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Freemasonry in the Canal Zone
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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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