Peter Magill it has been for many years and Peter Magill it will probably continue to be as long as there is a Pedro Miguel and Americans here to mispronounce its name. It is even spelled "Peter Magill" in some official records.
The origin of Pedro Miguel's name is a matter of argument among its residents. Adrien Bouche, who has lived there for many years, grew up on the story that Pedro Miguel was the name of a railroad section foreman. There wasn't much of a town in early railroad days so the stop was known as Pedro Miguel's cabin.
Others believe that the town's name is properly San Pedro Miguel - St. Peter Michael - which was the Spanish name for the river. Certainly an 1867 history of the railroad refers to the San Pedro Miguel River, "a narrow tidewater tributary of the Rio Grande," which the railroad crossed on an iron bridge.
Pedro Miguel was off the beaten path of trans-Isthmian travelers of the Spanish colonial days. There was probably a fair sized settlement in the general area; during canal construction days ruins of a large old Spanish church were found not far from Pedro Miguel. Indian artifacts discovered in Pedro Miguel's hills prove even earlier habitation.
FRENCH THERE IN 1888
French canal forces started work at Pedro Miguel on January 15, 1888. In May of that year the site, where one lock was to be built, was one-third excavated. Later the New French Canal Company modified the plans and decided that two locks would be built at the Pedro Miguel location.
There could not have been much of a settlement at Pedro Miguel, however, for when the Isthmian Canal Commission began to take stock in 1904-5 of property taken over from the French Company it found at Pedro Miguel nine usable buildings and three in such bad condition they were destroyed.
One of the old French buildings became a police station, another a commissary, and others were used as quarters. Mr. Bouche says that one of these old quarters is still standing on Miraflores Street near the Boy Scout Shack. He identifies it from its brick underpinnings.
Early in 1905 Chief Engineer John F. Wallace wrote Governor George W. Davis: "Pedro Miguel is the point, you know, where the principal line from the east side of the south end of Culebra Cut joins the main line of the Panama Railroad and I desire to establish here the headquarters of the men employed in the transportation and excavating work in this general vicinity." (The present road to the Cucaracha signal station is a part of the old railroad bed.)
Kitchens, a mess hall, a "hotel," a post office, and bachelor barracks began to rise, all west of the present railroad line. The work was considered so urgent that later that year Governor Davis asked that "work on Corozal quarters be suspended and Pedro Miguel pushed forward."
Although the ICC selected Pedro Miguel as the site of one set of locks, after a lock-type canal was decided on in 1906, Pedro Miguel remained primarily a railroad center. A nine-track railroad yard, a coaling plant and a repair shop were built that year, and at Pedro Miguel President Theodore Roosevelt made his first stop when he toured the construction line in November 1906. It is pretty certain that all of Pedro Miguel's 754 residents, 79 of them Americans, turned out to welcome him. Most of the construction force lived at Corozal, if they were Americans, Mr. Bouche recalls, or at "40-mile Camp" which was practically part of Pedro Miguel or at one or another of the nearby "silver" construction camps if they were non-Americans. In 1908, however, the Pedro Miguel mess for European laborers was enlarged to accommodate 450 men; it was the largest in the Canal Zone at the time.
In 1912, John O. Collins described Pedro Miguel: "Here is an engine house where as many as 80 locomotives tie up for the night. One of the most interesting sights on the Canal is watching these locomotives leave the engine house for their work in the morning. The first one leaves about 6:30 am and the last is clear of the yards 10 minutes later."
Pedro Miguel was even then becoming modern. It had had electricity since 1907. In 1908 there were 491 pupils in the Pedro Miguel school; the lone high school student had to travel to Empire for his classes. A commissary, which served all employees, was approximately where a large storehouse now stands on the road to the Boat Club. A volunteer fire company protected the town and a Commission truck garden supplied fresh vegetables. In 1909 there was some excitement when a slide in the locks excavation swallowed up a chicken house tree belonging to one of the cottages. The house, left only four feet from the slide, was moved hurriedly.
For a description of Pedro Miguel life in the late construction days, the Review turned to Mrs. Eula J. Ewing, who lived in Pedro Miguel from 1911 until her retirement in 1952. For many years she wrote a column of Pedro Miguel events for the Star & herald. From her present home in Romany, W.Va., she wrote:
"There was no legitimate Clubhouse in Pedro Miguel before the one from Gorgona was brought there in 1914, but we did have a social hall which was over the old mess hall. This stood on the old road near what is now the junction of Gaillard Highway and Rio Grande Street.
There our Sunday School was held, also church services whenever we could secure a minister which was once every three or four months. Once or twice a year, a Lyceum Company which was brought down from the States by the old ICC gave a program here, and here we also held our dances.
The first Christmas program in Pedro Miguel was presented here in 1901. Miss Mildred Greene, sister of J. Wendell Greene (who retired as Treasurer of the Panama Canal Company, in 1952), and I trained the other children. We trimmed a small orange tree with popcorn strings and paper chains, lighted it with old-fashioned wax candles and called it our Christmas tree.
Incinerator Point- it was called that because the incinerator for the disposal of garbage was located on the point of land which jutted out into the water-was down where the SIP quarters on Frog Alley now stand, facing the lake. Old Man Campbell, as we used to call him-I believe his name was John-had a chicken farm there and beyond it a narrow swinging bridge crossed the Pedro Miguel River to the native huts which were grouped on the other side. There dances were held in the evenings to the music of tom-toms.
