Historic Review of the Events and Persons Associated with the
Different Trans-Isthmian Crossings and Routes in Panama
from the Camino Real and Las Cruces Trail, the construction of
the Panama Railroad and the subsequent construction and
operation of the Panama Canal and the Trans-Isthmian Highway
Information Systems, Inc.
A new discovery in
1848 sparked a renaissance for the gold route across the
isthmus. On January
24, a man named James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s
mill in northern California.
The area was a territory of the United States, having
been acquired by treaty from Mexico.
There were only three ways to get to California from the
eastern United States: by horse across 3,000 miles of wilderness
inhabited by hostile Indians; by sea, over 12,000 miles around
Cape Horn; or by sea some 5,000 nautical miles that included a
50-mile shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama.
The Panama route went up the Chagres River from Fort San
Lorenzo and then down the Las Cruces Trail to Panama City.
Ships arriving from New Orleans, a southern U.S. port, or
from the east coast sailed into the Fort San Lorenzo harbor
where passengers disembarked at the town of Chagres.
The first gold-hungry
passengers to hurry off the ship in late 1848 and all during
1849 were nicknamed “forty-niners”, and gold fever swept the
United States. They
desperately competed for the few boats that could take them up
the river and for the few bewildered guides who could lead them
from Cruces across to Panama City.
Not only did hundreds of fortune seekers cross the
isthmus in this fashion, but also the tons of food provisions
and mining equipment that they carried with them. One dedicated newspaperman even took a 1,200-pound printing
press over the route.
In early 1850, Judson
Ames of Louisiana arrived at Chagres with the largest and
heaviest single piece of freight yet to be transported across
the isthmus. It was
a 1,200-pound hand-printing press built in New York. Ames hired a flat-bottomed barge to take the press up the
Chagres River, but after leaving the dock, the barge promptly
tilted to one side and dumped the press into the river.
The determined Ames was able to drag the press onto the
riverbank using ropes and a team of men and set it on the barge
again. The boatmen
poled the barge upstream for an entire week before they finally
arrived in Cruces, where Ames paid $200 to hire a team of mules
to carry the press on their backs to Panama City.
They arrived, exhausted, three days later.
Ames found that the
earliest available space on a ship going north was three months
away, so he set up the press to pass the time.
He began publishing the Panama Herald, the second
English-language newspaper to be published in Panama City. When
he finally arranged for passage to California, Ames sold his
accounts to the other English-language newspaper, the Star. Thereafter, the Star was known as the Star &
Herald and continued to be published for more than a
During the Gold Rush,
the route from the town of Chagres to Cruces soon became a
boondoggle for any local resident with a boat.
Each time a ship arrived; hundreds of passengers
disembarked and began clamoring for transport up the river.
Boatmen quickly learned they could charge exorbitant
prices for any sort of transportation that would deliver a
passenger to Cruces. A
collection of mules was worth its weight in gold, for they
provided the only transportation from Cruces to Panama City,
down the Las Cruces Trail, besides walking.
By 1851, there were five U.S. Mail Steam Line vessels
running from New Orleans to Chagres, each one delivering up to
400 passengers at a time. Eight
additional steamers operated from New York to Chagres.
Soon traffic began to
flow in the return direction.
Miners and businessmen arrived from San Francisco and
carried their wealth across the isthmus for the return trip
east. All this
wealth passing back and forth attracted a cutthroat collection
of thieves – both local and foreign – to the jungle along
the trail. It was
as if the time of the pirates and privateers had returned.
The situation might have been ignored if it had not been
for the ongoing construction of the Panama Railroad.
A treaty between the
United States and New Granada on December 12, 1846, guaranteed a
right-of-way across Panama for whichever company won the bid for
providing transportation and mail service between the U.S. east
coast and the new territories of Oregon and, later on,
wealthy businessmen, George Law and William H. Aspinwall, won
the contract in 1848 and began setting up separate shipping
lines that connected in Panama. Aspinwall took responsibility for the Atlantic route, and Law
established ship transportation on the Pacific coast. They had no choice but to provide mule-train transportation
across the Las Cruces Trail in order to link the two shipping
lines. Work began
immediately to improve the long-neglected Spanish trail.
