Excerpts from The Panama Canal Review , November 6, 1953

Anyone revisiting the Canal Zone today (November 6, 1953), after an absence of 40 years, would have considerable trouble orienting himself in the town of Gatun. Its topography has been more changed and the town itself has undergone more metamorphoses than almost any other section of the Canal Zone.

The name El Gatun, for village and river, appears on maps of Panama's colonial days. It may be derived from "gato," for cat, referring to the feline, smooth-running river; or it may come from "gatunero" or seller of smuggled meat, since Gatun was known as a place where stolen cattle were brought for sale to travelers.

Sir Henry Morgan and his men bivouacked close to Gatun, near what is now known as Navy Island, after sacking the old city of Panama nearly 300 years ago.

During colonial times and until the beginning of this century, Gatun was located on the west bank of the Chagres, about where the office and machine buildings of Gatun Damn now stand. In the mid 1800's it was described as a sleepy village of 40 or 50 cane huts, on the edge of a broad savannah. On a hill overlooking the river were ruins of an old Spanish fort.

The gold rush of 1849 and the beginning of construction of the railroad a year later woke Gatun with a jolt. Travelers, on their way upriver from Chagres paid 25 cents each for eggs and $2 a night for a hammock, exorbitant prices for those days.

When work began on the railroad, ships carried machinery, provisions, and part of the railroad force up the Chagres to Gatun. From Gatun they worked their way back through the swamp toward the railroad's Atlantic terminus on Manzanillo Island, now Cristobal-Colon.

A month after the railroad ran its first work train, on Oct. 1, 1851, as far as Gatun, a "northerner" forced two passenger jammed ships into Limon Bay. The thousand California-bound gold hunters, unable to land at Chagres and start their journey up river from there, demanded passage on the railroad. They paid 50 cents a mile and $3 per 100 pounds of baggage for the 7-mile train ride.

As the railroad tracks stretched further toward the Pacific, Gatun became just a railroad station and a river produce landing. Beside the tracks which ran on the east bank of the Chagres were a large two-story house, a cluster of smaller buildings, and "suitable outbuildings" around a flourishing garden.

But about 1880 the French Canal Company forces reached Panama. Almost overnight, thousands of prefabricated buildings were unloaded from ship after ship. Warehouses, quarters, and machine shops went up in Gatun and along the railroad line. By 1881 Gatun, re-christened Cite de Lesseps, had become the largest town in what is now the Canal Zone.

After the French virtually abandoned work on the canal, Gatun lapsed into the quiet of its pre-boom days. American forces began work in 1904 but Congress did not authorize a lock-type canal until 1906.

French engineers and the first U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission had planned to dam the Chagres at Bohio, about 17 miles from Colon. It was John F. Stevens, the Canal's second Chief Engineer, who advocated harnessing the Chagres at Gatun.

"Why not make the Chagres the servant instead of the master of the situation?" he asked.

Engineers quarreled with his selection of Gatun as the dam and lock site and declared that the rock foundation was not suitable. Stevens held firm, and declared: "If Nature had intended triple locks there she could not have arranged matters better." But it was not until the then Secretary of War, William H. Taft, brought a group of engineers to the Canal Zone they pronounced the location satisfactory - that the furor died down and work could be started.


While the family and bachelor quarters and labor barracks to house the lock and dam forces were being built, the workers and some of their families were sheltered in about 150 tents of varied shapes and sizes which stood in more or less orderly rows alongside the railroad tracks. The Labor and Quarters Department objected roundly.

Jackson Smith, its head, predicted: "On account of its being a tent city, the men will not remain there after the first pay day;" and his assistant, Lt. R.E. Wood, now Chairman of the Board of Sears, Roebuck, added: "Gatun is going to be what Mount Hope and Comacho have proven to be a sinkhole for men."

The town was built under difficulties. Before any houses could go up, a 16-foot plank road had to be laid from the railroad tracks to the foot of a steep hill and all material had to be carted over the road and up the hill. Despite the difficulties, 97 buildings had been erected by June 1907 and work had started on a commissary in a hollow opposite the present police station.


