After a night in the Bay of Panama within sight of Panama City, the Island Princess lined up for her turn to go through the Miraflores Locks. Rick and I spent most of the day hanging out and over our balcony, snapping pictures of the ingenious lock system of the Panama Canal. A fully loaded freighter was in line for the lock beside our ship. We could see how the lock doors opened, the “mules” (powerful engines with ropes fore and aft to the ship) pulled the ship forward into the lock, the doors close and the water rises. The ship moved from one level to the next, like a giant water elevator for ships. The freighter and Island Princess entered the Pedro Miguel Locks to rise again and then sail through the infamous Culebra Cut where thousands of workers died.
Men have dreamed of a passage way from the Atlantic to the Pacific for centuries, but it was “Le Grand Francais” (Ferdinand de Lesseps), builder of the Suez Canal who made the first serious attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He thought it would “be easier to make, easier to complete, and easier to keep up than the Suez”. He had never been to Panama, and didn’t know he’d face solid rock, “bottomless” swamps, and clay that turned into repeated avalanches of mud that buried men and equipment. If that wasn’t bad enough, his workers faced other deadly enemies; clouds of mosquitos carried malaria and yellow fever, the deadly coral, fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes. Eventually, France ran out of money, the canal project collapsing the French government and washing away careers and reputations, including Le Grand Francais.
Flash forward to the assassination of President William McKinley and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt entering the White House. Roosevelt knew a canal could make the United States a major sea power with a naval presence in both oceans, not to mention the importance of a canal to world commerce. Panama was part of Columbia at the time, and Columbia was in constant turmoil, Panamanians fighting to be independent. Losing patience with Columbian negotiators who continued to withdraw from discussions, Roosevelt backed up the Panamanian quest for independence and seized Panama with a show of “gunboat diplomacy”. The Republic of Panama was born with two casualties.
John Findley Wallace was put in charge of building the canal, but fled during an epidemic of yellow fever. John Stevens was hired. He brought in previously rejected Colonel William Crawford Gorgas with his ambitious plan to sanitize the Isthmus. While Gorgas launched into the battle to eradicate disease carrying mosquitoes, Stevens built sewage systems, houses, hospitals and schools and whole towns for those who would work on the canal, over 50,000 at the height of the work. Over the course of building it (including the efforts of the French), over 27,000 men lost their lives, most to disease.
The greatest challenge was breaking through the nine-mile section of the Continental Divide, all rock, clay and dirt called Culebra (snake). Veteran railroad engineer, Major David Du Bose Gaillard, took on the job. Millions of tons of “spoil” were transported to fill in swamps. The tropical rain-storm fed Chagres River flooded the upper valleys to become Gatun Lake, a constant source of water for the locks that function on gravity feed.
This is just a tiny bit of information on the Panama Canal — one of the most spectacular man-made wonders in the world.
The Panama Canal was opened to ocean-going ships in 1914. Only a couple more years and there will be a hundredth year anniversary!