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Aspinwall City from the Lighthouse

Crossing the Isthmus

History of Colon, Panama.

For a city that is only about 150 years old, Colon has had a very colorful history, full of human interest, and has played a very important part in the history of Panama, the Panama Railroad, and the Panama Canal.

CColon was founded as a result of the California gold rush. The city began in 1850 as the starting point of a railroad that carried people across the Isthmus of Panama. These people came by ship from the eastern United States, crossed the isthmus, then continued by ship to California. The town was first named Aspinwall after one of the railroad's builders. In 1890, the name was changed to Colon, the Spanish word for Columbus, to honor Christopher Columbus.

Cristopher Columbus

Mangrove swamp

Cristopher Columbus
at Belen

Discovered by Cristopher Columbus

It did not share with Panama the life of the Spanish domination and aggression. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World in the year 1502, touched several points on the isthmus. He visited Navy Bay which encircles the island of Manzanillo on which the city of Colon is located. Covering the entire island was a dense growth of the water-loving mangrove and poisonous manzanillo trees, growing out of the swamp of un-fathomable ooze which was the habitat of alligators and other huge reptiles. The air was filled with poisonous insects and heavy with the unhealthy vapors rising from the marshes.

Columbus, stout-hearted and unafraid, quailed at the sight of this island, and did not consider effecting a settlement at this point, sailing away to a point fifty miles west of Colon and made a settlement which he named Belen. Here he left his brother Diego with one hundred men. The settlers remained there for some time and the sad story of the privations, hardships, and the final destruction of the entire group by the Indians, is one of the most pathetic in the history of early Colonization.


San Lorenzo

The Panama Railroad

Nombre de Dios, Porto Bello, San Lorenzo

Balboa and the other navigators sailed by its site without heed, making for Porto Bello or Nombre de Dios, the better harbors. San Lorenzo, whose ruins stand at the mouth of the Chagres River, looked down upon busy fleets, and fell before the assaults of Sir Henry Morgan and his buccaneers while the coral island that now upholds Colon was tenanted only by pelicans, alligators and serpents. The life of man touched it when in 1850 the American railroad builders determined to make it the Atlantic terminus of the Panama road. For many years after the completion of the railroad and until the arrival of the Isthmian Canal Commisison, in 1905, Colon remained little more than a swampy, disease-ridden port and was frequently referred to as the "pest hole of the Universe," and the "wickedest city of the Americas'" the moral tone of the place being in keeping with the sanitation.


Alligator on the Panama Railroad

A Swampy Island

The town had been built by the railroad on Manzanillo Island, a coral flat, no more than a mile by three-quarters of a mile in area, at the entrance to Limon Bay; and so there was open salt water on all but its southern side, where a narrow channel, the Folks River, divided it from the mainland. On this swampy island, tropical vegetation had taken root, and died down to furnish soil for a new jungle until by the repetition of this process through the ages a foot or two of soil raised itself above the surface of the water and supported a swampy jungle. When the engineers first came to locate there the beginnings of the Panama railroad, they were compelled to make their quarters in an old sailing ship in danger at all times of being carried out to sea by a norther. In his "History of the Panama Railroad," published in 1862, F. N. Otis describes the site of the present city when first fixed thus:

Surveying for the Panama Railroad

Clearing the Jungle

"This island cut off from the mainland by a narrow frith contained an area of a little more than one square mile. It was a virgin swamp, covered with a dense growth of the tortuous, water-loving mangrove, and interlaced with huge vines and thorny shrubs defying entrance even to the wild beasts common to the country. In the black slimy mud of its surface alligators and other reptiles abounded, while the air was laden with pestilential vapors and swarming with sandflies and mosquitoes. These last proved so annoying to the laborers that unless their faces were protected by gauze veils no work could be done even at midday. Residence on the island was impossible. The party had their headquarters in an old brig which brought down materials for building, tools, provisions, etc., and was anchored in the bay."

