Gatun Cemetery


This is the stairway to the entrance of Gatun Cemetery.

This is the stairway to the entrance of Gatun Cemetery.

Home to about 90 tombs, the Gatun Cemetery is the resting place of primarily Westindian workers and family members.

Home to about 90 tombs, the Gatun Cemetery is the resting place of primarily Westindian workers and family members.

By Lydia M. Reid

The small town of Gatun in Colon has seen the evolution of the Panama Canal for more than a century, and its cemetery, the sacred burial ground of scores of Westindian (Antillean) workers of the French and American construction periods, has been witness to many significant historical phenomena. It saw the arrival and departure of the frenzied crowds of California Gold Rush hopefuls, the French period settlers, the American period workers and the American military come and go. Once it had outlived its usefulness, however, it was abandoned by the (American) Panama Canal Commission and left to its own destiny and the tropical elements, as was the fate of many Canal Zone towns.

By 1904 there was talk amongst the ranks of American engineers of an artificial lake, an idea they had inherited from the French construction company. This time, however, it was clear that for the way to go smoothly and the consequent building of Gatun Locks to reach its successful conclusion, several villages would have to be submerged, Gatun among them. Nearly 90 homes, a church, school and a dozen small shops that flourished during the height of the California Gold Rush period were literally disappeared. The population was estimated at 3,391 inhabitants at the time.

Gatun also had a municipal cemetery which, according to reports held in the Robert F. Chiari Library of the ACP had “no more room for burying the dead.” In fact, episodes describing this cemetery are contained in a set of jealously guarded notes that are held by the library and include manuscripts exchanged by local authorities of the time.

In 1904, José Salazar, mayor of Gatun wrote that the cemetery was at capacity and that “already there is no room for one more burial.” Salazar had to wait for a positive response which didn’t come until 1907, when H. Brady, the local health inspector, received the authorization to acquire land for a new cemetery in an area adopted by, George W. Goethals, the main civil engineer and President of the Isthmian Canal Commission.

Gatun remained in the background for the next few years until in 1909 when, once again, the issue of a cemetery appeared in the public eye. The Panama Railroad Company submitted a request that another cemetery be built for the residents of the town now called “New Gatun.” These were the residents that had been relocated upon the creation of Lake Gatun when the old town of Gatun, its buildings, homes and stores, had been submerged to further canal construction. The request, however, did not prosper.

The Isthmian Canal Commission’s Department of Health forwarded a note that assured the Railroad officials that the cemetery, home to some 90 tombs, was quite sufficient for “many more years to come;” and so it was until it began to deteriorate. Bear in mind that this cemetery was a product of the French Canal (1880-1889) era and the element of time and lack of maintenance gradually gained ground giving way to the jungle overgrowth.

This was the sad picture of the burial ground of mostly Westindian workers and their families- a field of overgrown bush. Several descendants and their family members who have visited our website and left their testimonies can attest to having had to use guides to hack a path to their loved ones’ tomb with machete in hand over the years in order to pay their respects to their beloved and honourable dead.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that something more than concern and regret would stir private citizens to action. Driven by their passion to see this historic graveyard restored and the memory of their Westindian ancestors re-established, several citizens, including a man of the Kuna Yala tribe decided to take things into their own hands. Eric Jackson, owner and editor of the Panama News was probably the most outspoken of the handful of volunteers who began cutting back the jungle, cleaning and restoring old tombstones and making the project as publicly known as possible. They were joined, from time to time, by other Westindian descendants of those buried in the cemetery and even scout troops have lent a hand in the clean up.

Their efforts came to the attention of Alberto Alemán Zubieta, the current administrator of the ACP (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá), and the project prospered further. He gave the official order to help complete the rescue effort of this historic burial ground and the completion of its restoration was accomplished by 1997. The ACP took over its maintenance officially and a tri-lingual, English-Spanish-French, memorial plaque was installed at the entrance. A concrete stairway was also built leading up the hill to the cemetery.

Recently, however, with the citizen approved referendum for the extension of the Canal through the construction of a Third Set of Locks, the question as to the continued existence of the cemetery has arisen. Will the cemetery, in effect, disappear upon the construction of the complex of locks on the Atlantic side? According to the specifications for the construction of the third set of locks there is direct reference to its protection.

“In the case of the locks on the Atlantic side, buildings and areas listed as having historic significance shall be maintained in its current state, in particular the Lighthouse located at Lighthouse Road, the cemetery in Thelma King Road and building 206 in Gatun.”

