A great water tollway, often called the “Big Ditch,” links the Atlantic and pacific oceans. It weaves across a strip of tropical land where the Isthmus of Panama narrows in the shape of a long flattened letter S. The fame of the Panama Canal is not in its size, since it is only about 51 miles long. The Big Ditch is an engineering triumph over nature. It has also been a major influence on world trade.
History of the Panama Canal:
A sea-level canal is not a new idea. It was considered when interest in a canal developed in the 16th century. In 1534 King Charles I of Spain ordered a survey to determine the possibility of a canal in the Panama region. He abandoned his plans when the Spanish governor there made an unfavorable report.
Balboa had discovered the Pacific in 1513. He sighted the vast ocean from a peak some miles southeast of the eventual Panama Canal location. The Pacific port of the canal, Balboa, was named in his honor.
For years the Spaniards searched in vain for a natural waterway joining the two oceans. Eventually they brought their gold and silver from Peru and other South American colonies to Panama City on the pacific side. Mule trains carried the treasure through narrow trails to Portobello or Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean. Ships there loaded the cargo for shipment to Spain. Pirates frequently raided Panama.
More than 20 routes for such a crossing were proposed. Locations were surveyed in areas ranging from one end of the isthmus to the other. A number placed the proposed canal close to the routes mentioned for a new sea-level canal today. Rocky ridges were an obstacle. Some plans called for tunnels through them to accommodate stretches of the canal. One proposal was for a railway to carry fully laden ships across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on a mammoth platform drawn by steam engines. This plan, developed by Capt. James Buchanan Eads, a prominent American engineer, was given serious consideration.
In 1850 the United States Senate ratified the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain. This agreement provided for the neutrality of the canal whenever it was built. The Spanish-American War focused attention on the need for a way to move warships quickly between the Atlantic and pacific oceans.
A French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps began an actual construction of a sea-level canal in 1882. He had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. By comparison, however, building the Suez Canal had been simple. Mismanagement, dishonesty, and terrible epidemics of disease in Panama forced the French company into bankruptcy in 1889. During seven years of digging, 22,000 men had died of tropical diseases. This was equivalent to wiping out the entire construction crew twice, for the total number of men employed at any one time did not average more than 10,000.
The French canal builders did not know that the deadly malaria and yellow fever were caused by bites of certain mosquitoes. Serious errors were made in sanitation. French physicians were said to have ordered the legs of hospital beds placed in water to keep ants and other crawling bugs from the patients. The water became an additional breeding place for mosquitoes, which already were swarming in from marshes, streams, and pools in the hot, rainy region.
In June 1902 the United States agreed to buy the concession of the French company for 40 million dollars if Colombia would cede a strip of land across the isthmus. A treaty was signed in 1903, but the Colombian government was reluctant to ratify it. Angered company agents and Panamanian businessmen plotted secession from Colombia. With covert support from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Panamanians launched a successful revolution and declared Panama a republic. Two weeks later the United States signed a treaty with Panama. The United States agreed to pay the country 10 million dollars plus 250,000 dollars a year for the use, occupation, and administration of a 10-mile-wide strip along the canal, 5 miles on each side.
Credit goes to two United States Army colonels for succeeding where the French had failed. Colonel George Washington Goethals, as engineer in chief after 1907, directed construction. Colonel William Crawford Gorgas of the Medical Corps, as chief sanitary officer, led the battle against disease. Later both men became major generals.
The United States took possession of the canal property on May 4, 1904. The first 2 1/2 years were devoted to the careful preparation that brought health and efficiency when actual construction started.
Construction preparations were carried on under the supervision of the Isthmian Canal Commission, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. John F. Stevens was chief engineer. To recruit the large work force required, the commission set up agencies in the United States, Europe, and the West Indies. Meanwhile, buildings were started and equipment assembled to house, feed, and safeguard the employees. Unskilled or semiskilled workers were paid in silver coin, while the skilled craftsmen and those occupying executive, professional, and higher clerical positions were paid in gold. This classification of workers into “silver” and “gold” employees persisted long after the canal opened. Much later they were all paid in paper money.
The construction equipment that had to be assembled included mammoth steam shovels, locomotives, trackshifters, pile drivers, dredges, steamboats, and tugs. The railway was reorganized. A civil government for the Canal Zone was established, with courts, police force, fire companies, and customs and revenue service. A postal system was organized.
When Stevens resigned in 1907, President Roosevelt appointed Colonel Goethals chief engineer and chairman of the Canal Commission. He had complete control of construction. From then on the government under Army supervision did the work, instead of by private contractors.
The construction of the canal was a 40-mile-long panorama of industry. Toiling under the tropical sun in the mighty cuts were legions of sweating laborers, some in shirt sleeves, some almost naked. Some worked with pick, shovel, and crowbar. Others with drill and dynamite in the stone cuts. Series of cableways and a network of railway tracks ran everywhere. Mighty derricks and cranes swung huge buckets of concrete through the air and lowered them into the forms to build locks and embankments. Powerful drills bored holes into solid rock at the rate of seven feet an hour. The arms of monster dipper dredges rose and fell from barges afloat in swamps and bays.
