Lloyd Gilkey, Who Came To The Isthmus in 1905
from The Panama American -- 1939

Development of some of the towns in the Canal Zone and the  abandonment and disappearance of others has always been of interest to Americans  who arrived on the Zone sometime after the Canal was opened.  A description of the towns "along the line" between 1907 and 1914 follows as told by Lloyd Gilkey, retired Canal   employee who now is a lecturer for the  Panama Canal and for tourist parties on several steamship lines.

Mr. Gilkey worked for the Mississippi River Commission until he was  transferred to the Isthmian Canal Commission July 19, 1905.  He checked property and then was transferred to La Boca (now Balboa) as timekeeper  for the La Boca division.   He was later chief timekeeper for the  Cristobal Division.  He retired from the Panama Canal several years ago  after twenty five years service.

Cristobal was, of course, the northernmost town on the Isthmus.  In the  early days forces stationed here were occupied mainly with the dredging of theharbor and the approaches to the locks.  Large quantities of  stone produced from the quarries at Porto Bello, which were also under  the jurisdiction of the I.C.C., and of sand obtained from the region  around Nombre de Dios were brought in here.   Four tugs and about fifty  barges were used for this work which at times involved the handling of  1,000 to 1,200 yards of crushed stone or sand daily.

The next town of any importance south of Cristobal was Gatun.  Work   here  was largely concerned with the construction of the locks and the   building of  the dam and spillway.  Spoil taken from the lock   excavations and from the Canal prism was piped by means of centrifugal dredges to fill the core of Gatun Dam.   Bohio, next town south of Gatun of any size handled the Canal excavation  in the lake area.  Some of the excavating was done by commission  dredges and some by contract.  This was about the only contract excavation made.

The town, which is now underwater, was at the end of the sea-level excavation by the French and was to have been the site of their first set of locks when they decided to make the canal of the lock type.    The  other locks on the Pacific end were to have been located between Ancon  and Sosa hills, about where the Balboa flats are now.

The French route for the Canal involved so much excavation that theAmerican commission on taking charge decided to throw away about $700,000 worth of work to save what was estimated at about $3,000,000. In addition location of the Pacific locks further inland served as a protection against attack by long  range guns from the Pacific, if the  Canal should be attacked.


The next town south of any size was Gorgona.  This was the base for the mechanical division.  At one time more than 2,000 men were employed here.  The shops were the repair point for all rolling stock on the Panama Railroad until the establishment of the Mechanical Division in Balboa.  The shop site and more than half of the town is now under water and the rest overgrown with jungle.

Opposite Gorgona was the old town of Gamboa.  It was another camp base whose only outstanding feature was a bridge across the Chagres.

Next along the line were Bas and Haut Obispo - low and high bishop. These towns remained almost exactly as they were when taken over from the French and served mainly as railroad camps.  At Bas Obispo the first Marine Camp was established.  it was called Camp Elliot and its commanding officer in 1911-12 was a lieutenant named Smedly Butler who later attained fame as a general.  A story current among Canal old timers is to the effect that Butler picked out for a Marine Corps camp the best building site on Ancon Hill.  The site was reserved for the camp for many years and consequently when it came time to chose a site for the Balboa Administration building the second best place had to be selected.

Las Cascadas, next town south, was a division point for handling locomotives and rolling stock for the excavation of the Cut.  It was a large town, having at one time a population of more than 5,000.  It had a few shops, and a round house but was important principally because it was the base for survey parties.  A man named Zook and another named Zant were in charge of these survey parties.  George Green, now head of the Municipal Division was one of the men employed here. The town is now abandoned and all of the buildings are torn down.  For a time during the 1920’s it was a Seventh Day Adventist settlement before the Adventists moved into their present location in Balboa.

Empire, south of Las Cascadas was the headquarters for the central division.  Some shops were located here for use in overhauling the steamshovels used in the cut.   There was also running out of Empire an air compression line which piped air up and down the cut.  The town was also base for the division engineers.  Headquarters for the Canal auditing system which was headed first by H.L. Strunz and later byH.A.A. Smith and others were located here.  Old timers say that Empire was aesthetic; she went in for high art. Among her women were some whose water color sketches were famous and her musical circle was celebrated throughout the Isthmus.

