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MoreThan A Canal3

More Than A Canal - Page 3

Places of Interest

Las Cruces Trail: A large part of the Isthmus is centuries deep in the most dramatic kind of history, some of the most exciting of which revolved around Las Cruces Trail. Colonists, conquerors, exploiters, travelers, and various shades of brigands traveled the trail from the early 1500’s until the advent of the Panama Railroad in 1855. Present-day Isthmians who like jungle junkets frequently follow traces of the trail’s cobblestones, sometimes finding relics along the route left by the Conquistadores or Forty-niners. The trail intersects with Madden Highway and is marked by a sign and a canon.

The city of Panama, which served as a transit point for goods between Spain and her New World colonies, was founded by Spanish colonists from the Atlantic side of the Isthmus 5 years after the Pacific was first sighted by Balboa in 1513. Further Spanish exploration, aimed originally at finding a new route for the profitable trade with the South Seas Spice Islands, turned up rich treasures in Mexico, Peru, and Panama but failed to find an easy water route between the Pacific and Atlantic. As the hope of discovery of the “doubtful strait” became increasingly doubtful, attention was directed to land routes across the Isthmus for the transport of supplies to the Spanish colonists and conquerors and the movement of New World riches back to Spain.

El Camino Real (royal road) was an overland route established in 1540 after the founding of Nombre de Dios and Panama to connect these two Isthmian ports. The main Atlantic terminus was later transferred to Portobelo because of the better harbor there. The development of another route making use of the Chagres River had first been discussed soon after the founding of Panama and became a fact in 1530. A trading post was established at Venta de Cruces and a road was built by Indian slave labor from there to Panama. Las Cruces Trail was the overland portion of the route that led from the Atlantic coast up the Chagres River to the settlement of Cruces (on the Chagres river about 1 1/3 miles above the present town of Gamboa) or to Gorgona (almost 2 miles northwest of Gamboa on the present line of the Canal), and 18 miles overland to Panama.

Las Cruces Trail was the rainy season route, longer than El Camino Real but cheaper and more generally used for the transport of heavier commodities. The enormous quantities of gold and silver that were transshipped at Panama following Pizarro’s conquests in Peru starting in 1524 usually were transported on the Royal Road because of the timing of the shipments. Depredations on treasure-laden Spanish galleons by English corsairs and “sea rovers” of other nationalities resulted in the establishment in 1537 of a convoy system for vessels sent from Spain to pick up precious cargoes from the Isthmus and Mexico. The regular trips (usually semi-annual) of the well guarded treasure fleets up to 1748 were timed to arrive during dry season on the Isthmus to take advantage of favorable trade winds. In the wake of the Spanish and the gold came a succession of marauders, many of whom used Las Cruces Trail in the course of their depredations. First there were the corsairs of the 16th century, most notable of whom was Sir Francis Drake who followed the trail from Cruces for a bold but unsuccessful strike at a treasure-laden pack train from Panama. In the 17th Century there were the buccaneers, most famous of whom was Henry Morgan, who also chose the Las Cruces route for the trans-Isthmian trek that ended in the destruction of Panama City. In the 18th Century there were pirates, another brand of sea rover, who claimed allegiance only to themselves -like the robbers and bands of “untamed” escaped slaves who infested Las Cruces Trail throughout most of its existence. In the 19th Century more gold seekers followed Las Cruces trail to get across the Isthmus, this time Americans bent on the wealth to be found in the gold rush to California.

Old Panama: The capture and sack of the old city of Panama, is the second and climactic part of what is probably the best known story on the Isthmus.

Morgan waited on the island of Santa Catarina until he heard of the fall of Fort San Lorenzo, then advanced with a force of 1,200 freebooters up the Chagres River, although it was January and most boats had to be deserted because of the shallow water. In seven weary days, almost without food, Morgan’s forces reached the settlement of Cruces, abandoned and partly burned and stripped of all provisions. Two days later, they reached the savanna in front of the city of Panama, where they were met the following day by 500 horsemen and 2,400 Spanish foot soldiers. The city was almost completely destroyed by fire but no one knows who set it -retreating Spaniards, Morgan’s men, or possibly disaffected slaves.

