Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Panama Canal

Ships waiting to enter the canal.
In honor of a cruise I took in October that transited the Panama Canal, I decided to read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. This book was written by David McCullough in the late 1970s, but it is still an excellent source for information about the construction and history of the Panama Canal.
Tugs coming out to meet the ship.

Entering Gatun Locks
I don't think most of us appreciate what an amazing achievement the construction of the Panama Canal was. McCullough begins with the expeditions and plans made with construction of the canal in mind. He then moves on to Ferdinand de Lesseps who was the Frenchman behind the Suez Canal. He thought he could have the same success building a sea level canal in Panama. He was wrong, and it cost much in money, material, and lives and ended in failure. The Americans later acknowledged how much good work the French had done.

See the rowboat?
The second half of the book is on the American effort to build the canal. It features such people as Theodore Roosevelt, George Goethals, William Gorgas, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla who figured in the story almost from the beginning, and many others just as important. In addition, there were thousands of nameless laborers and army men who contributed to the effort. Initially, the Americans planned to build the canal in Nicaragua (According to a tour guide in Costa Rica, Nicaragua is currently attempting to steal land from Costa Rica to build its own canal. Costa Rica has taken Nicaragua to international court.), but through political intrigue and a bloodless coup, the site of the French canal was chosen.

Entering Gatun Lake

The canal itself is amazing. It is almost 50 miles long and takes about 12 hours to cross. We sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Gatun Locks consist of three chambers that take ships by steps up to the level of Gatun Lake. Ships then sail through the canal, including the narrowest part (and most difficult to construct) the Culebra Cut to Pedro Miguel lock which consists of a single chamber that takes the ship down one step closer to sea level. The last set of locks are at Miraflores and consist of two chambers that bring the ship back to sea level. While sailing through the canal ships pass islands that used to be the tops of mountains which were flooded after the building dams to form the canal and control the river and tides. One of these islands is Barro Colorado which is home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It's possible that I've simplified this to the point of barely being accurate; please read the book (and sail through the canal!) for more details.

Here is a description of the lock chambers from page 550-551 (Nook version):
The walls, one thousand feet long, rose to eighty-one feet, or higher than a six-story building. The impression was of looking down a broad, level street nearly five blocks long with a solid wall of six-story buildings on either side; only here there were no windows or doorways, nothing to give human scale. . . A single lock if stood on end would have been the tallest structure in the world, taller even than the Eiffel Tower. . . The lock chambers all had the same dimensions (110 by 1,000 feet) and they were built in pairs, two chambers running side by side in order to accommodate two lanes of traffic. . . The chambers in each pair shared a center wall that was sixty feet wide from bottom to top.

Beautiful scenery
In the Culebra Cut.
No force is used to raise and lower the ships in the chambers except gravity. Water flows into the chambers from above or out to the sea below. And it only takes about ten minutes to fill and empty the chambers. Ships are pulled through the chambers by electric locomotives called mules. To attach the ships to the mules, linemen throw the ropes to men in a rowboat!

The Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. It cost many lives, made and ruined careers, and ended up costing the Americans less money than estimated in 1907. (page 570) It was a successful partnership of private enterprise and the government without corruption or graft. (page 571)

The canal is constantly being dredged.

Water drains from the Pedro Miguel lock.

There was only two feet on either side between the ship and the chamber wall.

The mule and the lines attached to the ship.

Crocodiles aren't charged a toll
A fun story: the record for the lowest toll paid is held by Richard Halliburton who was allowed to swim through the canal, including the locks. Tolls are based on weight, so he paid 36 cents. (page 572)

Leaving the canal

Panama City
This is an excellent and informative book and a wonderful companion to take along when sailing through the canal.

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