Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

First Impressions of the Canal Zone in 1912

The Royal Mail steamer on which we have journeyed to Colon anchors alongside the Company's own wharf. For anyone who has the interests of the Old Country at heart, a British wharf as an outstanding feature of this important harbour, on the threshold of the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, is a cheery sight. A merchantman flying the French colours, a steamer on which a German band is playing "In the Shadows," and one of the fine banana-and-passenger ships of the United Fruit Company are the British liner's near neighbours in the big docks.

In a small bay lie a fleet of plebeian steamboats, which make omnibus journeys to the little trading centres on the neighbouring coast, and a shoal of Indian canoes or "cayukas" as they are called. Coloured folk are swarming aboard one of the steamboats, whose chimney is belching forth smoke. Indians and coloured folk are trafficking in the cocoanuts, ivory nuts, and bananas with which the cayukas are laden.

Market place in Colon.


Colon strikes us as being in the growing stage between a village and a provincial town. On the quayside of the city, and a few hundred yards from our landing-stage, there is a square bedecked with clumps of the variegated shrubs called "crotons" and with an array of majestic palms, which carry their plume-like heads high in the air. The main street, which is neither broad nor narrow, runs past this square on its way to the railway-station; it is bordered on one side by moderate-sized shops, on the other by an open-air market, office bungalows, and ware-houses mostly of the shed type. At the back of the main street lies a network of little shops and houses. Verandas and dilapidation are the chief characteristics of the buildings. Fascinating as is the heart of the little city, we find it a welcome relief to emerge from a stifling atmosphere on to the seaside parade. In the fresh-air neighbourhood of the sea-front are the commodious bungalows where live the officials who represent foreign interests, together with a few of the superior class Panamanians. Having sampled the best accommodation that Colon can offer her visitors, we are pleased to find a first-class hotel nearing completion in this neighbourhood.

The principal needs of the inhabitants seem to be fruit, iced drinks, shiny boots, and lottery tickets. Amidst the attractive display in the numerous open-fronted fruit-shops are choice tropical products, some of which we recognize as relations of the expensive luxuries to be seen in the very superior fruiterers' establishments at home; but in spite of the aristocratic note struck by pines, avocado pears, and suchlike southern dainties, the general appearance of the Colon fruit-shops reminds us of a costermonger's barrow, which has been stocked from Covent Garden by some smart "Bill," who has the showman's gift for arranging an exhibition. Apple-chains seem to be the favourite means of decoration. Bananas and plantains, as we are not at all surprised to find, are the commonest of the products on sale; but the great "hands" of them, that are hanging from roofs and walls, are a somewhat novel sight. The peanut stove, which is so often to be seen on the footpath just outside the fruit-shops, makes us think of the familiar street scene at home, which is provided by the roast-chestnut seller. The whistle of the peanut stove, as it lets off steam, is quite a musical street cry.

The swinging of many a wicket gives us peep after peep into well-patronized bars, which are gaily adorned with flags and furnished cafe-fashion with little tables. Hawkers compete with the bars for the custom of the thirsty populace. The brightly painted handcarts which they take about the streets are of the kind commonly used by Italian vendors of ice-cream. These travelling bars are equipped with a few glasses, a bucket of water, a dishcloth, and numerous bottles containing very highly coloured liquids. The mottoes which straggle above the shelves suggest that the Panamanians have not a very keen sense of humour—as, for instance, "We trust in God." The barrow bearing this device reminds me of the native cook at a planter's bungalow in Malay, who wrote in letters of icing, "Prepare to meet thy God" on the cake which he made as a Christmas present for his master.

In almost every street a lottery-ticket hawker, usually a woman, has a pitch. The lottery is a regular weekly excitement; in the interests of fair play the drawing of the numbers is done by a little daughter of the people.

The "people," or masses, include the majority of folk born on the Isthmus outside the bounds of the Canal Zone; they are of mixed descent, the principal contributors to the stock being Spaniards, Indians, and Negroes. Pure-bred, or nearly pure-bred, Spaniards make up the small aristocratic class of Panamanians.

