The ruins of Portobelo and the Transcontinental Train

Join us today on a visual tour of the ruins of Portobelo, to discover stories of Spanish conquerors, pirate attacks and times long past, and then return to the Pacific coast on the transcontinental railway. Click on the pictures to get a full-screen slideshow view.


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A Fantastic Journey: Part 4

The Pirate Trail: Fort San Lorenzo, Portobello and a Train Ride to Colon

By Louie Celerier

Up and at them by 6:15 AM when EcoCircuitos came for us at the Hotel Marbella for our trip to the Atlantic side.
We began by boarding the train at Corozal. The train station is the old Army Commissary at that location. When I was stationed at Fort Clayton in 1957-­58 we used to buy our groceries there. Now, the building has been renovated and makes up a nice and comfortable station, very clean, cheery and with a nice gift shop. The train left right on time at 7:00 AM and we were lucky to get a good seat in the domed car. The cars are all very clean, look new and extremely good looking. Coffee was free, served by very attractive conductors, but the sweet rolls were for sale.
The view from the domed car was wonderful, but the glass impeded my photography, so I walked down to an open platform which was just perfect for my needs. Surprisingly, the morning was extremely cold. My guess was in the very low 70s, but the wind chill made it seem colder. I was, again,shooting film like crazy as I did not want to miss anything. I would recognize certain points, others gave me no indication as what they were.
Passing by Fort Clayton, I spotted the Headquarters building where I worked while stationed there. Then came the tunnel, which flooded the mind with memories, then Pedro Miguel and again the bridge at Gamboa over the Chagres River. From there on it was a wonderment of jungle, unfamiliar side roads (I never saw Frijoles Station), swamps, lake inlets, ships in the distance transiting the Canal and finally, Colon. The whole trip was over in about 50 minutes and it was too short to suit me.
The Colon station is quite a bit before entering the city itself and it is just an open siding. I immediately spotted the EcoCircuitos guide, who had driven from Panama to pick us up and take us to San Lorenzo and Portobello.
Taking the old familiar route, we crossed the Gatun Locks bridge, which is still a one lane swing bridge at the bottom of the last lock. Naturally, we had to wait until all traffic coming our way had gotten through before we got the green light to move ahead. Proceeding to Fort Sherman, we took the little unpaved road to Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres on the Atlantic Ocean. No sooner had we entered the forest than we ran into a group of howler monkeys … and were they making a racket. I had never met with these creatures, even though I had been to San Lorenzo many other times. But they were there on this day and they were loud. They were scrambling all over the branches on top of us. We, naturally, had to stop and try to take photos and listen to them. We also spotted some beautiful blue butterflies as a bonus.
Fort San Lorenzo reeks with history, as always. It is too bad that they cannot conserve this place on a permanent basis and make it more accessible for tourists. Since I became aware of the place ages ago, it has been the same story … they clean it and repair it one year, then forget about it for five. And every time they clean it up, some small part of it gets destroyed. If nothing is done on a permanent basis soon, it won’t be long before there is nothing more than a pile of rocks left. I hope this does not happen.
There is a man living in a small house nearby now. He has a restroom which he lets the public use for 25 cents a go. It is nothing more than an outside toilet dug out of the ground. But it is better than nothing. He also has a couple of coconut trees and we bought some “pipas”. They were delicious and Gene was able to see what a coconut is before it dries up to the stage one gets here in the States. Leaving Fort San Lorenzo, we went on to old Fort Gulick and the Melia Hotel, which used to be a school for the military of Latin American countries, I believe. The place has been remodeled and beautified and they certainly did a good job of it. The buffet there was $16 per person, all one could eat, and it was out of this world! There were all sorts of salads to choose from, appetizers, main dishes, soups, and desserts. We stuffed ourselves before deciding that we better get going on to Portobello.
It was a pretty ride to Portobello on the coastal road, once passing Sabanitas. The forts remain the same and, again, reeking in history. We poked around in the forts on the West bank, where the town is located, then we rented a boat, with two “guides”, to go across to the East side of the little bay to visit the two lower forts there. We did not have time, nor energy, to climb to the top fort as my son Glenn and I did in 1984. Returning to the West bank, we visited the little museum in the Custom House, which was rebuilt by the Spanish Government as a gift to Panama a few years ago. The exhibits were interesting, but the video presentation was excellent.
After having a cold drink with our “guides” and car watchers, it was time to go and return to the city by car. The highway is in good shape and we had no difficulties. That night we had dinner with my cousin Marcela Azcarraga, who also had as guests my cousin Dickie Azcarraga and a second cousin, Mimi Diaz. Her helper Zaida had helped make the dinner and it was all very good and I enjoyed being with them and meeting Mimi for the first time.

