Panama Canal Zone

Panama Canal Zone

Coordinates: 9°07′03.61″N 79°43′12.60″W / 9.1176694°N 79.720167°W / 9.1176694; -79.720167

Zona del Canal de Panamá
Panama Canal Zone
Territory of United States

Flag Coat of arms
Flag Coat of arms
The Land Divided, The World United
Capital Balboa
 - Established 1903
 - Disestablished 1979
Today part of Panama

The Panama Canal Zone (Spanish: Zona del Canal de Panamá) was a 553 square miles (1,430 km2) unorganized U.S. territory located within the Republic of Panama, consisting of the Panama Canal and an area generally extending 5 miles (8.1 km) on each side of the centerline, but excluding Panama City and Colón, which otherwise would have been partly within the limits of the Canal Zone. Its border spanned two of Panama's provinces and was created on November 18, 1903 with the signing of the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty. When reservoirs were created to assure a steady supply of water for the locks, those lakes were included within the Zone.

On February 26, 1904, the Isthmian Canal Convention was proclaimed. In this, the Republic of Panama granted to the United States in perpetuity, the use, occupation and control of a zone of land and land under water for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation and protection of the canal.

From 1903 to 1979 the territory was controlled by the United States, which had built the canal and financed its construction. From 1979 to 1999 the canal itself was under joint U.S.-Panamanian control. In 1977 the Torrijos-Carter Treaties established the neutrality of the canal.[1]

Except during times of crisis or political tension, Panamanians could freely enter the Zone. In fact, normally anyone could walk across a street in Panama City and enter the jurisdiction. However, the 1903 treaty placed restrictions on the rights of Panamanians to buy at retail stores in the Zone.

During U.S. control of the Canal Zone, the territory, apart from the canal itself, was used mainly for military purposes; however, approximately 3,000 American civilians (called "Zonians") made up the core of permanent residents. U.S. military usage ended when the zone was returned to Panamanian control. It has now been integrated into the economic development of Panama, and is a tourist destination of sorts, especially for visiting cruise ships.

Notable people born in the Panama Canal Zone include Richard Prince, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Rod Carew, geologist Thomas H. Jordan, Edward A. Murphy, Jr. and John McCain, the Republican 2008 presidential candidate and US Senator from Arizona.

The largest U.S. Army unit based in the Canal Zone was the 193rd Infantry Brigade (Light), a mixed parachute-infantry/air-assault-capable light infantry unit. It was honored in 1994 as the first major unit to deactivate in accordance with the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 treaty implementation plan, The brigade was reactivated in 2007, tasked with conducting basic combat training for new US Army recruits.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman made a film about the Panama Canal Zone, entitled Canal Zone, which was released and shown on PBS in 1977.



Proposals for a canal

Proposals for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama date back to 1529, soon after the Spanish conquest. Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón, one of the lieutenants of conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, suggested four possible routes, one of which closely tracks the present-day canal. Saavedra believed that such a canal would make it easier for European vessels to reach Asia. Although King Carlos I was enthusiastic, and ordered preliminary works started, his officials in Panama soon realized that such an undertaking was beyond 16th century technology. One official wrote to Carlos, "I pledge to Your Majesty that there is not a prince in the world with the power to accomplish this".[2] The Spanish instead built a road across the isthmus. The road came to be crucial to Spain's economy as treasure obtained along the Pacific coast of South America was offloaded at Panama City and hauled through the jungle to the Atlantic port of Nombre de Dios (today Colón),[3] and though additional canal building proposals were made throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, they came to naught.[2]

The late 18th and early 19th century saw a number of canals built. The success of the Erie Canal in the United States and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America led to a surge of American interest in building an interoceanic canal. Beginning in 1826, American officials began negotiations with New Granada (present day Colombia and Panama), hoping to gain a concession for the building of a canal. Jealous of their newly-obtained independence, and fearing that they would be dominated by an American presence, New Granadan officials declined American offers. The new nation was politically unstable, and Panama rebelled several times during the 19th century.[4]