The lucky timing of the Gold Rush to California brought
an immediate avalanche of paying customers to their road and
reinforced the notion that a railroad should replace the mule
Knowing that a
railroad would reduce the trek across the isthmus from four days
to about four hours, Aspinwall looked for investors to help
realize his dream. He
recruited Henry Chauncey, a wealthy New York capitalist, and
John L. Stephens, a writer and adventurer, and signed a contract
with New Granada stipulating that the railroad must be completed
within eight years.
incorporated the Panama Railroad Company and sold stock to raise
$1 million. The
route would start at Manzanillo Island in Limón Bay and
terminate at Panama City. The
town established at Manzanillo was optimistically named
Aspinwall by the newcomers, but the locals and New Granada
insisted on calling it Colón after its first European visitor,
paralleled the Chagres-Las Cruces route.
The difficult terrain and disease slowed construction,
and at the end of just 20 months they had progressed only seven
miles and run out of money.
Fortune smiled on Aspinwall when the forty-niners
discovered the existence of the tracks and began paying $25, and
enormous sum in those days, to ride seven miles and $10 just to
walk along the tracks. This
new influx of money and proof that passengers would pay boosted
investors’ confidence and enabled construction to continue.
But the railroad also took passengers away from San
Lorenzo and the Chagres route, causing resentment among the
locals who had been earning a good living.
It was not until
January 27, 1855, that the rails reached the Continental Divide
and were connected to 11 miles of rails coming from Panama City.
Construction of just 47 miles of railroad had cost the
investors $7.5 million and taken 12,000 lives from disease.
But, thanks to the Gold Rush, by 1859 the railroad had
earned more than half the cost of construction and, by 1862,
made a net profit of almost $6 million.
For the first 15 years
of operation, the Panama Railroad was the most important link
between the U.S. and California.
In the five years ending in 1859, it transported more
than $300 million worth of California gold and 100,000 bags of
US mail. (Minter 286). By
January, 1865, its total profits were over $11 million.
Between 1856 and 1866, the train transported over 400,000
passengers across the isthmus. (Schott, Howarth)
But the Panama
Railroad lost its California passengers in 1869 with the
completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across the United
company’s stock value was depressed until 1879, when the
French company that planned to build a canal across the isthmus
paid $20 million for it. Later,
ownership of the railroad passed into the hands of the United
States government with the purchase of the remains of the French
construction equipment for $40 million, including only $7
million for the railroad.
The train played a
major role in the success of the U.S. construction effort.
When John F. Stevens, a veteran railroad man, served as
chief engineer in charge of Canal construction, he modified the
railroad route to haul millions of cubic yards of rock and dirt
out of excavation sites and move tons of equipment from place to
also used the train to go to their work sites and neighboring
towns along the construction route.
Before water filled the Canal, the railroad tracks were
moved to higher elevation at a cost of $9 million.
The Panama Railroad continued to provide inexpensive as
well as scenic transportation across the isthmus for over six
In 1979, the railroad
was handed over to Panama as part of the treaty agreements
between the United States and Panama.
It fell into disuse until the end of the century, when it
was sold to the Kansas City Southern Railway company.
The company invested millions of dollars to replace the
entire train infrastructure, including all rails, ties,
locomotives and trailers, and made plans to begin offering
shipping container transportation service as well as limited
passenger tours during 2001.
During the first years
of Panama Railroad construction, Aspinwall’s efforts were
plagued by Panama’s remoteness and tropical climate, diseases
that decimated the work crews and highway robbers who preyed on
his passengers. Aspinwall
realized his success depended on establishing law and order. He
sought advice from the sheriff of San Francisco, California,
Colonel Jack Hayes, who recommended the services of Randolph
“Ran” Runnels to deal with the highwaymen.
