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Freemasonry in the Canal Zone


R. W. Howard W. Osborn, Past District Grand Master of the District

Lodge of A.F.&A.M. of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, prepared

this manuscript for use as a Short Talk Bulletin. We

thank him for sharing with us this valuable chapter of Masonic


Many years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed on the bleak shores of

New England, four logical routes were already recognized for a Canal

across the Isthmus between North and South America and surveys had

been made with the idea in view of creating a man-made channel

between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific, is believed to have

been the first to conceive the idea of uniting the two oceans by a

canal. In 1529 Alvaro de Saavedra completed plans for the building of

an interoceanic waterway, but died before his plans could be

submitted to his king. In 1534 Charles V ordered the Governor of the

Region of Panama to make surveys of a route following the Chagres

River, which is more or less the course of the present Panama Canal.

This was done but the Governor reported that no monarch could hope to

accomplish such a feat as joining the two


Nothing much was done for nearly two centuries until near the end of

the 18th century, Baron Von Humboldt, the famous geographer, visited

the Isthmus and became much interested in the matter. His writings

were widely read in England, France, Spain, and the United States. In

1814 the Spaniard Cortez adopted a formal decree for the construction

of the Isthmian Canal and authorized the formation of a company to

undertake the work. Within a decade all of Spain's colonies in

Central and South America established their independence and the

possibility of Spain taking part in the great project faded away.

The first comprehensive survey by the French was made in 1843 by

Napoleon Garella. He favored the Panama Route and submitted plans to

utilize the waters of the Chagres River. He proposed a ship tunnel

through the continental divide and a canal with 34 locks on the

Atlantic slope and 16 on the Pacific. He estimated the cost of the

canal with a tunnel at $25,000,000 and at $28,000,000 with an open


Soon after numerous other explorations were made by the Government

and private companies of the United States, Great Britain and France.

Among the countless proposals made, none was more fanciful,

considering present day ship traffic, than the ship railway proposed

in 1881, by James B. Eads, capable of transporting, in a specially

built ship cradle, ocean-going vessels of up to 5000 tons.

The first definite step toward the actual construction of the Panama

Canal was taken on the morning of May 15, 1879, when there met in

Paris a distinguished group of men of several nationalities to

discuss and decide where and how the canal might be constructed. The

movement to assemble this group was initiated by Count Ferdinand de

Lesseps, the famed builder of the Suez Canal. A sea level canal was

decided upon and the Compagnie Universalle du Canal Interocenique was

formed with de

Lesseps as President.

In January 1881, the first detachment of workers was sent out.

Between 1882 and 1888 the work went forward with dispatch and much

was accomplished, but at great cost of human lives and money. After

seven years of work, it was found that a sea level canal was not

feasible and a provisional change of plans was made which provided

for a high level canal with a system of locks. Needless to say the

work failed. The State of Panama revolted and declared its

independence from Colombia on November 3,

1903. A treaty was negotiated between Panama and the United States

and on May 4, 1904, Lt.

Mark Brooke, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, acting in accordance with

instructions received

from the Secretary of War, went to the headquarters of the French

Canal Company and accepted, in the name of the United States, the

transfer of its properties for the sum of $40,000,000.

You are all familiar with the problems that the United States

encountered so there is no need to go into details except to say that

on August 15, 1914 the Canal was opened to traffic.

With that bit of background, let us get back to the main subject.

Masonry in the Canal Zone had its beginnings in 1898 when Sojourners

Lodge No. 874 was founded in Colon, Republic of Panama, under the

Grand Lodge of Scotland. As more and more Americans arrived on the

Isthmus to work for the Panama Railroad and the Canal, they began to

apply to Sojourners Lodge as affiliated members or as candidates for

the degrees. Over a period of years the membership in Sojourners

Lodge became predominantly American. The long delays in

communications between Scotland and the desire for closer ties with

their homeland, led the members to seek a connection with a Grand

Lodge in the United States. One of the Grand Lodges contacted was

the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and on September 11, 1912, Most

Worshipful Everett C. Benton, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of

Massachusetts, announced in the regular Quarterly Communication that

"I have granted two dispensations for new lodgesone at the Canal

Zone, Panama, called 'Sojourners Lodge' ...." At the Annual

Communication of the Grand Lodge held December 11, 1912, the

Committee on Charters and By-laws recommended that a Charter be

issued. This recommendation was unanimously approved by the Grand

Lodge and Sojourners Lodge became

the senior lodge on the Canal Zone.

