Gamboa
From The Panama Canal Company Review, September 4, 1953

Until Gamboa became the headquarters of the Dredging Division in the fall of 1936, it had, as a town played no important part in Isthmian history, either during the colonial period or the time of the buccaneers. It was not even a railroad stop until about 1911.

There was no Gamboa during the day of the Spanish colonists. In its approximate location was a small river town called Santa Cruz which historians believe may have been a place for discharging boats during low stages of the river. Three miles up the Chagres was Las Cruces where trans-Isthmian travelers of those days changed from boats to burros on their way to Panama City.

When the Panama Railroad was built in 1855 its route followed the west bank of the Chagres through Matachin and Gorgona, nearly opposite present Gamboa, to the river bridge at Barbacoas, 16 miles south of Gatun. No town at the present location of Gamboa was shown on maps of those days.

As a construction point for Canal work Gamboa (which means a tree of the quince family) first came into prominence when the French Canal Company began excavation.

French plans for a sea level canal called for a dam across the Chagres River at Gamboa to retain the Chagres in a large lake while a channel known as the east diversion, carried its waters to the Atlantic.

In 1887 when the French Company switched to a temporary lock canal, they continued planning for a Gamboa dam. This would have supplied water for the locks which were to be built at Bohio Soldado about 8 miles south of Gatun on the Atlantic side and between La Boca and Paraiso on the Pacific side.

Over the Chagres at Gamboa the French built a bridge over which materials were hauled across the river and to the nearby spillway. The bridge was about 365 feet long, the north span being a girder about 58 feet long. In a flood in 1890 this girder was carried away and the pier on which the channel end of it rested was tipped. When work on the Panama Railroad relocation bridge at Gamboa was started in 1907, the pier was righted and the two truss spans used for construction purposes.

Flood control for the Chagres, now provided for by Madden Dam, was an early concern of the American Canal forces when they took over the Canal rights in 1904. A large field party was sent to look into the possibility of building a dam was abandoned when the lock type canal was decided upon, and plans were made to form Gatun Lake by damming the Chagres at Gatun.

With a lock type canal some provision had to be made to prevent Culebra, now Gaillard, Cut from flooding from freshets in the Chagres River. In 1908 an earth dike was built across the northern end of the Cut, approximately opposite the present location of the penitentiary. During the 1906 flood, the river had risen to 81.6 feet at Gamboa, but this was before the dike was built and before the Bas Obispo (about 10 miles north of Pedro Miguel) section of the Cut was completed.

Railroad tracks ran across the top of the dike, originally 73 feet above sea level. When Gatun Lake began to fill, in 1912, the top of the dike was raised and strengthened.

On October 10, 1913, the dike was blown up and the lake water permitted to rush into the partly filled Cut. Details of the dynamiting have been told many times: How President Woodrow Wilson, in his White House office, depressed a lever, relaying electric current over land telegraph to Galveston and submarine cable across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to trip a weight attached to the handle of a switch in the Canal Zone. the weight threw the switch and set off the blast. Half an hour or so after the dike was broken a cayuco made the passage through, followed by three launches.

By this time a few buildings were beginning to appear in Gamboa, where there had been little except the old bridge and a few houses left by the French which, presumably, had been occupied by their hydrographic forces and the dam workers. A 1906 report mentions repairs made to a fluviograph tower and 19 buildings used as quarters.

In July, 1911, a Canal Commission committee recommended that a town site of Gamboa be located on the first dump north of the Gamboa bridge, to house people in the seven mile stretch between Tabernilla and Gorgona who would have to move as the lake waters rose. At this time some 700 people lived in what is now Gamboa. Of these 203 were "Silver" roll employees, the remainder probably their families. No Americans are shown on the census of that date.

In 1914 Gamboa's population was down to 173. There was a police station, a four-family house which had been brought from Empire, a two-family house from Culebra. Bachelors lived in old box cars and south of the bridge more box cars housed married and bachelor "Silver" employees from the gravel plant. A married American employee had quarters in an old railroad tower. The commissary was made up of three box cars, according to Emmet Zemer, who was Gamboa commissary manager, and the town's fireman, for eight months in 1916. The commissary's main function was to provide provender for Dredging Division personnel working in the nearby section of the Canal. Each day anywhere from one to three box cars of cold storage and staples were pulled into the spur to be unloaded before dawn and reloaded into launches which ferried supplies to the floating equipment.

The mosquitoes were terrific. Mr. Zemer had malaria twice in his eight Gamboa months. Because of the high malaria rate the Chief Health Officer recommended no more building at "Gamboa Cabin," the section around the railroad station. Instead, he said, future building should be on the south side of the Chagres. This was the beginning of an argument which lasted many years.

Early in 1917 a building sites committee was appointed to look into the advisability of moving what quarters there were in Gamboa across the Chagres River, to the general vicinity of the gravel plant. Col. Jay J. Morrow, later Governor but then Engineer of Maintenance, objected to the change and three months later the committee went along with him. One objection, they said, was that if the railroad station were moved south of the bridge at least two coaches of every train would stop on the bridge, jeopardizing passengers who might get on or off.

During all this time, Dredging Division headquarters were located at Paraiso. That they were ever moved to Gamboa was due largely to an accident and to the persistence of one man, the then Dredging Division Superintendent, John G. Claybourn.

On July 30, 1923, Mr. Claybourn wrote a memorandum to Governor Morrow, recommending that the Dredging Division shops be moved from Paraiso to Gamboa for two reason: "First, as a safeguard, in case of obstruction of the Cut by slides, the logical location being between any possible dredging and the dumps in Gatun Lake; second, increased Canal traffic, as well as the size of ships, introduces a serious menace to our fleet when moored in the comparatively narrow confines of the Cut at Paraiso."

For almost 13 years, Mr. Claybourn urged successive governors to consider the transfer to Gamboa. The north-of-the bridge and south-of-the bridge argument was renewed. In 1928, the outgoing Governor M.L. Walker, passed the problem on to Col. Harry Burgess, soon to succeed him, saying that the transfer "would be so expensive that it is futile to consider it at present - I do not consider it advisable to include it in next year's estimates so you will have to wrestle with it later."

Several newspaper accounts of the proposed change appeared in the next few years but it was not until April 1933, that Governor J. L. Schley appointed a three-man board to look into the question of a Gamboa town site. They reported that the move was feasible and would cost about $2,780,000 spread over a three year, period. That year there were only 252 residents, 10 of them Americans, living in Gamboa.

The first Dredging Division families moved to Gamboa in September 1936. From 280 people in June 1936, the population jumped to 1,419 in a year, and 2,132 in June 1938. Gamboa's peak population was 3,853 in 1942.

Today (September 4, 1953) Gamboa is somewhat changed. The combined population of Gamboa and the local-rate settlement which has been know since 1948 as Santa Cruz, was 3,353 last June.

Gambodians like the wide streets, named for Canal officials - Morrow and Goethals Boulevards - or old Dredging Div. men - Pratt Parkway, for instance.. they think the Gamboa stars shine brighter at night; Gamboa breezes blow cooler; Gamboa grass is greener!

Composed by CZAngel


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Last update: October 17, 1997
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