In its heyday, Old Panama consisted of one main square and two smaller squares, a cathedral, five convents, a hospital, seven government buildings, a jail, more than 300 houses with tiled roofs and several hundreds smaller ones.

The city of Panama, now known as Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, was founded on August 15, 1519.

Panama City is comprised of three cities in one; Old Panama, Colonial Panama and Modern Panama. In Old Panama lie the ruins of the city which was sacked and destroyed in 1671 by Henry Morgan. Colonial Panama built 12 miles NW of Old Panama after its destruction, has narrow streets, wrought iron balconies, San Jose Church with its Golden Altar, the Flat Arch, Museums, the National Theater, the Cathedral, Frances’ Bolivar and Herrera squares, and Las Bovedas - the most spectacular section of this area, apart from the buildings and streets themselves, with its fortified walls and sentry posts which guarded the city on the seaward side. Here nearby in the Church of San Jose is the gold-plated altar which was originally in the cathedral of Old Panama. There are several stories of how the altar was saved from Morgan and his buccaneers, the most popular being that it was either painted black or buried until he left the city. Modern Panama contains tall buildings, hotels, casinos, nightclubs, departments stores, new hi-rise buildings, beautiful residences and restaurants to suit every taste.

Colon: Has a characteristic atmosphere of a port city, located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea ... from here begins the entrance to the Panama Canal. Colon owes its existence to the Free Zone and Cristobal. but it hasn’t always been that way. It started its municipal life as a railway terminal and a transit town for the “fortyniners” of the California gold rush. In those days it was named Aspinwall and became the Atlantic-side terminal in place of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios which had become impoverished and decayed as Spanish influence wanted and the importance of the Isthmus as a land-link between the two oceans decreased. When gold was found in California, the Isthmus became important again and provided a short route to the gold fields.

In 1850, William T. Aspinwal proposed and initiated the construction of the railway to link both coasts and a year later a new city, named after him, was born. Colon reached a peak of prosperity in WW II when it became a strategic point for troops and supplies moving to the Pacific war.

The most impressive building in Colon is the colonial-style Hotel Washington, originally built by the Americans. Across the street is the oldest church on the Atlantic-side, built by the Panama Railroad Co. Quaint and recently designated a national landmark; Christ Church By-The-Sea.

Colon’s inhabitants are predominantly of West Indian origin and their descendants were brought to Panama as workers on the construction of the Panama Railroad and later the Canal. English, with a Jamaican accent, is widely spoken in the town.

Portobello: When the Inca gold began to flow back for the Royal coffers in Spain it was landed at Old Panama and taken by mule across the Isthmus to Nombre de Dios to be reloaded aboard galleons for the voyage to Spain. IN 1596 Sir Francis Drake captured Nombre de Dios and set out overland to capture Panama City. However, Drake was defeated by Spanish forces in the mountains and forced to return to his ship where he became violently ill and died. The redoubtable seafarer was buried in the placid waters of the Bay of Portobello and a small island at the mouth of the bay which marks his watery grave is still called Isla de Draque or Drake’s Island. The next blow to Spanish prestige on the Isthmus came from a less gentlemanly adversary in the person of buccaneer Henry Morgan. Scorning Nombre de Dios, an unhealthy city which had lost much of its importance, Morgan captured Portobello in his first expedition against Panama in 1668. The plunder of Panama was complete and its own Governor later reported to his King that he had ordered the powder magazines set afire, which led to the total destruction of the city.

The once imposing city has reverted to what it was when Columbus discovered it - a fishing village - when the Americans built a temporary town there during the construction of the canal. They quarried seven million cubic yards of Porto Bello’s stone for the concrete mixers at Gatun, but left intact the ruins of the King’s Customhouse and the remains of the massive fortress on the peninsula of San Jeronimo, which commands what was once the world’s richest harbor.

Portobello [Porto Bello; Portobelo] has still anther attraction which stems from its seventeenth century heyday. Boatloads of tourists and supplicants from every port of the Caribbean converge there each October to attend the Festival of the Black Christ.
According to legend, a Seville galleon which visited the fair in 1660 tried five times to leave the harbor, and each time was beaten back by a sudden storm. On board it had a life-sized statue of Christ carrying the cross, which had been carved of coco-bolo wood for shipment to Spain. The sailors blamed the statue for the queer weather; they threw it into the harbor, and on the next attempt the ship cleared without trouble. The citizens of Porto Bello found the statue washed up on the shore -which was somewhat miraculous in itself, since coco-bolo does not float in water- and set it up in the Church of Jesus the Nazarene. It soon had a reputation as a healing shrine, which became world-wide in 1821 when a cholera epidemic swept the isthmus and left Porto Bello untouched.

For days preceding the climax of the festival on the 21st, thousands of visitors crowd the unpaved streets. Games of dice, cards, and roulette run continuously through the day and night. Down every alley is a crowd of shouting bettors around a cockfight. The cantinas sell more rum and beer now than throughout the rest of the year. It is a queer admixture of primitive gaiety and primitive faith.

In the church stands the Black Christ, so called not because the people of Porto Bello are almost entirely of African descent but because the statue’s naturally dark wood has blackened with age. For the occasion it is clad in a robe of scarlet trimmed with gold, to which the supplicants pin sketches of their afflictions, pictures of wayward lovers, names of race horses running at Juan Franco, and tickets for the next drawing of the National Lottery. At eight o’clock that night the ornate portals of the ancient church swing wide, and the statue moves out into the village, carried on a platform by scores of fanatics. Their bare feet sink deep in the mud as they stagger through the streets, which are lit only by thousands of votive candles in the hands of the pilgrims. The statue sways alarmingly overhead, and often seems about to topple over, but somehow they keep it erect. It is the height of the rainy season, in one of the world’s wettest spots; yet, it is claimed, the rain has always stopped during the procession. For four consecutive hours, during a time when a hour seldom passes without a shower, there is no rain. And the statue, say the people, refuses to return to the church until after midnight. Attempts have been made to carry it back earlier, but always an unseen force repels it from the threshold. When it has been replaced, the revelry of the day is resumed, to continue through the night. By the following noon the excursion vessels have, and Porto Bello settles back to fish and doze for another year.

Fort San Lorenzo: The fortress of San Lorenzo still frowns down upon the native village of Chagres across the river’s mouth. It was the last continental stronghold of Spain to be evacuated, two years after Bolivar’s victory at Ayacucho in 1826. No relic of America’s era of the Dons is more perfectly preserved. One may see very line of the castle, which was built after its predecessor was destroyed by Vernon’s colonials; it is probably the world’s finest remaining specimen of military architecture from the period just proceeding the introduction of rifled ordnance. Inside a moss-covered outer ring of stone, which served as the first line of defense, rise the massive walls, their sheerness broken only by tiny air vents. They converge upon a tower whose drawbridge in other days clanged down to span a moat which now is filled with debris. The groves and sockets worn into the stone by the bridge and its chains show clearly how the mechanism worked, although the iron parts have rusted entirely away. In the courtyard is the rock-lined water reservoir, and above it in the wall is a deeply etched coast of arms. Around the patio are gaping cavities in the stone, once closed by solid hardwood doors studded with ironwork, in which tons of gunpowder were stored. Above them stretches an open gallery, covered by overhanging arches of stone, in which the garrison slept. From here terraces lead up into the cells where prisoners were held; still embedded in the masonry are the rusty manacles which held head, wrists, and ankles flat against the wall. Below ground level are steep steps leading to the torture dungeons, in which are remains of various devices: a cage which holds its occupant on tiptoe by the chin, a wheel for breaking the bones of the arms and legs, a rack for pulling the limbs out of their sockets, an iron boot to be placed on the victim’s foot and heated to redness.

One can no longer venture down into the torture dungeons. But the rest still exists to fire ones imaginations of times long past.

There they stand, dotting the stage of the Chagres Theatre: the King’s Customhouse, the Cathedral of San Anastasio, the castle of San Lorenzo. They are the pebbles which the ebbing tide of empire has left upon the beach of time.

The above descriptions of Portobello and Fort San Lorenzo are from “The Chagres” written by John Easter Minter]