On September 11, 1912, forty-three Masons submitted a prayer for

dispensation to form Canal Zone Lodge on the Pacific side. The

dispensation was issued on December 10, 1913. Prior to this the only

lodge was on the Atlantic side which entailed travel across the

Isthmus by railroad and a very long night.

Early in January, 1913, Most Worshipful Benton, accompanied by the

Deputy Grand Master, Right Worshipful Herbert E. Fletcher and the

Recording Grand Secretary, Right Worshipful Thomas W. Davis,

journeyed to the Canal Zone and on January 18 opened a Special

Communication of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts for the purpose of

constituting Sojourners Lodge and installing the officers. It

is recorded that there were present Masons from forty states, two

dependencies and four foreign countries. There were 190 charter

members in the lodge.

The following day, January 19, 1913, Most Worshipful Benton opened

another Special

Communication of the Grand Lodge at Ancon, Canal Zone, to pay a

fraternal visit to Canal Zone Lodge at its first meeting under


The following year, Right Worshipful Herbert Fletcher, now a Past

Deputy Grand Master, returned to the Isthmus to open a Deputy Grand

Lodge for the purpose of constituting Canal Zone Lodge and installing

its officers on February 21, 1914.

During the forenoon of November 23, 1914, the USAT Buford docked at

Pier 8, Cristobal, with the 5th U.S. Infantry on board. Among her

passengers were 1st Lt. George W. Edgerly and many other Masons, both

officers and enlisted men. The 5th Infantry was to be stationed at

Camp Empire about midway of the Isthmus making attendance at either

Sojourners or Canal Zone Lodges very inconvenient. As there were many

Masons in this area, Brother Edgerly took it upon himself to call a

meeting on April 27th for interested members of the Craft. Thirty-two

Brethren attended and a

petition was drawn up. It was voted to call themselves Army Lodge.

The signatures of fifty Brethren were obtained and the petition

forwarded. On June 8, 1915 the Grand Master, Most Worshipful Melvin

M. Johnson, granted the dispensation and appointed Brother Edgerly to

be the first Master. On March 8, 1916 the Charter was granted but the

formal ceremony of constitution was not held until May 20, 1916 at

which time Worshipful John B. Fields, acting on a commission as proxy

for the Grand Master, presided. More than three hundred Masons

attended the affair.

In the latter part of 1915 a group of old-fashioned Masons, who had a

desire for good fellowship and brotherhood, banded together to

organize the "Twin City Masonic Club." The meetings of this Masonic

Club were held regularly each month until May 4, 1917. In the latter

part of 1916, they originated a Petition for a Dispensation to erect

a Blue Lodge. This petition with fifty signatures was forwarded to

the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge. Their prayer was answered by

permission to form

Isthmian Lodge and met regularly under dis-pensation until May 31,

1918 at which time it was constituted.

In 1918 the Panama Canal moved the Lodge Building from Pariso to

Pedro Miguel. In those days it was customary for the Canal Zone

Government to furnish, for a nominal fee, a Lodge Hall in each

community for meeting places for employee groups, unions, community

and lodge meetings, etc.

Masonry continued to prosper and grow so that early in 1917, eighty-

eight Master Masons signed a petition for a dispensation to start a

lodge to be called Darien Lodge in Balboa. This was granted on May

16, 1917. At a Special Communication held on August 8, 1918 the lodge

was constituted in full form according to the Ancient usages of the

Craft. It was reported in the Communication of December 11, 1918,

that a Special Warrant had been issued on December 6 to Worshipful

Francis M. Easton and forty-three others to form Sibert Lodge (under

dispensation) at Gatun, Canal Zone. The Charter for Sibert Lodge was

approved by Grand Lodge on September 10, 1919 and the lodge was


by Right Worshipful Ralph Osborn, District Grand Master, on February

2, 1920.

