Bits & Pieces

May 16, 2011

Fort San Lorenzo

The ruins of Castillo de San Lorenzo el Real de Chagres, now known simply as Fort San Lorenzo, sit on the edge of  a high extension of land on the east bank of the mouth of the Chagres River as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean Sea).  The Chagres River was used as a migratory and trade route by the native people for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spaniards.  On his fourth voyage, Columbus spent Christmas Day 1502 at the mouth of the Chagres.  However, the discovery of the river is attributed to Lope de Olano who went upstream a few miles in 1510 and named it Lagarto River for the many crocodiles on its shores.  But in 1527, Captain Hernando de la Serna ran up the entire length of the river and renamed it Chagre, later changed to Chagres, and the name stuck.
El Castillo de San Lorenzo el Real de Chagres.
Photo from Centro de Estudios y Accion Social Panameno and labeled by LRC
Left: Road through the jungle leading to Fort San Lorenzo. Right: first view of the fortress
as one leaves the jungle.
Photos by LRC 2005
Closer look of Main Gate, Glenn and Annette Celerier
Photo by LRCelerier 1974
As the Spaniards plundered Peru, the Chagres became an important means of transportation.  The treasure would arrive at Panama and was then loaded in mules trains which, using the Las Cruces Trail, would transport the loads to the village of Venta de Cruces on the Chagres where the river made a definite turn changing its Western flow to a Northern one.  At Cruses, the treasure was loaded into boats that would carry it to Nombre de Dios and, later, Portobelo.
Actually, there were two roads leading out of Panama to the Atlantic ports of Nombre de Dios and Portobelo.  The one mentioned above, Las Cruces Trail, using the Chagres River as part of the route, and the totally overland route known as El Camino Real leading to Nombre de Dios and, later, to Portobelo (see map).
Map from Centro de Estudios y Accion Social Panameno
Left: Las Cruces Trail as seen in 1913.  Right: Chagres Village as seen in 1913
Photo sources unknown.
The intimidating shore of the Chagres River.
Photo from Centro de Estudios y Accion Social Panameno
The first "permanent" road to be built was El Camino Real.  Leading out of Nombre de Dios, the road headed Southwest until it reached the Eastern bank of the Boqueron River. It followed this bank South until it arrived at the Pequeni River and continued on the bank of this river until coming to the Chagres.  Crossing this river, the road then went up the Cordillera, descending into the plains that led to the city of Old Panama on the coast and entering it by crossing the King's Bridge over a small river just outside the gates of the city. 
This road was built by Gaspar Espinosa in 1517-18 using 4000 native slaves.  They hauled smooth river stones from the many nearby rivers, laid them on the trail and covered them with dirt to make a smooth surface.   The road was three feet wide all the way from Nombre de Dios to Panama and was about 50 miles long.  Where the road had to cross the Lagarto River, later called Chagre, the Spaniards built a bridge, store houses and an inn giving the settlement the name of Venta de Chagre.  It would be 300 years later that the 's' was added to the name and it became the Chagres River.
When Portobelo became the loading treasure port in 1518, a fork at the head of the Boqueron River was added to El Camino Real around heading Northwest to this newer city.  As we now know, Nombre de Dios then faded into obscurity.
Because of the many problems with this road, Spain ordered a survey of the region to see if a better route could be found.  In 1533, Licentiate Espinosa recommended that a second road be built from Old Panama, and later from the new city of Panama, using the Chagres River as part of the route.  This would cut the overland section of the trail to 20 miles over a much lower part of the Cordillera and meet the Chagres were it was deep enough to use boats to reach the Caribbean and then Portobelo.  This is where the settlement of Venta de Cruces was established for the transfer of the treasure from mules to boats.  The new route, called Las Cruces Trail, required protection from pirates at the point where the Chagres meets the sea and thus the Fortress of San Lorenzo was built on a bluff overlooking the area.  The actual date of the first fort is not known for sure, but it was of wooden construction, not the best choice for the tropical climate of the isthmus.  Between the rotting and the attacks by pirates, it deteriorated and finally fell to the pirate Francis Drake who burned it in 1596.
Bridge over second moat leading to gate of main fort.
Photo by LRCelerier 2005
Left: Second moat as it winds around main fort.  Photo from Centro de Estudios y Accion Social Panameno
Right: Papi by one of several entrances to the chambers housing soldiers and/or ammunitions.
Photo by GlennCelerier 1974
One of the chambers that housed soldiers and/or ammunition and supplies.
Photo by LRCelerier 2005
The fort was rebuilt, but fell again in 1671 to the pirate Joseph Bradley under orders from Henry Morgan.  There were approximately 350 soldiers stationed at the fort at the time and all but 30 perished.  Bradley lost about 100 of his men and was himself wounded, dying a week later.  Morgan, meanwhile continued on to Panama capturing, sacking and burning the city before returning to Fort San Lorenzo to rest and regroup.  When he finally left for Jamaica, he set fire to the fort burning it to the ground.
The Spaniards rebuilt the fort shortly afterward at a slightly higher location on an odd shaped cliff, this time using masonry and in the configuration that we see it today.  The fort saw no major action until the war between Spain and England in 1740 when the British Admiral, Sir Edward Vernon, bombarded it until the Spaniards gave up.  It was during this time that Vernon also attacked Portobelo, as covered in a previous writing. 
Left: Looking towards the Atlantic.  No pirates in sight today. 
Right: Looking toward the Chagres River.
Photos by LRCelerier 2005
The fort was repaired and fortified one more time in 1761 but was never attacked again.  It gradually lost its importance as the treasures from Peru diminished until it was abandoned.  However, in the early 1800s, when the Latin American countries gained their independence from Spain, Fort San Lorenzo was activated by Colombia, of which Panama was a part, but it was used as a prison.  Then, when the 49ers came through Panama heading for the gold fields of California, the fort became a main traveling point for those crossing the isthmus.  However, once the railroad was completed in the mid 1800s, the travel route was changed leaving the fort abandoned once more.
The fort one sees today is what is left of the 1761 structure.  It has been a part of history for over 400 years.  Walking through this magnificent testament to the history of Panama one can only wonder about all the events that took place there and the people that passed through the main gate of  El Castillo de San Lorenzo el Real de Chagres.
Sources of information:; Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action;;;; Moon Handbooks PANAMA;

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas