ON ISTHMUS PRESENTED LITTLE LUXURY IN 1914
The Panama Canal
Spillway - August 14, 1987
When the Panama Canal opened
on August 14, 1914, Panama was a newly developed, rapidly expanding country. Swamps
covered the land, and the dense jungles were inhabited by Indians and wild animals.
However, trees were scarce in the Canal Zone because of the construction effort. Machinery
used to build the Canal included steam locomotives and steam shovels. Much of the original
equipment still functions efficiently thanks to proper maintenance, although it is now
diesel-operated. Sanitation was a major problem in 1914. The abundant swamps were host to
many diseases. Streets and sidewalks were in the process of being paved, conditions were
still such that Canal employees were required to drink quinine daily to ward off malaria.
Cleaning began in the streets of Panama and Colon, sewers were being constructed and
running water was installed. Everyone was told not to let it stand where it could become
stagnant and infested with mosquito larvae. In homes, it was common to see ants covering
exposed food. Sugar had to be set in a bowl of water and table legs were wiped with
oil-soaked swabs to prevent ants from crawling up them.
Throughout the Isthmus, people were getting by without many of the luxuries we enjoy
today. Air conditioning was virtually non-existent. Wooden living quarters,
consisting of a framework with metal slats on stilts to prevent them from flooding or
getting washed away in rainstorms, were just beginning to be replaced by masonry. Roofs
were constructed out of sheets of aluminum and all quarters in the Canal area were
enclosed by screens to keep out mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. Panamanian
homes were open, with hallways ending in an archway and balcony, which extended along a
two or three-story building.
Aside from walking, modes of
transportation included the horse and buggy and buckboards, which were four-wheeled
vehicles with a springy platform. Bicycles were widely used and horse-drawn coaches, or
carrametas, were a common sight in the streets of Panama City. Carrometas were also
used as ambulances, and there was even a horse-mounted police squad. Children were taken
to school in wagons and, if they lived especially far, they rode the railroad. Wagon
caravans were often seen crossing the Canal on the Thatcher Ferry. Bridge of the
Americas has since replaced the ferry as a more efficient method of crossing the Canal.
The style of clothing worn
by people in 1914 has changed quite a bit. Tourists who flocked to Panama to see the
Canal helped keep residents up-to-date with the latest in fashion and entertainment.
Historical photos show non-laborers wearing three piece suits and bow-ties or neckties.
Those working on the Canal wore suspenders and shirts with buttons down the front and
rolled up sleeves. Shoes that laced up to above the ankle were often worn, and for the
Canal laborers, heavy knee-high boots. Straw hats were very popular - most likely to
prevent sunburn in the blistering heat. Policemen were comfortable in brown khaki
Points of interest included
the lavish Tivoli Hotel, which had a dining room that could hold 600. The beach at Toro
Point, the Spanish fort at San Lorenzo and even Taboga Island - which is still a major
attraction today - were also frequently visited spots. Santa Ana Park in Central Avenue
and Cathedral Plaza were popular places for townspeople to stroll and gather, and young
shoeshine boys roaming the streets were a common sight. On weekends, bridge parties,
moving picture shows and the weekly lottery drawing were popular diversions.
Popular books of the time
included "The Trail of The Lonesome Pine" by John Forx, Jr., "The Winning
of Barbara Worth" by Harold Wright and "Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane
Grey. The popular Saturday nights at the Tivoli Hotel had people dancing to
"Moonlight Bay" and listening to the new beat of Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Life on the Isthmus has
changed dramatically over the past 73 years with ongoing improvements in medicine,
machinery, housing, transportation and communications. Panama itself has also developed
quite a lot in that time and now enjoys a per capita income higher than most in Latin
December 21, 1998