The last lodge to be erected in the Canal Zone was Chagres Lodge

which was warranted under dispensation on March 8, 1921. The Charter

was approved on December 14,1921 by Grand Lodge and the lodge

constituted at a Special Communication of the District Grand Lodge,

February 6,1922, by Worshipful Clinton G. Garty acting as District

Grand Master.

Seven lodges were constituted in the period 1912 through 1922.

Masonry had expanded to the point where a close tie with the Grand

Lodge was needed to expedite and handle the affairs in the Canal


In February of 1916 the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge gave

the Grand Master authority to send someone to the Canal Zone to give

attention to such matters connected with the lodges there as were

demanding early consideration. During 1916 the Grand Master was

unable to prevail upon anyone of suitable rank to undertake the trip

to the Canal Zone. A petition for a dispensation for a new lodge at

Pariso required careful deliberation and intimate knowledge of local

conditions to assure a wise decision. Late in the year, the newly-

formed Grand Lodge of Panama asked for recognition of the Grand Lodge

of Massachusetts.

Accordingly, Most Worshipful Leon M. Abbott, immediately on being

installed as Grand Master, prevailed upon Most Worshipful Melvin M.

Johnson, his predecessor, to undertake the trip to the Canal Zone and

issued, on January 4, 1917, a commission containing the following

seven points: (l) To open a Deputy Grand Lodge for the purpose of the

appointment and installation of a District

Grand Master for the Canal Zone (2) To deliver a dispensation to

certain Brethren in Pariso,

Canal Zone, who have petitioned to be formed into a lodge (3) To

hold one or more Lodges of

Instruction or Exemplification of the work and ritual (4) To make

inquiry concerning the newly organized Grand Lodge of Panama and

report to the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Massachusetts upon the

advisability of recognizing the said Grand Lodge of Panama (S) To

negotiate the terms of a Treaty and execute a Protocol with the said

Grand Lodge of Panama regarding the relations of the Most Worshipful

Grand Lodge of Massachusetts with said Grand Lodge of Panama, such

Treaty to have no force or effect until the Most Worshipful Grand

Lodge of Massachusetts shall extend Masonic

recognition to the Grand Lodge of Panama and shall ratify such

Treaty. Said Protocol may establish such relations temporarily and

until such Treaty shall be ratified by both of said Grand Lodges or

shall be rejected by either of them (6) To do and perform all these

acts for the good of the Craft in the Canal Zone as I should myself

have power to do if personally present (7) In all these matters our

Special Deputy is to have power to act or refrain from action in the

exercise of his discretion.

Most Worshipful Johnson set sail from New York on January 13, 1917

and after a stop in Cuba where he was entertained by officials of the

Grand Lodge of Cuba, he arrived in Cristobal on January 21 where he

was met by Captain Ralph Osborn, later to become District Grand

Master. There ensued a number of meetings with local Craftsmen and

sightseeing to an extent that Brother Stanley Ford recorded in the

Canal Zone Orient that "Never in the history of the Panama Canal has

any party seen

more of the Canal Zone and the Canal in so short a space of time than

did Mr. and Mrs. Melvin M. Johnson and their son, Maynard, Jr., and

Mr. and Mrs. William H. L. Odell during their eleven days' stay with


On January 30, 1917 Most Worshipful Johnson met with the Grand Lodge

of Panama and signed the Treaty which is still in effect after sixty

years. This Treaty governs the relationships between the lodges of

the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and the Grand Lodge of Panama.

On January 31, 1917 Most Worshipful Johnson opened a Deputy Grand

Lodge at Cristobal, Canal Zone, at which his commission from the

Grand Master was read in the presence of about three hundred Masons.

Right Worshipful Herbert A. White was installed as the first District

Grand Master of the Canal Zone Masonic District, the officers of

Sojourners Lodge were installed, and the dispensation for Isthmian

Lodge was presented to the committee of that lodge. Right Worshipful

White was Judge Advocate for the Canal Zone, a Major in the Army, a

Past Master of Army Lodge at Empire and of Hancock Lodge No. 311, Ft.

