The seven lives of the Hotel Aspinwall in Taboga
During the construction period of the Panama Canal, the French had planned since 1882 the building of a sanitarium for the convalescent on the Island of Taboga.
After the transfer of all assets of the Nouvelle Compagnie du Canal Interoceanique to the Americans on May 4, 1904, the new owners, grasping immediately the wisdom of restorative medicine, began remodeling the aforementioned leprosarium.
It offered a great service for many years, and its busiest period was from 1911 to 1912, when over 30,000 were admitted. As the labor force dwindled, however, because work on the waterway was coming to an end, demand for these services were sharply reduced.
This situation became the deciding factor that prompted the Canal Zone Sanitation Department to close the convalescing center and request its transfer to other agencies for administration.
The new managers drastically changed the original focus and proposed the conversion from hospital to hotel, a suggestion that was approved, beginning thus the transformation.
The name ASPINWALL HOTEL was selected in honor of Engineer W. H. Aspinwall, an outstanding professional who had garnered fame and glory during the building of the Panama Railroad. It is worth remembering at this point that the Americans wanted to change the name of the city of Colon to that of Aspinwall, a decision that met firm and persistent opposition from the then government of Colombia, which managed to prevent it.
From its inauguration in January 1914, the hotel complex was a resounding success, not only because of the natural beauty its scenery and beaches offered, but also because of the excellent service the hotel provided.
It soon became a social gathering place where receptions and meetings of the highest caliber were held.
There were frequent weekend outings to the island that included dancing and other activities, which were very popular and well attended. These activities boosted the economy at every level, including that of the local residents who were not particularly industrious.
The Aspinwall, as it was known by all, was operated satisfactorily until June 1916, when parts of it had to be shut down because of economic difficulties. It remained open for special outings until December of that year, albeit somewhat rundown.
It was reopened in January 1917, with special offers to travelers, including daily launch service that was doubled on the weekends. The fare was 30 cents for adults and 20 cents for children.
There were shuttle buses that took tourists directly from the Tivoli Hotel to the Balboa Pier. The Panama Railroad also did its part, offering to take passengers luggage directly from Cristobal to the pier, charging 25 cents for each piece of luggage. These efforts breathed new life into the hotel, which seemed once again to be enjoying another period such as in its heyday.
As the United States entered into World War I, restrictive measures were instituted, such as severe limitations in granting leave to Canal employees and military servicemen, restrictions on the use of electrical lights at night, as well as food and fuel rationing. Thus in April 1917, the hotel was closed, as such, to become a detention camp for German prisoners.
It continued in this new function for close to a year, until the prisoners were relocated throughout the United States.
On May 30, 1918, and subsequent to another remodeling of the installations, it was once again opened to the public.
Tennis courts were built, rowboats and launches were available for rent, and discounts were offered, up to $50 a month, on packages that included transportation, meals, and lodging.
Despite all the advantages offered, the financial picture did not improve, and because of the large losses sustained, it was decided to shut it down on July 5, 1921.
The Government of the United States was unsuccessful in its attempts to avoid having to close it down permanently. Therefore, they decided to transfer the business to a private company headed by James Malloy and his wife, Tilly, who had excellent qualifications and experience in managing successfully the Strangers Club in Colon.
In August 1921, a new upward climb begins in the history of the Aspinwall Hotel with a tremendous economic boom resulting mainly from the care and dedication lavished by its new managers, together with the unmatched service they offered. There is no doubt whatsoever that it was the golden era of Aspinwall, which saw the gatherings of important national and foreign personalities representing the finery and distinction of that time.
In June 1923 another disaster struck as the greater part of the installations was ravaged by a fire, and aggravated further by the lack of water to put it out.
The sailors aboard the Galveston warship that was anchored at the island played a very important role in controlling the fire.
Like a phoenix, it rose from the ashes to continue its economic floundering, some years showing a profit and others a loss. Finally, during World War II it was impossible to continue sustaining it. Its old structure had seen too many repairs and would not resist one more alteration.
Out-dated lumber was being attached to foundations that were even more outdated, or new boards were being placed over useless beams.
By 1945, it was completely abandoned and fully dismantled.
The U. S. Army tried to use it as a small military base during the war, but later relocated to the top of the mountain on the island.
By then, the old hotel was down for the count. It did, however, put up a good fight like a true champion. It could have been said that, like a cat with many lives, it had to be killed seven times.