Runnels had been a
Texas Ranger, the Texan roughrider group famous for establishing
law and order over the Indians and outlaws who controlled that
part of the U.S. Wild West.
He had a reputation as one of the toughest of the Rangers
and had served under Colonel Hays as the head of a pack train,
using horses and mules to haul supplies during the war with
In 1850, one of
Aspinwall’s men, wearing a black overcoat and a stovepipe top
hat, road a mule out to Runnels’s family ranch near San
Antonio, Texas. He
found that Runnels had retired from the Rangers and made his
peace with God. Who
knows what motive caused Runnels to go with the man, leaving the
arid, open plains of Texas for the humid jungle of Panama, but
he did, never to return. His
sister, Octavia Charity Marsden, claimed that Runnels had seen
the request for help as a calling from the Lord. (Schott)
Runnels arrived in
Panama in 1851 and set about his mission working undercover as a
mule-train packer. Each of the legitimate mule-train owners donated a few of
their animals to Runnels, as they were desperate for him to
establish safe passage for their customers and cargo.
Runnels frequented the bars and cafés, getting to know
the locals. He
began identifying the outlaws and secretly recruiting
“employees” whom he organized as a vigilante group called
the Isthmus Guard. Some
40 men were sworn into the secret organization.
Runnels composed a list of known highwaymen, referred to
as the Derienni, from the information they gathered.
In early 1852, the
Guard struck suddenly one night.
Masked vigilantes entered Panama City’s saloons,
gambling halls and brothels and rounded up 37 men.
The next morning the prisoners were found hanging along
the seawall. In
addition to the bodies of several known highwaymen, those of
several wealthy and prominent businessmen who had been profiting
from illegitimate business dangled as a lifeless lesson to all.
For a few months, the
Las Cruces Trail was safe, even for lone travelers on foot.
A cholera epidemic struck during the rainy season (May
through November), its toll taking the place of the damage
formerly done by highwaymen. The thieves’ memories were apparently short however, and a
few new unsavory characters arrived from abroad.
Banditry started up again with the dry-season traffic in
miners returning home from California were brutally murdered and
robbed on the trail between Panama City and Cruces.
The Isthmus Guard struck again, and at dawn citizens
found 41 more bodies hanging from the seawall timbers, five of
them named as the murderers of the seven miners.
Runnel’s nickname became “El Verdugo”, The Hangman.
and the arrival of Gold Rush travelers launched the town of
Cruces into a center of activity again.
The builders recognized that they needed the Las Cruces
Trail for access during railway work and began building an
improved the road. George
Totten, the engineer in charge of construction, paid laborers 80
cents a day with a backpay promise of and additional 40 cents a
day to each who stayed on to work on the railroad.
Observing all the new
activity around him, the mayor at Cruces sought an opportunity
to enrich himself. He decided he could use his official authority to force the
railroad company to pay the workers the full $1.20 a day from
the very beginning. He
would make a profit by receiving an “honorarium” from the
collected one dollar from 150 workmen based in Cruces and waited
for Totten to arrive on one of his regular inspections. When Totten showed up, the mayor threw him in jail and sent
word to railroad headquarters on Manzanillo Island that he would
release Totten when the pay raise was announced.
Two days later,
Runnels and his armed riders galloped into town to take control
of the situation. As
he reigned in his horse at the construction foreman’s shack,
Runnels shouted out that the workers had 60 seconds to get back
to work. As the men
scrambled for their picks and shovels, Runnels grabbed a
sledgehammer and headed for the jail.
While his men held the soldier guards at gunpoint,
Runnels smashed the lock and released Totten.
They proceeded to the mayor’s house, found him cowering
under a bed and dragged him to the main square, where Runnels
publicly flogged him and left him tied there with a note in both
English and Spanish saying: “This man was punished for
interference in the peaceful and legal business of road
time, he and anyone who helps him will get killed.”
