History Items of the Canal Zone

[an error occurred while processing this directive] visitors since 11/13/2003.

George Chevalier's and other's Memories of the Zone
cronicled by
Dale C. Clarke from Iguana

General Rambles Nov 4-13, 2003


As I took my lunch break under the dining tree at San Juan I would fantasize about those that had trod these cobble stones ahead of me in time. In my daydream they might suddenly appear in front of me and we would talk. Some figures took precedence in this and they were several of the most prominent of Spains early arrivals. Never the bad guys like Pedrarias but first to mind was Pedro de Rebolledo who had owned the toothpick I had uncovered. It is impossible to hold such an item in your hand and not wonder of it's owner. Twenty plus years of research has shown me he was very powerful on the Isthmus of Panama but for his day he was an honorable man.

Of all the silver Cob Coins found along the Camino Real the most numerous, for me, and of the best quality were those from the mint at Lima made under the Assayer Diego De La Torre. To find and hold one of his coins in your hand and not wonder about this man was unthinkable. He took his work very seriously and the quality showed when compared to other Spanish Colonial Mints of those days. As the years passed the coins produced at the various mints fell off in quality. In Cobs De La Torre ,1577-1588, was one of the best.

But alas as I gazed down the sunny lake in a late dry season breeze I was left alone in my thoughts still dreaming of contact with some of those exiting early people who had walked those paths before me.


The number one rule is don't spend too much time looking where the soldiers were. You look in the civilian areas for they are the ones that had the money. In scanning Porto Bello and San Lorenzo I only once found a small one real cob coin in a moat of Lorenzo's outer defenses. But the adjacent civilian areas were rewarding indeed. Pay heed to rumors of local law enforcement about unearthing buried treasures. Around 1970 there was a witchy Alcaldesa in Porto Bello who was on a rampage and rumor had it that she would confiscate your metal detector, your boat and trailer and your auto if she caught you and you could damn well walk out with only the clothes on your back.

I knew a Major at Albrook who was an avid bottle hunter and apparently he felt he could con his way out of any thing the Alcaldesa could dish up. He brazenly set up his sunshade and chair in the middle of the town of Porto Bello one fine day and with signs advertised he would buy all bottles brought in by the locals. The Alcaldesa let him collect and pay out all day and then when he started to pack up to leave she moved in and took all his bottles as donations to the R. de P. and let him go. We laughed over this and felt it was deserved. I never pulled out my machine in the limits of PB and only quietly spoke to locals about buying what they may have found. Some would sell but many others were too afraid of the old gal to take up my offer.

I still regret omitting to scoop out the potholes in that small river that ran down to the cove on the east side of San Lorenzo. With Panama's heavy rains every year artifacts would wash down slopes and loge in pot holes along their route. All I needed was a modest long pole with a kitchen sieve attached to it's end and the mild energy to dip. But it was always put off to another time and then one day there were no other times for me.

Finally we found that the Spaniards usually built upon the old Indian Sites for they realized that the Indians had long before learned where the best locations were to live with food and water. So you then would find the goodies of both worlds intermixed. I recall finding two solid gold Indian chisels used by their Huaca makers in carving out the molds for the lost wax process. These beauties were around 1 1/2 t0 2 inches in length. They used gold for it was the only malleable metal that they easily found and could carefully pound into shape. I had originally thought they were Spanish toothpicks until I finally got educated on the subject.


In relating tales of treasure hunting I want you to understand that many times you had to pay for what the Isthmus provided. Returning one day to my beached 14 ft. boat I found I could not board or move it off the beach. A colony of migrant wasps had completely settled over my outboard motor that must have been still warm to them. I had to walk away, go into the water and quietly swim back to the boat. With only a bit of my face showing I grabbed the propeller and carefully pulled the boat off of the shore. Then backing off proceeded to splash like hell and this routed the wasps although in an angry state. Feeling safe I boarded my boat and made to start the motor and make my get away. However there were a few holdovers who exacted their toll on me.

Near San Juan my detector picked up a coin and I squatted to dig it out but had squatted over a small sprig of Pica-Pica which hairs dealt my tender Butt a hell of a painful kiss. The purple scar and pain lasted for days. I fell once and slid down a bank right through a patch of that stuff and being alone thought they would bury me on that spot.

Refueling my engine's gas tank from a 5 gal. container one windy and rough day on Madden Lake my partner slipped with the can and drowned my crotch area with that mix of gas and 30 weight oil. Diving under water in great pain I had to rip off my pants and scoop up handfuls of sand to scrub myself for the oil base kept the gas in place unless you scrubbed it off. That took a good recovery time to get back to normal.

