Diablo Back In The Days

Diablo was one of many townships in the Panama Canal Zone. It was established in 1905 by William Luke Jenkins.
It was located directly across from the entrance to Albrook AFB, on a low hill overlooking the canal just past Balboa Harbor.

The Diablo clubhouse was a center for social activity, and included a restaurant and a number of other services. After the area reverted to Panamanian control, it housed one of the first Panamanian stores to set up shop in the former Canal Zone, a 24 hour convenience store aptly named "24 Horas". The Engineering Division was headquartered here, and the Board of Local Inspectors (which investigated ship accidents) relocated here in the 1980s, using the old Diablo elementary school.

It was one of the first townships to revert to Panamanian control after 1979 treaty. Moralist Panamanians attempted to rename the place "Altos de Jesus", but the name never really stuck. (There had been an earlier attempt to change the name decades earlier, that also failed).

Excerpts from The Panama Canal Review

March 5, 1954

Although it is one of the newest of the Canal Zone's permanent towns, Diablo Heights - as far as its history is concerned may antedate almost any other existing town. Like a phoenix, it has risen from a succession of ashes, figuratively speaking.

During the middle of the sixteenth century, according to Isthmian histories, the narrow Isthmus of Panama was terrorized by bands of Cimarrones, runaway Negro slaves, who preyed upon the treasure trains on the Camino Real.

They became such a threat to life and property that the Spanish viceroy sent expeditions to clean them out. They evaded such punitive parties and in 1552 were granted recognition by the Governor of the Province. At that time they had three main villages, one of which was called Diablo. It was located near the site of present day Diablo Heights.

The saga of modern Diablo began early in the twentieth century. Marine detachments, which came to the isthmus during Panama's revolutionary period, were stationed at Diablo, as well as at Mount Hope and Empire. Later, in 1905, the Marine headquarters were established at Camp Elliott, on the west side of the Canal not far from Culebra and Empire.

First A Labor Camp

Late in 1906 members of the Isthmian Canal Commission began to consider locations for labor camps. These were to be located as close as possible to the places where work was going on, or where it was expected to go on. One of these was to be at the "north end of the proposed Sosa-Corozal dam, on high ground south of Corozal as near the end of the proposed dam as possible." It was to house at least 200 laborers and was to have five barracks, a kitchen, a mess hall, and a "gallego" (gallegos were European laborers) mess hall and kitchen.

In May 1907, Chief Engineer George W. Goethals officially named the labor camp "Diablo Camp." There is local tradition that during the time it was used as a labor camp, Camp Diablo was the scene of a bloody "wine riot. "European laborers" had been issued wine with their meals on holidays. When the regular issue failed to arrive they rebelled and bombarded anyone who ventured their way with empty bottles, sticks or stones, or anything they could find to throw. As the story told by old-timers went, a padre was called to settle the fracas as he was the only man who could get near enough the enraged laborers to negotiate with them.

When the Sosa-Corozal dam project was abandoned, the six laborers' barracks at Diablo were converted to quarters for 12 American families. Diablo was connected with Corozal by road and was considered part of the town of Corozal. These old barracks-quarters were occupied until the end of the construction period.

In 1914-15 the Panama Railroad, which had run from Corozal to Panama along a route which is now Albrook Air Force base, was relocated so that it would run into Balboa. The relocation meant that part of Diablo Hill had to be cut away. The last two of the old buildings on the hill were vacated January 5, 1915.

Several Plans Considered

During the 1930's there were several plans made and unmade for the Diablo site. Once called for a local-rate town there; another proposed Diablo as a new location for the oil-tank farm at La Boca. A third project, quickly rejected by the Governor, had to do with establishing a private, noncommercial flying field on the Diablo fill where spoil from the Canal channel was occasionally dumped.

It was not until February 4, 1940, that a definite decision was made. Diablo Heights - although it was still being referred to as Camp Diablo - was selected as headquarters for the Special Engineering Division with two office buildings for the planning staff and quarters for about 280 employees. The office buildings, two 32-room bachelor quarters, twelve 12-family houses, 65 cottages, ten 10-family houses, were all to be built with funds allocated to the SIP, or Special Improvement Projects which had to do with the installation of protective devices on the Locks.