First Shanty

The Railroad

Once construction of the railroad was begun shacks rose on piles amid the swampy vegetation of the island. At certain points land was filled in and a solid foundation made for machine shops. The settlement took a sudden start forward in 1851 when a storm prevented two New York ships from landing their passengers at the mouth of the Chagres River. The delayed travelers were instead landed at Colon, and the rails having been laid as far as Gatun, where the great locks now rise, they were carried thither by the railroad. This route proving the more expeditious the news quickly reached New York and the ships began making Colon their port. As a result the town grew as fast and as unsubstantially as a mushroom.

James Stanley Gilbert

It was a floating population of people from every land and largely lawless. The bard of the Isthmus (James S. Gilbert) has a poem which depicts a wayfarer at the gate of Heaven confessing to high crimes, misdemeanors and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. At the close of the damning confession he whispered something in the ear of the Saint, whose brow cleared, and beaming welcome took the place of stern rejection. The keeper of the keys according to the poet cried:

Panama Patchwork

"Climb up, Oh, weary one, climb up!
Climb high! Climb higher yet
Until you reach the plush-lined seats
That only martyrs get.
Then sit you down and rest yourself
While years of bliss roll on!
Then to the angels he remarked,
'He's been living in Colon!' "

Open Sewer

Bottle Alley

The town on Manzanillo Island, still without a formal name, was generally called "Otro Lado" - "the other side" - by residents of Panama City, or sometimes "Aspinwall" in honor of the founder of the Panama Railroad Company. Even for the tropics it was a pest hole. There was no sewage disposal system or means of drainage; garbage and refuse were dumped into the streets. Privies hung over the water on the ends of the piers and docks. Since the ebb and flow of the tides never carried the waste far to sea, a vast foggy stink hung constantly over the town.


H. H. Bancroft described the town as it was in 1851:

"Travel the world over and in every place you may find something better than is found in any other place. Searching for the specialty in which Aspinwall excelled, we found it in her carrion birds, which cannot be surpassed in size or smell. Manzanillo Island may boast of the finest vultures on the planet. Originally a swamp, the foundations of the buildings were below the level of the ocean, and dry land was made by filling in as occasion required. The result in this soft soil made of filth and vegetable putridity may be imagined. The very ground on which one trod was pregnant with disease, and death was distilled in every breath of air.... Glued furniture falls to pieces; leather molds, and iron oxidizes in twenty-four hours."

Water Cart

Water Carrier

In the days when there was no pavement there were no sewers. For years the town lacked a convenient source of fresh water, other than rain. Ultimately the railroad company laid a pipe from the Chagres at Gatun to bring water, but prior to its completion, the residents had to depend on open-topped wooden tanks - called "catch" basins - placed on the roofs of buildings. These had to catch enough water during the rainy season to tide the town over the four-month dry period. Many building owners kept live fish in the tanks as an easily accessible food supply. Some tried to keep the water clean, but most allowed the "catch" basins to become murky aquariums full of tadpoles, frogs and serpentine water plants. This water was peddled peddled in the street from carts, or great jars by water carriers. No wonder everyone suffered from intestinal complaints and that a cholera epidemic was an annual occurrence. It affords a striking commentary upon the lethargy and laziness of the natives that for nearly half a century they should have tolerated conditions which for filth and squalor were practically unparalleled. The Indian in his palm-thatched hut was better housed and more healthfully surrounded than they.

Truly, "Death was distilled in every breath of air," as Bancroft said. The residents saw death daily and grew calloused to it. Death came not only from disease, but from violence. The corpses of murdered men were found each morning lying in the gutters or floating face down in the bay. Since the railroad company owned the place, the company had to dispose of the bodies. Many of them - stripped of all clothing - were hopelessly unidentifiable. These corpses, like those of the anonymous dead railroad workers, were pickled and sold to the medical schools. The traffic in cadavers, although an extremely profitable sideline for the railroad company, was not a species of success to which the officials ever admitted publicly.

