Bits & Pieces

December 12, 2012

The Streetcars (Tranvias) of Panama

I. Introduction


The streetcar heading south by Santa Ana Plaza.

There are few of us left that remember riding in the streetcars (tranvias) of Panama. Those of us that rode in these vehicles remember the fun it was regardless of the destination or the reason for the ride. It did not matter. What mattered was that, whenever we needed to go anyplace, we would ride the "tranvia". Notes from others that enjoyed these mechanical caterpillars recall the routes which included such landmarks as the Café Coca-Cola, The French Bazaar, the sweetshop La Gran Via, the Kiosk of Mr. Mejia (always wearing a beret) where one could acquire apples, pears, grapes, sodas, newspapers, magazines and comic books, La Flor Panameña, Farmacia Preciado, and La Central de Lecherias, to name a few. All that, and much more, within the reach of those that were lucky enough (in my boyhood opinion) to ride the tranvias. But I came too late to enjoy them very long. By 1941 they were gone (1).

II. My Recollections

For me, the era of the streetcars, or Tranvias, in Panama was from 1932 until Saturday, May 31, 1941, when, at midnight, service ceased forever. Thus, my recollections begin later as I grew old enough to start appreciating their existence. In my fading memory, I remember the streetcars as a Sunday afternoon family fun diversion, riding through downtown and then heading to Balboa, in the then Panama Canal Zone. As time went by, I came to realize it was also a means of transportation to downtown; trips, by the way, which except for the ride, I did not enjoy much as they involved visiting fabric shops. There, my mother would purchase the necessary items to make us clothes, but this shopping also represented long waits in the store, with nothing to do, while my mother looked around and conversed with the help, who were also friends of the family. Eventually the streetcars also meant a way of getting home from school until the day the service was discontinued.

The Routes: The routes I remember from my days using the trolleys were only two: (1) From SABANAS to PALACIO and (2) from BELLA VISTA to BALBOA.

The SABANAS to PALACIO route started around the area of Villa Hermosa, close to the little church of Maria de Lourdes and followed Via España all the way to El Casino. Then it went on Central Avenue to Santa Ana Plaza, Cathedral Plaza and the Palacio de Justicia by the National Theater, near the old Union Club. (If you notice errors in my descriptions, please note that my recollections are from when I was some 4-5 years old until I was 9).


The streetcar station in my neighborhood

This was a very familiar view to me. The pick-up is in front of the grandiose Fuerza Y Luz (Power & Light) building across the street from the Cecilia Theater. It was a favorite place to wait for the trolley because it was always cooler inside and they had an iced water fountain. There are two sets of tracks here and you can see two trolleys in the background going in opposite directions.

The BELLA VISTA to BALBOA route started at the old Miramar Club/Colegio Miramar by Parque Urraca on 46th Street. It joined the SABANAS-BALBOA tracks at Via España near the station in front and across the street from what was then "La Central de Lecheria" on the corner of Via España and Calle 45. Calle 45 went over the hill and joined Simon Bolivar Avenue. This station served as a transfer point if you wanted to go to Sabanas or Palacio, or vice-versa. The BALBOA route then continued on the same direction as the PALACIOS route until reaching Santa Ana Plaza. There, in front of the French Bazaar, the route would switch to "C" Street for one block heading toward the Variedades Theater. It then made a sharp turn into 14th Street and another into "B" Street heading through Chorrillo into 4th of July Avenue. Crossing into the Canal Zone it took Balboa Road to La Boca Road ending up in La Boca near the ferry crossing. The turn from "C" Street into 14th Street always fascinated me. As the car turned, the roof would just barely miss the balcony of the house on the corner. Up until the last minute I felt sure it was going to hit it until the last second. Then it would complete the turn and miss it by what appeared to be a fraction of an inch.

The SABANAS-PALACIO route had a siding in front and across the street from the old Kennelworth Dog Race Track, which I believe is now the El Cangrejo area. There, the streetcar heading toward SABANAS would wait until the one heading to PALACIO would pass. Fortunately, a huge tree grew there giving a much appreciated shade. As a kid, it was fun to watch the conductor get off the trolley to switch the tracks in order to go into the siding and then on to the main line again. On Sunday afternoons,we could hear the din of people shouting and hounds barking as the races took place.