In 1836, US statesman Charles Biddle reached agreement with the New Granadan government to replace the old road with an improved one, or else a railroad, running from Panama City on the Pacific Coast to the Chagres River, where a steamship service would allow passengers and freight to continue to Colón. His agreement was repudiated by the Jackson administration, which wanted rights to build a canal. In 1841, with Panama in rebellion again, British interests secured a right of way over the isthmus from the insurgent regime, and occupied Nicaraguan ports that might be the Atlantic teminus of a canal.[5][6] In 1846, the new US envoy to Bogotá, Benjamin Bidlack was surprised when, soon after his arrival, the New Granadans proposed that the US be the guarantor of the neutrality of the isthmus. The resulting Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty allowed the US to intervene militarily to ensure that the interoceanic road (and when it was built, the Panama Railroad as well) was not disrupted. New Granada hoped that other nations would sign similar treaties, but the one with the US, which was ratified by the United States Senate in June 1848 after considerable lobbying by New Granada, was the only one.[7]

The treaty led the US government to contract for steamship service to Panama from ports on both coasts. When the California gold rush began in 1848, traffic through Panama greatly increased, and New Granada agreed to allow the Panama Railroad to be constructed by American interests. This first "transcontinental railroad" opened in 1850.[8] There were riots in Panama CIty in 1856; several Americans were killed. US warships landed Marines, which occupied the railroad station and kept the railroad service from being interrupted by the unrest. The US demanded compensation from New Granada, including a zone 20 miles (32 km) wide to be governed by US officials and in which the US might build any "railway or passageway" it desire. The demand was dropped in the face of resistance by New Granadan officials, who accused the US of seeking a colony.[9]

Through the remainder of the 19th century, the United States landed troops several times to preserve the railway connection. At the same time, it pursued a canal treaty with Colombia (as New Granada was renamed). One treaty signed in 1868 was rejected by the Colombian Senate, which hoped for better terms from the incoming Grant administration. Under this treaty, the canal would have been in the middle of a twenty-mile zone, under American management but Colombian sovereignty, and the canal would revert to Colombia in 99 years. The Grant administration did little to pursue a treaty, and in 1878, the concession to build the canal fell to a French firm. The French efforts eventually failed, but with Panama apparently unavailable, the US considered possible canal sites in Mexico and Nicaragua.[10]

The Spanish-American War of 1898 added new life to the canal debate. During the war, American warships in the Atlantic seeking to reach battle zones in the Pacific had been forced to round Cape Horn. Influential naval pundits, such as Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, urged construction of a Central American canal. In 1902, with the French efforts moribund, US President Theodore Roosevelt backed the Panama route, and Congress passed legislation authorizing him to purchase the French assets,[11] on the condition that an agreement was reached with Colombia.[12] In March 1902, Colombia set its terms for such a treaty: Colombia was to be sovereign over the canal, which would be policed by Colombians paid for by the United States. The host nation would recelive a larger percentage of the tolls than provided for in earlier draft treaties. The draft terms were quickly rejected by American officials. Roosevelt was in a hurry to secure the treaty, the Colombians, to whom the French property would revert in 1904, were not. Negotiations dragged on into 1903, during which time there was unrest in Panama CIty and Colón—the US sent in Marines to guard the trains. Nevertheless in early 1903, the US and Colombia signed a treaty which, despite Colombia's previous objections, gave the US a 6 miles (9.7 km) wide zone in which it could deploy troops with Colombian consent. On August 12, 1903, the Colombian Senate voted down the treaty, 24–0.[13]

Roosevelt was angered by the Colombians' actons, especially when the Colombian Senate made a counteroffer, more financially advantageous to Colombia. A Frenchman who had worked on his nation's canal efforts, Philippe Bunau-Varilla represented Panamanian insurgents; he met with Roosevelt and with Secretary of State John Hay, who saw to it that his principals received covert support. When the revolution came in November 1903, the US intervened to protect the rebels, who succeeded in taking over the province, declaring it independent as the Republic of Panama. Bunau-Varilla was initially the Panamanian representative in the United States, though he was about to be displaced by actual Panamanians, and hastily negoitiated a treaty , giving the US a zone 20 miles (32 km) wide, and full authority to pass laws to govern that zone. The Panama Canal Zone (Canal Zone, or Zone) excluded Panama City and Colón, but included four offshore islands, and permitted the US to add to the zone any additional lands needed to carry on canal operations. The Panamanians were minded to disavow the treaty, but Bunau-Varilla told the new government that if Panama did not agree, the US would withdraw its protection and make the best terms it could with Colombia. The Panamanians agreed, even adding a provision to the new constitution, at US request, allowing the larger nation to intervene to preserve public order.[14]