There remains preoccupation, however, that although the Panama Canal enlargement project is committed to preserving the memory of the sacrifice of the thousands upon thousands of Westindian workers and their families, the political protection, the changing role of the official entity that directly administers the cemetery, will ultimately rest with the municipality of Gatun. In this light and given the notorious reputation Panama has for grossly neglecting its municipal cemeteries, we still have much to worry about regarding the fate of Gatun Cemetery, another endangered Silver People Burial site.

We can do much more than just hope that local public officials will “find it in their hearts” to maintain the dignity and integrity of this precious historical site, however. The violation of the community’s right to a dignified death has been historically documented as in the wholesale burial of bodies of Westindian men without the benefit of Christian ceremony or sepulchre, basically treated as the dumping of offal during the various periods of construction, has been cited by several historians.

There are international organizations, in fact, that oversee these issues relating to the rights of humanity to dignity in death and have cited the example of the Roman Catacombs in highlighting the inalienable right of human beings to be respected and not to have their remains disturbed even as subjects of archaeological investigations of ancient burials.

We all have a right to a dignified death and, as in the case of our Silver ancestors we also have posthumous rights, as set forth in international conventions which, in recent years, have made it a highly significant issue in many parts of the world.

It is our unreserved commitment here, at The Silver People Heritage Foundation, to honour our ancestors who gave so much to the building of a world famous waterway, the nation of Panama, and the modernization of the entire world, and to insure that their final resting places be respected, restored and given their just place on the world’s road to a new and progressive era.

Note: some of our historical data has come from an article appearing in EL Faro, official publication of the ACP, August 2008 edition.

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22 responses to “Gatun Cemetery

  1. Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your site.
    You have some really great posts and I think I would be a good asset.
    If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write
    some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.
    Please shoot me an e-mail iif interested. Kudos!

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  2. Donna ,How did you find out your grandmothers grave number. What records are there?
    I am looking for the grave of a little boy ,Harold Stanley Quinlan who probably died there around 1930.
    Garry

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  3. I sent an e-mail when I returned from Panama and not sure that you received it. ACP has tight security and was not able to access the cemetery due to the expansion project underway. I was extremely disappointed and very sorry that I could not capture any pictures. The only thing I can do at this point is check again next year when I go down. Perhaps the project will be much further completed and I will be granted access. Again, I apologize. – Marge Coffin

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    • Dear Marge,
      Your message has generated mixed feelings of relief and at the same time dread at the possibility of witnessing another time in our history how the descendants of the Silver Community have to stand by and see how a vital part of our culture and heritage is threatened or even summarily disappeared without consulting our people. Then again, the tight security may also be a blessing in that the site is in some way protected. We were hoping that you might have been able to take photos even at a distance that would assist us in making our case for all the historic cemeteries to be finally declared and designated “National Cultural and Historic Patrimony.” But, perhaps your experience will highlight the difficult task ahead of us in dealing with the authorities.

      Thank you for making the attempt to photograph the graves and for sending us your feedback. We are proud to have people like you who share the same sentiments as we do for safeguarding our Intangible Culture and History. You need not apologize but do all in your power to see that those resting places of our forefathers receive the care and restitution they deserve in the History and Culture of Monuments to humanity.

      This will make our present work with the law makers of Panama even more important in the coming months. Again, thank you.

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    • Dear Marge,

      Thank you for trying. You made such an effort and I am very pleased. I am hoping they preserve our ancestors graves. I hope your trip to Panama was great otherwise. Again, muchisimas gracias.

      Donna

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  4. Donna & Lydia,
    Please send me your e-mails so that I can download some pictures right from Panama.
    Marge

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    • Marge,

      How do I send you my email without posting it on this website? I don’t know how to do that. If you know, please let me know.

      Thanks,

      Donna

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    • Marge,

      This is a reply to both you and Donna. We will take this as permission from you both to receive each other’s e-mail addresses. We do that when both parties request it.

      Please note that we would greatly appreciate your sharing any photos that you would like to share with our Foundation to help us advocate for the placing of this and Corozal Silver and Mount Hope Cemeteries as Panama’s Historic Patrimony. Please don’t forget us!