Interior of streetcar

At the end of each trolley route, it was also interesting to watch the conductor get off and turn the trolley pole around so the car could head in the opposite direction. The motorman would remove the electric power handle to take it to the opposite end of the streetcar. As he walked through the car, he would turn the backs of the seats so they would be facing to the front again. It was also fun to watch closely the motorman operating the electrical power handle and the big, long brake handle. And, naturally, the clanging bell was the frosting on the cake. I don't remember one single ride I did not enjoy.

The Motorman: The Motorman and the Conductor wore a military cut khaki uniform consisting on regular long pants and a coat with a high collar so as to not require a tie with a "kepi" style cap. Because they looked military, I once asked my father if they could help the police in catching a criminal. Yes, he said, they could if necessary. One motorman especially comes to mind. He was a tall black West Indian, always very neat and with a waxed and pointed moustache. He looked as if he owned the car he drove and everyone respected his authority while in his car. But he was also well-liked, friendly and helpful.

The seats of the cars were made of tightly woven straw, and the backs would swing so that the passengers would always face the direction of travel. Whenever four of us traveled together, we would move the back of one seat so we could face each other.


Streetcar at Miramar School in BELLA VISTA

My School Route: I started using the streetcar to get home from school when I was transferred to the Colegio Miramar in Bella Vista for the third grade. When time came for me to use the streetcar to get home after school, I would catch the BALBOA trolley across the street from the school and ride up 46th Street until reaching the station across from La Central de Lecheria. There, I would get off and wait, with a few other students heading in the same direction as I, for the trolley going to SABANAS. While we waited, the trolley coming from SABANAS and heading to town would come by. Our daily entertainment consisted of placing rocks on the track to see them get smashed by that trolley as it went by. Once my trolley came, I would board and head for the little station at the entrance of my street, Via Porras.

One day, while in the third grade, a classmate named, I believe, Mario deDiego, his older brother and I, decided to walk home instead of taking the street car. We walked up Federico Boyd Avenue and then down to Via España, where the Del Carmen Church is now located. There, we picked up the trolley tracks and followed them to my street, Via Porras. And I then walked into the biggest scolding I ever got. Pulling out the trolley ticket to show the fare I had saved was no help. The trolleys ran a very tight schedule and, when I was not home at the appropriate time, my mother was very distressed for she knew I had missed the trolley and wondered why. I was sternly told never to do that again, and I never did.


Bella Vista to Panama ticket

The Tickets: My mother would purchase tickets at the Fuerza y Luz (Power & Light) Co. building, downtown across from the Cecilia Theater. This was an impressive building and, as a child, I loved to go in there because, it was always cool and they had an ice-water fountain. The cavernous inside with its very high ceiling in most of the building was the reason for this coolness. My aunt Maria Teresa "Chola" Azcarraga worked there in a cage where one paid the electric bill and where one could also buy the street car tickets at a small discount. I was always impressed by the big red rolls of tickets. Another relative named Graciela "Chela" Mendez also worked in this cage at the back of the building.

The front of the building, with its awning, provided a protected area under which we would wait for the streetcar in relative comfort from the sun or rain.

The Demise: It was to our great sorrow when we learned that the "tranvias" service was coming to an end. No longer would we listen for the screeching sounds as they went around sharp corners, no longer would we see sparks flying out of the wires as the trolley pole hit some contacts. Those leisure "paseos" on Sunday were gone giving way to the automobile which crowded out this revered method of transportation. After that fateful day in 1941, the streetcars were no more

III. The Eras Of The Streetcars In Panama City

According to Allen Morrison, who has made a most extensive study on the streetcars of Panama (1), there were two "distinct tramway eras, which correspond roughly to the two periods of construction of the Panama Canal." He refers, of course to the 1880-1890 era of the French effort and the 1903-1999 period of the U.S. canal.