It was an outstanding day and the train ride was the frosting on the cake.

Every Week we publish part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything!

The Streetcars (Tranvias) of Panama

By Louie Celerier

There are few of us left that remember riding in the streetcars (tranvias) of Panama.  Those of us that rode in these vehicles remember the fun it was regardless of the destination or the reason for the ride.  It did not matter. What mattered was that, whenever we needed to go anyplace, we would ride the “tranvia”.  Notes from others that enjoyed these mechanical caterpillars recall the routes which included  such landmarks as the Café Coca-Cola, The French Bazaar, the sweetshop La Gran Via, the Kiosk of Mr. Mejia (always wearing a beret) where one could acquire apples, pears, grapes, sodas, newspapers, magazines and comic books, La Flor Panameña, Farmacia Preciado and La  Central de Lecherias to name a few.  All that, and much more, within the reach of those that were lucky enough (in my boyhood opinion) to ride the tranvias.  But I came too late to enjoy them very long.  By 1941 they were gone (1).

II. My Recollections

For me, the era of the streetcars, or Tranvias, in Panama was from 1932 until Saturday, May 31, 1941, when, at midnight, service ceased forever. Thus, my recollections begin later as I grew old enough to start appreciating their existence. In my fading memory, I remember the streetcars as a Sunday afternoon family fun diversion, riding through downtown and then heading to Balboa, in the then Panama Canal Zone. As time went by, I came to realize it was also a means of transportation to downtown; trips, by the way, which except for the ride, I did not enjoy much as they involved visiting fabric shops. There, my mother would purchase the necessary items to make us clothes, but this shopping also represented long waits in the store, with nothing to do, while my mother looked around and conversed with the help, who were also friends of the family. Eventually the streetcars also meant a way of getting home from school until the day the service was discontinued.

The Routes: The routes I remember from my days using the trolleys were only two: (1) From SABANAS to PALACIO and (2) from BELLA VISTA to BALBOA.

The SABANAS to PALACIO route started around the area of Villa Hermosa, close to the little church of Maria de Lourdes and followed Via España all the way to El Casino. Then it went on Central Avenue to Santa Ana Plaza, Cathedral Plaza and the Palacio de Justicia by the National Theater, near the old Union Club. (If you notice errors in my descriptions, please note that my recollections are from when I was some 4-5 years old until I was 9).

The streetcar station in my neighborhood

This was a very familiar view to me. The pick-up is in front of the grandiose Fuerza Y Luz (Power & Light) building across the street from the Cecilia Theater. It was a favorite place to wait for the trolley because it was always cooler inside and they had an iced water fountain. There are two sets of tracks here and you can see two trolleys in the background going in opposite directions.

The BELLA VISTA to BALBOA route started at the old Miramar Club/Colegio Miramar by Parque Urraca on 46th Street. It joined the SABANAS-BALBOA tracks at Via España near the station in front and across the street from what was then “La Central de Lecheria” on the corner of Via España and Calle 45. Calle 45 went over the hill and joined Simon Bolivar Avenue. This station served as a transfer point if you wanted to go to Sabanas or Palacio, or vice-versa. The BALBOA route then continued on the same direction as the PALACIOS route until reaching Santa Ana Plaza. There, in front of the French Bazaar, the route would switch to “C” Street for one block heading toward the Variedades Theater. It then made a sharp turn into 14th Street and another into “B” Street heading through Chorrillo into 4th of July Avenue. Crossing into the Canal Zone it took Balboa Road to La Boca Road ending up in La Boca near the ferry crossing. The turn from “C” Street into 14th Street always fascinated me. As the car turned, the roof would just barely miss the balcony of the house on the corner. Up until the last minute I felt sure it was going to hit it until the last second. Then it would complete the turn and miss it by what appeared to be a fraction of an inch.