In an attempt to avoid fever and dysentery, railroad officials and businessmen of Manzanillo sometimes went on regimens of champagne doused heavily with quinine. This was supposed to be an effective cure for tropical affliction, but when pursued too long the practice brought delirium tremens and other symptoms as deadly as the fever itself.

Everyone, residents and travelers alike, cursed the tropical rain - averaging more than 11 feet annually. At At Colon, six inches in twenty-four hours or less was not uncommon. Some of the most torrential downpours lasted only a few minutes. But no statistic conveyed a true picture of Panama rain. It had to be seen, to be felt, smelled; it had to be heard to be appreciated. The effect was much as though the heavens had opened and the air had turned instantly liquid. But the rain was a blessing to the tinderbox town, reducing as it did the number of fires. During the dry season flames gutted the town on several occasions. These widespread fires contributed greatly to the death rate, but unlike simple murder generally rendered the corpses unsuitable for commercial export.

The best hotels on Manzanillo were the Howard, the City and the Aspinwall. Beds cost three dollars a day. A dozen other hotels and rooming houses offered lower rates. Travelers were wise to elicit definite commitments as to price in advance, because some unscrupulous innkeepers would present exorbitant bills just prior to the travelers' departure and attempt to extort payment by impounding their luggage. The railroad, the port and the hotels - with their allied interests - were Manzanillo's principal businesses, but these were closely followed by another interlocking threesome: the hospital, the barbershops and the houses of prostitution.

The barbers doubled as undertakers, charging the hospital embalming and pickling fees. While live patrons were being clipped and shaved in front of the shop, they could hear the hammering of carpenters building coffins and barrels in the rear. Many barbers were also active as clap doctors, prescribing their nostrums for both the girls and the patrons they infected.

Bottle Alley

Most of the prostitutes worked in filthy stalls along a narrow muddy thoroughfare called Bottle Alley. The pimps stood outside in ankle-deep mud to hawk the claims of their lovelies and to propel drunks bodily through the swinging doors of the stalls. The consumption of alcohol along this street was considered unusually large even for the Yankee Strip. Over the years liquor bottles tossed into the street created a solid layer of glass beneath the mud. In the 1890's pavement-laying contractors found it unnecessary to put down a gravel foundation because the thousands of bottles buried there served the purpose.

The girls came in all colors: Negroes, Caucasians, Orientals, and exotic mixtures of many races. Health laws were unknown and prophylactics had not been invented. As a result, a large percentage of the prostitutes presented their customers with gonorrhea, syphilis, and Phthirius pubis, the crab louse. Refined people never discussed these matters. Prostitution was a taboo subject in the press and the only medical group deeply concerned with venereal disease was the United States Army Medical Service. Army cures then prescribed for gonorrhea were "sulphate of zinc, alkaline mixes, cubebs, injection of a weak solution of nitrate of silver every two hours and Epsom Salts." The best known treatment for syphilis was to daub the chancre with mercury ointment.

Many a dallying wayfarer across the Yankee Strip arrived in California with a deadly late-blooming blossom. A San Francisco doctor wrote his drug supplier in New York: "The macaronis and whoremongers of the Isthmus are sending us more patients than we can minister to. In addendum to the drugs ordered under this same cover, please send me any book or treatise you can find relating to cures for clap and the soft chancre."

The whores came from the world over. Earnings of ordinary prostitutes were especially low in England. It is no wonder that the lure of gold brought many London pimps and their whores to the Isthmus in the steerages of the British steamers. The fair-skinned girls were very popular but unfortunately short-lived, being especially susceptible to fever.