The French Era Tramway: During this period of the Panama city streetcars, Panama was still a part of Colombia. In 1889, when the French effort to build a canal across the Isthmus was already in financial troubles, the Ministry of Public Works in Bogota, capital of Colombia, granted permission to a group of Colombians to build a tramway in the city of Panama. Unable to get their finances in order, they transferred the franchise to a British group of investors based in London, England on October 22, 1892. The company, known as the United Electric Tramway Co., built a power plant and laid track along Central Avenue (2). Exactly where this track went, I do not know.


Celebration of the inauguration of service by the Panama Tramway Company, August 1, 1913.

The vehicles, though, were unique in that they got their power from the overhead lines not from the known roof-mounted bows and trolleys, but by means of a unique triangle mounted high above the car and held in place by a fixed pole on one side of the vehicle (see photo below).


French Era trolleys. Notice the triangle on top of pole which is attached to side of trolley.

The final failure of the French Canal Company as well as the 1000 Days War destroyed the small economy of the city and, with it, the solvency of the tramways company. By 1902, the line had ceased to exist.

The United States Canal Era: With the French out of the picture, the United States took over construction and operations of the new canal and, with it, came new prosperity to the now independent country of Panama. The need for a good transportation system within the city became a necessity and the government of Panama issued a permit to the Panama Tramway Co. which, on November 9, 1911, registered in New Jersey. Construction began soon afterward in 1912. The main routes would run from SABANAS to PALACIO and from BELLA VISTA to BALBOA using Central Avenue and Calle "B" as the main city arteries.


IV. The Routes

As stated before, the main routes of the tram system were from SABANAS - PALACIO and BELLA VISTA - BALBOA. (See Early Routes Map next page)


This is a 1915 photo and the Calidonia Bridge is still in place. Notice railings on right of photo. The streetcar coming from the Plaza 5 de Mayo, just behind it, will turn to our right, away from bridge, and head for Ancon (See Panama Streetcar Routes below). Notice the new train station on the left.

During the period that the Calidonia Bridge existed over the Panama Railroad tracks, the tram tracks could not get across the railroad tracks. In order for the SABANAS tram, heading south to PALACIO, to get to the other side and continue southward, it became necessary to use another route which had to go around the railroad marshaling yards. With the Casa Miller on its left, the street car would take Calle 23 Este, heading south toward the Tramway Company “Barn” (streetcar garage and repair shops). Then it would take Avenida Norte, enter Calle 15, zigzag into Calle 16 and re-enter Central Avenue continuing south toward Santa Ana Plaza. At Santa Ana Plaza, through a confusing re-routing of tracks, the SABANAS streetcar would continue south on Central Avenue to its destination at PALACIO.

The BELLA VISTA streetcar, coming south towards BALBOA would follow the same route, but split up at Santa Ana Plaza to continue its trip to BALBOA. On the reverse route, the street cars would again go through Santa Ana Plaza, but, this time, they would take Calle 13 (Salsipuedes) to go down to Avenida Norte in order to proceed north to its destinations.

There was another route that, beginning at Santa Ana Plaza, would head north on Central Avenue with ANCON as its destination. This route would go all the way to Plaza 5 De Mayo then swing into Calle 22-B and then Frangipani Street to its end. The Panama Streetcar Routes map shows that this route also circled Plaza 5 De Mayo. Additionally, there was also a spur going down from Central Avenue, at Casino, down Calle 34 to the Santo Tomas Hospital.

Once the Calidonia Bridge was replaced by a graded crossing, around 1920, the Tranvia track was extended to connect from Calle 22-B to Calle 23 Este. The Avenida Norte, Calle 13, Calle 15 and Calle 16 tracks were removed. Not long after, the tracks going to Ancon were also removed as were the tracks to the Santo Tomas Hospital.


Map of all the routes existing during the early days of the Panama Tramway Company, probably from 1911 through 1920 when the Calidonia Bridge over the Panama Railroad tracks was finally taken down.

V. The Tracks

As best as I can remember, there was a single track from SABANAS to the Casino area running alongside Avenida España. Between SABANAS and the junction with the BELLA VISTA track, there was a siding across the street from the Kennelworth Dog Race Tracks (what is now the Cangrejo residential area). Here, the streetcar heading north would wait for the one heading south to pass before proceeding to SABANAS.

