Bits & Pieces

April 26, 2012

The Mystery of the French Cemeteries

Ferdinand de Lesseps

On January 1, 1880, Ferdinand de Lesseps, his wife Louise-Helene, two of his sons, Mathieu, ten, and Ismael , nine, and one of his daughters, Ferdinande , seven, left the city of Panama on a steam tug, along with some one hundred dignitaries, for the mouth of the Rio Grande at La Boca for a ceremony inaugurating the construction of the Panama Canal. Delays in sailing caused them to arrive at the site at low tide, which prevented them from disembarking. Not one to be discouraged, de Lesseps had a box full of sand be brought forth and had his little daughter deliver the first blow with a shiny pickax brought from France for the occasion. Then, each member of the Technical Commission took a swing followed by a blessing from the local bishop (1). The mouth of the Rio Grande was chosen for this ceremony because that was to be the Pacific entrance to the Interoceanic Canal of Panama. I cannot find Rio Grande in any of the newer maps I have. In the map provided in the book The Path Between The Seas, the Rio Grande begins northwest of Paraiso on the slopes of the continental divide and flows into the Bay of Panama at La Boca (Now you know where the town of La Boca got its name). I believe the Rio Grande became part of the canal.

Left Photo: De Lesseps and Family. Photo -
Right Photo: De Lesseps, center, with Technical Commission, February 3, 1880, in Panama. Photo - Julius Grigore, Jr

Since the deepest excavation would be the cut through the Continental Divide at Culebra, de Lesseps decided to have another inaugural ceremony there on January 10, 1880. With the appropriate officials and guests at hand, gathered at Cerro Culebra (later known as Gold Hill), his daughter Ferdinande pushed the button of the electric detonator that set off the charge blowing up a small amount of rock and dirt (2).

French workers, 1880, at Cathedral Plaza, Panama. Photo - La Prensa

However, official work on the canal across the Isthmus of Panama did not begin until February 1, 1881, when engineer Armand Reclus , the general agent of the canal company, sent a telegram to Ferdinand de Lesseps in France with two words: "Travail commence" - "Work begun" (3).

"It was exotic. It was exciting. It was lucrative. Young Frenchmen with a rosy view of destination unknown, those with nothing better to do, and those with nothing to lose, all signed to France's next great adventure: The building of the Panama Canal. Even when the word leaked back to France that one in five canal workers was dying, still they kept coming, young energetic Frenchmen, recent engineering graduates and workers, all in pursuit of the dream. Called gallant by their countrymen, the recruits kept arriving, swept away by a heavy mix of patriotism, bravado and frontier excitement, presumably believing luck would spare them" (3).

Ten years later, in 1889, the effort had ended in failure. The financial loss was estimated at $287,000,000 while the cost in lives, according to estimates by Dr. Gorgas of the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), exceeded 22,000.

There are many accounts and narratives about this tremendous effort. However, I have found no definite, or accurate, account on the number of Frenchmen that worked on the Panama project; no accurate figures on the number that perished; nor any account on what the French Canal Company did with the bodies of their compatriots.

The casualty figure provided by Dr. Gorgas includes mostly West Indians and other nationalities who worked as laborers. With a yearly work force averaging 18,000, it is estimated that nine-tenth were not Europeans. By that we can assume vaguely that, on the average, some 1800 Europeans were working on the canal as engineers, administrators and medical personnel, including the sisters at the Ancon Hospital, during any given year.

The French built two fine hospitals, one in Colon on the Atlantic side, and the other on Ancon Hill facing the Pacific Ocean. They were well equipped with the best equipment and medicines of the time, and staffed with excellent doctors and surgeons. The French also constructed a 50-room "retreat" on the island of Taboga in the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side, where European workers could rest and recuperate. However, they were poorly managed, under contract, by the French Sisters of Charity who, although well-meaning, were not nurses and knew little about medicine.