More than 100 steam shovels doing the work of 10,000 men dug up earth in ten-ton scoopfuls and dumped it into waiting railroad cars. One hundred fifteen locomotives hauled trains of these cars to the dumps. Here a great plow traveled from one end of the train to the other unloading 20 cars, each carrying 60 tons, in less than ten minutes. The earth, which was excavated, totaled more than 239 million cubic yards, enough to make a line of 70 pyramids, each the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. This earth was used to build Gatun Dam, fill low places, and build breakwaters for the new port of Balboa.
Dynamite charges of as much as 40,000 pounds at a time blasted away at mountains of the Continental Divide. Cuts 300 feet deep were made here. A spirit of competition grew among the three construction divisions the Central, Atlantic, and Pacific. The work progressed in the face of constant difficulties. Once there was an earthquake. Heavy rains which, brought terrific landslides in the Culebra Cut, often undid the work of months. The Chagres River, flowing down the Atlantic side, was particularly troublesome because of its floods. This problem was solved when Gatun Dam was constructed from earth and rock. The finished dam is 1 1/2 miles long, a half-mile wide at the base, and 100 feet wide at the top.
On Oct. 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, 4,000 miles away in the White House in Washington, D.C., pressed an electric button. The impulse sent a flash over cables to set off a charge of dynamite. This blew out a temporary dike. A flood of water rushed through a rock-walled rift in the mountains, and the Panama Canal was a dream realized.
United States engineers at a cost of 380 million dollars had achieved the greatest engineering wonder of the world. The Canal Zone marked the historic day by placing a new motto on its official seal: “A Land Divided, the World United.” On Aug. 15, 1914, the canal was opened to world commerce. The first ship through was the vessel Ancon, carrying guests of honor. After 400 years, the first explorers’ dream of a westward passage had come true.
The French company had planned a canal 74 feet wide. The United States set a minimum of 300 feet. During the years, dredging has further enlarged some portions of the canal. Many stretches have been widened to at least 500 feet. Gaillard Cut, twisting through deep passes, has continued to be a problem. In 1955 cracks appeared in Contractor’s Hill and threatened to slide a mountain of earth and rock into the canal. Three million cubic yards were excavated to reduce the hazard. The regular uprooting of water hyacinths is also necessary. The plants grow so rapidly they could choke off canal traffic.
The Canal s Job:
About 32 oceangoing vessels pass through the canal daily. They pay an average of $28,000 for passage. Some massive ships pay tolls several times this amount. The fees are well spent, for the trip of some eight to ten hours through the canal saves many miles and many days of travel. If there were no Panama Canal, a ship going from San Francisco, Calif., to New York City would have to sail down around the tip of South America, an additional 7,900 nautical miles some of it in very rough seas.
An almost endless variety of commodities pass through the canal day after day. About 140 million tons of oceangoing commercial cargos are shipped through the canal in a single year. The main commodity group petroleum and petroleum products makes up about 22 percent of the annual cargo tonnage. Grains compose about 16 percent. A significant development in canal cargo has been the increase in automobile trade. Over 2.4 million tons of automobiles are moved through the canal every year, most being transported from Japan to the United States. A small percentage of the world’s water shipping is routed through the canal. The greatest user is the United States, which transports much of its imports from Latin American neighbors through the watercourse.
In fiscal 1915, the first year of operation, about 5 million tons of cargos were shipped through the Panama Canal. In 1924, 27 million tons were carried through it. Between 1925 and 1941 the annual tonnage varied between 18 million and 31 million. There was a dip in total cargo during World War II, but since then nearly every year has shown an increase. The figure for 1950 was some 30 million tons. By the early 1960s the volume had almost doubled. During the late 1960s, largely as a result of the Suez Canal blockade, tonnage rose to much more than 100 million tons annually
As much as the Canal brings benefits to Panama it also brings tons of problems. Some are similar to those of land highways. Increasing traffic has required widening the lanes. “Street lights” have been put in for night safety. One-way traffic is necessary at times. Modern traffic control systems have been installed. The comparison with land travel, however, has limits. The Panama Canal, because of its location, size, and type of construction, has problems unlike those of any other transportation link in the world.
How to Solve the Traffic in the Canal:
The locks of most canals elsewhere in the world are used for a single purpose either to move ships up to a higher body of water or to move them down to a lower. The Panama locks, however, literally take ships up the side of a hill and down again. From the air the locks look like giant steps.
