Sometimes it took more than one try to accomplish that task. Cargo specialist Jean Piedescalzo, who numbered among her duties the job of getting Cristobal passengers and their belongings from the ship to the terminal, recalls one particular man who debarked with six dogs in tow. In the confusion of getting the dogs off the ship and into Jean's waiting van, the man forgot his wife. Jean had to make another trip back to the ship to pick her up. Patience and good humor have been characteristics of other staff members who served the Panama Canal community in such ways as helping to find lost shipments of household goods and arranging hotel reservations and air transportation for passengers who missed the Cristobal’ S sailing.
On one occasion the staff went so far as to track down a bejeweled pet poodle that had jumped from the arms of a boarding woman passenger into the Mississippi River and had swum upstream against the current until he was out of sight. The crews aboard two tugboats went out to search for the dog, but came back empty handed. It took reassurances from the shore staff that everything possible would be done to find the dog to convince the hysterical woman to board the Cristobal without her beloved pet. Food was put in various areas of the port, and on the third day the pooch appeared, apparently no worse for his taste of life on the Mississippi. The poodle was sent by plane to his mistress on the Isthmus.
Heading up the shore staff was general agent Joseph Quintas, who had regular dealings with local employees of the Storehouse and Water Transportation divisions in expediting supplies to the Canal.
With the retirement of the Cristobal, the job of carrying supplies to the Panama Canal and its employees and transporting their vehicles and household goods has been taken over by a vessel under contract with the Defense Transportation System. The Water Transportation Division has been abolished, but the New Orleans office continues many of its past functions as part of the Storehouse Division.
While it's the end of the line for the 42-year-old Cristobal, the memories she left with Canal employees will last a lifetime.
The retirement of the SS Cristobal this year brings to an end 133 years of U.S. Government sponsored steamship service between the United States and the Isthmus of Panama, a service that had its beginnings in March 1848, a year before the discovery of gold in California. Even then, the Congress of the United States realized the value of the Isthmus of Panama in providing a rapid means of communication between the east and west coasts of the country (which at that time numbered 29 states) and authorized the Navy to contract for the carrying of mail by steamer from New York and New Orleans to California and Oregon, via the Isthmus.
The same realization of the value of the Isthmus as a convenient route to the west coast led the following year, in 1849, to the commencement of work on a railroad across the Isthmus. The Panama Railroad Company was, however, a private corporation, established under an act of the New York legislature and incorporated under the laws of New York. One can imagine the jubilation of the stockholders when the news came later that year that gold had been discovered in California.
During the construction of the railroad, the company chartered more than 100 vessels to carry supplies and soon realized that it would be convenient to have ships of its own. One of its first maritime ventures was in 1850, when it began operating two small steamers on the Chagres River. One of them was used to tow barges in connection with the construction work, but the other was put to work carrying passengers upriver to a point below Gorgona, about halfway across the Isthmus, from which point travelers rode mules or walked the rest of the way.
The Panama Railroad Company was a moneymaker from the start, and travelers paid $5 just to walk the right of way before the trains started running. Soon after the railroad opened, in 1855, the company saw a need for its own steamship line to serve shippers and to promote business for the railroad. The next year the company founded the Central American Line, which in time operated steamers on a route, which included all of the Pacific coast ports between Panama and Acapulco.
In 1881, the French Canal Company obtained control of the Panama Railroad Company, but the company continued to function under principally United States management. The Railroad got out of the steamship business for a while, content to depend upon the services of the Pacific Mail Company, a private, government subsidized line; but in 1893 the Railroad started the Columbian Line between New York and Colon, and in 1896, it was renamed the Panama Railroad Steamship Line.
Among the ships acquired when the Columbian Line was founded were the Allianca, the Advance, and the Finance, which ten years later were to transport thousands of workers to the Isthmus to take part in the construction of the Canal. In 1904, when the United States purchased the French holdings, the railroad and its steam ships became the property of the United States. In 1905, the steamers Mexico and Havana were purchased from the Ward Line and renamed Colon and Panama, and in 1908, the freighters Shawmut and Tremont were purchased from the Boston Steamship Company and renamed Ancon and Cristobal.
These namesakes of the last three Panama Canal ships were used in those early days to carry heavy cargoes of machinery, cement and other building materials for the construction effort. The Ancon made history when she left Cristobal pier on the morning of August 15, 1914, to make the first official transit of the Panama Canal. Actually, her sister ship the Cristobal had transited the Canal some days earlier, on August 3, in an unpublicized test to make sure that everything would work. Credit also goes to the Allianca, which was the first ship put through a lock. She was locked through Gatun Locks from sea level to Gatun Lake and back on June 8, 1914.
A slump in world trade in the early 1920s, together with the decline in cargo to the Canal Zone following the end of the construction of the Canal, resulted in a reduction in the fleet of the Panama Railroad Steamship Line. The Allianca and Advance were taken out of service. The Finance had sunk in New York harbor in 1908.
The Ancon and Cristobal, reconditioned for passenger/cargo service at a cost of $1 million each, continued to provide service from New York to the Isthmus until 1939, That year they were replaced by three first-class, cargo/passenger ships, the Cristobal, the Panama and the Ancon. These sister ships were constructed by the Shipbuilding Division of Bethlehem Steel at Quincy, Mass, at an approximate cost of $4 million each, paid for out of the earnings of the Panama Railroad.
The Cristobal, the third and last of the ships to be constructed, slipped into the water on March 4, 1939, after Mrs. Clarence S. Ridley, wife of the Canal Zone Governor, shattered a bottle of champagne on her bow. The Cristobal sailed from New York in late August, her arrival eagerly awaited by many an Isthmian ready to make the return trip to attend the World's Fair.
The new ships were the first to be built in an American shipyard under the stringent safety regulations outlined by the United States Maritime Commission. Widely acclaimed as the safest and most modern of their time, the vessels were, in the words of the Panama Railroad Steamship Line's Vice President T. H. Ross bottom, "a fleet of ships as beautiful and modern and advanced in New World comforts as American skill and ingenuity could make them."
Completely fireproof from stem to stern, they marked the beginning of a new era in shipbuilding in world standards of safety, efficiency, and attractiveness and were unique in the spaciousness and comfort of passenger accommodations. Differing only in their interior decor, they featured air-conditioned public rooms, a bathroom for each stateroom, and furnishings of fireproof materials. They had eight veranda suites overlooking the sea, with a cluster of four large staterooms around each veranda; unusually wide, glass-enclosed promenades; spacious sun decks; a tiled swimming pool; a children's playroom, and many other innovations seen only on the transatlantic luxury liners of the day.
The vessels, each with its dove grey hull, white superstructure and tan funnel with silver bands, were the cooperative effort of well-known naval architect George Sharp and Raymond Loewy, a famous industrial engineer of his time.
In the years prior to the acquisition of the three new vessels, the old Ancon and old Cristobal had offered 10-day, round-trip voyages between Cristobal and New York, with Portau-Prince, Haiti as a port of call on both southbound and northbound sailings.
When the new ships were put into service, the Panama Railroad Steamship Line shortened its name to the Panama Line and for the first time advertised its steamship service to lure the tourist trade. The New York to Panama cruises featuring sightseeing tours of Port-au-Prince became very popular. In addition to passengers, the ships carried tons of bananas from Central America and raw cotton, coffee, sugar, plantains and lumber that were loaded on at Port-au-Prince. The vessels were earning their keep.