The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sparked the need for a transcontinental railroad. At the time, most Americans lived on the east coast of the US, and traveling to California via Panama was cheaper and quicker then going across the US. The isthmus route was also less dangerous than traveling through the USA’s vast heartland, which was home to hostile indigenous groups. Gold-seekers took steamships from the eastern seaboard to the mouth of the Río Chagres, walked the historic 80km Sendero Las Cruces trade route to the Pacific coast, and then boarded ships bound for California.
In 1850 the city of Colón was established as the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Railroad. It was initially called Aspinwall in honor of William Aspinwall, one of the founders of the Panama Railroad. In 1890, however, the government of Colombia changed the name of the city to Colón and dubbed the surrounding province Cristóbal.
Following the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855, Colón became a boom town almost overnight. With scores of Americans passing through the city on a daily basis, Colón attracted entrepreneurs and businesspeople looking to cash in on the gold-rush fever. Unfortunately, the Panama Railroad became insignificant following the completion of the US transcontinental railroad in 1869 and Colón faded into obscurity less than 20 years after its founding.
At the peak of Colón’s economic depression in 1881, the French arrived to start construction of an interoceanic canal, but the city was burnt to the ground four years later by a Colombian hoping to spark a revolution. In the years to follow, Colón entered a second golden age as the city was entirely rebuilt in the French colonial architectural style that was popular at the time. Rivaling Panama City in beauty and wealth, life in the Canal Zone was pleasurable and highly profitable.
The French abandoned their efforts eight years later when the monetary costs proved too great, and yellow fever and malaria had killed 22, 000 workers, but the US was quick to seize the opportunity. For the next 25 years, the sleepy backwater town of Colón was transformed into a vibrant provincial capital as workers from around the world arrived by the shipload. However, immediately following the completion of the canal in 1914, the sudden lack of employment caused Colón’s economy to disintegrate and the city spiraled into the depths of depravity almost overnight. Today, most of the colonial city is still intact, though the buildings are on the verge of collapse, with countless squatters living inside them.