Construction years (1903–1914)

The treaty was approved by the provisional Panamanian government on December 2, 1903 and by the United States Senate on February 23, 1903. Under the treaty, the Panamanians received $10 million, much of which the United States required to be invested in the US, plus annual payments of $250,000, and with those payments made, as well as for the purchase of the French company assets, the Canal Zone was formally turned over by Panama on May 4, 1904, when American officials reopened the Panama City offices of the canal company, and raised the American flag[15]

Governance of the Canal Zone

The canal was operated by the Panama Canal Company until 1979, when the Panama Canal Commission took over its governance until December 31, 1999. This situation was described[citation needed] as a cross between a colonial company enclave and a socialist government. Everyone worked for the Company or the Government in one form or another. There were no independent stores, goods were brought in and sold at a series of stores run by the company, such as a commissary, housewares, and so forth. Although denied by the government, for many years there was blatant racism in the Zone, with "gold" and "silver" facilities separated largely on the basis of color.[16]

The Canal Zone had its own police force (Canal Zone Police), courts, and judges (the United States District Court for the Canal Zone).

The head of the company was also the Governor of the Panama Canal Zone. Residents did not own their homes; instead they rented houses that were assigned, primarily based on seniority in the zone. When an employee moved away, the house would be listed and employees could apply for it. The utility companies were also managed by the company.

Tensions and the end of the Canal Zone

In 1903, the United States, having failed to obtain from Colombia the right to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which was part of that country, sent warships in support of Panamanian independence from Colombia. This being achieved, the new nation of Panama ceded the Americans the rights they wanted in the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty. Over time, though, the existence of the Canal Zone, a political exclave of the U.S. that cut Panama geographically in half and had its own courts, police and civil government, became a cause of conflict between the two countries. Demonstrations occurred at the opening of the Bridge of the Americas in 1962 and serious rioting occurred in 1964. This led to the United States easing its controls in the Zone. For example, Panamanian flags were allowed to be flown with American ones. After extensive negotiations the Canal Zone ceased to exist on October 1, 1979 in compliance with provisions of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

U.S. fleet off of coast of Panama 1906.

Lifestyle of residents

Gold Roll and Silver Roll

From its first days, the labor force in the Canal Zone (which was almost entirely publicly employed) was divided into a Gold Roll, upon which an employee's name was enrolled, and a Silver Roll. The origins of this are unclear, but it was the practice on the 19th century Panama Railroad to pay Americans in US gold and local workers in silver coin.[17] Although some Canal Zone officials compared the Gold Roll to military officers and Silver Roll to enlisted men, the characteristic that determined which roll an employee was placed upon was race. With very few exceptions, American and Northern European whites were placed on the Gold Roll, blacks and southern European whites on the Silver Roll. American blacks were generally not hired, black employees were from the Caribbean, often from Barbados. American whites seeking work as laborers, which were almost entirely Silver Roll, were discouraged from applying.[18] In the early days of the system bosses could promote exceptional workers from Silver to Gold, but this soon ceased as race came to be the determining factor.[19] As a result of the initial policy,, there were several hundred skilled blacks and southern Europeans on the Gold Roll.[20] In November 1906, Chief Engineer John Stevens ordered that most blacks on the Gold Roll be placed on a silver roll instead (a few remained in such roles as teachers and postmasters); the following month the Canal Commission reported that the 3,700 Gold Roll employees were "almost all white Americans"; the 13,000 Silver Roll workers were "mostly aliens".[18] On February 8, 1908, President Roosevelt ordered that no further non-Americans be placed on the Gold Roll. After the Panamanians objected, the Gold Roll was reopened to them in December 1908; however efforts to remove blacks and non-Americans from the Gold Roll continued.[21]

Until 1918, when all employees began to be paid in US dollars, Gold Roll employees were paid in gold, in American currency, while their Silver Roll counterparts were paid in silver coin, initially in Colombian pesos. Through the years of canal construction, Silver Roll workers were paid with coins from various nations; in several years, coin was imported from the United States because of local shortages. Even after 1918, both the designations and the disparity in privileges lingered.[20]


