We recently returned from a trip of a lifetime over Christmas and New Year — a cruise which included transiting the Panama Canal by ship. My husband and I decided that life is too short, and that it was time to check this item off our bucket list.
It did not disappoint. After a rough couple of days on the Atlantic Ocean after our departure from Miami, we entered the still waters of the canal and were bewitched.
The Panama Canal attracted us because it uniquely combines one of the 20th century’s great engineering feats and Panama’s exceptional natural beauty and history. These came together into one single, powerful experience when we reached the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean in about 12 hours, saving the 20 days it takes to go around the complete continent of South America.
First, let’s talk about the engineering. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are both, obviously enough, at sea level. The largest dam in the world at that time was built (Gatun Dam), which in turn created the largest manmade lake in the world (Gatun Lake), which is situated between these two oceans. This lake is about 85 feet higher than sea level, so how to get ships up to that level?
A series of huge locks. Each time we approached a lock, the ship would be tethered to a series of small but powerful locomotives that would slowly guide the ship in and out, keeping it centered within the lock, sometimes with only a few inches on each side.
When our ship entered the first of these locks, a large gate closed behind us. Then enormous valves opened to let water from Lake Gatun into the lock. The locks, which can currently handle ships 115 feet wide and 960 feet long, filled up in about eight minutes using gravity to push water inside, which caused our ship to rise until the lock was full.
From there we progressed to two more lock chambers that repeated the process until we were level with Lake Gatun. We then had a beautiful and calm journey of several hours. At the other end, our ship entered an additional series of locks where instead of filling the chambers with water, they were drained, so we got back to sea level and could sail into the Pacific Ocean.
The size and scale of this whole construction is incredible, and we were watched and applauded in brilliant sunshine by thousands of visitors and well-wishers at the viewing station at the canal’s visitor center near Panama City. Now that is one Christmas Eve I will never forget!
The natural beauty of this part of Central America cannot be denied, but its tropical climate, rainforests and high elevations meant that the obstacles to building the Panama Canal were immense. In fact, it is estimated that when the French first tried to build the canal, about 22,000 people died through disease and accidents.
So let’s turn to the history. Ambitions to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans date back to 1524 when Charles V of Spain ordered a survey to test the viability of a route through the Americas to improve transit time from Spain to their colonies in South America. Thomas Jefferson also contributed his ideas and plans when he was Minister for France in 1788.
However, it was another 390 years after that first Spanish plan before the U.S. made this a reality on August 15, 1914. Earlier, the French, who had success in building the Suez Canal a few decades before, developed a proposal in 1877 to place it alongside the Panama railway — another American feat of engineering.
The first attempt to construct the canal began in 1881 with funds raised in France by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had been involved with the successful Suez Canal. Sadly, the Panama Canal was a much tougher challenge and the project went bankrupt in 1899.
The U.S. took control in May 1904, inheriting a depleted workforce and a disorganized legacy of equipment and infrastructure from the French. President Theodore Roosevelt championed this project through the U.S. government and was able to get the treaty ratified with Panama soon after the country declared independence in 1903. This has to be one of the most important legacies of our 26th president.
Today, the expanded Panama Canal is immensely important to the world economy. Last year, almost 14,000 ships passed through, carrying 442 million tons of cargo. The canal generates about 40 percent of Panama’s gross domestic product and an estimated 6 percent of world maritime commerce. There is lots more information at www.pancanal.com.
I will leave you with a quote from President Roosevelt himself who famously said, “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate; and while the debate goes on, the canal does also.”
God bless America.