Culebra, south of Empire, was the headquarters for General Goethals and the Isthmian Canal Commission.  Here were the offices of the office engineer and the chief quartermaster, now known as head of the supply division.

South of Culebra along the line was Rio Grande, site of the first reservoir which supplied water to the Pacific Side and Panama.  When the first water was turned into Panama City and sprouted from the hydrants, seven or eight hundred stark naked youngsters appeared on the streets and had the time of their young lives. Nothing is left of the town except the reservoir which was drained by a spillway just before the signal station on the west bank of the Canal directly across from the mooring station.  The spillway was done away with in 1910.

Later water for Panama City and the Pacific side was taken from Miraflores Lake, but it was found that the saline content of the water was so high, due to lockages into the lake that it was unpalatable. Consequently a pipe line was built from the Chagres river to the filtration plant and the problem was solved.


Nearer the Pacific Side from Rio Grande was Paraiso which was a steam shovel and general construction dump until the water was let into Gatun Lake.  Then it became the headquarters of the Dredging Division which was first under the direction of John MacFarlane and was later headed by John G. Clayboune.

The Dredging division headquarters remained in Paraiso until the completion of the town of Gamboa.  Reasons for moving were three: first the housing was antiquated, inadequate and unsatisfactory and the time was fast approaching when all the houses would have to be entirely replaced; second, it was considered important that the floating craft be moved away from the entrance of the Pedro Miguel locks; and third it was considered desirable to move the floating craft north of the slide area so that it would not be necessary to lock bare loads of spoil through toward the Pacific to a dumping ground.   The present town of Gamboa, for  which Mr. Claybourn worked for fifteen years, is rightly called "Claybourn’s Dream" and when its landscaping is completed will be one of the most beautiful spots on the Isthmus.

Pedro Miguel was important mainly because it is the site of the first of the Pacific locks, and lock headquarters were located here.  South of  the town, between Red Tank and the tunnel through Miraflores hill, is one of the heaviest dumps on the Isthmus.   This is a fifteen foot fill which was created from material from the cut and locks excavation. Miraflores was a small town at first, being mainly a camp for lock construction.  A temporary insane asylum was located here at one time, after the institution had been moved from San Juan Hill in Ancon, and before the completion of the Institution at Corozal.

Corozal was a railroad base.  It was taken over from the French in 1904 and occupied by the Canal for the next eleven years until it was turned over to the army in November, 1915.  The largest mess and bachelor quarters on the Pacific side were at Corozal.  In the very early days before the Canal headquarters were moved from the De Lesseps building on Central plaza (now the Panama post office building) the workers lived and ate at Corozal, commuting back and forth to Panama City by work train.  Corozal was also the headquarters of the Pacific division which was headed by the only civilian engineer in an army organization.


The Pacific end of the Canal was not particularly important at first. The Dredging Division under W. G. Comber had its headquarters at La Boca until it was absorbed by the Pacific Division in 1907.  Comber’s principal assistant was J. MacFarlane who became superintendent of dredging when Mr. Comber took charge of the dredging division after the water was let into the cut.

Balboa began to be important in 1911 and 1912 when the construction of the present Administration building was begun and the town itself began to be developed.  All of the Balboa flats are filled land, with a base of spoil taken from the harbor by a pipe line dredge.  On top of this spoil is packed several feet of dirt from Diablo Hill.   At one time there was a drainage canal running right through the town and emptying into the sea approximately in line with the present Masonic building.

Ancon was always primarily a residence district.  It was important mainly for the hospital and the courts.  A two family side by side one story house next door to the home of the superintendent of Gorgas Hospital is the only remaining portion of the old French Hospital building.

The American Insane Asylum occupied the buildings on the present San Juan Hill in 1907 or 1908.  It was very near the old graveyard on Ridge Road which was abandoned in 1915.  One of the early wards of the American hospital was on Gorgas Road, on the site of the present children’s ward.  This was known as the St. Louis Ward and the first episcopal services on the Pacific Side were held here. The malaria and yellow fever wards were further down the hill toward the present dispensary, approximately on the site of the present nurse quarters.

The present Ancon courthouse was built to be the Governor's residence in the 1920s, but because of the cost of its upkeep and considerable criticism it was converted into an office building.  It was never the headquarters for the Canal organization but was used by the land office and other activities under the Bureau of Civil Affairs.

Presented by CZBrats
December 4, 1998

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