed about 10 years ago. The Cut widening made the proposal a reality, and on December 7, 1963, the Cucaracha Signal Station building was abandoned.
The only signal stations now in operation on the Canal are the La Pita and Gamboa stations, Flamenco station at the entrance to the harbor on the Pacific side, and a station atop pier 6 at Cristobal.
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