The fast-growing force, however, called for roofs over more people's heads and additional barracks and more 12-family houses were added. In the meantime Diablo Heights still had no official name. Early in 1940 there was a spritely exchange of official correspondence on the subject. Crede H. Calhoun, then Chief of the Division of Civil Affairs, added his bit: " We have a Paradise at Parasio; I see no reason why we should not have a Devil at Diablo." Governor Clarence S. Ridley suggested that the name might be Diablo Heights.

Town Is Officially Named

Postal people pointed out that there might be confusion with so many "Heights," Quarry Heights and Balboa Heights being names of considerably longer standing. C. A. McIllvaine produced the idea that Diablo Hill might be hispanclized into "Cerro Diablo," but the Governor held firm to his original stand.

A commissary was opened in May of that year and the post office the first of the following month. The Diablo Heights school began sessions in September 1940, with 210 pupils. Work on the clubhouse was begun in October and the building was officially inaugurated the following June.

In the meantime Diablo bachelors - and others had their meals at the 'restaurant," a long, one-story building which stood near the present intersection of Walker Avenue and Endicott Street. It soon became known as the mess hall, a designation which has been carried over - even by teen-agers who never patronized the original mess hall - to the present clubhouse. Open 24 hours a day, it was crowded at almost any hour and became a favorite place for after-party coffee and sandwiches.

Diablo Heights in those days was a lusty place. A good many of its residents were construction people; they brought construction camp customs and traditions with them. Some of them rebelled against what they considered the "stuffiness" of the Canal Zone; family brawls and neighborhood drinking parties were a constant headache to the police.

But drinking and brawling was not all they did. They worked and they worked hard. After hours they turned to making their own fun. There was a Diablo Heights Recreational Association, a local news sheet, and a dance club named the "Forty Club." Forty is short for 1940, the year when it was organized.

Sidewalk Meeting

Early that year, the Balboa Women's Club had given several get-acquainted dances for the Diablo Heights newcomers, who soon conceived the idea of forming a club of their own.

"So," according to Mrs. Ella Wertz, now of Ancon, who was a charter member of the Forty Club, "we called a meeting for the Balboa movie theater. When we got there the building was locked and we held our meeting on the sidewalk. We gave our first dance a short time later and after that we had dances several times a month at the Tivoli or the Golf Club. Our last dance was the night before Pearl Harbor. What with black-outs and all, no one was much in the mood for parties after that."

As the war continued, shortages of ships, men, and materials required suspension of the Third Locks Construction. As a result the office building on Diablo hilltop began to empty and the population to dwindle. In 1941 its population was 2,003, but 10 years later it had dropped to 805.

There was a spurt of activity for about two years when Col. James Stratton and his force began The Isthmian Canal Studies. Again the commissary and clubhouse were crowded with newcomers and the office buildings were a bustle with activity.

Out of this period came some of the strangest buildings ever seen in the Canal Zone. Engineers studying housing for the force which would be needed if third locks or a sea-level canal were built brought to the Isthmus several prefabricated aluminum houses. Other permanent houses of new types -the idea was that a pair of permanent houses was to have between them a temporary house during the crowded construction period, the temporary quarters to be removed when they were no longer needed - went up in Diablo. All of these are still standing in Diablo Heights and always baffle newcomers.

Excess Housing Rented

Diablo Heights, in this incarnation, however, was never the uproarious place it had been during Third Locks and SIP days, and it lapsed into a near coma when the sea-level canal studies were finished in 1948. During the subsequent comatose period there was so much excess housing in Diablo Heights that the Canal was able to offer 12-family accommodations to servicemen and their families. In 1950-51 there were 207 service families - most of them Army - living at Diablo Heights. They were all required to vacate the quarters when demolition of the 12-family houses began.

When the housing replacement program was started in 1950 Diablo Heights, with its undeveloped sections, was a logical choice for some of the new construction. New streets were laid out, hilltops bulldozed off, and quarters began to go up. The first on-the-ground masonry quarters were built there. Today (March 5, 1954) more new quarters are under construction where the 12-families once stood, and the town's streets are again being rearranged.

