The Silver Townships- The City of Colon

Colon City around 1910 when it was mainly a West Indian city.

Colón is the port city on the Atlantic (Caribbean) coast of the Republic of Panama and is actually the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. The city is also the capital of the Province of Colon and has historically and by virtue of its population been recognized as Panama’s second major city.

The city was founded and developed by Yankee businessmen in 1850 to complete the construction of what would become the Panama Railroad, primarily to meet the demand for a fast route to California by the ever growing influx of passengers using the “Panama Route” to get to this coveted state of the union (the California 49ers). At least during its early years the town was called Aspinwall by the North American residents who had settled there. (See our earlier posts* regarding William Henry Aspinwall after whom the city was named). The Hispanic community always did refer to the city as “Colón” after Cristobal Colón or Christopher Columbus.

Before the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal, Colón was known as Manzanillo Island, an islet actually surrounded by Limon Bay, Manzanillo Bay and the Folks (Fox) River. The land, rock and other spoil from the canal construction begun by the French and continued and completed by the North Americans was used, in large part, to build up the City of Colon and other Canal Zone areas. Around 1882 Colon started taking shape as a massive earth platform built up and out into the harbor from spoil brought from Monkey Hill. Through the use of drainage projects this basically marshy area was transformed into a city complete with permanent buildings and suitable harbors connected to the mainland by a causeway.

In 1900 the population was some 3,000 people. It grew significantly with the building of the Panama Canal, and was 31,203 by the 1920 census. In 2000 it had a population of about 204,000 people. The majority of the city’s population has been and continues to be of West Indian and mestizo/hispanic ancestry but owing to the almost criminal neglect that the successive Panamanian governments have exercised over the city and province of Colón, the area has seen a tragic and overwhelming decline. Even today it is seen by most Panamanians and the Central government as the “Black” or “Chombo”* city although it is quickly seeing a demographic transformation that includes many mestizo and Indian residents from the provinces and from the Asian community.

As a Silver Township it was one of the important keys to the eventual building of the Panama Canal. As we have seen in earlier posts, the West Indian labor force was first introduced on a large scale to build the costly and labor intensive Panama Railroad. Thousands of workers, the majority of which were West Indian, met their deaths through the ravages of tropical diseases, horrific accidents both on the rails and generally work related.

Eventually the Silver population began settling their families in the segregated areas in and around the city and soon Colón, in its heyday, overshadowed its Pacific terminal entrance city of Panama. Colón saw some periods of prosperity and became home to dozens of night clubs, cabarets and movie theaters and it also became known for its citizens’ civic pride, orderly appearance and outstanding personalities.

Colón, in its periods of quick growth, has always been the focus of many devastating and widespread fires that have wreaked havoc in it s economy. Much of the city was burned during the Colombian Civil War or La Guerra de Mil Dias in 1885. Another tragic and massive fire in 1915 further blighted the city. Again, the great Colón fire of 1940, which I, as a small boy, was witness to, further reduced the residential living areas of the city although my family escaped relatively unscathed and we were able to move back into our apartment after the emergency was over.

* Chombo: originally a pejorative term for Blacks of West Indian ancestry. Today, although its use is prohibited in official documents and parlance, the term “Chombo” is often used as an endearment, a culturally recognized “panameñism.”

This story continues.

4 responses to “The Silver Townships- The City of Colon

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Hey Roberto,

    What was the birthrate? It had to be very high to compensate for all the loses.

    I guess that just so many men came to the area that they over came the population losses.

    What was the male to female ratio? What was the average life span? Did women live longer than men or did childbirth play a role in women life span.

    Colon was built on fill dirt? This answered my questions many posts back. So they built more land.

    This is great!

    Kyle & Svet

  2. Hi Kyle and Svet,

    These are very good questions which I, BTW, asked myself. Unfortunately back a few years when the Canal Zone reverted to Panama (1999) the records of births, deaths, marriages, personnel and court records from the Zone were all extracted and taken to the U.S. somewhere in Maryland (a federal agency). So that anyone wanting a copy of any of these records have to pay minimum $20.00 a shot and you have to know what you are looking for. Records for the “Silver” people, employees etc., were always extremely difficult to acquire.
    So that, I would love to have been able to answer these statistical questions but I’ve found it almost impossible to get to pursue.

    And yes, Colon was basically built up by landfill from the Railroad and later the Canal construction. It was once a small islet called Manzanillo.

    Best regards,

  3. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Oh, smack me on the head!! Yes, I remember that most people did not even have citizenship officially until recently. So the records are sparse at the best! Then with the taking away of records by the USA? Why did they not just make copies? Seems that it is still history of panama and the country. Seems that there would be family that was permanent in Panama! They have rights, and not have to have family records taken all the way to America.

    Ok; I have another question. Did the City of Colon have building structure problems by being built on fill dirt? I know that I lived by areas around Kansas City Mo. that had been built on fill dirt and the buildings suffered from multiple stress cracks and sink holes.

    Back in those days they would have problems to compact dirt. Also as they went out into the water did they have a method to keep the water from washing away the dirt easily?

    Good article, I am explaining it to Svet now. She likes to follow also!

    I will be back to keep on reading. The Winter Holidays are almost over. Russia likes their Holidays. 🙂

    Kyle & Svet

  4. The fire bu’n (as my grandfather calls it)

    He tells me this was actually arson. He says the Panamanian government wanted the space to build the 5th street park in Colon, and they decided to burn the people out. This, however, got way out of control. The fire basially ran from 4th or 5th to about 14th street. He also told me the U.S. offered to put out the fire before it spread that far, but the Panamanian goverment insisted on handling it on their own. Eventually they agreed to letting the U.S. help with putting out the fire, but by this time the fire spread more than 10 streets.