of adequate housing needed by the Silver People.
In Colon it was especially pressing.
Top shows the dwellings for the West Indian
canal workers built during the French Period (1880-1889).
The bottom shows the squalor of the “Silver” housing
areas in Colon townships.
Images thanks to George Westerman
In 1915, soon after the Canal was inaugurated, a housing survey conducted throughout the Canal Zone pointed out the urgent need for more and better housing arrangements for Atlantic side towns. At the time, the population of Fox River was 932 and Camp Bierd was 1,818.
The survey found that 500 apartments were needed for married employees in Fox River and Camp Bierd and that the barracks in Camp Bierd were filled beyond their capacity. To meet the immediate housing needs of the silver population, the Canal Administration acquired a huge structure of 140 rooms, known as the “Long Building” or Noah’s Ark.
The first permanent town for “silver” workers was built in a landfill to the south and east of the Ark. The fill consisted of hard-packed dirt excavated from the U.S. Army’s construction of Fort Davis, north of the town of Gatun. This first town, built between 1919 and 1921, initially consisted of thirty-nine 12-family houses and ten 32-room bachelor barracks. For some time, this new town and its streets remained unnamed, but was referred to in Canal Zone files as Silver Town, Cristobal Silver Townsite, and “The Folks River End of Manzanillo Island.” Eventually, its residents took matters into their own hands and named it Silver City.
As we previously mentioned, the first reference to Silver City with a capital “C” appears in July 1921, when it was used on official correspondence. Silver City’s streets were initially numbered and lettered, but its residents eventually also named the streets on their own initiative, so it was only a matter of time before names like Alligator Street (now St. Kitts), Wall Street (now Jamaica Street) emerged. Wall Street was purportedly where more affluent Silver Citonians, like the blacks from the U.S. who were classified as Gold Roll but lived amongst the Silver People of Colon.
Silver City continued to grow and in 1933 it acquired its first suburb—Silver City Heights. Though the difference in elevation is hardly perceptible, the new settlement’s name was also of local coinage. Most of the buildings in Silver City Heights were two-story 12-family quarters, designed primarily to accommodate the families still living in Camp Bierd. The remaining barracks were later used during the increased port activity related to the Third Locks Project and the Second World War, but after the war, many of Camp Bierd’s buildings were demolished, with sparse housing remaining in old Navy barracks which came to be known by local whites as the “Vatican City”.
The great Colon fire, however, of April 15, 1940, which, I recall, swept through the heart of Colón, drove hundreds of families from their homes. Many of these families, like my grandfather Seymour Green, were Canal employees. My sister and I were living with my grandparents and my aunts at the time and I remember that within, not days, but hours, hundreds of tents went up in a row right in front of our building in Melendez Park. The tent city extended from just south of Silver City Heights into our neighborhood to shelter Colón’s refugees.
Although there was no fire damage to our apartment, many other families lost their homes as the city of Colon attempted to go back to normal. Immediate and strict restrictions and a general curfew was imposed to control the incidence of looting and burglary for the safety of the fire victims. A few months later, in the nearby Silver area 36 cantonment-type quarters were built to provide more permanent shelter. At first, each house had 12 apartments. In the early 1950s, however, these quarters were remodeled to house only four or six families each and to extend their useful life.
This story will continue.