Diablo Heights
Excerpts from The Panama Canal Review, March 5, 1954

Although it is one of the newest of the Canal Zone's permanent towns, Diablo Heights - as far as its history is concerned may antedate almost any other existing town. Like a phoenix, it has risen from a succession of ashes, figuratively speaking.

During the middle of the sixteenth century, according to Isthmian histories, the narrow Isthmus of Panama was terrorized by bands of Cimarrones, runaway Negro slaves, who preyed upon the treasure trains on the Camino Real.

They became such a threat to life and property that the Spanish viceroy sent expeditions to clean them out. They evaded such punitive parties and in 1552 were granted recognition by the Governor of the Province. At that time they had three main villages, one of which was called Diablo. It was located near the site of present day Diablo Heights.

The saga of modern Diablo began early in the twentieth century. Marine detachments, which came to the isthmus during Panama's revolutionary period, were stationed at Diablo, as well as at Mount Hope and Empire. Later, in 1905, the Marine headquarters were established at Camp Elliott, on the west side of the Canal not far from Culebra and Empire.

Late in 1906 members of the Isthmian Canal Commission began to consider locations for labor camps. These were to be located as close as possible to the places where work was going on, or where it was expected to go on. One of these was to be at the "north end of the proposed Sosa-Corozal dam, on high ground south of Corozal as near the end of the proposed dam as possible." It was to house at least 200 laborers and was to have five barracks, a kitchen, a mess hall, and a "gallego" (gallegos were European laborers) mess hall and kitchen.

In May 1907, Chief Engineer George W. Goethals officially named the labor camp "Diablo Camp." There is local tradition that during the time it was used as a labor camp, Camp Diablo was the scene of a bloody "wine riot. "European laborers" had been issued wine with their meals on holidays. When the regular issue failed to arrive they rebelled and bombarded anyone who ventured their way with empty bottles, sticks or stones, or anything they could find to throw. As the story told by old-timers went, a padre was called to settle the fracas as he was the only man who could get near enough the enraged laborers to negotiate with them.

When the Sosa-Corozal dam project was abandoned, the six laborers' barracks at Diablo were converted to quarters for 12 American families. Diablo was connected with Corozal by road and was considered part of the town of Corozal. These old barracks-quarters were occupied until the end of the construction period.

In 1914-15 the Panama Railroad, which had run from Corozal to Panama along a route which is now Albrook Air Force base, was relocated so that it would run into Balboa. The relocation meant that part of Diablo Hill had to be cut away. The last two of the old buildings on the hill were vacated January 5, 1915.

During the 1930's there were several plans made and unmade for the Diablo site. Once called for a local-rate town there; another proposed Diablo as a new location for the oil-tank farm at La Boca. A third project, quickly rejected by the Governor, had to do with establishing a private, noncommercial flying field on the Diablo fill where spoil from the Canal channel was occasionally dumped.

It was not until July 1939, that a definite decision was made. Diablo Heights - although it was still being referred to as Camp Diablo - was selected as headquarters for the Special Engineering Division with two office buildings for the planning staff and quarters for about 280 employees. The office buildings, two 32-room bachelor quarters, twelve 12-family houses, 65 cottages, ten 10-family houses, were all to be built with funds allocated to the SIP, or Special Improvement Projects which had to do with the installation of protective devices on the Locks.

The fast-growing force, however, called for roofs over more people's heads and additional barracks and more 12-family houses were added. In the meantime Diablo Heights still had no official name. Early in 1940 there was a spritely exchange of official correspondence on the subject. Crede H. Calhoun, then Chief of the Division of Civil Affairs, added his bit: " We have a Paradise at Parasio; I see no reason why we should not have a Devil at Diablo." Governor Clarence S. Ridley suggested that the name might be Diablo Heights.

Postal people pointed out that there might be confusion with so many "Heights," Quarry Heights and Balboa Heights being names of considerably longer standing. C. A. McIllvaine produced the idea that Diablo Hill might be hispanclized into "Cerro Diablo," but the Governor held firm to his original stand. On February 4, 1940, the reborn town was designated officially as Diablo Heights.

A commissary was opened in May of that year and the post office the first of the following month. The Diablo Heights school began sessions in September 1940, with 210 pupils. Work on the clubhouse was begun in October and the building was officially inaugurated the following June.

