FORT SAN LORENZO
 
Well, what's a trip to the Panama without visiting the ruins at Panama Viejo and Fort San Lorenzo?  The fort at San Lorenzo was first built during the late 16th century (the actual year varies).  King Philip II of Spain ordered a fortress to be built to overlook the mouth of the Rio Chagres which was heavily used by commerce and slaves ships.  This entry was also the easiest route for marauding pirates and buccaneers looking for booty, and the location of the fort provided an excellent view of any approaching ships.  Unfortunately, this first fort was made of wood and and began to deteriorate in the humid and rainy climate of Panama's six-month long rainy seasons.  Between the rotting wood and the attacks by pirates, it began to deteriorate and eventually fell, helped along by the pirate and slaver, Francis Drake, who set fire to it in 1596.  He had been ambitiously attacking ports along the coast searching for Spanish treasure.  Less than a year later, Drake was dead of a tropical disease and buried at sea off the Atlantic coast of Panama.  Tropical diseases, starvation, and poisonous snakes was the cause of many of the marauders' deaths for crossing Panama was a dangerous journey. 

The fort was eventually rebuilt but in 1671, it was captured by Joseph Bradley who was under orders from Henry Morgan, the infamous pirate.  There were approximately 350 people stationed at the fort and in the battle, all but 30 died, with no officers being left alive.  Bradley lost approximately 100 of his own men with many injured.  Morgan arrived less than a week later and soon afterwards, Bradley died of his own wounds.  Morgan did not destroy the fort at this time but instead continued with his plans to destroy Panama Viejo ("Old Panama") by returning to the Pacific side.  During this time, Portobelo (also spelled as Porto Bello), another important trading and treasure port, had also been attacked by pirates, including Morgan, and Spaniards alike, both whom had been waging a deadly battle for control due to it's important location on the coast.  Another fort was established there by the Spaniards and some of the ruins remain standing today as they do at Fort San Lorenzo.  For weeks, Morgan raped and looted Panama, leaving nothing by stone ruins, and when his appetite was finally sated, he returned to Fort San Lorenzo where he and his men rested and regrouped.  However, he also made the decision during this time to sail for Jamaica so when leaving, he set fire to what remained of the fort and burnt it to the ground.  A year later, Morgan returned to England where he spent three years and after making friends with royalty, was appointed Acting Governor for the Duke of Albermarle and Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, along with a number of other important offices. The Duke arrived in 1687 take over the governorship and Morgan died the next year in Port Royal.

The fort was rebuilt by the Spaniards in a slightly higher location, an odd-shaped cliff, this time using masonry. But records for the following years are sketchy, probably due to lack of any major battles at the site, so little information is known.  But in March 1740, a British Admiral, Sir Edward Vernon, acting under orders from Britain to capture Portobelo and Fort San Lorenzo, bombarded the fort with his ship's cannons until the Spaniards gave up.  After plundering the buildings and taking what they found, Vernon's men set fire to one of the buildings, destroyed the "castle" then sailed away for Portobelo.  In 1761, the fort was repaired and fortified but never again attacked by pirates.  It gradually lost its importance as the years went by but in the first decades of the 19th century, after Panama gained its' independence from Spain but became the property of Colombia, it was once again in use but this time as a prison.  When the 49ers poured into Panama with dreams of gold lying on the ground in California, it became a main traveling point for crossing the isthmus to Panama, where the 49ers needed to catch the ships to California.  But it once again fell into obscurity when the Panama Railroad was completed and the travel routes changed. 

It is what's left of the 1761 fort that is standing today, having been a part of history for over 400 years.  When touching the stone walls of the fort and climbing through the ruins, one's imagination can only wonder if during these 400 years, other hands touched the exact same spots or tread through the same pathways or admired the same view.  Standing at the farthest point to get a clear view of the Rio Chagres, you can close your eyes and know that you have a connection to history by just being there.

These photos have been generously loaned to this website and are the sole personal property of "Nate", who was stationed with the U.S. Navy in the Canal Zone 1968 - 1969.  They were taken by him during this time period.

© NOTE!! ©
ALL of the color photographs on this page and their larger linked photos are personal 
property and cannot be reproduced, copied, or obtained in any manner without requesting 
and being authorized to do so by both the owner of the photos and the owner of this web site.

 
Walk up to entry way to the fort.

Ft. San Lorenzo information sign at entry

Entry way into the grounds although there is no fence or gate.  Note arches underneath entry.

 

 Similar view of the entry way.

Another ruin - note the fence around it, probably for safety reasons.

Fort ruins

 
Building ruins.
A view of the Chagres from the outer area of the fort.
A closer view of the Chagres nearer to the bank - far below the fort
Another view of the Chagres from above.
 
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02/13/2005