Once known by the name of “The Other Side” or “El Otro Lado” Cristobal was once the swampy islet out on the Atlantic Ocean called Manzanillo. Upon completion of the railroad by the Americans in the 1850’s, however, the area or town became known as Aspinwall.
Actually, Cristobal is the northern most point of the entire Canal Area and once the railroad was completed the two sides of what became known as Colón were united in this small town which was the port of entry for rail travelers. During the French Era (1880-1889) the canal projects expanded the tiny town of “Old Cristobal” and further filled in the swamp areas and continued extensive dredging to gain ground for the Canal. From the dredging and spoil that they extracted from the construction areas they built up the coral reef area next to the Panama Railroad’s area of Colón. This is how Cristobal, today the Republic of Panama’s most important port, was created.
The name of Cristobal, however, replaced the name of Aspinwall as the Colombians, especially the Catholic Church in Colombia insisted that the area be named after Christopher Columbus, Cristobal Colón, and the Colombian government which oversaw this westernmost Departamento de Panamá, backed them up and refused to deliver mail to the town if the Americans did not acquiesce. It was known, officially, as Cristobal ever since although the American residents continued to call it Aspinwall for some time.
As a Silver Township we may follow some of it history, quite naturally, because of the employment that it offered both to Gold as well as to Silver Roll employees. Since Cristobal was absolutely vital to the Americans upon the acquisition of the Canal Zone “in perpetuity” from the Colombians, Cristobal became linked to the success of the Canal Construction Era (1904-1914). Cristobal, after all, was the port of entry for not only rail travelers and for shipments of mail but for the increased influx of Canal construction workers from the U.S. and from the West Indies as well as from other parts of the world. Cristobal was also the port of delivery for the vital equipment and supplies for the entire construction project.
Between 1906 and 1907 Cristobal, CZ saw enormous growth. It went from a town of 2,101, of which 489 were Americans, to a town of more than 4,000 of which only ¼ were American citizens; meaning that almost ¾ of the town were, more than likely, of West Indian origin. Housing became a crucial necessity over night and construction of residential facilities for both the Silver and Gold Roll were immediately undertaken.
The Silver Roll became the segregated part of town and for some time their housing arrangements, as with the single (bachelor) component of the work force, consisted of living in box cars until more adequate housing was offered. Having, at one time, lived in a box car in Bocas del Toro, I may add that it isn’t as squalid an arrangement as one may believe. The box cars can be kept clean and tidy and they tend to be cool inside in this hot, tropical climate. But for workers with wives and families this “temporary” arrangement would become wholly unsatisfactory for raising children.
The town continued expanding and by 1913 the Hotel Washington was built, thus opening more employment for especially the Silver Roll segment. Eventually the town had its own (segregated of course) commissaries and clubhouses and the Gold Roll had its post office, police, fire and railroad stations, churches, yacht club, YMCA, VFW, American Legion, several fraternal lodges and a Masonic temple. After the completion of the Canal (1914) the piers were built and the major steamship companies moved their offices in, thus transforming Cristobal into “Steamship Row. “
The expansion of Cristobal (1917-1938) out onto Colón Beach paved the way for the creation of the town of New Cristobal which was built to house the new facilities for the American employees (and some Silver Roll employees) who were involved in the new port activity in this bustling area. But the greatest transformation of the area came in 1955 when the town of Margarita was built. As a result of this construction as well as the Bilateral Treaty of 1955 and the U.S. Navy’s transfer of Coco Solo to the Canal Zone government, a major population shift occurred. Cristobal’s population decreased to 562 and New Cristobal’s to 1,130 in 1955.
By the 1960’s Cristobal, CZ had become an almost exclusively commercial and residential area but with very few residents. It became the focus of anti-American protests after the January 1964 “Flag Raising incident” in Balboa (Panama side). Although New Cristobal became an exclusive executive area for a small segment of the port business area, the rest of Cristobal as well as Colón, fell into economic decline.
In compliance with the Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaty provisions of 1977 Cristobal today is part of the city of Colón and despite the general decline in its economy and physical aspect, the Port of Cristobal continues to thrive.
This story will continue.