A year later Lt. Col. William L. Sibert established the headquarters of the Atlantic Division at Gatun. The building was on high land just north of the present railroad station and close to the bridge over which Bolivar Highway now crosses the tracks. A metal hitching post to which Colonel Sibert tied his horse is still in place there, a metal plaque in its base.

From the porch of the wind-swept office building, old-timers recall, there was a splendid view of Limon Bay and the harbors of Cristobal and Colon, the dredges at work in the approach channel, the locks under construction in the valley below, and beyond them the dam which was beginning to take shape.

For his residence, Colonel Sibert chose a hilltop east of the village on the road then being built from Gatun to Cristobal. Subsequent revamping of the town have leveled it off.

In the meantime rapid progress on the locks and dam meant that the railroad, which ran close beside the Chagres, had to be relocated on spoil taken out years before by the French. The river had already been diverted.


In April 1908, the old native village and its 600 inhabitants were moved to "New Town" which was located just about where the third locks excavation was dug over 30 years later. As it was rebuilt, New Town had over 110 buildings including a church and its parsonage, and about 25 stores.

Gatun was beginning to assume the look of a town. The railroad was moved from what is now the west side of the locks to its present location; the present station was begun in 1909. The same year work was started on a new two-story commissary at track level, north of the railroad station with the entrance at the bridge level. In 1909 a $25,000 clubhouse was built on a knoll next to the present dispensary.

There were schools, a two-story hotel - its front lawn bore the letters "Q.M.D." (for Quartermaster Department) in foliage plants - a post office and telephone exchange near the present intersection of Bolivar Highway and San Lorenzo Street. There was a two-story lodge hall, which also served as a church, opposite the present dispensary, and bachelor quarters, one of which was located where Sibert Lodge now stands. The dispensary was on the location of the present Gatun school.

A row of big quarters - which housed the families of such people as Maj. Chester Harding, who was in charge of locks construction and was later the Canal's second governor, William Gerig, who headed the dam forces, and other officials - stood opposite the location of the present clubhouse.


Downhill, behind the present clubhouse was Stilson's Pond, at one time the reservoir for Gatun. It was named for Joseph H. Stilson, a "down Easter" from Maine; his father, Charles, had come to Panama in 1863 to work for the Panama Railroad.

During the dry seasons, he and his family lived in a big house, built by the French Canal Company near the old village, about where the center chambers of the locks are now. Miss Louise Stilson of Colon, and two of her brothers, William and Joseph H. Stilson, Jr., until recently ticket agent for the Panama Line, were born in Gatun. Mr. Stilson, Sr., was in the hardware and lumber business in Colon.

When work began on the dam, the Stilsons moved to another large house, later destroyed by fire, on a high point of land near the present railroad. Stilson's Pond, on old pasture land, came into being when Gatun Lake was formed. When the Third Locks excavation was going on about 1940, the pond was filled with its spoil.

A few of old-time Gatun street names have survived all of the town's changes. There are still Lighthouse and Schoolhouse Roads, for instance. Telephone Road, also known as Skunk Hollow, is now San Lorenzo Street; Front Street is Bolivar Highway; Santa Rita Place was once known as Hogan's Alley or Incubator Row.


Life was simple in early Gatun, but people had fun. There was a woman's club, with Mrs. Chester Harding as its 1908 president. The men could belong to such organizations as the Inca Tribe of the Improved Order of Red Men which gave a ball and banquet on Thanksgiving Eve, 1907, with children in Indian costumes attending. The Gatun Dancing Club met regularly, and occasionally a touring company like the Edith Harris-Scott Company gave performances at the clubhouse.

Men with outdoor bents, like Charles E. Thomas, played baseball on a diamond between the end of the lock wall and the present station, in an area long since under water. Or they could hunt tigers and red mountain lions across the Chagres as Charles H. Bath, now of Margarita did frequently. On hot Sundays it was possible to borrow an engine and railroad car to ride to the beach at Chagres.

By March 1913, the population of Gatun was 8,887. Nine months later it had dropped to 5,943. The damn and spillway were finished, the locks were operating, and only clean-up work remained. An official estimate of that time gave the future population of Gatun as 160 American employees and their families.