The BELLA VISTA spur came from the Miramar Club, later School, on the seashore and up Calle 46 to connect to the main track at Via España.


Workers laying rack on "C" Street around 1910

At Casino, the track split in two and proceeded in this manner south to the inner city until it reached Calle 16, past the Cecilia Theater and the Fuerza Y Luz Building. There, because of the narrow portion of Central Avenue, it retuned to a single track configuration until reaching Santa Ana Plaza. The trolley heading south would wait in front of Fuerza Y Luz Building for the north bound to pass before proceeding.

The main interchange of tracks was at Santa Ana Plaza and one can still see the rails, switches and crossing of rails imbedded in the brick roadway. This is what I wanted to photograph in detail in order to make a more accurate explanation of how the trolleys changed routes. Failing that, I used old photos as best I could and with the help of Tommy Thomas (See Chapter VII), I was able to put together a plausible explanation. I find this interchange very interesting. There is a set of rails going from PALACIO into Calle "C" but appear to lead to nowhere (Shown as a dotted line in the 1930s to 1941 Routes Map). I cannot help but wonder where they went as they do not show up even in the early routes map, but here is a photo of workers laying that track.

The interchange of the routes was at Santa Ana Plaza where the tram going to BALBOA changed tracks and headed West on Calle "C" for a block before wiggling on to Call "B", using Calle 14. The PALACIO tram continued on its way South on Central Avenue to its destination.


VI. Switching Tracks In And Out Of The City

Because the tracks of the streetcars in the inner city were set in either asphalt or brick, I was puzzled as to how they switched tracks there. I tried all means at my disposal to get photos of the tracks as they still appear at Santa Ana Plaza to help me figure out this riddle, but to no avail. I first tried relatives, then friends and, finally, offered money to get someone to go to Santa Ana Plaza and do a complete set of photos for me to study. Nothing worked.

I was left with a few old photos of the city streets showing the trolleys and some tracks and I have studied them thoroughly but could not come to any plausible explanation.

Finally, a Balboa High School classmate, Wendall Spreadbury, learned of my problem and e-mailed me about a friend, Tommy Thomas, he had in Dallas who volunteers as a motorman for the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority (MATA). MATA is a vintage streetcar line running in an uptown neighborhood in Dallas and still uses 1920s state of the art facilities. Their tracks and switching systems would be very close to what we had in Panama during the era of our streetcars.

I contacted Tommy and he was more than happy to show us around and explain the system. We made an appointment for Saturday, October 29 at 10:00 AM. Then, fate messed with me again. Two weeks before the meeting, my wife took a bad fall and was incapacitated for a while, meaning I could not keep the appointment. I was again denied first-hand information on the system, although my son did meet with Mr. Thomas and took lots of photos. From that information, and correspondence with Tommy, I have surmised, right or wrong, that the switching on the line took place as described in the following drawings:

Switch Details A & B,
Figures 1 through 4

(See 1932-1941 Routes Map Above)

Track switching was done manually at this point. In the photo included, you can see the switch signal cluster. The streetcar heading north to SABANAS would stop short of switch X-1 (Fig. 1) allowing the Conductor* to step out and throw the Switch to the X-2 Position (Fig. 2). The streetcar (yellow) would move to the middle of the siding, the Conductor would move Switch back to X-1 Position (Fig. 3) and wait for the southbound car to pass to pass without stopping. The Conductor would then move the north Switch and move it to the Y-2 Position (Fig. 4), the streetcar would move back to the main track, the Conductor would return the Switch to the Y-1 Position and proceed on to SABANAS

*NOTE: All streetcars had a Motorman and a Conductor. The Motorman did all the operating of the vehicle while the Conductor collected fares and handled the switches and trolley poles.