Dashing out of a one opening fortress room two steps ahead of several large snakes always elevates one blood pressure and absent mindedly sitting down under a tree with a large resting bird population over your head will have you scrambling away fast enough as you hope to avoid histo-plasmosis. Single ants who's bite can bring you to your knees in pain were quite commonly familiar with me and of course the millions of mosquitoes that fed off of me through the years. The denser sections of the Cruces Trail were the worst for that. I shutter to think of the many snakes I trod past never knowing they were there as they refrained from striking. Yes I paid for every coin and artifact that the Isthmus gave up to me.


Around 1961 while on a two week leave to the CZ my Sister arranged for us to go on a tour of Porto Bello led my an old gent who really knew his stuff. There was no road as such through to Porto Bello in those days and we went from Coco Solo to PB by US Army Landing Craft. Not to hunt but just to sight see. The next time I went there was a road but it lacked vital bridges and we skated across the shallow streams in my Sisters VW Microbus. I was very attentive to the description of Morgans attack route that went up a small river valley and then turned and went over a ridge line with them coming down on the towns forts from the high ground on the west side of town. It worked for Morgan but I damned near crumpled. There isn't just one big ridge line. It is composed of many little valleys and ridges as you climb higher and higher each one leaving you gasping all the louder. When at last you arrive looking down at the old forts earthworks you are ready to flop and call a truce. They were tough men in those days.

Now as to the very old Spanish Colonial "Onion Bottles" I was never able to find one intact. Their thin glass construction did not fair well with time, climate and soil pressures upon them. You would see lots of shards and necks only. I believe most whole ones found came from under water in harbor mouths etc. It was the later bottles of the Gold Rush Era that were made stronger and could take the rough treatment of being buried.

If some one out there found an intact Spanish Colonial "Onion Bottle" from an earthen excavation I would love to hear of it


The vast majority of CZ kids regardless of religion went to the CZ School System. I know that St.Mary's had a separate parochial school set up but I don't recall any one from the Zone itself going to it. I believe most that did were from the Republic. So with us not being really aware of basic differences I for one found it hard to cope with and understand when spending summers at my Grandparents on Long Island. The Duggan Family was rather large and lived but two houses over and some were in my age or my Sisters age bracket yet there was an unseen but felt barrier that seemed to separate us kids. We kids cheerfully tried to bridge the gap and would go over to their house to play at times but it seemed to be a one way street. I spent two winters there in my 2nd and 5th grades and went to the regular local school which reinforced this division a bit. I was aware of a financial hardship all this imposed on the Duggan Family as I heard my folks speak of them having to pay for this separate schooling through the Depression and it's hard times. At the time I felt that the Zone's way where we were all alike was better. Did others face this dilemma too.


Are you talking about your age era? Cause lots of us went to St. Mary's.


The following was sent to me by Bruce Quinn. I am taking the liberty to forward it on to you as it is a very good post.
Charly CHS62

"The collapse of the 325 year old Arco Chato (the Flat Arch) here in my barrio last night is indeed a sad, sad thing. The ancient Arch was also made famous when the United States Senate approved Panama as the location for the construction of the Interoceanic Canal in Panama when in their final deliberations for determining the site for the construction of the Canal, Bunau-Varilla sent each U. S. Senators a Nicaraguan stamp picturing a volcano right in the center of a Nicaraguan lake. The lake was to be part of the proposed Nicaraguan Canal. In addition Varilla sent to each of Senator a postcard showing the 50 foot Arco Chato in Panama as a testimony and proof of the stability of the land mass of the Isthmus of Panama which had withstood centuries of earthquakes and fires. In my opinion it's no wonder that it happened. Since the Casco Viejo (my barrio) has become one of the "must" places to see here in Panama, behemoth buses carrying tourist waddle down the brick streets...their vibrations shaking the core of all the ruins in the neighborhood. When there is a cruise ship in town, sometimes there are eight of these giants dinosaurs trooping through the neighborhood. The heavy flow of traffic was also a factor in the deterioration of the the ruins of Old Panama.

Not being anti-patriotic, but the parade of the school bands with the kids pounding drums and playing screaming brass horns, regrettably, may have been one of the final coup d´Gras contributing factors to the collapse of the Arch. There enthusiastic, fervent playing is enough to awaken the dead. The bands marched in this area on November 3 & 4 this week in celebration of Panama's Centennial. The parades were delayed on both days up to five hours. The students waiting to pass in review in front of the Presidential Stand in Cathedral Plaza stuck on Avenida A and in the sidestreets rehearsed their blaring music with full intensity. What else were they to do for five hours?