The girls and their pimps - "Buttock and Twang" as they were called in the cockney jargon - slept most of the day and commenced their business as soon as darkness fell. The Buttock made the approach and fulfilled her part of the contract leaning back spread-eagled against a building wall. While her client performed, she picked his pocket. The Twang stood by with drawn dirk, ready to give assistance. If the client seemed well-heeled, the Butt signaled and the Twang leaped forward and struck with his dirk. Then he and the girl dragged the dead man away to rifle his pockets and money belt at their leisure.

New Passenger Station

Whats in a Name?

But the city had its more respectable occasions. On February 29, 1852, the railroad company laid the cornerstone of a new passenger station and office building, the first brick structure the island. The ceremony brought railroad officials, members of consular staffs, local businessmen, and others. Among the dignitories were George Law, John L. Stephens - Vice-President of the Panama Railroad, Minor C. Story -a large railroad construction contractor - and a local resident whose name is listed in the record only as R. Webb of Manzanillo Island. During the attendant celebration the town was given a formal name.

William Henry Aspinwall

Dr. Victoriano de Diego Paredes, a Colombian official recently designated Minister to the United States, made the principal address. The diplomat praised the spirit of Anglo-Latin friendship that was supposedly prevailing in the town and lauded the energy and technical ability of the officials of the railroad company. He prophesied that the town on Manzanillo would become "the commercial emporium of the Americas and perhaps the whole world." Then he proposed that "we call this town 'Aspinwall,' as a slight homage to so respectable a person."

John L. Stephens

R. Webb accepted the name on behalf of the local citizens, the one recorded event of his life. John L. Stephens, in a brief speech, said, "No name could have been selected more proper, or which would give more general satisfaction." It is not unreasonable to suspect that Stephens had prompted the Colombian diplomat to suggest Aspinwall's name for the town.

Map Showing Aspinwall

Map Showing Aspinwall

Dr. Paredes placed in the cornerstone a copper box containing a document describing the ceremony, a copy of the New York Herald of February 9, 1852, and a coin from each of the following countries: the United States, France, Great Britain and New Granada. The railroad company directors immediately sent out notices to the world that the town on Manzanillo was now formally named Aspinwall. Postal guides were amended; charts were changed by writing in that name, and the matter seemed settled. Then the central government of the Colombian Confederation at Bogota objected. Bogota repudiated Paredes' name suggestion and issued an order naming the town for the original discoverer of Manzanillo, Christopher Columbus. The name of the town was not Aspinwall, said Bogota; the true name of the town was Colon.

The Panama Railroad directors refused to change the name, The company had built the town, they said, and should have the privilege of naming it. Not so, said Bogota. Manzanillo and all of Panama was still under the sovereignty of Colombia. The name of the town was Colon! Latin pride and Yankee stubbornness met head on. "You may call the city what you please," the directors wrote to Bogota, "but we are going to call it Aspinwall and that name will appear on all city buildings, including the railroad station."

Letter sent to Aspinwall

Confusion resulted. For years mail came addressed to "Aspinwall," "Colon," "Aspinwall-Colon" or Colon-Aspinwall." The town's name varied widely on maps and charts. The confusion existed until 1890 when the government at Bogota ordered its post office department to return all mail to sender addressed with the name "Aspinwall" on the envelope. Rather than interrupt the flow of the mail, the railroad bowed to the Bogota government and grudgingly accepted the name Colon. Thus it remains to this day.

With the completion of the Pacific railroads in the United States the prosperity of Colon for a time waned. There was still business for the railroad, but the great rush was ended. The eager men hurrying to be early at the place where gold was to be found, and the men who had "made their pile" hastening home to spend it, took the road across the plains. Colon settled down to a period of lethargy for which its people were constitutionally well fitted. Once in a while they were stirred up by reports of the projected Canal, and the annual revolutions - President Roosevelt in a message to Congress noted 53 in 57 years - prevented life from becoming wholly monotonous. But there was no sign of a renewal of the flush times of the gold rush until late in the 70's the French engineers arrived to begin the surveys for the Canal.

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