That ended the labor dispute at Cruces.
On July 16, 1852,
Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the isthmus from New York.
Grant would later serve as the commanding general for the
Union (northern) Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865)
and then become president of the United States from 1869 to
1877, But in 1852 he was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army and
the quartermaster in charge of logistics for moving the 4th
Infantry regiment to California and setting up a military
July, the 29-year-old lieutenant disembarked at Aspinwall
leading a group of 550 souls that included both the soldiers and
They had been informed
that a cholera epidemic was raging in Panama, but the commanding
officer, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bonneville, haughtily
assumed that they could cross the isthmus in a matter of days
and be on their way before anyone was exposed.
They found that railroad tracks extended from Aspinwall
to just one mile short of Barbacoas, on the west bank of the
Chagres River. The
last mile was cleared and level enough for the troops to walk
the rest of the way.
Even the women and
children volunteered to walk the last mile, happy to stretch
their legs after eight days at sea despite the humid and rainy
Barbacoas, they set out for to Cruces by dugout canoes large
enough to hold 30 passengers or more, stopping overnight at a
village where a drunken wedding party was going on.
The next morning, July 18, they roused the hung-over
boatmen and pushed on to Cruces.
They were making fast
headway, but at Cruces the Gold Rush phenomenon stopped them
short. The Army had
contracted to pay for mule transport to Panama City along the
Las Cruces Trail, but at a government rate of just $16 a person. Gold Rush passengers who arrived on the same boat with the
regiment were willing to pay between $20 and $40, and of course
they got first pick of the scarce mules.
Consequently, Grant’s group became stranded in Cruces.
On the second day of waiting, a soldier succumbed to
cholera. Soon more
soldiers and their wives and children fell ill.
After five days, Grant threw his budget out the window
and began hiring mules at any price to get them out of the town.
He also rescued six nuns who were stranded, paying native
bearers to carry them to Panama City slung in hammocks.
Many of the group ended up walking the trail, where at
least three died and one man fell into a sinkhole and
disappeared before he could be rescued.
On July 23, the
passengers were shuttled out to the Golden Gate, a
steamer anchored at Taboga Island off of Panama City.
Cholera had already broken out on the ship.
Eventually, the sick were segregated onto a hospital
ship, where two or three died each day.
Passengers on the Golden Gate heard the bugle
blowing “taps” several times a day from across the water as
the dead were buried at sea in a burlap shroud weighted with a
cannon ball. Then
the bugle blower himself succumbed.
The Golden Gate finally sailed on August 4, after
undergoing a thorough fumigation with poisonous chlorine.
In just 19 days, 150 of the group had died.
Grant, who escaped with his health, was profoundly
impressed by the hellish experience and spoke of it frequently
for the rest of his life.
presidency, he authorized seven expeditions to Central America,
including to Nicaragua and Panama, between 1870 and 1875.
The purpose was to find the best route for building a
canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Grant’s Interoceanic Canal Commission evaluated the
findings and favored a route across Nicaragua.
Shortly after, the French Société de Géographic
announced it would sponsor an international congress to discuss
the scientific considerations for choosing a route. It seems the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder
of the Suez Canal, mistrusted Grant’s commission findings.
Count Ferdinand de
Lesseps was a hero in France, having overcome almost
insurmountable obstacles to build the Suez Canal between 1854
and 1869, almost the very same time span of the Panama Railroad
heyday. He was not
an engineer, but a diplomat and dealmaker.
In 1879, de Lesseps
was the president of the Geographical Society (Société de Géographie)
of Paris and almost 75 years old.
