The Port of Cristobal is located at the eastern Atlantic Ocean end of the Panama Canal on the western edge of Manzanillo Island off Limon Bay. Part of the city of Colon, both cities were named after Christopher (Cristobal) Columbus (Colon). In 2000, almost 35 thousand people lived in the Port of Cristobal.
The Port of Cristobal is just two kilometers west-southwest of the Manzanillo International Terminal and 3.2 kilometers southwest of the Colon Container Terminal at Coco Solo. The isthmus that supports the Port of Cristobal was made of artificial fill when it was created in 1914 as an entry point for supplies used in building the Canal. The Port of Cristobal contains vast docks and modern facilities, and Limon Bay offers ample anchorage protected by breakwaters. The Port of Cristobal is one of the Caribbean region’s most important ports.
The Panama Railroad Company, owned by US businessman William Aspinwall and partners, was created to replace the centuries old and decaying trail across the Panama isthmus and to provide faster passage between the United States’ East and West Coasts. In the late 1840s, the California Gold Rush made the passageway more necessary.
By the early 1850s, the Panama Railroad Company had dredged about 260 hectares of the swamps on Manzanillo Island for their headquarters and a railway terminal. When they French Inter-Oceanic Canal Company came to the area in the 1880s, the city of Colon was a few streets in on otherwise swampy island of Manzanillo. They moved soil taken from their Canal works and created a landfill next to the Panama Railroad Company’s property.
The French built their facilities on the landfill, naming it Christophe Colombi (in Spanish Cristobal Colon). In 1902, the United States purchased the French company’s Panamanian assets and secured the permanent use and control of the “Canal Zone.” It also assumed ownership of the Panama Railroad Company’s assets.
Since winning independence from Spain in 1821, the country of Panama was part of the Republic of Gran Colombia, which encompassed today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. In 1903, the United States supported Panama’s declaration of independence from Gran Colombia, and the Panama Canal Commission established temporary headquarters at Cristobal.
The Port of Cristobal was critical to the US plan to build the Canal. It was the entry point for construction materials equipment as well as for the workers who built the Canal, and the US focused developing the town beyond its early 20th Century village status. By 1906, over two thousand people lived in the Port of Cristobal, a quarter of them US citizens. A year later, the population exceeded four thousand, still a quarter American.
By 1907, several social organizations had been established within the community, and clubhouses and commissaries were busy. Housing and other facilities expanded the Port of Cristobal community to the north. Before World War I began, the town had a world-class hotel, a post office, policy and fire stations, churches, a YMCA, and many other facilities common to American towns of the time.
When the Panama Canal was opened in 1914, the Port of Cristobal’s piers were constructed, and shipping companies established offices in what was known as “Steamship Row.” A new artillery post, Fort DeLesseps, was established in a new area at the tip of Manzanillo Island, created demand for more housing for US workers. The new residential section grew up and was named New Cristobal. New Cristobal expanded from 1917 until 1938 by filling in swamps, also making room for the City of Colon to grow. This period was one of great prosperity of Colon. The Port of Cristobal employed almost two thousand people.
In the 1950s, the population of the Port of Cristobal and New Cristobal began to shrink as people moved to new areas in Coco Solo and Margarita on the Panamanian mainland. Territorial boundaries for the Canal Zone were redrawn, limiting its area on Manzanillo Island, and Coco Solo was transferred to the Canal Zone government. By 1955, the combined population of the Port of Cristobal and New Cristobal was down to about 1700 people.
In 1957, almost 20 hectares of land in the Port of Cristobal and New Cristobal was transferred to the Republic of Panama. Schools and the hospital were moved to Coco Solo, and much of the former Panama Railway Company property came under Panamanian jurisdiction.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the Port of Cristobal was almost completely a commercial area. Few people lived there, and it was the target of anti-American demonstrations during the early 1960s. New Cristobal and the old Fort DeLesseps area were now prestigious areas for Colon residents, but much of the remaining Panama Railroad areas fell into decline. During the 1970s and 1980s, even the City of Colon was stagnant.
In 1979, United States control of the Canal Zone was relinquished to the Republic of Panama. Among the first properties to be transferred was the old Panama Railroad terminal and lands. Not being maintained, the railroad stopped operations in the 1980s. The Port of Cristobal became part of the City of Colon, although its name remains for the district.
The modern Port of Cristobal has fallen into decline, as has most of Colon. The old Steamship Row is still in relatively good shape, and other historic landmarks like the Hotel Washington have been preserved. Although the city is not thriving, the Port of Cristobal is experiencing brisk traffic. Now under private management, it has recaptured much commercial traffic, even though the Colon Container Terminal and Manzanillo International Terminal at Coco Solo are competing with the Port of Cristobal for container business.