They are built in pairs for two-way traffic or, occasionally, parallel traffic in the same direction. A transit, or passage of a ship through the canal, is planned carefully. While it is still far out at sea, an approaching vessel, depending upon its position, radios either the office of the port captain in Cristobal, on the Atlantic side, or in Balboa, on the pacific side. Marine traffic control centers prepare transit plans. The rule of “first come, first served” cannot always be followed. Some ships are so large they must be classed as clear cuts. This means that the canal has to be cleared of oncoming ships. Then for a definite time certain sections are open only to one-way traffic. A daylight clear cut is a ship which can proceed safely only in the daytime in a one-way channel.
Not only large ships, but any vessel with dangerous cargo falls into this class. Fluorescent lighting has been installed in some canal stretches to permit more traffic to move at night. The locks division chief keeps the control centers posted on any event which might change the transit scheduling. The movement of a ship through a lock is called a lockage. Sometimes more than one vessel moves through a lock at the same time. This is called a tandem lockage.
How the Lock Chamber works in the Canal:
A ship from the Atlantic side enters the first Gatun lock chamber at sea level. Huge miter gates close behind. The gates are seven feet thick, with compartments of concrete. The largest of the Panama Canal gates, at Miraflores, weigh some 730 tons. They are 82 feet high, as tall as a six-story building. Despite their size the gates are delicately balanced on their pintles. A 25-horsepower motor can swing them. A fender chain is raised to protect the gates against damage by a ship. Each chain weighs more than 15 tons. Each link alone weighs 70 pounds. The chains are hydraulically controlled. If they are struck by a ship, the fender chains yield to make the hit less powerful.
A lockmaster walks on the wall beside the ship. Only on his order are the locks opened or closed or the water level changed. He uses hand signals or a telephone to give orders to the control house operator. In the control house the operator watches indicators arranged on a miniature set of locks. When he presses a switch to open a pair of the giant lock gates outside, a pair of tiny gates on the control table duplicates the action. Indicators show the degree of opening of the water valves and the height of the water in each lock chamber.
Water as a Key Factor in the Canal:
Enormous quantities of water are needed to keep the Panama Canal locks operating. Lockages required for the canal journey of a single ship release about 52 million gallons of water into the oceans. To keep the locks supplied, the early canal builders created Gatun Lake, which covers 163 square miles. The lake is held back by Gatun Dam, across the Chagres River. A smaller reserve of water to the east is Madden Lake. It was formed by Madden Dam, and built in 1938. Both dams also are used to generate electricity.
For proper lock operation, the level of Gatun Lake is maintained at about 85 feet above sea level. The spillways of the two dams are regulated to control the water level. Practical control is possible only with advance information on the rainfall in the drainage basins, comprising about 1,300 square miles.
Men regularly went by boat to read water level and rain gauges, but the trips were long and difficult. An answer has been found in hydrologic telemeters. These devices are microwave radio transmitters, which broadcast rainfall and river level measurements from 11 remote unmanned stations. The system may also be used for voice communication between maintenance men at the distant stations and the main office at Balboa Heights, near Balboa.
Government of the Canal Zone:
Until 1979 the United States governed the Panama Canal Zone. The Panama Canal Company, which operated the canal, was a corporation. Like a business corporation in the United States, the company had a president and a board of directors. It delivered annual reports to its “stockholder,” and its net income was referred to as “profit.”
The United States Army administered the canal and the zone surrounding it. The secretary of the Army was designated as the sole stockholder. The governor of the Canal Zone was a major general and was appointed by the president of the United States. He was also ex officio president of the Panama Canal Company. He was assisted by various department heads, which administered nearly all requirements of more than 10,000 full-time United States and Panamanian employees of the zone.
The Panama Canal Company formerly operated several 10,000-ton ocean liners, comprising the Panama Line. These ships regularly carried government and commercial cargo and passengers between New York City and Cristobal. In 1960, however, the United States government ordered the line to stop competing with private ships. After April 1961 only one ship was retained. It carried government cargo and passengers between New Orleans and Cristobal.
An American family accompanying a Panama Canal employee found life in the zone not unfamiliar. The Canal Zone government tried to establish a pattern of living like that in the United States. There were differences, however. The zone was essentially a government reservation, operated by the United States Army. There was no private enterprise in the zone. Americans made their purchases in government commissaries. The government Health Bureau provided hospitals and dental and medical clinics for the Americans. There were a wide variety of recreations. Much of it centered in government-operated clubhouses. Children of United States citizens went to public elementary and secondary schools and a junior college. Other children attended Latin American schools.
A new treaty, which became effective on Oct. 1, 1979, changed the governance of the area surrounding the canal. The Panama Canal Zone ceased to exist as a separate jurisdiction, and the area came under the control of the Panamanian government. The United States retained the use of only that land necessary to the operation and defense of the canal. The Panama Canal Commission, an agency with both United States and Panamanian membership, replaced the Panama Canal Company. The United States flag could be flown only at the commission’s headquarters and at other specified locations. Panama began to assume the governing responsibilities of the former Panama Canal Company. Although Americans employed by the commission continued to have the protection given to United States citizens abroad, they became subject to Panamanian law.b