In the meantime Diablo bachelors - and others had their meals at the 'restaurant," a long, one-story building which stood near the present intersection of Walker Avenue and Endicott Street. It soon became known as the mess hall, a designation which has been carried over - even by teen-agers who never patronized the original mess hall - to the present clubhouse. Open 24 hours a day, it was crowded at almost any hour and became a favorite place for after-party coffee and sandwiches.

Diablo Heights in those days was a lusty place. A good many of its residents were construction people; they brought construction camp customs and traditions with them. Some of them rebelled against what they considered the "stuffiness" of the Canal Zone; family brawls and neighborhood drinking parties were a constant headache to the police.

But drinking and brawling was not all they did. They worked and they worked hard. After hours they turned to making their own fun. There was a Diablo Heights Recreational Association, a local news sheet, and a dance club named the "Forty Club." Forty is short for 1940, the year when it was organized.

Early that year, the Balboa Women's Club had given several get-acquainted dances for the Diablo Heights newcomers, who soon conceived the idea of forming a club of their own.

"So," according to Mrs. Ella Wertz, now of Ancon, who was a charter member of the Forty Club, "we called a meeting for the Balboa movie theater. When we got there the building was locked and we held our meeting on the sidewalk. We gave our first dance a short time later and after that we had dances several times a month at the Tivoli or the Golf Club. Our last dance was the night before Pearl Harbor. What with black-outs and all, no one was much in the mood for parties after that."

As the war continued, shortages of ships, men, and materials required suspension of the Third Locks Construction. As a result the office building on Diablo hilltop began to empty and the population to dwindle. In 1941 its population was 2,003, but 10 years later it had dropped to 805.

There was a spurt of activity for about two years when Col. James Stratton and his force began The Isthmian Canal Studies. Again the commissary and clubhouse were crowded with newcomers and the office buildings were a bustle with activity.

Out of this period came some of the strangest buildings ever seen in the Canal Zone. Engineers studying housing for the force which would be needed if third locks or a sea-level canal were built brought to the Isthmus several prefabricated aluminum houses. Other permanent houses of new types -the idea was that a pair of permanent houses was to have between them a temporary house during the crowded construction period, the temporary quarters to be removed when they were no longer needed - went up in Diablo. All of these are still standing in Diablo Heights and always baffle newcomers.

Diablo Heights, in this incarnation, however, was never the uproarious place it had been during Third Locks and SIP days, and it lapsed into a near coma when the sea-level canal studies were finished in 1948. During the subsequent comatose period there was so much excess housing in Diablo Heights that the Canal was able to offer 12-family accommodations to servicemen and their families. In 1950-51 there were 207 service families - most of them Army - living at Diablo Heights. They were all required to vacate the quarters when demolition of the 12-family houses began.

When the housing replacement program was started in 1950 Diablo Heights, with its undeveloped sections, was a logical choice for some of the new construction. New streets were laid out, hilltops bulldozed off, and quarters began to go up. The first on-the-ground masonry quarters were built there. Today (March 5, 1954) more new quarters are under construction where the 12-families once stood, and the town's streets are again being rearranged.

Today (March 5, 1954) the population of Diablo Heights is again on the upswing. Units of the Comptroller's Office have moved into the three-story office building; the payroll branch has been at Diablo Heights for a number of years. From a low of 805 in 1951, the figure has increased until last March it was 986 - almost equally divided between men, women, and children.

There is no church in Diablo Heights. The Camera Club, which occupies an attractive, well-kept building on Hains Street, is the only organization housed there. The Diablo Heights Dispensary was closed some time ago, and the fire station last year. Police and fire protection is furnished from the Balboa Central Stations. Diablo's Civic Council is one-third of the tri-partite Pacific Civic Council.

Except for its office buildings Diablo Heights is a residential suburb. Its residents are clerks and pilots, teachers and engineers, electricians and boilermakers, carpenters and office workers. But almost without exception all of the "blue collar people" work elsewhere; the small Dredging Division unit near the Canal bank has the only craftsmen regularly employed in town.

Diablo Heights is cool, drowsy, and, except for the motorcycle enthusiasts who make the nights hideous with their noise, quiet. The clubhouse is open all night and early risers like customs inspectors or railroad men due for an early call get breakfast there, but most of its house lights are out well before 11 o'clock. The days of wine riots of the early 1900's and the lusty brawls of the 1940's are behind it - for a while at least.

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Last update: January 26, 1998
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