Housing and goods

Canal Zone housing was constructed in the early days of construction, as part of Stevens' plans. Housing constructed then were for couples and families were structures containing four two-story apartments. The units had corregated-iron roofs, and were uniformly painted gray with white trim. Constructed of pine clapboard, they had long windows and high ceilings, allowing for air movement. Better-paid employees were entitled to more square feet of housing—the unit in which allowances were expressed. Initially, employees received one square foot per dollar of monthly salary. Stevens from the first encouraged Gold Roll employee to send for their wives and children: to encourage them to do so, wives were granted a housing allowance equal to their husband's, even though they might not be employees. Bachelors mostly resided in hotel-like structures. The structures all had screened verandas and up-to-date plumbing. The government furnished power, water, coal for cooking, ice for the icebox, lawn care, groundskeeping, garbage disposal, and, for bachelors only, maid service.[22]

In the first days of the Canal Zone, the ICC provided no food, and workers had to fend for themselves, obtaining poor-quality food at inflate prices from Panamanian merchants. When Stevens arrived in 1905, he ordered food to be provided at cost, leading to the establishment of the Canal Zone Commissary. The functions of the Commissary quickly grew, generally against the will of the Panamanian government, which saw more and more goods services provided in the Zone rather than in Panama. Merchants could not compete with the Commissary's prices or quality; for example it boasted that the meat it sold had been refrigerated every moment from the Chicago slaughterhouse to the moment it was passed to the consumer. By 1913, it consisted of 22 general stores, seven cigar stores, seventeen hostels, two hotels, and a mail-order division. It served high-quality meals at small expense to workers, and more expensive meals to upper-echelon Canal employees and others able to afford it.[23]

The Commissary was a source of friction between Canal Zone and Panama for several other reasons. The Commissary dominated sales of supplies to passing ships: Panamanian merchants could make no sales within Canal Zone waters.[24] The Commissary was off-limits to Panamanians who were not resident in the Canal Zone or employed there, a restriction nominally for the benefit of Panamanian storekeepers, who feared the loss of trade. Panama had laws restricting imports from the Canal Zone; these were indifferently enforced Goods from the Commissary would sometimes show up in Panamanian stores and in vendor displays, where comisario goods were deemed of high quality.[25]


Although the Panama Canal Zone was legally an unincorporated U.S. territory until the implementation of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1979, questions arose almost from its inception as to whether the Zone was considered part of the United States for constitutional purposes, or, in the phrase of the day, whether the Constitution followed the flag. In 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Downes v. Bidwell that unincorporated territories are not the United States.[26] On July 28, 1904, Controller of the Treasury Robert Tracewell stated: "While the general spirit and purpose of the Constitution is applicable to the zone, that domain is not a part of the United States within the full meaning of the Constitution and laws of the country."[27] Accordingly, the Supreme Court held in 1905 in Rasmussen v. United States that the full Constitution only applies for incorporated territories of the United States.[28] Until the rulings in these so-called "Insular Cases", children born of two U.S. citizens in the Canal Zone had been subject to the Naturalization Act of 1795, which granted statutory U.S. citizenship at birth. With the ruling of 1905 persons born in the Canal Zone only became U.S. nationals, not citizens.[29] This no man's land with regard to U.S. citizenship was perpetuated until Congress passed legislation in 1937, which corrected this deficiency. The law is now codified under title 8 section 1403.[30] It not only grants statutory and declaratory born citizenship to those born in the Canal Zone after February 26, 1904, with at least one U.S. citizen parent, but also did so retroactively for all children born of at least one U.S. citizen in the Canal Zone before the law's enactment.[31]

Townships and military installations

Map of the Panama Canal Zone.
Map of the area before canal construction
Abandoned theatre in Fort Davis (2011)

The Canal Zone was generally divided into two sections, the Pacific Side and the Atlantic Side, with Gatun Lake separating them.

