VILLAGES ANTEDATING SETTLEMENT OF U.S. LIE BURIED UNDER WATERS OF GATUN LAKE.......

THE CANAL RECORD, December 6, 1911


The villages between Gatun and Matachin will be covered by the water of Gatun Lake. They have never been important in the sense of size, or as the center of any peculiar type of life. In fact, they are little more than jungle hamlets, yet they have a distinct place in American history, because they were known to European civilization many years before Jamestown was settled or Massachusetts Bay was an English colony.

It is probable that most of them date from the early days of navigation on the Chagres River, when it was one of the most used routes for commerce across the Isthmus. Among these are Ahorca Lagarto, Barbacoas, Caimito, Matachin, Bailamonos, Santa Cruz, Cruz de Juan Gallego, and Cruces (Venta Cruz).

The region in which these lake settlements are situated will probably not be under water before August 1912, but the railroad track will be torn up in February and therefore the native hamlets and American canal settlements are being moved, the houses torn down to be erected again, elsewhere, or, in the case of shacks, merely abandoned in the jungle.

It is difficult to persuade some of the inhabitants that the inundation will ever take place. One old bush settler, after receiving repeated warnings heedlessly, ventured it as his opinion that the Lord had promised never again to flood the earth.

The old village of Gatun, which lay on the river flats below the present town, was abandoned in 1908 and the site is now covered by 80 feet of rock and earth under Gatun Dam. At the time it was abandoned, the village contained a church, priest's house, school, a dozen small shops, and 90 or more small houses of all descriptons, from the bamboo hut with palm thatch to the typical sheet-iron-roofed shanty, Most of the buildings were moved to the new townsite, now known as new Gatun.

OLD FORT AT GATUN

The antiquity of the place is uncertain because none of its buildings were of masonry. In his narrative of the pirate Morgan, Esquemeling says, "The first day they sailed only six leagues, and came to a place called De los Bracos. Here a party of his men went ashore, only to sleep and stretch their limbs, being almost crippled with lying too much crowded in the boats. Having rested awhile, they went abroad to seek victuals in the neighboring plantations; but they could find none, the Spaniards being fled and carting with them all they had."

The location on the river corresponds to that of Gatun. Even if the situation of De los Bracos is not identical with old Gatun, the narrative indicates that the region thereabout was somewhat settled. It is also known that the Spaniards had erected a fort 120 feet above the river, and evidences of the old fort are found today. In the early days of the California immigration, it was the first stopping place in the canoe journey up the Chagres, where "bongo-loads of California travelers used to stop for refreshments on their way upthe river, and where eggs sold four for a dollar and the rent for a hammock was $2 a night."

In 1881 the French chose Gatun as the site of one of the canal residencies, erected machine shops there and built a number of quarters for laborers, calling the new section "Cite de Lesseps." This continued as a center of the work of excavation until 1888 when all operations ceased, not to be resumed here until 1904.

When the Americans arrived n 1904, Gatun was the center of a comparatively large river trade. Bananas and other produce from the Gatun, Trinidad, and Chagres Rivers were brought there for transshipment by rail and for sale.

The next settlement of any importance up the river from Gatun is Bohio. Between the two villages are three hamlets, Lion Hill, Tiger Hill, and Ahorca Lagarto. The first two are essentially railroad camps that have persisted since 1851 when they were, successively, the terminus of the road.

"HANG THE LIZARD"

Ahorca Lagarto, however, is on a bend in the river, and may well have been a resting place for the cramped travellers in canoes. Of the origin of its name Otis (a British historian of about 1860) says: "Ahorca Lagarto, 'to hang the lizard,' deriving its name from a landing place on the Chagres near by; this again, named from having, years back, been pitched upon as an encampment by body of government troops who suspended from a tree their banner, on which was a lizard, the insignia of the Order of Santiago."

Until recently Bohio has been called Bohio Soldado (Soldier's Home). The French made it the site of one of their district headquarters in 1862; here as well as at any place can be seen today the plan of the sea-level canal which included the main channel and two large diversions or drainage ditches, one on each side of the canal proper.

Near Bohio are the hamlets of Penas Blancas and Buena Vista, both on the river and each merely a collection of huts of various descriptions. Frijoles is the next railway station, a village of 784 inhabitants in1908. Here for many years an old Frenchman ran a distillery in which he made rum of such good quality, that he boasted that it was sold in Colon to rectifiers who made it into "genuine French cognac."

Tabernilla, the next village, was one of the centers of French work and there was a small field repair shop at this point. During the American occupation it became a village of over 2,000 inhabitants because here is situated the largest dumping ground on the canal work.

BRIDGE AT BARBACOAS

Between Tabernilla and San Pablo, the railroad crosses the Chagres River at Barbacoas. San Pablo was originally a plantation worked by Catholic priests. It was a railroad station in 1862, was a laborers' camp in the French days, and during the American occupation has been a small canal village.

Across the Chagres river from San Pablo is Caimito, one of the names found on Esquemeling's map. It was a canal labor camp in the French time and also under the Americans until the work at that point was finished. Of this class also is Mamei, likewise a railroad station in 1862, and little more than that today, although it was the location of several quarters for Canal workers a few years ago.

Gorgona bears the name given by Pizarro to an island off the coast of Colombia, because he found around it such treacherous currents. It may be that this name was adopted arbitrarily, or that the Chagres River travellers found in the river at this place some eddies which reminded them of the currents off Gorgona Island. Of this place Otis says:"The native town of Gorgona was noted in the earlier days of the river travel as the place where the wet and jaded traveller was accustomed to worry out the night on a rawhide, exposed to the insects and the rain and in the morning if he was fortunate regale himself on jerked beef and plantains."

In the French time large shops were situated here, at the point where the American shops now are, known as Bas Matachin. At the time of the first Canal Zone census in 1908 its inhabitants numbered 1,065 whites, 1,646 blacks and 39 Chinese, a total of 2,750.  The population has increased owing to the expansion of the shops, and the lower parts of the village will be covered by the waters of Gatun Lake and, therefore, the shops will be moved in about a year to the site reserved for the permanent machine shops in Balboa.


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December 7, 1998

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