At night there are traffic jams especially on Thursday and Saturday nights as people flock to the disco, restaurants and bars here in the lower part of San Felipe. While there are signs limiting the tonnage of the vehicles coming into the area, these limitations are not always strictly enforced. Even now as I type this email, heavy traffic flows by my house.

I just visited the site and there are reporters, cameramen, and sub- officials of the Government checking out the site each pointing upwards and outwards at a vacant space. It's an eerie scene not seeing the famous Arch in the void where it was up until last night. The actions of the spectators is reminiscent of a silent film. Really, they should all be pointing at one another...myself included...for we are the culprits of why the Arco Chato crumbled."

I am including the latest I received from Bruce Quinn as a possible (probable in my estimation) reason for the collapse of the Flat Arch in Casco Viejo last night.
Charly CHS62

"Another factor which may have affected the collapsing of the Arco Chato were the fireworks fired here on November 3. That evening, the fireworks were set up on the esplanade across the street from my place here in the Casco Viejo. The barrage went off as schedule at 12:02 a.m. November 3, 2003. There were thousands of people here in the Casco Viejo who came to see the show. I thought that it was great seeing these rockets and bombs bursting in air, but at the end of the show (and, I believe, to conclude the show which lasted about 45 minutes) there was a salvo of booms that jarred the neighborhood. In the States at the conclusion of similar patriotic events there are usually 50 canon shots to honor the 50 States, but here there weren't that many blasts. It's just that these booms were almost sonic in nature. They were at our doorstep. About an hour after the fireworks had ended and people had left the area, we were surprised by another salvo of at least eight of these sonic booms that shook the windows of my bedroom and the buildings around my place. The dog fell off the bed and started to bark. I only live about 100 feet from the Arco Chato. Those blasts could have easily weakened the foundation of the arch because of the proximity of where they were ignited in relationship´to the Flat Arch. The impact of these shock waves was like standing in a field and being jarred by a jet flying overhead when it breaks the sound barrier. I can only conjecture that perhaps this final salvo included these bombs which were not fired during the show for some reason and a decision was made to explode them at this time.

Thanks for listening, Bruce"

Bruce Quinn
Panamá, Republica de Panamá

Who remembers electric trolley cars coming from Panama City up along Balboa Road past Cable Heights to Shrine Temple and on to St. Francis Academy (kindergarten through 8th grade)? Not being a Balboa kid myself, perhaps George or others can give us full route and how far into Balboa trollies ran. When was the trolley abandoned? As child, trolley had great appeal, blowing whistles as it went along its tracks, frequently stopping with passengers getting off or jumping on. I recall girls in blue jumpers and white blouses at St Francis lining up for trolley. Always yearned to ride trolley but never had chance.

Years later St Francis was reorganized with different order directing it and name change to St Mary's. Presently I'm seeking information and history of academy from retired St. Mary's sister now in Cincinnati. At least one of my Balboa High School classmates whose parents worked in Zone attended St. Francis. Differences I noticed was she seemed classier with higher grades than most of us.

The trolley ran down to it's turn around stop in front of the La Boca Commissary. In later years this bldg. became the CZ Printing Plant. I am not sure of the exact date but believe the trolley ceased around 1941.

Started to drop this topic but then decided the hell with this and to take my stand. Growing up in Ancon and Balboa during the 1920-30's with a depression booming I knew of no Catholic children that went to the Parochial School in Balboa. CZ residents used the free CZ Schools at that time. I saw kids from the Republic going to school there but I assume it was mostly to become fluent in English and also their family finances were higher than most Zonians. WW11 ended the great depression in the USA and so it is understandable that from say 1940 on Catholic CZ youth might well go to St.Mary's. Remember this all began with my reminiscing about my own childhood experiences with this subject and my asking to hear from others that were familiar with it.

If someone did go to St. Mary's from the CZ during the depression years please let me hear from you. But personally I recall none of the large and faithful Catholic Families in the Balboa area sending their children there during the period I reference.

All of my family...from oldest brother now age 68 to myself.... went to St.Francis and then St. Marys. It was a time NOT to be forgotten....for a multitude of reasons. My family moved to Curundu Hgts from the Republic in 1947 and my brothers came in via bus or carpooling until we were transported by military buses.

Anne Kaska-Gams
BHS 63

This clearly illustrates the school choices after the depression was gone with post WW11 not as things were when I was a child.