Left: French Hospital in Colon. Right: French Hospital at Ancon. Photos - R.E. Avery

Sanitarium at Taboga Island in the Bay of Panama, Pacific side. Photo - R.E. Avery

The hospital records do show that there were 5,618 deaths during the construction period, of which 1,041 were from yellow fever (5). In 1884 alone they recorded 328 European deaths at Ancon Hospital (6). We can only assume that most of these were Frenchmen.

And this brings us to the mystery of the French cemeteries. There appears to be no conclusive records of a cemetery, or cemeteries, where the French buried their dead. So my question is, "Where did the French bury their dead?"

Gatun Cemetery

The Gatun Cemetery is located on the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal near the city of Colon. It was established around 1880 when the French began construction of the canal. As far it is known, only West Indians and other non-Europeans who worked in the canal during both the French and American era are buried here. However, when Gatun Dam was built, another cemetery was displaced and relocated at Gatun Cemetery, which accounts for the steel white-washed crosses found in one area of this cemetery. These steel crosses bear no names, only numbers, and resemble those found at the

French Cemetery in Paraiso , on the Pacific side of the canal. Could these graves contain the remains of Frenchmen who died during those terrible years of 1880-89? My searches have shed no light on this curious coincidence.

Gatun Cemetery. Note the iron crosses in background. These were typical of the French Era. Could Frenchmen be resting here?
These remains were moved here when another Gatun cemetery was scheduled to be covered by the waters of Gatun Lake.
Photo - The Panama News

Mount Hope Cemetery

Originally known as Monkey Hill Cemetery because of the many monkeys in the area, this cemetery is also located on the Atlantic side of the canal. It became the burial ground for the black West Indians who died working on the Panama Railroad between 1850 and 1855. With the named changed to Mount Hope Cemetery some time during this period, it also served as a final resting place for the West Indians who came to work for the French and Americans building the canal between 1880 and 1914. Thousands of Jamaicans, Barbadians and other West Indians, known as the "Silver People" are said to be buried there. They were known by this name because of the practice of paying the non-whites with silver while the Americans were paid in gold.

Thus were created the "Silver Roll" and "Gold Roll" separation of whites and non-whites. However, there are indications that "others from Colon were also buried there, amongst them J.S. Gilbert ("Panama Patchwork") and Tracy Robinson ("Fifty Years at Panama")" (8). As far as records show, no Frenchmen were buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. Or were they?

Left: Entrance to Mount Hope Cemetery as it looked in 1908. Photo - Bob Karrer collection
Right: Mount Hope Cemetery in recent years. Photo - World Monuments Fund

Ancon Cemetery (7)

After the Isthmian Canal Commission took over from the French Canal Company, they turned their attention to rehabilitating the old French Ancon Hill Hospital on the slope of the hill facing the Pacific Ocean, where Gorgas Hospital is now located. At the same time, the ICC established a cemetery on the opposite slope of Ancon Hill on the area just above where the Canal Administration Building now stands. However, I have not been able to find the date the cemetery was established. Those buried at Ancon Cemetery were those "Gold Roll" employees who died while working on the canal between 1903 and 1914. Perhaps other white workers from smaller cemeteries around the Canal Zone were also relocated here. Also among those buried in this Ancon Cemetery were approximately 40 sailors and marines who were originally buried at Flamenco Island between 1850 and 1890.

Ancon Hill Cemetery, 1904. Photo - Bob Karrer collection

Ancon Hill Cemetery, outlined in yellow, around 1913 before being moved to Corozal
Photo - Panama Canal Review, October 1, 1979.

Moving graves from Ancon Hill Cemetery to Corozal, 1914. Photo - Bob Karrer collection

There is a photograph showing parts of a cemetery claiming to be the Ancon Hill Cemetery during the French era. But careful study of photos of the whole Ancon Hill Cemetery show no structures as included in the photo. Additionally, when the Ancon Hill Cemetery was moved, no mention was made of any French graves. In 1914 the entire Ancon Cemetery was moved to the newly established Corozal Cemetery in order to make room for further housing and infrastructure development in the area of what became known as Balboa Heights.