The SABANAS-PALACIO route had a siding in front and across the street from the old Kennelworth Dog Race Track, which I believe is now the El Cangrejo area. There, the streetcar heading toward SABANAS would wait until the one heading to PALACIO would pass. Fortunately, a huge tree grew there giving a much appreciated shade. As a kid, it was fun to watch the conductor get off the trolley to switch the tracks in order to go into the siding and then on to the main line again. On Sunday afternoons,we could hear the din of people shouting and hounds barking as the races took place.

Interior of streetcar

At the end of each trolley route, it was also interesting to watch the conductor get off and turn the trolley pole around so the car could head in the opposite direction. The motorman would remove the electric power handle to take it to the opposite end of the streetcar. As he walked through the car, he would turn the backs of the seats so they would be facing to the front again. It was also fun to watch closely the motorman operating the electrical power handle and the big, long brake handle. And, naturally, the clanging bell was the frosting on the cake. I don’t remember one single ride I did not enjoy.

The Motorman: The Motorman and the Conductor wore a military cut khaki uniform consisting on regular long pants and a coat with a high collar so as to not require a tie with a “kepi” style cap. Because they looked military, I once asked my father if they could help the police in catching a criminal. Yes, he said, they could if necessary. One motorman especially comes to mind. He was a tall black West Indian, always very neat and with a waxed and pointed moustache. He looked as if he owned the car he drove and everyone respected his authority while in his car. But he was also well-liked, friendly and helpful.

The seats of the cars were made of tightly woven straw, and the backs would swing so that the passengers would always face the direction of travel. Whenever four of us traveled together, we would move the back of one seat so we could face each other.

Streetcar at Miramar School in BELLA VISTA

My School Route: I started using the streetcar to get home from school when I was transferred to the Colegio Miramar in Bella Vista for the third grade. When time came for me to use the streetcar to get home after school, I would catch the BALBOA trolley across the street from the school and ride up 46th Street until reaching the station across from La Central de Lecheria. There, I would get off and wait, with a few other students heading in the same direction as I, for the trolley going to SABANAS. While we waited, the trolley coming from SABANAS and heading to town would come by. Our daily entertainment consisted of placing rocks on the track to see them get smashed by that trolley as it went by. Once my trolley came, I would board and head for the little station at the entrance of my street, Via Porras.

One day, while in the third grade, a classmate named, I believe, Mario deDiego, his older brother and I, decided to walk home instead of taking the street car. We walked up Federico Boyd Avenue and then down to Via España, where the Del Carmen Church is now located. There, we picked up the trolley tracks and followed them to my street, Via Porras. And I then walked into the biggest scolding I ever got. Pulling out the trolley ticket to show the fare I had saved was no help. The trolleys ran a very tight schedule and, when I was not home at the appropriate time, my mother was very distressed for she knew I had missed the trolley and wondered why. I was sternly told never to do that again, and I never did.

Bella Vista to Panama ticket

The Tickets: My mother would purchase tickets at the Fuerza y Luz (Power & Light) Co. building, downtown across from the Cecilia Theater. This was an impressive building and, as a child, I loved to go in there because, it was always cool and they had an ice-water fountain. The cavernous inside with its very high ceiling in most of the building was the reason for this coolness. My aunt Maria Teresa “Chola” Azcarraga worked there in a cage where one paid the electric bill and where one could also buy the street car tickets at a small discount. I was always impressed by the big red rolls of tickets. Another relative named Graciela “Chela” Mendez also worked in this cage at the back of the building.

The front of the building, with its awning, provided a protected area under which we would wait for the streetcar in relative comfort from the sun or rain.