I feel I must pass this on. Never have I been so engrossed and moved by a story of WW11 as I have been by "Flags of Our Fathers" by James Bradley. This is the history of the battle for Iwo Jima and in detail covers the lives of the six men who raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi as shown in the photo by Rosenthal. The author is the son of one of those six men. Every Marine should read this book and when all are finished I know you will feel the sobering flow from this work.

Just had a confirmation from John Rossetti an old playmate and classmate who is Catholic and faithfully attended St. Mary's Church but says he remembers no one from the CZ going to St. Mary's during our childhood in the depression years. How about some of you other old timers replying.

The street car made up in La Boca. For a nickel you could ride along Balboa Road to Bella Vista. It was popularly used to ride to the dog track called Crossroads of the World which was where the El Panama is now. It would cut off Balboa Road at the "limits" and pass through the red light district where all the professional ladies strolled, sat on the steps, or slumped in the doorways. My favorite was a door shaped in the shape of a lion's head and you entered through the wide open lion's mouth.

We kids used to get off on Central Ave. and shop the French Bazaar.There were also ice cream and pastry shops. Felix Maduros was a popular store, also.

Some parents did send their children to St. Mary's to learn Spanish. This, however, was a mistake because the Sisters were from Europe and the Spanish they spoke was not educated Spanish. Other parents sent their kindergarteners to Kg. in Colon for the same reason. Parents hired spanish speaking maids for the same reason. Thus, the spanish the children learned was not grammaticaly correct. My parents sent me to English speaking CZ schools because they wanted me to go on to be educated in the U.S.

The Sisters at St. Mary's taught piano and art to part time students.
Frances Coffey

You must mean St. Mary's on the Atlantic Side. St. Mary's on the Pacific Side was taught in English.

One day my partner told me that a small beautiful preserved cannon had been spotted up in San Pablo. This old fort had been made of earth and logs and was reported to be at the 1,000 ft. level above the upper part of Madden Lake directly above the juncture of the Boqueron and Pequeni Rivers. After landing your boat the Camino Real rises straight up and over the mtns. I don't know how loaded mules were able to climb this but an over weight 40+ year old had a hell of a problem. It took some three hours to reach what we thought was the correct altitude and the jungle terrain was hopeless to find anything. Now going down took only an hour since there was a lot of ass sliding on our part. I said never again but in the next few months we tried it twice more and always with negative results. After all those years I don't think you would see remains of a fort itself and how someone saw a cannon barrel I'll never know. Did anyone else look for that piece of history and if so with what results?.

Here I sit feeling left out of everything. It is drizzling rain here in Zellwood, Fl. and there is a silence over the scene. I try to escape from this cocoon of old age. For a few moments I believe I am back on the flight line at Albrook Field and I hear the muted strains of three Ruffles and Flourishes. Yes he was a Bastard but he was ours. But the moment quickly passes as we start to move past to the tune of Col. Bogey. With eyes right you feel pride in being a soldier as you strive to look your best. And then it is gone and I'm staring at this damn computer and wishing we all were young men again and some where else.

Hi GC,

Reading your letter made me feel sad. I want you to know that you are touching people everyday by sharing with us your wonderful writings, thoughts, and questions. If you were a young man you wouldn't have this wisdom with which you bless us every day. You're not in a "cocoon of old age".....you are merely in a different season of your life. No better or worse than any other season......just different. God places us in different seasons so that we will have new ways to bless each other. We're all part of His plan and we all have a different gift to share. As we change, so do our gifts. Today, your gift is filling our hearts with new ideas, warmth, and an appreciation for things YOU see but we don't.

Thank you for blessing us over and over again. God Loves You.....

Elisa Malo
(BHS 82)

I, too, share the feeling, especially those Veterans Days I spent in Korea and Vietnam. But we must stay the course with stout heart and a positive attitude.

My we offer a silent Toast to all those Veterans who have gone before us! Always remember that "the spirits of the dead, live on, in the memories of the living."

I can remember sitting onboard the USS Tuscaloosa (LST 1187) while the rain moonsooned all over me on Forward Capstan watch. I was a Fire Control Technician (guns) Seaman (E3). Everywhere there was jungle and man, did it ever smelled like the Canal Zone, with the heat, the humidity, the rain, and the blur of many exotic sights, smells, and sounds.

But this jungle meant death by the enemy, the Viet Cong, if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was hard to associate this jungle with a more benign one that meant good times like four wheeling with my Jeep Club, camping with my Dad and brother, hunting for bottles, panning for gold, and cutting trails behind our house on the Gamboa ridge. I learned quickly that these were two very different jungles that looked virtually the same.