Leavenworth, Kansas. The evening ended with the exemplification of

the second section of the third degree.

The term of Right Worshipful White was short, lasting only about one

year as he was called by military duties to another theater of the

World War. The report of the Grand Master on December 11, 1918 that

Right Worshipful White had left the Canal Zone stated that his term

in office was brief, "but his service most important. He had charge

of affairs in the Canal Zone at a vital and critical period in the

development of our work there and by his wisdom, sound judgement, and

active as well as powerful personality, he was enabled to discharge

the duties of his office with signal success, to his own honor and

the advancement of the Fraternity. It is a cause for regret that

conditions were such that he could not be at liberty longer to serve

the Fraternity in this important position."

In a Special Communication of the District Grand Lodge held Friday,

May 31, 1918 at Cristobal, Right Worshipful Ralph Osborn was

installed (in English) by Most Worshipful Guillermo Andreve, Grand

Master of Panama, and the officers of the Grand Lodge of Panama. The

Grand Master reported that "The occasion was a very delightful one

and marked another step in the development and strengthening of the

cordial relations which exist between the Grand Lodge of

Massachusetts and the Grand Lodge of Panama." On this same night

Right Worshipful Osborn and the District Grand Lodge constituted

Isthmian Lodge and installed its officers. On Thursday, August 8,

1918 a Special Communication of the District Grand Lodge was opened

at Balboa to constitute Darien Lodge and install its officers.

In the early days of the District Grand Lodge, because of the

relatively few lodges and numbers of Past Masters available to serve

as officers in the District Grand Lodge, officers often served

several years in the same office. From 1917 to 1954, a period of

thirty years, there were only four District Grand Masters, two of

whom served sixteen and fifteen years respectively. In 1954 after

Most Worshipful

Whitfield Johnson had made his visit to the Canal Zone, he reported

to Grand Lodge that ". . . Although upon my election as Grand Master,

I had no first-hand knowledge, after conferring with those who did,

and after carefully weighing the various points of view, it seemed to

me that there was a sufficient number of competent and qualified

Brethren in the office of District Grand Master analagous to our

Constitutional limitation of three years for the Grand Master ....".

It has been the custom for each Grand Master to make an extended

visit to the Canal Zone, ten to fourteen days, once during his term

of office, generally during the second year. These visits have taken

the form of visiting two or three lodge groups in joint communication

at which a degree would be conferred, visitation to the District

Master's Reception for all Masons on the Isthmus and their wives, to

meet the Grand Master and his official party. The visits have

included meeting certain high officials of the Panama Canal and

military, sightseeing in both the Canal Zone and the Republic of


In 1913 at the end of the Masonic year, September 30, there was a

membership of 239. This

continued to grow to a peak of 4,036 in 1962 and as of September 30,

1977, the membership stood at 3,542. The busiest years were during

the period of 1943 to 1948, when a total of 2,127 were initiated.

These were the years during and just after World War II.

York Rite Masonry was introduced as early as 1910 when a dispensation

was issued for Canal Zone Chapter No. 1, Royal Arch Masons, located

on the Pacific side, and on October 30, 1916, one was issued for

Canal Zone Chapter No. 2 located on the Atlantic side. Canal Zone

Commandery No. 1, K. T. and Canal Zone Council No. 1, R. & S.M.

followed in due time.

Scottish Rite, under the Southern Jurisdiction, followed along with

the Shrine. Abou Saad Temple, A.A.N.O.M.S. has one of the largest

Jurisdictions of any Temple, as it includes Central and South America

as well as Puerto Rico.

There are now four Chapters of the Order of the Eastern Star, two

Chapters of DeMolay, and three Chapters of Rainbow for Girls. Two

Chapters of National Sojourners and a Conclave of the Red Cross of


Masonry is still strong on the Isthmus but with the increased use of

Panamanians in the Canal Organization and the resulting retirement of

many Americans, attendance has decreased, resulting in the

consolidation of Canal Zone and Isthmian Lodges into Canal Zone

Isthmian Lodge in September, 1977.

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