Years later, while making changes to the water system near Ridge Road in Balboa Heights, a headstone was discovered at the site of this old cemetery. The headstone had marked the grave of Thomas Collins, a young private in the United States Marines who died of typhoid fever on March 11, 1863, while on duty aboard the USS St. Mary. The body had been exhumed from Flamenco Island and re-interred at Ancon Cemetery, but the head stone was overlooked during the grave relocation process in 1914. No mention is made of the remains of Pvt. Collins. Were they also left behind and now rest under somebody's home?

Amador Cemetery

Amador Cemetery, established during the 19th Century, is located on Calle B in the Chorrillo District of the city of Panama. The photo below claims to be Ancon Cemetery and taken in 1889 during the French Era. There is no doubt that the graves are of that period, but there is no other indication that the buried are French, nor that this the Ancon Hill Cemetery discussed above, as no French were buried there. This photo is most likely a view of Amador Cemetery which has many crypts of this type.

After the separation of Panama from Colombia, this cemetery became the most important in the city, for Catholics and nationals, during the first 50 years of the 20th Century.

This photo has surfaced showing, supposedly, French graves with a date of 1889 at Ancon Cemetery. Close examination of the existing photos of the Ancon Cemetery show no signs of the structures shown in this photo. The picket fence does resemble part of the Ancon Hill Cemetery fence, but that is the only similarity. My guess would be that this photo was taken in what is now known as Amador Cemetery (LRC).
Photo - Bob Karrer collection.

Corozal Cemetery

What is now the Corozal American Cemetery and Memorial began as a humble plot of jungle land assigned to the Silver Roll Employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission. Before 1914, it was also a farm that provided work for disabled "Silver" workers who were allowed to live on parcels of farmland with their families. As such, the "farm" was placed under the direction of the ICC Corozal Farm Supervisor.

On February 5, 1914, the Corozal Cemetery was expanded and assigned to the Superintendent of Ancon Hospital, but remained under the operational administration of the Corozal Farm Supervisor, with the disabled labor force continuing to performed burials and maintenance. The new cemetery, however, was segregated with the "Silver" people remaining on the original site, while the "Gold" employees were buried in a separate and newly fenced section. As the cemetery continued to expand, it would eventually cover more than 63 acres. Of these, 46 acres are the resting place of the "Silver" laborers. This portion, by the way, is experiencing grave deterioration and abandonment. By contrast, the 17 acres assigned to the "Gold" employees of the Canal Zone were always well maintained and are now under the control of the American Battle Monument Commission. In 1923 an obelisk was erected on the "Gold" section with the inscription:


Corozal became the final address for many employees of the canal who died over the years, including "Silver", "Gold" and military personnel. There was also a fair amount of cremation – St Luke's Cathedral in Ancon has a columbarium (vault for urns with ashes) and so did the Scottish Rites Temple in Balboa. When the building was sold, the ashes were moved to Corozal (8).

There are 5,336 Americans buried in the Corozal Cemetery but, definitely, no Frenchman was ever buried there.

French Cemetery (9)

Entrance to the French Cemetery near Paraiso Photo - Unknown

There is a cemetery on a hillside next to the town of Paraiso , on the Pacific side of the canal entrance that, as a child, was always pointed out to me as being "the French Cemetery". But nothing else was said about this strange place. Now, at 80, my curiosity has been aroused as to who is really buried there. By process of elimination of the cemeteries I have mentioned above, I find that none, apparently, include Frenchmen from the 1880-89 era of the canal construction under the French Canal Company. Only the French Cemetery at Paraiso appears to include Frenchmen, although it also includes West Indian laborers who amounted to the largest number of fatalities during construction days. (But don't forget the metal crosses at Gatun Cemetery with those numbers on them. Are they French workers?)

Omar Upegui R. writes in "Requiescant In Pacem (R.I.P.)" that during his research about the Panama Canal, after his retirement, his attention was drawn to "the considerable number of human lives that were lost during the construction project; especially during the first phase of the construction." He created a post (see Note 9) "dedicated to the memory of the French workers who crossed the ocean to fulfill their dreams, and in the process lost their lives. They never returned to their loved ones back home. The inhabitants of the Caribbean are dearly remembered as well."

