Before the Yacht Club and the Causeway
by George Chevalier

At the start of the Canal Zone the older towns that had been in existence earlier all had private enterprises. Grocery stores, small eating places,hotels and saloons which of course sold alcoholic beverages. But after the early construction years private enterprises, with few exceptions, were abolished in the Canal Zone. With I think one exception the Zone became a dry state. The military officers clubs were able to serve hard liquor and civilian lodges and clubs could not. So the civilian Zonians took their liquid pleasures in the private clubs and bars of the Republic. In the early 1930s there were three major beer breweries in the city of Panama and they were the Atlas, Balboa and Milwaukee and they were all good if not a little different in taste. About this time these breweries became somehow involved in the construction three beer gardens on the Pacific Side and one in Colon. The three in Panama City were located off 4th of July Ave. on the Panama side between the Limits and the National Institute.

All were of open air style and the three breweries were affiliated individually with them. Thus the Atlas Beer Garden sold Atlas Beer, the Balboa Garden sold Balboa Beer and the El Rancho Garden the other. In Colon it was Bilgrays Beer Garden and these Gardens became the favorite nite spots for Zone residents.

During the 30s and 40s the Zonians favored the Atlas and the El Rancho while Panamanians tended to favor the Balboa Garden. All served good food and music tailored to the tastes of their clientele. The Atlas became the in spot for BHS, CZJC, Apprentices and the Working boys and it was noisier with the music led by an American named Arnie Hartman and his accordion playing all the latest hits from the states. It was the only one of the three that had the bar enclosed and air-conditioned which greatly enhanced those ten cent draught beers and the games of Liars Dice.

The El Rancho seemed to have the most eye appeal and also served the best food and I recall Lucho Azcarraga playing there for many years. The older and more mature Zonians frequented the El Rancho in those years before WW2. We as students felt safer in the Atlas for you could encounter your parents or your buddies parents at the El Rancho.

Not long after the start of the war, with enlisted men having to be out of Panama City by 11:00 p.m., the owner of the Atlas made it off limits to enlisted men. We local boys in the service swore revenge by promising to boycott the place after the war. So we now, being older, adopted the El Rancho as the in spot with nothing to fear from older types. In those days you could look out over the bay from the long bar while sipping those pan liquidos and dance to Lucho. The only bad note was as enlisted men having to leave all that each night by no later than five to eleven in order to get up to the Zone side of 4th July Ave. before the eleventh hour struck and you were caught still on the Panama side. That drew a two week restriction to your base which really amounted to three weeks because of MP delay in forwarding the report to your organization.

By wars end we had cooled off on revenge to the Atlas and in 1948 when we all came home for summer vacation from college I recall we were having afternoon sessions in the Atlas Bar. After a while I guess in the early 1950s Canal Zone Law as to alcohol was changed so that the fraternal lodges and clubs in the Zone now had bars and served alcoholic beverages. This combined with increasing nationalistic tensions with Panama saw the demise of the Zonian patronage of the beer gardens. When last seen in 1978 only the El Rancho was in use as a bingo hall.

Thus with relaxed Army attitude at Fort Amador and drinks available at the Balboa Yacht Club my kids now had the Causeway as their "In Spot".

George C.