Except for the introduction of Army troops in Gatun during World War I and some talk a few years later of abandoning the whole town, nothing much happened to Gatun until 1928, when new quarters were built for 164 local-rate families. In 1932, plans to replace most of Gatun's old housing were approved and grading for the $1,250,000 project began January 31, 1934. Buildings came down right and left. Even the old police station was demolished. Its officers set up temporary headquarters in a small frame cottage but transferred their prisoners to the sturdier jail at Cristobal.

Hardly had the new town been finished when Gatun went through another of its recurrent upheavals. The Third Locks project which had been under consideration to some extent since about 1930 finally became a reality. On August 11, 1939, Congress authorized the immediate construction of the third locks.


At Gatun this meant the building of a new triple flight, each chamber 1,200 feet long and 135 feet wide. They were to be located about half a mile east of the original flight. Gatun was to become an island between the two sets of locks and was in for some of the greatest boom days of its up-and-down history. An official estimate of the force to be required set a peak of over 9,000 workers by 1943.

In January 1941, the contracting firm of Wunderlich & Okes signed a contract for the Gatun excavation. Construction men moved in. In the bottom of the third locks cut, now a great, gaping hole, giant shovels dumped their loads into dozens of trucks which raced about on the right-hand side of the imaginary highways below, and then, when they reached the top, switched over to the left-hand drive and sedate speed limits of those days. From an observation platform, which still stands at the end of High Street, anyone could watch the ordered turmoil below.

A few months after Pearl Harbor, Samuel Rosoff of New York, won the $45,705,000 contract to build the new Gatun Locks. Wunderlich & Okes completed their contract in May 1943, but the Rosoff contract was canceled. Shipping had been diverted to the war areas, cement and steel were all but unobtainable and there was military difference of opinion on the strategic value of the third locks.


With the war, the physical appearance of Gatun changed. Solid 26-foot fences of corrugated metal surrounded the lock area. Barrage balloons were anchored overhead. Buildings or part of buildings which might be fire hazards and, burning, light the vital locks target, were torn down. Air raid shelters were built and air raid drills held. Like all other Canal towns, lights were out by 11 p.m., there were no street lights, and cars drove with blacked-out headlights.

As the war receded into the Pacific and danger to the Isthmus abated, Gatun - and the rest of the Canal Zone - went back to its normal way of life.

On March 31, 1944, just 35 years after its first clubhouse was built, Gatun's present clubhouse was inaugurated formally. It was called the "newest and most complete of any in the clubhouse system." About 40 Zonians who had lived in Gatun in 1910 were invited to the dedication. Some of them - Lawrence Adler, Roy Dwelle, Reed E. Hopkins, Sr., and Charles E. Thomas - are still on the Isthmus.


Today (November 6, 1953) Gatun is a town of about 2,160 people. Its U.S. rate commissary and clubhouse and post office are under one roof. The local-rate commissary and clubhouse are also combined, physically. There are two churches in Gatun proper, several in the local-rate section of town which is generally known as Chagres.

Gatun has an active Little Theater group and its residents think that it has more hobbyists than any area of like size. The grind of the power saw is a familiar sound. Camera enthusiasts, shell, coin, and stamp collectors, dog fanciers, and ichthyologists abound. Several well-know local artists have lived there or still do. One Gatun woman is the author of a book of children's fairy tales.

Fishermen come from near and far to its Tarpon Club, beside the Gatun spillway where there is some of the best fishing in the world. Its town barbecues are famous. They are good, old-fashioned affairs where the men dig a deep pit, and work all night turning a beef or a pig over red-hot coals to the proper degree of rich, brown crispness,

There are often community picnics or dinners at the Block House, another Gatun institution, and its active Civic Council always arranges festivities for Christmas, Hallowe'en, and Fourth of July. The Christmas decorations which are an annual feature on the locks have inspired the townspeople to similar, if less elaborate, efforts and a drive through Gatun during the holiday season is well worthwhile.

Carl Nix, who works at the Gatun Hydroelectric plant, is president of the Gatun Civic Council. Although he is a transplanted Pacific sider, he now considers Gatun the best place in the Canal Zone. "Its the friendliest town on the Isthmus," he says. "It doesn't make any difference whether you've been there ten days or ten years. You're part of Gatun."

Composed by CZAngel

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Last update: October 17, 1997
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