Although, geographically speaking, Colon is situated in the Canal Zone, politically it is Panamanian territory. But America has a reserved quarter in the city, and also enjoys the right to superintend the government of the republican city as regards matters—such as sanitation, or the maintenance of order during any political crisis—which have any bearing on the interests of the Canal. The same arrangement holds good for the republican city of Panama.

In Cristobal, the American quarter of Colon, we get a first peep at the mosquito-proof houses which have helped even more than mammoth machinery in the making of the Canal. In appearance they closely resemble a meat safe. Exceptional utility could alone excuse the exceptional ugliness of these human habitations. Only a thoroughly practical boss," with the dogged determination to carry through a gigantic job at any cost, and keenly alive to the fact that the prime factor of success in such an undertaking is a healthy labour force, could have been sufficiently inspired by courage to erect such hideous buildings for the housing of all his employees, from the commanding officer to the negro navvy. The swarms of mosquitoes which inoculated the French employees in the Isthmus with yellow fever and malaria were as powerful an agent as financial mismanagement in wrecking the Franco-Panamanian Canal enterprise. When the Americans took over the work, they at once organized a Sanitary Revolution. The rest of the civilized world scoffed, or said, "Very plucky, but it can't be done," for the Canal Zone was then a renowned death-trap. But Jonathan Boss had learnt much about the wily and pestilential mosquito during his war with Cuba. Convinced that this insect was his most fearsome foe in the Isthmus, he lost no time in waging war on the mosquito throughout the Canal route. By tactics such as are employed in isolating valuable property within the zone of a great fire, the little beasts' means of communication with the immediate region of the Canal route were cut off; mosquitoes cannot fly far without a rest, so around places from which it was particularly desirable to keep them away, the Bush was cleared up to boundaries that could be relied on to pull them up on their journey from the interior before they could get a chance of doing mischief among the Canal-makers. Drastic measures were taken to exterminate mosquitoes throughout the region where the Canal-makers were to work and live. All the houses in Colon and Panama were thoroughly disinfected. Swamps, pools, and suchlike breeding-places beloved by mosquitoes were drained or filled up, rivers and streams were coated with oil. And all the houses erected for the working force were mosquito-proofed with wire gauze. The work of sanitation included the establishment of hospitals for the care of the sick and wounded. Also, with a view to securing and maintaining better health conditions in the cities of Colon and Panama and along the line of the Canal, numerous municipal improvements were undertaken, such as the construction of reservoirs for furnishing a good water-supply, sewerage, pavements, and a system of roads. Owing to the skilful and persevering efforts of the Department of Sanitation of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the Panama Canal region was transformed into a health resort for the carrying out of the "Big Job."

Steam shovel


As we leave Colon by train to journey across the Isthmus, we say to ourselves that now we are going to see the Canal. We are in the parlour car, whose every comfortable arm-chair is a window-seat. Next to our compartment is the hospital car; through the open doors of the corridor we get a good view of its spacious, well-equipped interior. There are no invalids on board, but nurses and ambulances are ready for duty, and the train will stop at every station en route  to Panama in case there should be any patients for the hospital in that city—accidents will happed, in the carrying out of any big engineering job, but in spite of the many dangers that threaten the Canal-makers there have been remarkably few catastrophes since the Americans took over the work.

A few minutes after leaving Colon we are in the Bush. It seems as though we must be dreaming, so curious is the contrast between the highly-civilized train in which we are travelling and the wild luxuriance of the country through which it is carrying us. Vainly we search for a sign of the Canal amidst a procession of bright-hued flowers, masses of giant leaves, and creeper-draped shrubs.