The Society organized an international congress to study
the accumulated knowledge of possible routes for an
inter-oceanic canal and make a definitive recommendation for the
best one. The
American delegates favored a Nicaraguan route that included a
locks-type canal design and the use of Lake Nicaragua for ship
navigation. But de
Lesseps favored the findings of a Frenchman named Lucien
Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, who recommended building a sea-level
canal across Panama. Coincidentally, the rights for building a canal in Panama
belonged to Wyse and a group of French investors, while rights
for Nicaragua belonged to the Americans.
The promoters founded
a public company, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique.
However, the new company had difficulty raising funds
through stock sales. De
Lesseps reasoned that sales would improve if he personally
inspected and approved the project, so he sailed for Panama,
taking his young wife and three children to show that he was not
afraid of the fevers that gave Panama such a dangerous
arrived on December 30, 1879.
During the train ride
from Colon to Panama City, the passengers had to leave the train
at Barbacoas and walk over a damaged bridge that spanned the
Chagres River in order to board another train waiting on the
other side. As they
walked across 600-foot-long bridge, they looked 40 feet down to
the sedate river below, hardly believing that it could rise to
cover the tracks, as it had in November.
The tropical rains had been so intense that the mighty
Chagres had risen 46 feet, covering the tracks with six feet of
water and damaging the bridge.
The incident should have sounded a clear warning to de
Lesseps about the forces of nature at work in Panama; but he
arrived at the end of December, dry season had already begun,
and the sunny days painted a misleading rosy picture.
On January 1, New
Year’s Day, 1880, de Lesseps’s young daughter, Ferdinande,
officially inaugurated the start of construction of the
inter-oceanic canal during a formal ceremony.
Unfortunately, she was not able to dig the first dirt
from the banks of the Rio Grande River – the Pacific terminus
of the new canal – as had been planned.
Delays had caused the steamboat full of celebrities to
leave the dock very late and miss the high tide, making it
impossible to reach the spot chosen for the ceremony.
In order to save the day’s festivities, the ceremony
took place on board the boat, and the child ended up swinging a
shiny ornamental pickax brought over from France into a
champagne crate filled with sand.
Conveniently, enough champagne had been consumed to
provide the empty crate, and the formally dressed ladies and
gentlemen were spared from disembarking onto the muddy
inauguration was an ironic foreboding of events to come.
Deception, lack of solid engineering and a taste for
expensive trappings would eventually result in failure for de
Lesseps and his company.
While in Panama, De
Lesseps met with his engineers and worked out a final route that
would begin at Gatun on the Chagres River and roughly follow the
same route as the railroad to Cruces, crossing the Continental
Divide through a seven-kilometer-long tunnel at Culebra.
They also definitively decided on building a sea-level
canal. De Lesseps’
public relations journey worked, for upon returning to France
and declaring the project feasible, stock sales skyrocketed and
financing was ensured. Thus
began the project, with two major flaws from the very start:
the choice of building a sea-level canal instead of a
locks-type canal, and deception of the public through the press.
A third flaw was their inability to control deadly fevers
on the isthmus.
and in 1881 the French company purchased the Panama Railroad for
more than $20 million to support the excavation effort.
By 1883, some 10,000 men were employed, and the next year
brought an all-time high of 19,000 workers, mostly from Jamaica
and the West Indies.
Almost right away, in
June 1881, the first worker succumbed to yellow fever.
The idea that a mosquito, the Aedes aegypti,
spread the yellow fever parasite would not be proven until 1901
(by Dr. Walter Reed working in Cuba).
While working in India in 1897, another doctor, Ronald
Ross, discovered that the Anopheles mosquito carried
malaria, but it took a long time to convince the general public
that mosquitoes and not “tropical vapors” triggered these
Malaria quickly became
the main killer of French canal laborers and engineers alike,
with the death toll from both malaria and yellow fever peaking
in 1885. The French
hospitals in Colon and Ancon unknowingly contributed to their
spread. To keep
ants and other bugs from crawling into the beds, the staff
placed the four bed posts in bowls of water.
The stagnant water provided a mosquito-breeding
environment right next to the already infected patients.