      Lydia

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  5. Hi Donna,
    I was raised in Gatun, Canal Zone. We often played on this hill that was overgrown with Jungle. I was told that those were old markers and none was actually buried there. I
    don’t know where our parents got that information. At any rate, this has all be cleaned up and being maintained. I am 59 years old and going home in two weeks to visit Gatun
    and other areas of the Atlantic Side. The Cemetery of Gatun is on my list. I will do my best to find your grandmother’s marker and take pictures.

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    • Hi Marge

      Thank you for responding. We don’t have any pictures of my grandmother but, at least we can have a picture of her last resting place. On behalf of my family, we thank you. I hope her marker still remains in Gatun Cemetary, and that we are able to see a photo.

      Gracias, Donna

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      • Hello Donna,

        We have opened a Find a Grave page for Gatun Cemetery as it as well as Mount Hope and Corozal Silver Cemeteries make up the list on our pending Bill of Law in the Asamblea Nacional of Panama- Law #348- which would make these burials grounds National Patrimony for the first time in history. It is our hope that through the passage of this law these cemeteries that house the bones of our beloved ancestors will come under the protection they deserve and not be plowed over or flooded over to make way for the expansion and modernization of the Canal Zone.

        You can view it here. We have also started including the persons who are buried there whenever their descendants contact us with the information. If you wish for us to add a photo of their grave or for us remove your ancestor from our Find a Grave listing, please let us know and we will comply with your wishes.

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      • Lydia,

        I just viewed the posting and It seems fine. My grandmother died at an early age leaving 4 young children behind. One of the children was an infant, one was a toddler and the other two were not that much older. We want to preserve her memory and our heritage. Thank you for all you efforts.

        Donna

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    • Marge,

      Thank you for offering to become a link to those buried in Gatun. We would appreciate your sharing some of the images so that we may place them in the memorial pages we have started for Gatun Cemetery. God bless you.

      Lydia

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    • Ladies,

      I too was a proud resident of Gatun. I came across this site doing a general search for Gatun pictures. I am really curious about this cemetery and its location. I feel like I recognize the steps leading up to the site but do not know where in Gatun this cemetery is located. I spent a lot of time running through the jungles in Gatun. I have looked at the GPS coordinates supplied by the site http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2424463 and cannot locate the cemetery.

      I hope you can better orient me to that site. Thanks.

      Jim Collins

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      • Jim,

        Thanks for stopping by. You may leave a reply to Marge Coffin’s comment above (the first comment 24 Nov ’11) and if she sees it she may fill you in.

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      • Hi Lydia, i don’t know when you left the CZ, but, regardless, you passed this site a billion times. Picture yourself going into Gatun, passing the Gatun American Legion. As you start up hill, the cemetery is to your right. Had you turned right as to go to the locks, the stairs were to your left and hardly visible because of the jungle that was not yet cleared. I am told that the cement slabs prior to the steps are remnants of the original commissary. Hope this helps. Marge

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      • Marge,
        Thank you for the directions. We at the Heritage Foundation were very concerned about the future of this historic Silver cemetery until you told us it was being guarded. It seems like we’ve gotten more time.

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      • Thank you for the reply Lydia.

        I have looked at the area mentioned and can picture the slab where the old commissary was across from two mobile home trailers that I a friend of mine, John Metivier, lived. The American Legion was as you mentioned, right on the corner of the turn to go to the locks. I vaguely remember steps or something at the hillside behind the commissary slab. Do you have more pictures of that area? I have googled it and I am not sure I am looking at the right area. I do remember that as you are standing at the railroad tracks facing back towards the AL there was a tree off to the left that was like a huge canopy but only about 5 feet off the ground. Under it towards the back downslope was a french grave marker. I can provide more detailed information and possible a shot of the area if desired. Thanks.

        Jim Collins

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      • Hi Lydia,

        I just returned from Panama and I visited Gatun Cemetery. The cemetery is open but, you need to pre-arrange your visit with ACP and the construction company incharge. I can provide their names, phone numbers and email addresses to you. I also took many pictures and a video of Gatun cemetery. If you would like to view the pictures and video, please let me know. My grandmother’s grave only has a marker. I am hoping ACP will allow us to place her name on the grave. I was told to make a written request to ACP, I hope they say yes.

        Donna

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  6. My grandmother was buried at this cemetery in Gatun in the early 1930’s . Her grave number is 1145 and her name was Emelda St Louis Hinds. She died at an early age (she was only 20 something years old) If anyone visits this cemetery, please take a photo of her grave and forward it to me. Thanks

    Donna

    Like

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