Thus, the only place I have found, with some degree of evidence, as a resting place for those Frenchmen that died, is the cemetery on the grassy slope next to the township of Paraiso . On this hallowed ground one finds hundreds of white metal crosses bearing no name, only a number to track the nameless victims of tropical disease which killed thousands. Where would one be able to match those mysterious numbers with the name of a person? Southern Explorations (S.E.) claims that each white cross represents a thousand men who gave their lives. But is S.E. referring to the Frenchmen or the West Indians? And, is S.E. implying that there are 1000 bodies under each cross? It does not seem likely.

If there are Frenchmen are buried near Paraiso , why so far away from Ancon (Gorgas) Hospital? It is about 12 miles between the two places through what was very difficult terrain in those days. Are there Canal Company Frenchmen buried in the cemeteries within the city of Panama? Were the bodies shipped to France? Again, my research has produced no answers.

A monument now stands at the top of the knoll of the cemetery, erected in more recent times, which reads:


"Today, the Paraiso Cemetery [French Cemetery] is maintained by the French Government" (10). This statement is the only clue that gives some credibility to the belief that Frenchmen are buried there. But, without any tangible records at my disposal, it remains for someone else with better capabilities for research to confirm this. To my knowledge, there are no graves in Panama with the name, or names, of any Frenchman who died in Panama during the French Canal construction days.

Left: The monument built in remembrance. Photo: Omar Upegui Right: Inscription on Monument. Photo - CZBrats

A field of white iron crosses. Photo - Omar Upegui R.

Typical of the iron crosses used by the French.
Notice that only a number (427) shows. Do records exist tying this number to a name?
Photo - Omar Upegui R.

Other Cemeteries

Other cemeteries existed along the route of the canal during the French years, the largest being at Empire near the site of the Culebra Cut. When the town of Empire was removed, what happened to the cemetery? By the way, as late as the early 1950s, the old site of this town was still being visited by Balboa High School classmates who collected bottles. At you can find additional information about all the towns that one time dotted the area around what became the canal and Gatun Lake.

Another one was at the town of Gorgona on the Chagres, a short distance from Gamboa , and another was Tabernilla half way across the isthmus also on the Chagres River. In my inquiries about Frenchmen being buried there, a friend and source of many photos replied, "You can bet there were Frenchmen [buried] there. I have seen the old Gorgona cemetery too . . . it lies along the edge of the canal and at low water times the holes were clearly visible . . . nothing in them. . . as they had been eroded during the canal construction and by each passing boat. I know a guy who also saw a cemetery area near the town of Matachin "( 11). Tabernilla ended up being covered by Gatun Lake.

Cemetery at Empire on the banks of the canal by Culebra Cut. Photo - Bob Karrer collection

This photo says "Old French Cemetery, Panama" and Ancon Hill can be seen in background.
But where is it? Is it the one called "Amador Cemetery" now? Most likely. Photo - Bob Karrer collection

Additional Information

The failed French Canal Company was reorganized as The New French Canal Company on October 20, 1894, but by now the public was very skeptical of the project and only $12,000,000 were raised. In spite of this insufficient capital, work began again at Culebra Cut on a limited basis. There, every shovelful of dirt would count no matter what type of canal was ultimately selected, sea level or lock. While this limited work was going on, a Technical Committee was formed to study the merits of a lock canal. Arriving on the isthmus in February 1896, they made an extensive study and arrived at the conclusion that a locks canal was the answer. In many aspects, their plan was very similar in principle to that of the final American design. But it was too late. By 1898, with all capital gone, the company had no alternative but to start negotiations with the United States. I have found no records on the deaths during this brief period of construction. I am guessing that, since the cause of malaria and yellow fever were not yet fully identified, the health problem had shown no improvement.