The Demise: It was to our great sorrow when we learned that the “tranvias” service was coming to an end. No longer would we listen for the screeching sounds as they went around sharp corners, no longer would we see sparks flying out of the wires as the trolley pole hit some contacts. Those leisure “paseos” on Sunday were gone giving way to the automobile which crowded out this revered method of transportation. After that fateful day in 1941, the streetcars were no more

III. The Eras Of The Streetcars In Panama City

According to Allen Morrison, who has made a most extensive study on the streetcars of Panama (1), there were two “distinct tramway eras, which correspond roughly to the two periods of construction of the Panama Canal.” He refers, of course to the 1880-1890 era of the French effort and the 1903-1999 period of the U.S. canal.

The French Era Tramway: During this period of the Panama city streetcars, Panama was still a part of Colombia. In 1889, when the French effort to build a canal across the Isthmus was already in financial troubles, the Ministry of Public Works in Bogota, capital of Colombia, granted permission to a group of Colombians to build a tramway in the city of Panama. Unable to get their finances in order, they transferred the franchise to a British group of investors based in London, England on October 22, 1892. The company, known as the United Electric Tramway Co., built a power plant and laid track along Central Avenue (2). Exactly where this track went, I do not know.

Celebration of the inauguration of service by the Panama Tramway Company, August 1, 1913.

The vehicles, though, were unique in that they got their power from the overhead lines not from the known roof-mounted bows and trolleys, but by means of a unique triangle mounted high above the car and held in place by a fixed pole on one side of the vehicle (see photo below).

French Era trolleys. Notice the triangle on top of pole which is attached to side of trolley.

The final failure of the French Canal Company as well as the 1000 Days War destroyed the small economy of the city and, with it, the solvency of the tramways company. By 1902, the line had ceased to exist.

The United States Canal Era: With the French out of the picture, the United States took over construction and operations of the new canal and, with it, came new prosperity to the now independent country of Panama. The need for a good transportation system within the city became a necessity and the government of Panama issued a permit to the Panama Tramway Co. which, on November 9, 1911, registered in New Jersey. Construction began soon afterward in 1912. The main routes would run from SABANAS to PALACIO and from BELLA VISTA to BALBOA using Central Avenue and Calle “B” as the main city arteries.

IV. The Routes

As stated before, the main routes of the tram system were from SABANAS – PALACIO and BELLA VISTA – BALBOA. (See Early Routes Map next page)

This is a 1915 photo and the Calidonia Bridge is still in place. Notice railings on right of photo. The streetcar coming from the Plaza 5 de Mayo, just behind it, will turn to our right, away from bridge, and head for Ancon (See Panama Streetcar Routes below). Notice the new train station on the left.

During the period that the Calidonia Bridge existed over the Panama Railroad tracks, the tram tracks could not get across the railroad tracks. In order for the SABANAS tram, heading south to PALACIO, to get to the other side and continue southward, it became necessary to use another route which had to go around the railroad marshaling yards. With the Casa Miller on its left, the street car would take Calle 23 Este, heading south toward the Tramway Company “Barn” (streetcar garage and repair shops). Then it would take Avenida Norte, enter Calle 15, zigzag into Calle 16 and re-enter Central Avenue continuing south toward Santa Ana Plaza. At Santa Ana Plaza, through a confusing re-routing of tracks, the SABANAS streetcar would continue south on Central Avenue to its destination at PALACIO.

The BELLA VISTA streetcar, coming south towards BALBOA would follow the same route, but split up at Santa Ana Plaza to continue its trip to BALBOA. On the reverse route, the street cars would again go through Santa Ana Plaza, but, this time, they would take Calle 13 (Salsipuedes) to go down to Avenida Norte in order to proceed north to its destinations.

There was another route that, beginning at Santa Ana Plaza, would head north on Central Avenue with ANCON as its destination. This route would go all the way to Plaza 5 De Mayo then swing into Calle 22-B and then Frangipani Street to its end. The Panama Streetcar Routes map shows that this route also circled Plaza 5 De Mayo. Additionally, there was also a spur going down from Central Avenue, at Casino, down Calle 34 to the Santo Tomas Hospital.

Once the Calidonia Bridge was replaced by a graded crossing, around 1920, the Tranvia track was extended to connect from Calle 22-B to Calle 23 Este. The Avenida Norte, Calle 13, Calle 15 and Calle 16 tracks were removed. Not long after, the tracks going to Ancon were also removed as were the tracks to the Santo Tomas Hospital.