Today (March 5, 1954) the population of Diablo Heights is again on the upswing. Units of the Comptroller's Office have moved into the three-story office building; the payroll branch has been at Diablo Heights for a number of years. From a low of 805 in 1951, the figure has increased until last March it was 986 - almost equally divided between men, women, and children.

A Wholly Residential Area

There is no church in Diablo Heights. The Camera Club, which occupies an attractive, well-kept building on Hains Street, is the only organization housed there. The Diablo Heights Dispensary was closed some time ago, and the fire station last year. Police and fire protection is furnished from the Balboa Central Stations. Diablo's Civic Council is one-third of the tri-partite Pacific Civic Council.

Except for its office buildings Diablo Heights is a residential suburb. Its residents are clerks and pilots, teachers and engineers, electricians and boilermakers, carpenters and office workers. But almost without exception all of the "blue collar people" work elsewhere; the small Dredging Division unit near the Canal bank has the only craftsmen regularly employed in town.

Diablo Heights is cool, except for the motorcycle enthusiasts who make the nights hideous with their noise, it's otherwise quiet. The clubhouse is open all night and early risers like customs inspectors or railroad men due for an early call get breakfast there, but most of its house lights are out well before 11 o'clock. The days of wine riots of the early 1900's and the lusty brawls of the 1940's are behind it - for a while at least.

Excerpts of the Panama Canal Review

October 5, 1951

We don't have everything at the Diablo Club House ...

But we do have a lot of things that bring a lot of people to the Clubhouse day after day, year after year, and at all hours of the day and night. In fact, at Diablo Clubhouse, we have just about everything there is at any Canal Clubhouse, and more, because we have the big boss, too.

For Instance

  • There is food. That's in our cafeteria section. There you get the good solid variety that you want at mealtime or the sodas and sundaes or cokes or what-have-you for the calories in between.
  • Then there are all kinds of things to buy. They're in our merchandise section. People go there for a new lipstick, a cigar, a candy bar, a New York Times, a roll of film, a phonograph record and all kinds of things like that.
  • And there's a theater. If you're interested in statistics, it has 450 seats. If you're interested in movies, it has them too, - the common garden variety Hollywood productions most of the time, the "arty" variety on the last Thursday of the month, chiller-mystery-horror shows at 10:30 o'clock one Friday night a month . . . and sometimes, dramatic productions, by Isthmians for Isthmians and their mutual entertainment.
  • The ballroom on the second floor brings a lot of people to the Clubhouse, too. They gather there for meetings, bingo, dinner dances, and banquets, and all kinds of things people find to get together for.
  • A dance floor and a juke box draw the just-beyond-small-fry crowd through a red door to (what do you know?) the "Red Door," a new and special little gathering place where people sometimes have small informal parties.
  • There's an eight-lane bowling alley accredited by the American Bowling Congress, and bowled on by many a local league.
  • We even have a Library in the building, a new branch of the Panama Canal Library.
  • Some people who are run down at the heels come to the Clubhouse because it has a shoe shop.
  • Others who want a new suit or their pants pressed come to see our tailor.
  • Grown-up girls who want a new dress or drapes to match the new slip covers talk their problems over with the seamstress.
  • Losts of ladies come regularly for their wave sets and manicures. They go to the Beauty Shop.
  • Employees of the offices of the General Manager of the Clubhouse Division, and the General Manager too -that's Wilson Crook- arrive every morning bright and early and stay here all day because that's where they work on the second floor of the building.
  • Motion picture equipment from theaters all over the Isthmus is brought here every now and then because here's where it is fixed - in the motion picture equipment maintainer shop on the first floor of the building.

We don't say the place is just like Grand Central Station- because we don't have any trains. But, we repeat, we do have a lot of things that bring a lot of people to the Diablo Clubhouse day after day, year after year, and at all hours of the day and night.

And that's just the way we like it.

Why don't you come, too?

Read the original articles

Ufdc.ufl.edu - Panama Canal Review, March 1954

Ufdc.ufl.edu - Panama Canal Review, October 1951

Wikipedia.org - Diablo, Panama

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