For 400 years, men dreamed of building a canal that would join the world’s great oceans. When first proposed as a reality in the 1800s, the very idea was labeled an audacious and impossible gamble. The French tried first in a failed attempt that cost more than 20,000 lives and bankrupt their treasury.
Spurred by President Teddy Roosevelt who saw the creation of this vital link as America’s key to becoming a global power, it was the United States that next took up the challenge. At the dawn of the 20th century, after a decade of toil, suffering and loss of lives, the gamble paid off for America and the world. It became the seventh wonder of the modern world; a man-made waterway just 50 miles long that forever changed the face of the globe.
It was ‘The Panama Canal.’
Building the Canal (the Great ditch as some call it) came with a stiff price for America. The colossal engineering project that symbolized the triumph of technology over nature cost more than a decade of constant toil; more than $350 million dollars (about $8.6 billion in today’s money) and more than 5,000 American lives.
Work actually started in 1880 when Frenchman Ferninand de Lesseps – fresh from building the Suez Canal 11 years earlier – envisioned carving a passage through the Central American jungle. After eight hard years, the project ended in a failure as colossal as the dream itself.
The relentless challenge of the Panamanian jungle — with its torrential downpours, flooding, landslides, nearly impassable swamps, and diseases like yellow fever and malaria — proved too much. Some 22,000 people perished before the French returned home bankrupt. The dream lay dormant for the next 15 years.
“If we are to hold our own in the struggle for supremacy, we must build the Canal, declared President Theodore Roosevelt after taking office in 1901. Roosevelt countered initial resistance by the Congress by pointing to America’s engineering triumphs, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Transcontinental Railroad, and convinced lawmakers and the public that it could be done and work started in 1903.
Over the next decade, engineers and an endless stream of workers (as many as 50,000 at a time) faced incredible hardships to make the dream a reality. The plan seemed simple. Cut a ditch through the isthmus from Colón on the Atlantic south to Panama City on the Pacific across dense jungle, across the Chagres River Valley and through the steep mountain pass of Cyuebra and shore up the sides.
John F. Wallace was the first American engineer on the project. His hopes were high, but, after a year of fighting Washington bureaucracy, he left with little accomplished and confidence in the project at a low ebb.
John Stevens was next. He began by stopping all digging and rebuilding the railroad serving the Canal. When he first saw it, Stevens, who had built more miles of railroad than any other man alive, called the railroad little more than “two streaks of rust and a right-of-way.”
When he was finished, the railroad was the pulsating heart of the project. He replaced the rails and brought in open sided flat-bed rail cars fitted with plows. Stevens estimated that the cars alone accounted for more work than could be accomplished by 900 men. The railroad was a giant conveyor belt moving excavated earth and allowing the project to take shape.
The next challenge seemed to be the mountain pass at Culebra which meant boring 300 feet through solid rock. But, it was the Chagres River, which flooded regularly, that was an even greater challenge. Stevens realized that cutting a sea level canal would doom the project as it had the French attempt.
A New Plan; a New Beginning
His plan incorporated a system of locks, a dam to control the Chagres River and the creation of an artificial lake (the largest in the world at the time) 85 feet above sea level. A ship would be elevated hydraulically through the locks, sail across the artificial lake through the Culebra Cut and then descend, in steps, though another set of locks to the other ocean. It was a brilliant plan that made the dream a reality, but it exhausted Stevens who retired from the project in 1907.
Colonel George Washington Goethals was the final engineer on the Canal. In a brutal schedule that tested every man on the project, he stepped up the work and by 1913 steam shovels met at the middle of the Culebra Cut, Gatun dam was sealed, flooding the cut and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans rushed to meet one another for the first time.
The Panama Canal was officially open to traffic on August 15, 1914. Control of the Canal was turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999 under a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and President Omar Torrijos of Panama.
After 100 years, the Canal remains a triumph of engineering and a symbol of man’s determination to control his environment. Ships pass through three sets of locks –– the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatún – during the eight to 10 hour trip. The Canal can accommodate ships whose maximum size is 1,010 feet in length and 110 feet in width. Ships built to these specifications are called Panamax ships.
In an eight-year project expected to be completed in 2015 at a cost of more than $6 billion, new locks will be opened – one east of the existing Gatun locks, and one southwest of the Miraflores locks – to accommodate “post-Panamax” container ships with a maximum width of 160 feet and length of 1,200 feet (mostly oil tankers). This third lane will double the capacity of the world’s only man-made interoceanic waterway.
Cruising the Canal
The best way to see the Canal – and to get a true sense of its size and complexity – is from the deck of a luxury cruise ship. A cruise also offers the best port visits of both the Atlantic/Caribbean region and the west coast of Central America, with spectacular up-close views of the Canal in between.
Standing on the main deck of a cruise ship, like the Island Princess or the Crystal Serenity, as you pass through the locks truly gives a true sense of this modern marvel. Most Canal crossings begin or end in Florida or Southern California and are 11 to 15 days.
Generally, voyages are long and leisurely, but plan to get up early on the day of the crossing if you want a spot on the bow of the ship where you will have the best view of the Canal. Some ships may even give you an “Order of the Ditch” certificate to mark your crossing. Most serve champagne to toast your fellow passengers and offer meals on the deck as you pass through.
Air conditioning inside offers a welcome relief to the often hot, humid climate. Lectures before you arrive and announcements over loud speaker on the ship make it an educational experience for the entire family.
Best Time to Go
The main Panama Canal cruise season runs from September to May, but some lines offers cruises all year long. The best time to go is after the rainy season ends in November.
Ships: Coral Princess & Island Princess (both built to exactly fit through the Canal) with departures to/from Los Angeles, California and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Select 15-day cruises offer two day “Canal experience.” Princess offers the most Canal cruises of the major cruise lines (34 in 2014).
Prices start at $1,199.
Call (866) 335-6379 for details/booking
Ships: Crystal Serenity & Crystal Symphony
Trips range from 11-20 days with departures from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco (California) and Miami (Florida).
Prices start at $3,185.
Call (866) 446-6625 or +1 (310)785-9300 for details/booking
Ships: Legend of the Seas
15-night cruise in April and November with departures from San Diego, California to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Prices start at $1,224
Call (866) 562-7625 or+1 (305) 341-0204 for details/booking