A partial list of Canal Zone townships and military installations:

  • Pacific Side
    • Townships
      • Ancón - built on the lower slopes of Ancon Hill, adjacent to Panama City. Also home to Gorgas Hospital.
      • Balboa - Administrative capital, as well as location of the harbor and main Pacific Side high school
      • Balboa Heights
      • Cardenas - as the Canal Zone was gradually handed over to Panamanian control, Cardenas was one of the last Zonian holdouts.
      • Cocoli
      • Corozal
      • Curundu: on military base, but housed civilian military workers
      • Curundu Heights
      • Diablo
      • Diablo Heights
      • Gamboa - headquarters of dredging division, located on Gatun Lake. Many new arrivals to the Canal Zone were assigned here.
      • La Boca: home of the Panama Canal College
      • Los Ríos
      • Paraíso
      • Pedro Miguel
      • Red Tank: was abandoned and allowed to be overgrown sometime around 1950.
      • Rosseau: built as a naval hospital during WWII, housed FAA personnel until Cardenas was built. Torn down after about 20 years
    • Military Installations
  • Atlantic Side
    • Townships
      • Brazos Heights: privately owned housing (by United Brands and other, mostly shipping companies) where employees/owners of shipping agencies, lawyers and the head of the YMCA lived
      • Coco Solo: main hospital and only Atlantic Side high school (called Cristobal High School)
      • Cristóbal: main harbor and port
      • Gatún
      • Margarita
      • Mount Hope: site of the only Atlantic side cemetery and the only drydock
      • Rainbow City
    • Military Installations

Postage stamps

Two Canal Zone stamps showing precancels.

The Panama Canal Zone issued its own postage stamps beginning in 1904 and ending on October 25, 1978. After a transition period Panama administrated the stamps.

See also


  1. ^ "Panamanian Control", Panama Canal,,, retrieved 2008-06-02 
  2. ^ a b Maurer and Yu, pp. 15–18.
  3. ^ Major, p. 9.
  4. ^ Major, pp. 10–11.
  5. ^ Major, p. 11.
  6. ^ Maurer and Yu, pp. 33–34.
  7. ^ Maurer and Yu, pp. 35–36.
  8. ^ Major, p. 13.
  9. ^ Major, pp. 15–16.
  10. ^ Major, pp. 18–24.
  11. ^ Major, pp. 24–28.
  12. ^ Maurer and Yu, p. 76.
  13. ^ Maurer and Yu, pp. 78–82.
  14. ^ Maurer and Yu, pp. 82–86.
  15. ^ McCullough, pp. 397–399, 402.
  16. ^ Rhonda D. Frederic (2005), Colón Man a Come": Mythographies Of Panama Canal Migration, Lexington Books, p. 33, ISBN 0739108913, 
  17. ^ Greene, p. 62.
  18. ^ a b Major, pp. 78–81.
  19. ^ Greene, p. 63.
  20. ^ a b Maurer and Yu, p. 111.
  21. ^ Maurer & Yu, pp. 111–112.
  22. ^ McCullough, pp. 478–479.
  23. ^ Maurer and Wu, pp. 192–194.
  24. ^ Maurer and Wu, pp. 194–196.
  25. ^ Knapp and Knapp, pp. 183–184.
  26. ^ United States Supreme Court, Downes v. Bidwell.
  27. ^ (PDF) Not Part of United States, The New York Times, July 29, 1904,, retrieved 2008-06-02 |
  28. ^ United States Supreme Court, [1].
  29. ^ "Nationality" in: 7 FAM 1111.3 (c).
  30. ^ 8 U.S.C. § 1403
  31. ^ Cf. 8 U.S.C. § 1403, paragraph (a): "whether before or after the effective date of this chapter".

Further reading

  • Greene, Julie (2009). The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal. New York: The Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594202018.
  • Harding, Robert C. (2001). Military Foundations of Panamanian Politics. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0765800756.
  • Harding, Robert C. (2006). The History of Panama. Greenwood Publishing. ISBN 978-0313333224.
  • Knapp, Herbert and Knapp, Mary (1984). Red, White and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich. ISBN 0151761353.
  • Major, John (1993). Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903–1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521521260.
  • Maurer, Noel and Yu, Carlos (2011). The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691147383.
  • McCullough, David (1977). The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780671244095.
  • Murillo, Luis E. (1995). The Noriega Mess: The Drugs, the Canal, and Why America Invaded. 1096 pages, illustrated. Berkeley: Video Books. ISBN 0-923444-02-5.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971) The United States in Panamanian Politics:The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers, OCLC 138568
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.

External links

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