The Panama Canal: Discovering a Wonder of the Modern World

Caleb Starrenburg

Caleb Starrenburg is an Auckland-based freelance journalist. He has travelled extensively throughout Asia, Europe and South America.

I touched down in Panama City a heady-cocktail of anxiety and excitement. I knew scattered details of Panama’s fascinating history, its abundant biodiversity and famed golden-sand beaches. Yet, it was the Panama Canal, a monument to human achievement and Wonder of the Industrial World, I had come to see. There was, however, a hitch.

Due to a series of delays in-route my connecting flight was scheduled to depart in little over an hour, and according to the dog-eared guidebook I’d recently purchased the Panama Canal lay about 45 minutes drive from the airport. And that’s one way. The equation didn’t look good, but I had a plan. Just not a very good one.

Stepping out of the airport I approached the first taxi driver I could find and produced a handful of American notes. “This is yours if you can get me to the Panama Canal and back in an hour.” He laughed and waved me on. Several tries later I hit upon an elderly man called Manuel smoking a cigarette on the hood of his vehicle. As I explained my predicament he flashed a devilish smile that inspired confidence and terror in equal measure.  “Vamos,” he replied. “Hurry, let’s go.”

Sitting in the back of my smoke filled tax I peeled open the guidebook to study the enthralling and tragic history of the canal. The Spanish first explored connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through Panama in the 16th century. However, it wasn’t until 1880 that a French company, under the auspices of Suez Canal mastermind Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal. The project was a disaster from start to finish.

The French project was begun in a mad rush; almost immediately tropical conditions destroyed equipment and crippled progress. The ‘S’ shaped Isthmus of Panama, while just 80 kilometres at its narrowest point, boasts towering mountains, dense jungle, deep swamp, torrential rains  and some of the most geologically complex land formations in the world.

Even more devastating than the incessant landslides were epidemics of malaria and yellow fever that killed 22,000 workers over an eight year period. The Panama Canal Company finally declared bankruptcy in 1888. De Lesseps was charged with corruption and the resulting scandal brought down the French government.  Finally, in 1904 the United States bought out the assets of the company and resumed work under a revised plan.

The American company, under the direction of Chief Engineer John Frank Stevens, successfully lobbied for a canal built with dams and locks. Stevens then devised a system for disposing of excavated soil by rail. He built proper housing for canal workers and oversaw extensive sanitation and mosquito-control programs that significantly reduced disease.

At this point my reading was interrupted by a blaring horn. Glancing up for the first time I noticed Panama’s City modern Corredor Sur highway racing past my window, and in the distance a dense skyline of office complexes, high-rise apartments and the beaches of the Panama Bay.

“You must really like the canal, eh?” queried Manuel with bemusement. I couldn’t exactly explain why, but since learning of it as a child the Panama Canal had transfixed my imagination. Something about burrowing through the middle of a country, from one ocean to another, seemed so ludicrously audacious. The 77km-long stretch of waterways is almost emblematic of humankind’s stupidity, imagination and dogged tenacity.

David McCullough said it best in his book The Path Between the Seas. "The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice.  The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization."

“Do you mind if we take a shortcut?” Manuel suddenly asked. I nodded my head and almost immediately our car lurched into a narrow side alley. For my own sanity I returned to my history lesson. It took the Americans around ten years and $375 million to complete the Panama Canal, which was finally opened in 1914.

/img/placeholder.gif?aHR0cDovL2k1OTYucGhvdG9idWNrZXQuY29tL2FsYnVtcy90dDQ1L2dldGZyYW5rL1BhbmFtYTIuanBnAlthough enormously successful as a passage for maritime trade, the canal soon became a festering wound of discontent. Post World War 2 clashes erupted between Panama and the United States over ownership. In the early 1970s talks were begun to decide the canal’s future, with Panama’s commander Omar Torrijos famously declaring “Regarding the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, they will find us standing up or dead, but never on our knees!”

In 1977 a treaty was signed giving Panama free reign in return for guaranteeing the permanent neutrality of the canal. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that full control was finally ceded to the Panamanians.

After what felt like an eternity, though in reality was just half an hour, my taxi pulled up outside the Miraflores Locks. This is the first of three locks – the others being Pedro Miguel and Gatun – ships encounter if entering from the Pacific Ocean. The lock gates at Miraflores are also the tallest, due to the Pacific’s extreme tidal variation.

By a stroke of luck a container ship was arriving at exactly same moment, so I bounded out of the taxi up the stairs to the Miraflores Visitors Centre. For just a small charge I was allowed out to an observation deck, where a commentary in Spanish and English explained the events below.  

/img/placeholder.gif?aHR0cDovL2k1OTYucGhvdG9idWNrZXQuY29tL2FsYnVtcy90dDQ1L2dldGZyYW5rL1BhbmFtYTMuanBnFrom the moment a ship enters Miraflores it takes about 10 minutes for it to pass through the 1.6km stretch of chambers. Remarkably, water enters and leaves the locks by gravity alone. The enormous container ship I watched, which barely seemed to clear the edges of the canal, was assisted in its journey by a series of cables connected to electric cars running alongside. Apparently these cars only help guide vessels, which must at times move under their own power.

Unfortunately after only a short time Manuel reappeared to insist we leave. The drive back to the airport was a terrifying blur, yet as promised I was delivered to the doors of the airport 10 minutes before my flight was schedules to take off. Clearing customs I sprinted to my departure gate and onto the plane. I was the last to board. But I made it.      

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