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We Can Go Back - But, Our Home is Gone

We have all grown up with the adage, “You can go home, but you can’t go back” . . . for those of us who are ‘Canal Zone Brats’ - who were born and/or raised in the Panama Canal Zone - or ‘Zonians,’ who took jobs there as adults and raised families, or those military dependents stationed there and liked the lifestyle, feel that this saying has a special poignancy. Most of us truly cherish the memory of those years in the Zone. Millions of US military men and women rotated throught the Zone during their military service and it was a welcome respite from their spartan lifestyle. But today, that old adage has a melancholic twist.

We can go back to Panama, but we can’t go home. Our home, and the lifestyle we lived in the US Canal Zone, disappeared on Dec. 10, 1999.

Panama will enter the new millennium by incorporating the old Canal Zone into the Republic of Panama. Those of us born there, will always call Panama home - and the major portion of us, are cheering for Panama to become her very own country at long last. The Panamanian people have waited a long time for their turn to control their own destiny. We do not fault them for their nationalism, for Panama only became a separate country in 1903, when supported by the United States, her attempts to revolt from Colombia were finally successful. From her inception as a country, the United States has played a major and not always a welcome role in Panamanian affairs.

As with any event, depending on your perspective, interpretations can take differing twists at the time they occur, and this is later exaggerated by the personal and collective memory banks of history. So it is with the Canal and Panama over the past 90 odd years. Perhaps, it is at last time to lay all this to rest.

This highly charged and emotional relationship between the United States and the then District of Panama, New Grenada (Colombia) in 1849 . . .began when a group of American railroad men obtained a concession between the two countries to build a transit route across the isthmus of Panama. Not long after the Panama Railroad Company began construction of the railroad, gold was discovered in California. The Argonauts (or 49’s as they were later called) , in search of the fastest, safest route to the California gold fields began showing up by the boatload at the Caribbean town called Chagres. This shabby little village, at the mouth of the Chagres River was the starting point for their trek across the isthmus of Panama, by whatever means then available. Thus began the conflict between differing attitudes and mind sets, that was to set the tone for future relationships between these two very different cultures.

It is all too convenient to blame the turnover of the Panama Canal on the signing of the treaty between Carter and Torrijos on Sept. 7, 1977, as an inevitable consequence of the 1964 Riots over the right of Panama to fly her flag in the American Canal Zone. Far too many of my Zonian friends look only that far back for “why” the United States agreed to sign over the rights of the Canal to Panama. Far too many, blame ex-president Jimmy Carter - as if the treaty were something only he conceived and acted upon. The real reasons go back to 1849.

In late 1848, the news went out that gold was discovered at Sutters Mill in California - the race to get there was begun. The early groups heading for California were called Argonauts - a reference going back to Greek mythology and Jasons search for the Golden Fleece, the term never became popular and was replaced by “The 49ers”. Between December 1848 and the end of May 1849, 59 vessels had disgourged some 4,000 passenger at the little town of Chagres - hellbent to get across the isthmus and board another ship to California and her gold fields. The animosity of the Yankees toward the natives stemmed from their overwhelming and frantic obsession for speed in crossing before those comming behind them. These feelings were intensified by returning 49ers heading back east with their pockets full of gold. The animosity of the natives towards the Yankees came from their disregard and contempt for the Panamanians differing lifestyle and culture - tomorrow is always there. Statements made by certain men, such as the one reported in a journal by a traveler - “Whip the rascal, fire his den, burn the settlement, annex the isthmus” served to deepen the gap between the two cultures. Because of the many thousands of Yankee travelers making the crossing going or comming, the isthmus during the gold rush days, became known as “The Yankee Strip.”

But for whatever reasons, the American Era in Panama ended forever on December 10, 1999.

This also ended the United States’ only experiment in pure socializm as well - for the Canal Zone was a true company town, if you were not employed by either the Panama Canal or the United States governments, you could not live in the Canal Zone. All the residents needs were met with and by government services, from our hospitals, to our school systems, to the company grocery stores, movie theaters, swimming pools. Every bit of it was owned and run by Uncle Sam.

The Zonian is a dying breed of people, there shall be no more of us in the future . Is it any wonder then, that we cling so hard to our memories of a place out of time:

The Panama Canal Zone
Once there was a dream,
It became a reality.

Once there was a life,
It became a dream.

Those who have computers and have access to the Internet, can visit websites about the Canal Zone and Panama. These websites as a whole have become a virtual hometown. Of course the one I recommend, is the one owned by me and my best friend, Lesley Hendricks - at There you will find something on almost every aspect of growing up in the Canal Zone and Panama, from - fun things to historical articles about the men and women who went to Panama to help President Teddy Roosevelt “make the dirt fly “ in the “Big Ditch” so long ago - and articles about Panama and her culture. In our Photo Album, you can see for yourself, the things that we love and miss so much.

I do hope you visit, and enjoy learning about the greatest engineering feat in the world - and the people who helped it become a reality - who lived there, died there, loved there, raised families and were always proud to be Americans.

©Virginia Hollowell Hirons

Panama - More Than A Canal