Presently our attention is beguiled from the view outside by a negro in smart uniform, who is walking the train with refreshments; his business-like manner suggests an American training, and there is a very pronounced American accent in the voice that invites us to buy "candies." We are hesitating over a purchase with the object of studying the salesman when the train pulls up, and we hear voices calling "Gatun." Promise of new excitements makes us instantly turn our faces to the window. "Gatun"—now we shall certainly get a good view of the Canal, we think. We see one negro woman balancing on her head a basket piled up with clean clothes; another squatting on the ground alongside some bananas; and some shanties on which are written in rickety letters "Billiard Saloon," "Barber's Shop," "Cool Drinks." Our eyes travel uphill to a little town—it is typical of the mosquito-proofed centres of civilization that have sprung up at close intervals all along the Canal line. We are at a right distance away for getting a clear and comprehensive view of the bungalows. They are all standing on stilts; the large ones, when viewed separately, are examples of the meat-safe style, the little ones remind us of dog-kennels and fowl-houses. As a group, the buildings make us think of a menagerie.

But where are the great locks and mountainous dam with which everyone associates the name of Gatun? We look out of the windows on the opposite side of the carriage, but the only sign we can see of such wonder-works is a stretch of massive concrete wall, which rises but a few feet above the ground.

From the clearing at Gatun the train plunges into forest lands. We know that from Colon to Gatun we were being hauled up an incline; and we can see that we are in the midst of mountains. How is it that this high land is very swampy, when the low land through which we passed was quite dry? For mile after mile swamps are a feature of the landscape; and there are large tracts of forest that seem doomed to be submerged—the undergrowth is in the last stage of drowning, fast withering little trees are standing trunk-deep in water, among the giant trees there is many an ashen skeleton.



From the half-way station the train moves out backwards, as though it was going to return to Colon; soon we are discovering that it has manoeuvred its way to a station on the opposite side of the valley, whence it once more travels onwards. We get a peep at an embankment of red-gold sand, which gags the mouth of a ravine, and at a magnificent panorama of mountains. Then the train plunges once more into dense tropical jungle. A few miles ahead we have an experience that is in the nature of an adventure—on a rough-timber bridge, that has every appearance of having been knocked together for temporary service, the train crosses a wide and very deep ravine. Although it very obligingly crawls across the chasm, we only have time for a sweepeing glance at the fastinating scenes which have suddenly come into view. To the right, the chasm is blocked by two pairs of giant, fortress-like gates, which form the back of a huge, double well. Massive side-walls and a dividing wall of concrete reach from the well floor to the mountain summit. On the steel frames of the two pairs of gates which are being erected at the front of the well numbers of men are at work; they look like tiny dwarfs. To the left, we get a long vista of the ravine, in whose depth little people, toy trains, and model machines seem to be playing pranks with dirt.

A little way beyond the bridge we meet a train-load of labourers; the jovial crowd of Spaniards, Italians, and coloured folk with which the open cars are packed might well be a beanfeast party. A few minutes later there dashes past us a long train of trucks, which are laden with masses of rock and loose dirt. And shortly after that diversion we are alighting at Panama station.

You are disappointed—in crossing the Isthmus you expected to see the Canal from beginning to end of its course; you are thinking that, although the journey through the Bush has been a novel entertainment, it has not afforded you a single glipmpse of the channel of the famous waterway, and that the one good view it revealed to you of some gigantic locks, which did not seem to have any connection with an artificial channel, cannot persuade you to believe that all the towns you have passed are peopled with Canal-makers.

You will be very surprised to hear that you have seen a great deal of the two most wonderful sections of the Panama Canal—the Gatun Lake and the Culebra Cut. Those mysterious swamps among the highlands were the Gatun Lake in the making by the gradual rise of the barricaded River Chagres. That great chasm over which the train passed was not, as it looked, a natural ravine, but the big ditch, known as the Culebra Cut, which has been hewn through the giant bodies of rocky mountains.

The train journey across the Isthmus only takes about two hours. Whilst the Canal is in course of construction, we shall make this journey at least half a dozen times, and each time discover something of new interest. And excursions within the actual channel of the Canal, such as we are going to indulge in, will emphasize the attractions of a train trip that can afford numerous views of country which will soon be submerged, of towns that will speedily be cleared away from the track of the rising waters, and of scenes in the everyday life of the Canal-makers, most of whom will shortly be going back to the different parts of the world whence they came to work on the big job."