The hard rain would continue to pelt me, making me more depressed and miserable by the minute. Here I am a young sailor hoisting a M-16 semi automatic rifle and a regular USN Colt 45. They were actually loaded with real bullets! On a previous landing, things went really bad. Intelligence said the area was clear, but we were taking heavy fire from the treeline the moment we arrived. Its pretty easy to shoot a target like a big haze gray Naval Vessel. Eventually, they brought in "puff the magic dragon" which is a heavily armed Cobra helicopter to spray down the jungle with 50 caliber bullets. It got pretty quiet after that, but not before I shot 3 clips into what I hope was just some trees. The memories of that are pretty strong as I realize that soon the call would happen again. We would slip into Battle Stations while setting condition "Zebra" (closing the water tight doors) and prepare to land ashore and lower the bow gate into this dangerous jungle. Then it was time to bring on more body bags and the walking wounded, while we rolled out Marine Supplies and personnel to reinforce coastal and in-country "A" camps and spook listening/observation posts. I always worried about the Marines, my dad was a Marine in Korea and he didn't talk much about it. Later we would pull back out to sea and the sky would light up in chillingly orange and yellow, splashing color and thundering explosions beyond the treeline's canopy.

I kept thinking through all this that hopefully, I won't get shot at like the previous time we made a shore landing. The last time, Charlie missed.

Bobby L. Winford, Jr.
formerly: FTG1(SS), USN

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So many gave it all for the remainder of us to stand for a minute tomorrow and count our blessings. stay well all.

Over the many months we have had arguments and spats about how we perceived or witnessed life in the Canal Zone and Panama. I think I have the answer in a non confrontational way. The Zone needs to be considered and viewed as at least four or five separate entities. Each of these is a reflection of it's times as to the culture and attitudes that prevailed in those living through those times. First we have the Construction period that mirrors a basic Southern Anglo-Saxon Society. They considered themselves temporary in a foreign country. Then we have the operational force who stayed to see that it ran correctly and slowly but slowly they began to alter there attitudes towards locals and with them we see a generation of children coming forth that basically reflected the parents values. By post WW11 the originators are gone, cultural changes are appearing every where and I believe the values of their father's has some what eroded. In the final days intermixing of culture is prevalent. After turnover those that come be they military or civilian live in a vastly changed Zone.

Having set the stage you now can see that an individuals memories and opinions of life as they saw and lived it will inherently be a bit different. Ergo it is then wrong to jump and say "that’s not how I saw it. or that did or didn't happen in my day". While we may have all lived in the Zone my childhood during the 1920-30's was vastly different that those who came on in the 1950-60's. Being human we no doubt consider out time as the best time to have lived and grown up there.


What a wonderful way to say that we all perceive things differently, and such differences in perception should **not** result in confontations. Rather, such differences should add perspective, flavor and depth of understanding of a rich history of which we all share a part.

[ZLers, George's comments I'm sure are prompted by harsh words fired at him on another list by someone with an acid tongue whose 'expert' opinions were based in another age of Zone living. I hope that Panama Canal Zone memories posted by George will be accepted and appreciated by us in an open minded manner.]

Welcome back George.

Thanks, Dale Cockle

Before TV and before creditable Short Wave Radio in the late 1930's our parents were forced to create their own entertainment. The most popular of these were the large dinner parties that housewives held in their quarters . Usually of 10 to 15 couples and the hostess would break out her treasured Tiffany Silver and Royal Doulton China. Children in most cases were seated at a separate smaller table. Following this sumptuous repast the men would assemble at one end of the porch and the women to the other end where animated conversations ensued with the running of the Canal and what the commissary should stock. The art of conversation was at it's highest level. Ah but times change and now those children are grown and have quarters of their own. Mother's silver and china are carefully stored away and seldom if ever brought forth. Large dinners are passé and require too much effort for today's housewife and people are more apt to assemble around some TV program with old fashioned conversation fading into the background. Most social gathering around eating was done at some commercial establishment with limited numbers participating. I fleetingly wonder some times what today's couple would do if time should dump them down for dinner at quarters in 1924 Pedro Miguel as an example.

I remember avidly listening to the men speak of the Zone and Canal and in my mind I categorized and hung a label on the vigor of each man's participation from the milk toasts to the firebrands. It was a good life!!!

I have a letter written in 1924-25 telling of a KKK meeting at some ones quarters in Pedro Miguel. I am curious as to just what was it's function in the Zone at that time. There were no racial divisions among US Citizens at that time on the Zone and ones citizenship controlled other racial differences. I have a feeling that the KKK was in reality only a social outlet and eventually it faded out or ceased to function as such on the Zone. Would like to hear if there is other information or thoughts on this but please bear in mind the time era I'm speaking of.

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