Upon hatching, the mosquitoes had only to bite the
nearest patient to become infected with yellow fever or malaria
parasites and begin spreading them.
The true number of
dead during this time will never be known, but an estimated
1,300 died in 1883. By
1884, forty-eight officers of the company had died of yellow
fever, and laborers were dying at a rate of perhaps 200 a month.
Later, Dr. William Crawford Gorgas would review the
French hospital records and estimate that perhaps as many as
Meanwhile, work in the
most problematic area, Culebra at the Continental Divide, did
not progress well because of repeated landslides.
By 1887, it was apparent to the engineers that a
sea-level canal was not feasible or affordable, and the company
began to suffer economically.
Engineers began designing a new canal that would use a
series of 10 locks to lift ships over the Divide.
Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, won
the contract to construct the locks.
In 1889, the French
canal company ran out of money before it could make progress
with the locks scheme. Shareholders
voted to dissolve the Compagnie Universelle.
The failure caused a major scandal in France, with
hundreds of middle-class families who had invested in canal
stock losing their entire savings.
It came to light that the French promoters of the effort
had been paying the media to write favorable articles designed
to increase stock sales. This revelation opened a court case in which de Lesseps and
his son, Charles, were accused of misleading the public and
bribing the press. They
were tried and convicted of fraud and breach of trust.
Further attempts to
continue the work under a new company founded by Charles de
Lesseps, the Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama, ended in
failure in 1894. Negotiations
with U.S. President William McKinley for the Americans to buy
the rights and equipment from the French began in 1898.
But the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission was wary about
Panama and still favored a Nicaraguan route.
The assassination of
U.S. President William McKinley in 1901 catapulted his vice
president, Theodore Roosevelt, into the presidency.
Roosevelt strongly supported the construction of a canal
to strengthen U.S. dominance of the oceans, and thought the
Panama route was viable. But the U.S. Congress was leaning toward choosing a route
across Nicaragua. To
make a point that Panama was geologically more stable,
supporters of the Panama route sent each senator a letter with a
postage stamp depicting Nicaragua’s active Momotombo volcano
to remind them of earthquake dangers in Nicaragua. The message struck a nerve, for the senators chose the Panama
route by an eight-vote margin.
When Colombia balked at signing a favorable treaty, U.S.
diplomats began courting a faction that supported Panama’s
independence from Colombia.
On November 3, 1903,
Panama declared independence from Colombia and, with the help of
the United States, won it without bloodshed.
Just one month later, on December 2, Panama ratified the
Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granting the United States the rights
to build a canal and also a concession in perpetuity for control
of both the canal and a “Canal Zone.”
The Zone included a 10-mile-wide strip of land across the
isthmus, the centerline of which would be the canal itself.
The Zone included a
large portion of the almost forgotten Las Cruces Trail
stretching from the Chagres River at Gorgona through Cruces
toward Panama City. When
the Chagres River was dammed at Gatún in 1912, the resulting
reservoir would flood Gorgona, but the trail from Cruces toward
Panama City lay on higher land and was preserved.
Because of the Zone’s policy to leave the 10-mile-wide
strip largely undeveloped in order to protect the Canal
watershed, remaining traces of the trail stayed undisturbed in
the park-like preserve. Portions
of the cobblestones are still visible to hardy hikers who enter
the forest from the Forest Preserve Road for the long trek
toward the Chagres River.
When the U.S. canal
construction effort began on May 4, 1904, one of the first great
challenges was to rid the isthmus of yellow fever and malaria.
Sick men could not work, and few would willingly sign on
to work in a death trap. Fortunately,
Roosevelt sent Colonel William Crawford Gorgas to organize
health care for the project.
Doctor Gorgas arrived from Havana, Cuba, where he had
worked with Dr. Walter Reed in stopping yellow fever and malaria
epidemics by cleaning up garbage and other mosquito-breeding
areas. Working in
Panama City, Colón and all the construction work sites, Dr.
