“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 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.” – David McCullough
A couple months ago, I watched a video on Bill Gates’s blog about his visit to the Panama Canal. He called it one of the Top 10 places he’s been to, and given that he’s been to a lot of places, this caught my attention. My Mom and I headed down there for a weekend to see the Canal and greater Panama City, and I’m happy to report that it is now on my Top 10 list too — even though my overall list is probably considerably shorter than Bill’s!
The flight into Panama City at night was beautiful. Out my airplane window, I saw dozens of ships lined up in the water, waiting to enter the Canal Zone. The next morning we explored Panama City. It’s the most developed city in Central America. Half of the tallest sky scrapers in Latin America are in Panama, we were told. The water is drinkable. The taxi drivers are professional and friendly. The malls are as fancy as anywhere in the world, and all the usual A-list hotel brands have outposts along a main strip. The old town is lovely to stroll around in, and it’s one the part of Panama City that does feel genuinely Latin American, so long as you ignore the eye-catching streak of sky scrappers visible across the water.
The Canal is the main attraction, of course, and it’s worth setting aside an entire day for the effort. Before going to the Canal — or even if you can’t go — read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas. It’s the authoritative account of how the canal got built against all odds. McCullough starts by recounting the French effort to build a canal in Panama. After 20,000 French died and untold tresaure expended, the French gave up. Then he masterfully recounts the debate in America’s government about whether to attempt to build something that almost everyone said was impossible. Then he covers the actual construction, the enormous public health challenges that were overcome, and the eventual mind-blowing triumph — the most impressive civil engineering project in history.
There are so many stats about the construction and end result. Here are a few:
- “Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.”
- With the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 to the Compagnie Nouvelle, the United States had spent more for the rights, privileges, and properties that went with the Canal Zone—an area roughly a third the size of Long Island—than for any actual territorial acquisition in its history, more than for the Louisiana Territory ($15,000,000), Alaska ($7,200,000), and the Philippines ($20,000,000) combined.
- The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
- Largest overseas effort in U.S. history.
- Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.
- “The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.”
But as McCullough says, no recitation of stats could do justice to the grandeur.
To be sure, the actual visual of the canal when you’re there is not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or even the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel. The canal is alive and functional — a centerpiece of global commerce — it’s not a national park or historical piece. That’s why it’s helpful to have the historical and political background to fully appreciate the impressiveness.
We went on a partial boat tour — you’re in an actual boat in the canal and you cross through two sets of locks which raise up the ship by 85 feet by pumping 27 million gallons of freshwater into the locked off area in less than eight minutes. I’m glad we were in a boat and not viewing the canal from the Miraflores Locks museum, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the full seven hours riding across the entire canal. It’s not necessary to get a good sense of what’s happening.
As I learned about canal on the tour, I reflected on how little I knew before my trip. I cannot remember ever hearing about it in school. I remember studying the building of the Hoover Dam, and man-made flight, and entering outer space, and learning about other science achievements. Yet, even though the Panama Canal is as or more impressive than any of the above, it doesn’t seem as prominent in the history books. Most likely this because the U.S. government has blood on its hands in Panama: it seized/stole the land from Colombia in order to ensure the Canal was built, an event which kicked off a series of shameful intrusions in Central America sovereignty.
It’s worth learning more about. And given how easy it is to get in and out of Panama, it’s worth visiting in person.
At the end of the McCullough book, there’s a moving quote by John Stevens, who was chief engineer at the Canal from 1905-1907. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote soon before dying. The great works had still to come: “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean…”
Other direct quotes from McCullough’s book below.