The SS Ancon, painted, polished, scrubbed and with the flags of all nations fluttering in the early morning breeze, cast off from Pier 9 in Cristobal. She headed out towards the Atlantic Ocean where, at the entrance to the Canal, she came about and headed back towards the Pacific on her history-making voyage as the first ship to transit the Canal on the official opening day, August 15, 1914. Among those witnessing this event were Col. George W. Goethals, Chief Engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission and the first Canal Zone Governor. Belisario Porras, President of Panama, and members of his cabinet; members of the diplomat corps; ranking U. S. Army officers and wives and guests.
Piloting the Ancon on that festive occasion was Captain John A. Constantine, the most colorful and well-known pilot the Canal has yet known. His fame rests not just on the fact that he was the first to take a ship through the Canal, but upon his professional skill and his own unique personality. It was this combination that made him well-known not only locally, but in ports wourld-wide where shiphandlers got together to swap tales.
Much has been written about "Captain John" (or "Captain Nikitas," as he was affectionately known in Panama's small Greek community), both fact and fiction. Which is which has often been the question. The fiction is due to contradictory records which are replete with disparites from beginning to end. Thus, he was born John Antonio Constantine (later Americanized by changing the "o" to "e") in either Piraeus or Zeras, Greece on either July 10, 1849 or November 5, 1859, was either a Greek or a naturalized American citizen, was married in either 1907 or 1909, and died at either age 70 or age 80. His employment history is equally inaccurate. There has been some speculation as to the reason for this confusion, but in researching Captain Constantine's life, one gains the impression that any disparities are certainly not deliberate. he simply didn't "give a hoot" for paperwork and relied on his fine reputation to speak for itself.
A story often told to illustrate Captain Constantine's character concerns a time when, while observing a novice pilot attempting to berth a vessel, it became apparent that the scenery was slipping by much too quickly. The Captain did not become perturbed and immediately order the engines to be slowed, but instead offered the matter-of-fact comment that, "Son, if you're in a big hurry to get this vessel alongside, then I would advise you to go very slow."
John Constantine is reported to have been employed at various times by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, the French Canal Company, Isthmian Canal Commission and the Panama Railroad Comapny; and held positions as seaman, boatswain, stevedore, dredgeman, craneboat master, captain and pilot. He was even employed for a brief time as clerk and Spanish translator for the U.S. Circuit Court at Ancon.
Captain Constantine married late in life. Legend has it that he married his childhood sweetheart, though, if we are to believe the records, this was not possible since his bride, Mary Buffy (Buffie), was born in Greece on may 8, 1878, years after he left his native country (either in 1863 or 1873). Since he had never returned, his marriage was evidently arranged through family and friends. Mary Buffy made the trip to Panama accompanied by her sister and the latter's two small children under the solicitious care of various Greek shipmasters. They were married shortly after her arrival. Since no record of a marriage license exists in the Canal Zone, it is assumed that they were wed in Colon. Having no children of their own, they later adopted Mary's niece.
A charter member of the Society of the Chagres, a social-historical society made up of construction-day employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission, and active in masonic affairs, Captain Constantine was a member of the Canalo Marine Association in addition to participating in the social activities of Panama's Greek community.
In his later years he spent many hours building what has turned out to be a memorial to himself - the ten-foot model of a full-rigged four-masted barque which he named, appropriately enough, John Constantine. The model was built to scale in every aspect and each facet of the work was done with meticulous attention to detail. the model was presented to the Panama Canal Pilots Association before his death and was displayed for years in the Port Captain's Office in Cristobal, where it eventually fell into direpair. it took a year and a half of intermittent but devoted work by recently retired Panama Canal pilot F.D. Saunders to restore it to its original condition. Captain Saunders was surprised when he dismantled the ship to find that everything below decks was, although completely out of sight to an observer, built with the same exacting detail as the rest of the ship. All of the cabins are fitted out with miniature furnishings, including hanging pictures. Since its restoration the vessel has been on display in a glass and mahogany case at the Canal Zone Library - Museum.
Special governmental authorization permitted Captain Constantine to work past retirement age, although he was restricted to harbor duty in his later years. On January 21, 1929, he was seriously injured in an accident: as he was boarding the Ionic, a pilot lauch crushed both of his feet against the side of the ship. He never recovered sufficiently from this accident to return to work and died the following year.
In 1943, the U. S. Maritime Commission named a Liberty ship, John Constantine, after him, and a Panama Canal Comapny pilot launch also bears his name. The Panama Canal Pilots Association is currently polling the membership on the possibility of changing the name of its building in his honor, and the bust that marks his grave in Mount Hope Cemetery is being moved to that building for permanent display.