Gorgas set about installing drainage ditches, eliminating
standing water and fumigating to kill the mosquitoes.
By 1905, yellow fever was completely wiped out and
malaria was under better control.
In 1906, President
Roosevelt visited Panama to see “his” canal.
The trip was historical because he was the first
president to leave the continental United States while in
office. He made a
point of visiting the excavation sites, and took advantage of a
photo opportunity when, wearing his white suit, he sat at the
controls of a huge excavator and operated the controls.
choices for chief engineer of the construction, William Wallace
and then John L. Stevens, both civilians, resigned before the
first three years of construction had passed.
Exasperated, Roosevelt appointed an army colonel, George
W. Goethals, to the post. Goethals
vowed to stay with the project until it was done, and he was
successful. One of
his major changes in the original design was to widen the size
of the locks chambers from 95 to 110 feet.
He did so at the recommendation of the U.S. Navy to
accommodate the USS New Jersey, a new Navy ship that was
still under design but would have a beam of 108.1 feet.
The American locks
design called for the damming of the Chagres River to create a
freshwater lake 80 feet above sea level.
Ships would be lifted by locks at the Atlantic entrance,
cross the lake and go through a narrow, 8.5-mile-long channel
cut through the Continental Divide before being lowered to sea
level again. The
dam was placed at Gatún, one of the settlements along the river
portion that connected with the Las Cruces Trail.
As the water rose, it covered the original town of Gatún
as well as other towns along the way:
Lion Hill, Ahorca Lagarto, Bohío Soldado, Frijoes,
Tabernilla, Barbacoas, Gorgona and Matachin. Today, the relatively new town of Gamboa sits at the
confluence of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal right in
the middle of the isthmus, and is located quite close to the
original town of Cruces, which escaped inundation.
The Panama Canal
officially opened for business on August 15, 1914.
The date coincided with the 395th anniversary of the
founding of Panama City by Pedrarias, the Spaniard who had
ordered the building of the first Camino de Cruces trail between
Portobello and the shores of the Pacific.
Almost four centuries had passed, and the Canal
symbolized a new kind of gold route for Panama – one that
would attract international commerce to its shores and renew its
importance as a link between two oceans. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I eclipsed the happy
news and disrupted normal peacetime shipping traffic.
The new all-water
route was a success despite these quiet beginnings.
The United States continued to operate the Canal for 86
years, following a policy of complete neutrality toward all
ships arriving for transit.
resented having their country split in two, with the Canal Zone
serving as barrier to both local residents and commercial port
development along the waterway. After years of resentment and conflict, Panama convinced the
United States that it could and would run the Canal. U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama General Omar Torrijos
signed a treaty in 1977 in which the United States vowed to turn
over operation and ownership of the Panama Canal to the Panama
government at noon on December 31, 1999.
After 22 years of preparation, the event was carried out,
with Carter returning to the isthmus and symbolically signing
the final transfer papers with Panama’s first woman president,
Although the Canal
Zone ceased to exist, Panama established three parks that help
protect the forest and the Las Cruces Trail on the eastern side
of the Panama Canal. On
May 27, 1980, the Panama government established the
22,104-hectare Soberanía National Park that stretches from the
center of the isthmus toward Colon.
Five years later, it protected 265 hectares of forest
adjacent to Panama City and named it the Metropolitan Nature
Park Trail. The
4,000-hectare Las Cruces Trail National Park was created on
December 30, 1992, and provides a vital forested link between
the Metropolitan and Soberanía parks.
It also contains and protects a large portion of the
original Las Cruces Trail.
Visitors to the trail
fill their senses with all the sights, smells and sounds that
Spanish conquistadors and other gold seekers experienced.
The trail and the Panama Canal that parallels its course
remain historical and modern symbols of the 400-year spanning
horse- and sail-power to computers and space-age technology.
Four centuries ago, explorers sought the link between the
oceans; today, perhaps they seek the link between worlds.