Switch
Figures 5 & 6

(See 1932-1941 Routes Map Above)

The Switch at the streetcar station at La Central de Lecherias permitted the streetcar to go either to BELLA VISTA or to SABANAS. The manually operated Switch W-1 was normally open (Figure 5) to traffic to SABANAS. The trolley going to BELLA VISTA would stop short of it and the Conductor would throw it to Position W-2 (Figure 6) in order to run into the tracks going to BELLA VISTA. Once on that track, the Conductor would return the Switch to Position W-1 (Figure 5) before proceeding to their destination. On the return trip, the operation of the Switch would be done in reverse so that the BELLA VISTA trolley could go on to BALBOA.


Switch Details D & E
Figures 7 & 8

(See 1932-1941 Routes Map Above)

Figure 7 corresponds to Detail D on Map. This was a Normally CLOSED Spring Loaded Switch, shown as SL-1. Streetcars going North to South were diverted to a secondary track by the Hinged Red Rail that the switch spring kept pressed against the main rail. Streetcars going South to North had their wheels push against the spring opening a gap between the red rail and the main rail allowing the car to go through.

Figure 8 corresponds to Detail E on Map. This was a Normally OPEN Spring Loaded Switch, shown as SL-2.
Streetcars going South to North would stay on main track the wheels going through the gap between the main rail and the red rail. The streetcar moving South from the siding would push against the red rail spring and close the gap allowing it to return to the main track.


Switch Detail F
Figure 9

(See 1932-1941 Routes Map Above)

The switch to the siding at Santa Ana Plaza was a Normally OPEN Spring Loaded Switch shown as SL-3 in Figure 9 above. Streetcars heading South would stay on the main track while those heading North would go into the siding by means of manually activated switches as will be see in Detail G, Figure 10 below. The cars on tis siding would be heading North from PALACIO or from BALBOA. As you can see the spring of the switch keeps the red rail away from the main rail allowing traffic heading South to pass. Traffic heading North would push against the spring closing the gap in order to return to the main track.


The Santa Ana Plaza interchange. The streetcar in the photo is coming towards us and is on the track leading to PALACIO. The car in the photo is going over the headed for BALBOA. This track is turning into Calle "C" and you can see how it loops around in Calle "C" in order to have a wide enough curve for the trolley turning into Calle 14. The straight track on Calle "C" turns towards us and joins the track to PALACIO. This is the track shown as a dotted line on the Routes Map and we do not know where it goes to.

Switch Detail G
Figure 10

(See 1932-1941 Routes Map Above)

The track switching in the Santa Ana Plaza interchange had to be done manually as streetcars had to come and go through the same interchange, unlike the other places where they went only one way. This complicated things a bit. In this case, the conductor would activate a small switch in a box between the rails using a special tool. The moving parts of the rails were called points and are shown here in Black, though they are difficult to see because of the dark blue rails. In Figure 10-1, the points are closed to traffic except to the streetcars on the SABANAS-PALACIO route. On Figure 10-2, the points are open to the BELLAVISTA-BALBOA traffic coming from the siding where it would have been waiting for the SABANAS-PALACIO trolley to pass by. Figure 10-3 shows points open to allow traffic from BELLA VISTA-BALBOA traffic to go through without going to the siding. Figure 10-4 shows the siding open to the SABANAS-PALACIO streetcar. I don't know how the schedules worked and which car waited for which or when. This important interchange in Santa Ana was the one that I was so interested in studying closely to help solve the puzzle of the transit to the different routes. I regret I was not able to fully solve the problem, but I think we have come as close as we possibly can.
Detail photos of these switches follow.

VII. Mr. Tommy Thomas And MATA

The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority (MATA), a non-profit organization, operates the M-Line Streetcar in Dallas, Texas. The M-Line's air-conditioned and heated restored vintage trolleys run 365 days a year, providing safe, clean, reliable and convenient public transportation free of charge in Dallas' vibrant Uptown Neighborhood. The line connects with a station of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).

