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 uniforms.

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 America.

Presented by CZBrats
December 21, 1998
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