The Chagres River

The Rio Chagres, one of the most important rivers in the world, remains relatively unknown in spite of its colorful history and current global significance. It is the river that has transported the wealth of nations in precious metals, jewels, commodities and manufactured goods, the river that has witnessed an extraordinary level of man's greed, agony and ingenuity, and the only river in the world that empties into two oceans.

While digging the Panama Canal, the Rio Chagres was flooded to create the man-made Gatun Lake and numerous small islands that were previously hilltops. Barro Colorado is one of the larger islands (3700 acres) whose protection is administered by The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This area of tropical forest is home to almost 400 species of birds, and more plant species than can be found in all of Europe.

Birds are particularly noteworthy here. On its best known trail, the Pipeline Road,the Audubon Society has for 19 years held consecutive world records in the annual census it organizes. 525 species of birds were recorded on just one day in 1996. Among the outstanding ones are the endangered crested eagle, the spectacular rofous-ventaul, ground- cuckoo, and colorful tragons like violaceous tragons.

Among the mammals you will find jaguar, the white-tailed deer, qeques, raccoons and herds of wild pigs. Various species of monkeys occupy the forest canopy, including the small mono titi and the evasive jujana.

Reptiles such as the babilus, the warty snake, amphibians such as the common toad or the salamander and fresh water fishes like the sabalo, pipon or the barbudo are to be found here.

Chagres National Park was established to protect the Rio Chagres watershed which supplies 80% of the water needed to operate the Panama Canal as well as the consumption requirements of the city. It is the wildest of the reserves near to the canal and this area is home to many animals including jaguars and ocelots. El Camino Real, the trail used by the Spanish to transport gold, passes through the park and it is possible to retrace the path in a four day hike. However, local people say that the path is haunted by the slaves who built the trail and transported the undreamed of wealth of the Incas and the Aztecs across the Chagres valley.

Chagres National Park is one of the largest national parks in Panama with approximately 130,000 hectares. It covers the most important hydrographic regions of the Panama Canal watershed including the Chagres, Pequeni and Boqueron rivers, which provide water to the Panama canal operations and potable water for the cities of Panama and Colon.

The Chagres park was created by decree in 1985 as part the protection program for the hydrographic basin of the Panama Canal. It possesses a variety of life zones including the tropical montane rain forest, rain forest, tropical premontane and tropical rain forest.

Because of variation in soil and elevation, Chagres National Park contains an enormous diversity of plants, with many endemic and South American species.

River of Gold

The Chagres has never gone anywhere, but it has seen just about everything. It has seen more gold, for instance, than have all the other rivers of the world combined. Its valley contained so much gold at the beginning of its recorded history that the Spaniards called Panama "Castilla del Oro" -- Golden Castile. By the time this supply had run low, Peru was discovered; then across the Chagres the Dons drained the fabulous wealth of the Incas, which was enough to match all the gold in the commercial channels of Europe. Later the Yankees shipped out via the isthmus virtually all the gold that was mined in the California days of '49, which amounted to more than a billion and a half dollars. Today the Chagres carries the bulk of the world's trade goods -- an even more potent form of gold -- across the hump from one to the other of the two great oceans.

Our river's first sights were volcanic eruptions, for it was born during an era of terrestrial upheaval. Soon afterward it watched the migrations of Mongoloid tribes into South America. Aeons later, its waters bore the landing boats, and its shores felt the slippered feet, of gentle Christopher Columbus, as he probed the eastern shore of the American continent in search of his chimerical Westward Passage to the Orient. It saw Vasco Nzqez de Balboa as he slashed through the jungle, his brain afire with stories of a land to southward where the paupers wore breastplates of gold, and it mirrored his image as he finally gained a mountaintop above its banks for the first white man's sight of the blue Pacific. Soon afterward its banks felt the treat of the lesser Conquistadors, as they walked first in wonderment and then in crazy lust when the natives showed them their dazzling piles of yellow metal.

Its crocodiles churned the water to foam as they fought over the bodies, brown ones and white ones, cast there after the battles between invader and native patriot. Its banks guided Francis Drake and Henry Morgan as they led their Pyrate bands through the jungle to fall upon the bulging treasure houses of the Spanish king. Its waters reflected to the night sky of the New World the strange voodoo rites, the bloody orgies of darkest Africa, brought across the Atlantic in hellish slave ships by unwilling immigrants.

It carried the bungo boats in which adventurers from young America and old Europe raced toward California and her gold, and closed quietly over the bodies of those who drew too late. It watched the labor and the life of colonies of chinese, Hindustanis, and Malaysians, with their strange dress and their strange rites of obeisance to Oriental gods, who had been lured to the Chagres country with promises of a month's wages every day; then it saw them die, almost to a man, of jungle fevers. Finally, after thousands of lives and millions of dollars had been spent, its banks quivered with the passing of the world's first transcontinental railroad trains.

It looked on while Count Ferdinand de Lesseps spent money and lives until he had almost bankrupted the French nation without achieving an interocean waterway. Then, as Panama broke her political ties with Colombia, our river furnished a face-saving obstacle to the troops who had come from Bogota to quell the revolt. (The army had to sail away homeward, unbloodied, in a comic-opera denouement: the soldiers could not persuade a hard-headed Yanqui passenger agent to extend credit for their railroad tickets to the proposed scene of battle.)

It helped (and hindered) the American sanitary workers as they transformed the isthmus from the vilest pesthole in the world to the garden spot of the tropics. Then, when George Washington Goethals had finished his locks and ditches and dams, the Chagres sent its waters plunging in, to grow into the lakes, to surge through the turbines, to fills the locks, to raise and lower ships, to shrink the world by half.

The Chagres is the world's most valuable river.

It is, whether you base your evaluation on a narrow dollars-and-cents tabulation of material services rendered, either in the total of ships and cargoes carried or in time and money saved by obviating the voyage around Cape Horn, or whether you weigh its broader, higher import as a prime weapon in the race-old, unending battle to make of the the world a better place to live.

Its value by either scale rests on the fact that it is the river that operates the Panama Canal -- feeds it lakes, fills its locks, generates its electric power, even furnishes its army of workers with their drinking water and with excellent game fishing for their holiday sport. It is the bloodstream of the world's greatest transport and communications center and the fount of power for the greatest machine that mankind ever built.

from: The Chagres: River of Westward Passage
by John Easter Minter
Rinehart & Company, New York, 1948