Cristóbal is a port in the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. It is located on the western edge of Manzanillo Island and is part of the Panamanian city and province of Colón. Cristóbal Colón is the Spanish translation for Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the Americas and for whom these places were named.
In 1904, after Panama's US-backed declaration of independence from Colombia, the Canal Commission set up its provisional headquarters in Cristobal. By then, the United States had purchased the French Canal enterprise's assets in Panama and had secured use and control of the Canal Zone "in perpetuity." The Panama Railroad's assets also came under Canal Zone control, and its facilities became part of the Canal Zone town of Cristobal.
By April 1906, Cristobal had a population of 2,101, of which 489 were Americans. Just a year later, the population had passed 4,000, 1/4 of which were American. Construction of facilities for gold and silver roll employees was under way and housing was expanded, though many bachelors and silver roll employees were housed in box cars given the lack of sufficient housing throughout the Canal Zone. Also that year, the former French and Panama Railroad hospitals were consolidated and refurbished.
In 1907, the Cristobal Women's Club was founded, and fraternal orders for men, including Masonic and Elks lodges, were active. Commissaries and clubhouses were built and very active. Construction of housing and facilities expanded northward. In 1913, the present-day Hotel Washington was built on the site of a former Panama Railroad building known as the Washington House. Cristobalites eventually had their own commissary, post office, police, fire and railroad stations, churches, yacht club, YMCA, VFW, American Legion, several fraternal lodges and a masonic temple.
After the Canal's inauguration, the port of Cristobal's great piers were built and shortly after, shipping companies moved into the area which came to be known as Steamship Row. At around the same time, the northwestern tip of Manzanillo Island was converted into an artillery post, named Fort DeLesseps, so new residential housing areas for US employees was needed. This required new planning for Cristobal, which was designed primarily for port activity, as headquarters for shipping agencies, freight handlers, banks, and the Canal Zone's Atlantic side civil administration center. A new residential section was built by expanding Cristobal along Colon Beach, through another massive landfill of northern Manzanillo Island's swamps. This new area came to be known as New Cristobal.
New Cristobal's construction progressed from 1917 to 1938, and involved filling in swamp areas beyond Cristobal which allowed the city of Colón to expand too. As part of this expansion, a new Cristobal elementary school was built in 1918 and Cristobal High School in 1933. This period coincided with the period of Colón's greatest economic prosperity. During these years, the port of Cristobal employed almost 2,000 employees.
The mid-1950s saw the greatest transformation of Cristobal. This change saw a drastic population shift of Cristobalites to new areas in Margarita and Coco Solo, and the redefinition of territorial boundaries which reduced the extension of the Canal Zone on Manzanillo Island. These changes came about as a result of the construction of the town of Margarita, the 1955 bilateral treaty, and the US Navy's transfer of its Coco Solo Station to the Canal Zone Government. Cristobal's population in 1955 was down to 562 and New Cristobal's was down to 1,130.
Starting in late 1957, in compliance with the 1955 Treaty, five tracts of land totaling in Cristobal and all of New Cristobal, were transferred to the Republic of Panama. Cristobal High School was moved from New Cristobal to Coco Solo, the Colon Hospital was moved from Colon Beach to an area south of Coco Solo and France Field, the Hotel Washington came under Panamanian jurisdiction, and the Panama Railroad stations in Cristobal and Panama City were relocated. Many of the properties transferred as a result of the 1955 Treaty had been owned by the Panama Railroad for over 100 years.
By the early 1960s, Cristobal was almost exclusively a commercial and social area with few residents. Cristobal was the target of anti-American protests throughout the early 1960s, and particularly after the Balboa "Flag Incident" in January 1964. New Cristobal and Fort DeLesseps, now part of the Republic of Panama, became the most prestigious areas for Colón's citizens and for executives of the Bahía Las Minas Refinery, but other former Panama Railroad areas eventually fell into decline in the 1970s and 1980s, along with most of the rest of the city of Colón.
Starting in 1979, in compliance with the Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, the Canal Zone was abolished and US control over the Panama Canal and the former Canal Zone began to be transferred to the Republic of Panama. Many areas in Cristobal were amongst the first to be transferred, as was the Panama Railroad, which ceased to operate in the mid-1980s due to lack of maintenance.
Despite Colon's poor shape, Cristobal's port is thriving once again, under private management, but it now faces competition from other container ports built in the area of Coco Solo.