Fred Sill recounts that when his Dad arrived on the Isthmus in 1907 to work for the ICC, he had no sooner gotten off the ship in Cristobal, the Atlantic port for the ICC, when some wag asked him if he had carved his initials on one of the cargo empty coffins arriving on the same ship. If he hadn't, the wag continued, it was dead certain that his body would be sent back home in a barrel!

Fred also recalls that his parents were at an event at the Governor's Residence in Balboa Heights one evening in the 1950s when the governor's wife asked Fred's father where were the bodies of the people who had died during the construction of the canal. Fred's Dad replied, "We're standing on them", making reference to the fact that the Governor's Residence was built on the site of the old Ancon Cemetery. As you know from reading the account above, those bodies had actually been moved to Corozal Cemetery in 1914.

I wish to express here my gratitude to Robert Karrer for his generous contribution of photos from his collection and Fred Sill for his human interest anecdotes. Also for their help in proof-reading. I can always count on them for help.


After more research than I have ever done for any of my short stories, I found no answer to my original question about where the French buried their dead. The iron crosses with numbers found in Gatun Cemetery and the French Cemetery near Paraiso might be the answer. But one would have to exhume some bodies at both places and/or find an archive with records tying the numbers on each cross with a name. Both are operations beyond the scope of my capabilities. So, we will leave those brave Frenchmen to rest in peace, wherever their bodies may be found. The mystery of the French cemeteries remains unsolved.


  1. "The Path Between The Seas", David MCullough , p.114
  2. "Panama Canal History, The French Canal Construction", p.3,
  3. "Southern Explorations",
  4. "The Path Between The Seas" David McCullough, p.131
  5. "America's Triumph In Panama", Ralph E. Avery, 1913
  6. "Stocks And Bonds Issued By The Compagnie Universalle Du Canal InteroceanicDe Panama", Julius Grigore, Jr., Capt., USN Retired, p.45
  7. "Quarry Heights History (1916-1997)", Legacy Resources Management,
  8. Fred Sill, Classmate, BHS '53, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  9. "Requiescant In Pacem (R.I.P.)", Omar Upegui R.,
  10. Julius Grigore , Capt., USN Retired, p.46
  11. Robert Karrer, Isthmian Collectors Club, Charleston, SC


  1. "The History of the Corozal and Mount Hope Cemeteries", The Silver People Heritage Foundation;
  2. "Working and Dying on the French Panama Canal Construction Project", Southern Explorations;
  3. "The Panama Canal Death Tolls" by Lydia M. Reid, The Silver People Heriatge Foundation;
  4. "Corozal American Cemetery and Memorial", Wikipedia;
  5. "The Workers", American Experience Series, PBS,;
  6. "How I Discovered the Old French Cemetery", The Silver People Heritage Foundation;
  7. "Panama Canal &em; History", Association Lesseps,;
  8. "On This Day: July 22, 1905",;
  9. "Mount Hope Cemetery", World Monuments Fund,;
  10. "Gatun Cemetery",;
  11. "Gatun Cemetery" The Silver People Heritage Foundation;
  12. "Gatun's historic black cemetery",
  13. La Estrella de Panama, "Arquitectura Y El Cementerio Amador" por Sebastian Sucre.


Left: Early view of Ancon Cemetery with Sosa Hill in background. Photo - Uncredited
Right: Close-up of graves at Ancon Cemetery. The stone on left reads "599 Joseph Watson,
Died August 27, 1906, Aged 38 Years". Photo - Bob Karrer collection

Satellite photo of Ancon Hill showing approximate location of the Ancon Hill Cemetery.
Google Maps

Photo taken from top of quarry on Ancon Hill showing the Ancon Hill Cemetery and the knoll
where the Administration would be built just above it. Note the large houses. What are they?
Photo - Bob Karrer collection

Town of Empirenear. Culebra Cut between Pedro Miguel and Gamboa, 1910.
Photo - by I.L. Maduro, Bob Karrer collection

Town of Tabernilla on the Chagres about 10 miles west of Gamboa, 1910.
Photo - by I.L. Maduro, Bob Karrer collection

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas