Thursday, August 23, 2012

Surrounded by History (Part 2)

During my time in Panamá, I was lucky enough to be able to help a few amazing biologists with their fieldwork. Some of my greatest memories in biology come from these adventures in the field or simply lending a hand in lab. One of my favorite memories is exploring Fort Grant, which is an abandoned U.S. military post that was used to defend the Panama Canal.

In our post Surrounded by History (Part1) we described the history of our laboratory building which historically was an old Panama Canal train maintenance station that has been long since remodeled as a three-story research facility. Even though it was remodeled, the building still shows clues to its original purpose. The three islands on the Amador Causeway, Naos, Perico, and Flamenco, also have a hidden history. But if you know where to look you can find the clues to its interesting past.

These islands are literally filled with history...

The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 just as
World War I began. But even before then, security around the canal was a major concern. The three islands are located at a perfect strategic point, even pirates used to hide out around them, so naturally they were set up to defend the Pacific side of the canal. The islands became part of Fort Amador and each was fortified with an extensive bunker system and equipped with various guns and missiles throughout the years.

It just so happens that the entrances to a few of the bunkers are hidden behind our laboratory building. I was lucky enough to see inside them! The first time I went through the bunkers I was helping John Delton Hanson, a visiting mammalogist, set traps to catch mice and rats on peak of Naos Island. because the island is so steep and the vegetation is so dense, the best way to climb the Island was to take the dark bunker tunnel.

When you enter the bunker you are faced with a daunting straight staircase. The first things you notice   is the incredible length of the straight stairs, the absolute darkness surrounding, and just how tired your legs get. The stairs seem to go up forever. But that isn't the worst part. Once you're about 3/4 of the way up, you'll notice that you are not alone. The bunker is now home to lots and lots of bats! But they didn't bother us very much. John even tried to catch one!


At the top of the long dark stairway, there is a long dark hallway. The hallway and all the rooms that branch off of it are mostly empty now. The lights, pluming, wiring, just about everything is long gone. Everything, that is, except for a broken blue toilet.

But there was also light at the end of the tunnel! An opening to the top of the hill! Outside I was amazed to find a large cement clearing. I had no idea this existed. From the street and from the lab all of this is completely hidden. I later found out that what we saw was originally the platform for a 14-inch rifle on a disappearing carriage. Isla Naos was fortified with three Batteries: Buell, Burnside and Parke. Batteries Buell and Burnside each had two 14-inch rifles with a range of 18,400 yards (10 miles). Parke had two 6-inch rifles with a range of 6,000 yards.

A similar structure is installed on the third island, Isla Flamenco.
Photo by Life Magazine, 1941

Fort Grant 2012
Fort Grant 2012

The costal defenses were in place until the advent of airpower during World War II. Hawk missiles later replaced these guns.

At the end of the day, we had caught a few mice, but for me, discovering the hidden history inside and atop Naos Island was really a special adventure.

Additional Pictures:

Post by Matt Starr

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  2. Wow. I was looking for old Fort Grant information and pictures for my homework, and just found out your blog!
    Seems like a nice (and unpredictable) adventure, I wish I could go inside those bunkers too.