The area where the Lodge Hall now stands and the land immediately below it was once a native village, with thatched roof huts; I remember it was a pleasant sight in the evening to see the light of their fires and to hear their voices raised in plaintive songs."
CHRISTMAS ON STILTS
"On Christmas morning, dressed in grotesque costumes, they would stalk through the town on stilts. Some of the stilts were so tall the people on them could look into upstairs apartments. Later in the day, they drove or led a giant tapir up to their village where it was killed and roasted over an open fire and a great fiesta was held. The present Boat Club grew out of the old El Kego Club, which met in a thatched roof shed which stood near the present location of the Boat Club. The men selected this spot, isolated as it was, so that their noise would not annoy residents of the town. Here they enjoyed their keg of beer and passed the hat to defray the cost. Its fame spread until the Boat Club was organized to take care of the crowd.
Al Meigs was one of the organizers and perhaps did more for the club than any other man. He was ably assisted by Jack Reinig, J.C. Ewing, S.B. Bubb, Adam Mallett, Adam Dorn, Harry Groschup, and many others.
The old police station, which was brought from Gorgona, stood on the left of Front Street, as you walked from the railroad station to the clubhouse. In the early days, a stable for the horses stood in the rear of the building. The concrete base and the steps leading to the station are all that remain today.
In the early days we made our own entertainment. We used to put on plays, give programs, hold dances. There was the Ladies' Aid Society and the Woman's Club. We often attended dances at Gorgona and Empire in a labor car hitched to an engine. Some engineer would volunteer to run the engine there but wouldn't guarantee to bring it back. Perhaps another one who had celebrated less would make the return trip with us."
AFTER CONSTRUCTION DAYS
Pedro Miguel Locks were the second to be started. Concreting there began in September 1909, a week after pouring had started at Gatun. A little over three years later, Pedro Miguel Lock gates were closed and opened for the first time. The Canal Record reports that gates in the east chamber were first operated November 16, 1912; they were set in motion by the little son -unnamed- of Congressman John J. Fitsgerald, an Isthmian visitor. The first lockage, however, was not made until October 24, 1913.
As construction ended, plans were made for the future of Pedro Miguel. In June 1912, a committee appointed to choose sites for permanent town sites recommended that the operating force of the Pacific Locks should be housed in one settlement, and chose a location on the east side of Pedro Miguel Locks. As it was then planned, the town was to house 62 American and 162 alien workers and their families.
Eventually, but only after considerable heated correspondence between the landscape architect and town site engineers, a new Pedro Miguel began to take form. The commissary, police station, and clubhouse were transferred from Gorgona; the center of population shifted from the west side of the railroad to the east. An old barracks building was converted to quarters for "lady bachelors," because, the Pedro Miguel quartermaster said, "it appears that there will always be at least seven or eight lady bachelors in Pedro Miguel." The big house formerly occupied by W.G. Comber, Superintendent of Dredging at Paraiso, was moved to a site uphill from the clubhouse. Its most recent occupant was Truman Hoenke, Pacific Locks Superintendent. Previous occupants were the Roy Stockhams, J.C. Myricks, and John G. Claybourns.
New quarters were built along the newly-made streets; nine houses were moved to Pedro Miguel from Las Cascadas. A restaurant was opened in thebuilding which now houses the postoffice, clubhouse luncheonette, and barber shop. Some years later a dozen cottages and four two-family houses were brought from Gaillard and Empire and rebuilt in the swampy area near the lake; it is known to all old Pedro Miguelites as Frog Alley. The present fire station was not built until 1932, and the police station, now officially the Canal Zone Prison for Women and Juveniles, in 1934.
PLANS FOR NEW TOWN
In 1938 the Pedro Miguel Civic Council, an active group which is just now planning the third annual town fair and is, incidentally, the only council with junior members, asked for a relocation of the entire town. For two years they argued their case and finally, in April 1941, the Governor approved a plan to develop an area on the west bank of the Pedro Miguel river. This would involve replacement of 127 pre-1915 quarters.
A few quarters were built to house people working on Special Improvement Projects for the locks, but Pearl Harbor canceled out all plans for a new town. Pedro Miguel took on the look of an armed camp. Barrage ballons flew above the locks. An anti-dive bomber net stretched across the canal between the hills. Its effectiveness was tragically proved when a low-flying U.S. plane tangled in the dangling cables and crashed to the canal bank. Baffles of corrugated metal enclosed the locks. Smokepots burned from time to time along the main streets, too often, housewives complained, on laundry days.
Air-raid shelters were built in the hills behind the town, one of them near a neglected old cemetery which, Mrs. Ewing says "did a flourishing business during construction days." Its graves and their markers are again overgrown with grass. A USO unit was set up in the basement of the Union Church. The women of Pedro Miguel took pride in learning their service friends' birthdays. There was always a birthday cake for each one and the women saw to it that he was there to enjoy it, even if it meant going to his colonel to get him a pass.
Today Pedro Miguel's future is limited. Present plans call for its discontinuance as a Canal Zone community by the end of March of next year. The old quarters there will be torn down and only a few of the permanent buildings such as the police and fire stations will remain. Eventually people may say: "There Pedro Miguel used to be." Pedro Miguel diehards still like their town, rundown at the heels as it is; of course, they would like more modern housing. A little over a year ago 110 families -out of 184 employees-petitioned that Pedro Miguel be retained and rebuilt in its present location.
Possibly, Mrs. Ewing expresses what many of them feel: "I have always loved the town and have gone over its streets, its homes, and all they contained again and again in my memeories since I left there."
Composed by CZAngel
Last update: June 28, 2000