MATA uses tracks that were set in the late 19th century and used through the 1930s. In the 1980s a movement was started to restore the line and by 1989 they had the first car, Number 122, began operations again (3)(4). Mr. Tommy Thomas, who so graciously took time off from a busy schedule to show my son around the system, explaining the operations of switches in the paved streets of Dallas, grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. He served in the U.S. Navy for over three years and then entered the professional service of the Boy Scouts of America for a career of 39 years. He retired in 2002 as Associate National Director of Cub Scouting. In 2005, he joined MATA as a volunteer and on Sundays operates one of the streetcars as a Motorman. Other interests keep him busy and on the move traveling, so we were very grateful for the time he gave us in October. It was he who "cracked the code" and allowed me to understand what I was seeing in the old Panama tracks.

VIII. The End Of The Streetcars

Since its inauguration on September 27, 1919, the streetcars in Panama had become a part of the metropolitan life of the capital. The trolleys were comfortable, spacious and always very clean. The motorman's voice could be heard over the din of traffic and clanging bells as he warned pedestrians and autos on the way. And one could feel the slowdowns and surges in speed as he made his way through the increasing traffic in the city.

Up until the very end, the tranvias remained a favorite means of transportation and diversion, especially on Sundays when whole families would ride them. The most favorite route, in my days, was the one leading to Balboa (La Boca). During the week, students of the various schools in the city, including me, were the largest group to use the trolleys as their itinerary was strictly adhered to and one could depend on being on time.

Nevertheless, progress finally caught up with this delightful means of transportation. The increase in automobile traffic, both private and commercial, not only gave the tranvias stiff competition, but clogged the streets to a point that he mechanical caterpillars became more an obstruction than a convenience. In 1941, the Government passed Public Order No. 734 which suspended trolley service effective May 31 of that same year. This was the end, forever, of scheduled transportation service in the city.

All the rails not set in concrete or brick were removed or covered over. All poles and power lines were also removed. Today, however, one can still see the remaining rails imbedded in the brick portions of

Central Avenue from Santa Ana Plaza to the National Theater, the only sign of a time long gone by, when riding on a public convenience was so much fun.

Luis R. Celerier
December 2012
Longview, Texas

APPENDIX


The following photos correspond to the green numbered cars on the Streetcar Routes in the map above.








Acknowledgements

I am indebted to Wendall Spreadbury who led me to Tommy Thomas of MATA and I am equally grateful to Tommy for the valuable help he rendered to me on this project. I also thank my son Glenn who met with Tommy in my place and took all the photos necessary for me to understand the switching systems used in the 1920s.

Notes

  1. "The Tramways of Panama" by Allen Morrison, February 1, 2008, www.tramz.com
  2. Ditto
  3. Tommy Thomas of www.mata.org
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McKinney_Avenue_Transit_Authority
  5. Almost all drawings by author.

Sources of Information and Photographs

"The Tramways of Panama" by Allen Morrison, February 1, 2008,www.tramz.com; Bob Karrer of Isthmian Collectors Club BKarrer@comcast.net; Fred Sill, BHS '53; The Straight Dope http://boards.straightdope.com; Tommy Thomas of MATA; Glenn Celerier of Arlington; Railroad Switch http://en.wikipedia.org; "Tramway Track Construction" http://ia700202.us.archive.org; "Trackway Infrastructure Guidelines for Light Rail Circulator Systems, prepared by J.H. Graebner, R.E. Jackson and L.G. Lovejoy, April 2007; "The Golden Era of Streetcars in Panama" by Omar Upegui R., March 5, 2009; "El Tranvia", http://foro.univision.com/t5/Panama; "Inaguracion Del Tranvia Electrico", by Alonso Roy, www.alonsoroy.com; "R.I.P. Para El Tranvia Electrico", by Alonso Roy; Marguerite "Pete" Bouche Budreau, BHS '51;
If I have omitted anyone, I apologize.

Comments

"My memories of the tranvias are dimmer than yours. I loved to ride on them -- a real adventure --- and I would sing "El Tambor de la Alegria " with its line " yo quiero pasear en coche y tambien en un tranvia". I asked when they would be brought back, and my dad told me that probably never, because the tracks were being torn up to sell as scrap iron for the war effort. I don't know if that was correct, but I took his word for it." Fred Sill.
Reply: Alas, Fred, your Dad was correct. See last paragraph of story . . . the only tracks left are those set in the brick streets of Santa Ana and down Central Ave. to Palacio.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas