Immediately after the completion of the Panama Canal it was realized that it would become necessary to establish lighthouses at near-by points, particularly in the Gulf of Panama. Although expeditions had already been sent out to survey and start construction of these remote lighthouses, the American people did not learn about them until a June 30, 1915 New York Times article informed the public of the new lighthouses.
The New York Times article said, “The first light to be erected will be on Cape Mala, which is the most dangerous point at the entrance to the gulf. This light will meet a need which has been felt for many years, for Cape Mala has come to called “Bard Cape,’ because of its outlying dangers. It will be the largest, as well as the most important of the many aids to navigation.
The article went on to say that as well as placing a light at Cape Mala, the United States Lighthouse Service would also establish lighthouses at Bona Island and Taboquilla Island. However, other than the following article, written by United States Coast Guardsman ET2 Archi Smith, which appeared in the December, 1955 issue of Coast Guard Magazine, almost nothing has been found recounting life at these remote lighthouses and photographs of them and images of life at them seem to have disappeared in the pages of time.
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From all around the world comes news of Coast Guard ships and stations that claim such titles as, “The Queen,” The most rugged,” The pride of the fleet,” etc. Plus a few like, “The Rock,” “The Loneliest,” “Da Woist,” and “We’ve Had It,” We here at Cape Mala don’t like any titles, but would like you to know a little about one of the Coast Guard’s most unusual stations.
TRANSPORTATION & DUTY
To reach Cape Mala by land you must leave the Canal Zone on the Pacific side heading west into Panama’s interior. There are no railroads or bus lines, so you must go by “Cheva,” that can mean anything from a brand new station wagon to a World War II weapons carrier. These chevas will not leave the Canal Zone until they are packed. If you are lucky and make your trip in a station wagon, your traveling companions might be pretty senoritas who might shyly practice English with you, but if you get stuck with a cargo cheva you will have chickens overhead, pigs underfoot, and a grim looking back countryman with machetes on their laps, jabbering away at you in Spanish. After about five hours and 150 miles you reach Las Tablas and the end of highway. There is a rough dirt road going the remaining forty miles, but it is usable only during the three-month dry season. Usually you fly in a small cabin plane to the town of Pedasi and someone from the station will meet you there. Then it’s just eight miles on horseback through muddy pastures and forests and you finally arrive at Cape Mala Light Station. Of course, if you come with the Lighthouse Buoy Tender from Miami, Florida, everything is much easier, but, think of the fun you miss.
Cape Mala is beautiful. It is bordered by the sea in the front and on the right with a long, palm fringed beach and lush green forests in the back. There is approximately a hundred yards of lawn, which is kept short and neat by our horses and a power mower. The main house is a white three-storied frame building overlooking the sea.
On the other hand, the station’s beauty could be better appreciated were it not for the numerous species of poisonous snakes that stray in from the lush forests, and its myriads of sand flies and mosquitoes from the palm-fringed beach.
The operation and maintaining of the main navigation light and radio beacon are the main duties here. Since there are no dependable utilities in the interior, we must also maintain generators for station power and pumps for our fresh water supply.
All four of the present crew have had previous isolated or semi-isolated duty. BM1 William B. Sparks, our Officer In Charge, was stationed on the St. John’s Lightship and the Savannah Lightship. ET 2 Archi Smith did time on the Iwo Jima LYS and Ichi Banare LTS. ET 2 Maurice I. Wales has served on the Siapan LTS, Coast Guard Base Guam and his now on his second tour of duty here and SA Robert H. Tanner served in the Korean War in the U.S. Army.
Many a long evening is spent in the swapping of sea stories, with each man trying to top the other. Sometimes Sparks has to dig deep into his World War II experiences to top Tanner’s Korean tales, whereupon Wales breaks out his National Guard Yearbook of 1938. Smith’s old standby usually starts, “Now on the Cadet Cruise of 48.” These tales get a little boring after awhile, but they go a long way towards keeping up the crew’s morale.
We don’t have television, movies or even newspapers.
Cape Mala has its good points though. The hunting and fishing couldn’t be beat. Some of the game that has been bagged by the crew includes deer, quail, pheasant (of sort), iguana, monkeys, alligators, armadillos and anteaters. Recently reports have come in about a giant rabbit that grows over three feel tall, but none have been bagged as yet by the ‘Cape Mala Huntsmen.’
There are two watches kept at Cape Mala, one is the regular light and radio beacon watch, stood in six hour stretches with one man on watch at a time. The other is a constant watch kept by all that walk Cape Mala’s paths. This watch is for poisonous snakes that have been found in the machine shop and even in the main barracks building, however, after a man has been here awhile, he is properly cautious from the force of habit. There are hundreds of stories of snakes found and killed here at the Cape. Here is one of the most recent and most unusual.
It was 2 AM, dark clouds overhead and raining hard. I was on watch in the radio beacon shack when Senora Catalina Donovan rushed in soaking wet, half-crying and half shouting something about “culebra,” “casa”, and “gallina.” Now, Senora usually speaks good English, since she is the daughter of the station’s first keeper, Samuel Donovan of the old U.S. Lighthouse Service, and lives with her family only about a quarter mile outside our gate. But is was a few minutes before she calmed down enough to explain that a snake was killing chickens in her house. I immediately called the boatswain’s mate, who snatched up a shotgun and some shells and rushed off into the night to answer the “Distress Call.”
Upon entering the Senora’s house he found the daughter armed with a machete and a kerosene lamp, standing on a bed surrounded by her two little daughters and a grandmother. Then his glance fell on the dead chicken lying in the middle of the room and there beside it, nonchalantly crushing another hen, was a large Boa Constrictor. The snake was killed and the episode soon forgotten by the natives because after all, of what importance is finding a Boa, when it could have been a feared lance or a deadly bush master.
When a man is transferred to Cape Mala he is advanced money with which to buy into the station mess and for transportation; transportation meaning a horse. The crew takes a lot of pride in their mounts, and sometimes some pretty heated debates arise as to whose is the fastest, or has the best pace, or is the prettiest. William Sparks, the Officer In Charge, maintains that his stallion, Fulo, resembles Roy Roger’s Trigger. Usually, one of the crew rudely points out that Trigger doesn’t have the outstanding points of Fulo, such as mismatched eyes and drooping ear. Wales, has named his horse, “Old Crud,” so in his case no defense is possible or ridicule necessary. Seaman Tanner’s strawberry roan is said to be dying of old age, and Smith’s gelding, “Coco,” has ever-moving ears that suspiciously resembles a donkey’s. However, despite the joking, all the men’s horses have proven themselves by many grueling miles of service in weather where the station jeep couldn’t be driven past the front gate.
LIFE IN PARADISE
A story of Cape Mala wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the people of Pedasi. As a whole, they are kind and tolerant and though they haven’t much in their little village to offer, they offer it from their hearts. Without their kindness, this little water soaked rock would be an isolated “Hell.”
A good many ex-Cape Mala’ns might be reading this account and there might be some who will draw rosy pictures of tropical paradise. If this happens around you, just ask them if they would like to go back; then duck.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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