Visiting the Panama Canal

“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.

The point he does seem to have stressed—the great lesson to be learned from his experience—was that everything, everything, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.

For despite all de Lesseps told the press and his public, Panama had only one advantage over Suez: the distance to be covered. Everything else at Panama was infinitely more difficult. Panama was an immeasurably larger and more baffling task than Suez, just as Godin de Lépinay had warned.

The actual digging of The Great Trench—La Grande Tranchée—began at Emperador on Friday, January 20, 1882, with much champagne and dynamite.

When he departed for this, his second, tour of the Isthmus—for his first actual look at the Panama canal—Ferdinand de Lesseps was eighty years old. And in the minds of his thousands of shareholders this was the critical figure in the equation, more important than any stock prices or excavation statistics. It was not a company they believed in, or even a canal through Panama, so much as one man

nothing whatever would have been attempted or accomplished at Panama had it not been for Ferdinand de Lesseps, a point missing from the postmortems of the 1890’s, largely since the actual work itself had been either forgotten or was assumed to be utterly without value. In France, as André Siegfried observed, no one seemed to recall that Panama had had anything to do with the building of a canal. “In the end one almost believed that The Company had hardly done anything at all in the isthmus . . .” The money, declared The Times of London, was “as clean gone” as if it had been sunk in the North Atlantic.

an American canal at Nicaragua was regarded as a certain thing, irrespective of the fact that one American attempt in Nicaragua—by the Maritime Canal Company, which had been chartered in 1889—had already gone down in defeat. It had been an underfinanced affair that collapsed with the Wall Street Panic of 1893.

A canal was beyond the capacity of any purely private enterprise; that much now was plain. It must be a national undertaking. The United States appeared to be the one nation ready to mount such an effort, and if the American people had drawn one overriding conclusion from the French disaster, it was that the place not to build a canal was Panama. The failure of the French—“the greatest failure in modern times”—was above all a lesson in geography. They had gone down to defeat not merely because they were French (and therefore incompetent, impractical, and decadent) and led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, but primarily because they—he—had chosen the wrong path.

The obvious differences in age and nationality aside, there were striking similarities between Theodore Roosevelt and Ferdinand de Lesseps. Both were the products of cultivated, worldly families. Both were raised on the ideal of patriotic service and the heroic exploits of adventurous kinsmen. There is the common love of the out of doors, of shooting, and of horses; the common joy in children, books, theatrics, popular acclaim. In his boundless love of life, his immensely attractive animal vitality, Theodore Roosevelt might have been a direct descendant of Ferdinand de Lesseps. There is even a kind of continuity to such traits as they were sometimes despised for—craftiness, self-glorification, self-deception.

The Philippines, Roosevelt foresaw, would affect America’s future more than any other result of the Spanish war. He was not an imperialist, he insisted. It was inconceivable to him that Americans could ever be viewed as imperialistic. In all the United States he had never met an imperialist, he once said before an audience in Utah. He was personally offended by the charge. Expansion was different; it was growth, it was progress, it was in the American grain. He was striving to lead his generation toward some larger, more noble objective than mere moneymaking. (“For after all,” the revered Mahan wrote, “if the love of mere glory is selfish, it is not quite so low as the love of mere comfort.”) To each generation was allotted a task, Roosevelt knew. “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.”

Speeches by others on the subject of the Nicaragua canal filled hundreds of pages of the Congressional Record. In the archives of the House and Senate were tens of thousands of pages of reports from special canal committees, testimony from explorers, engineers, sea captains, all supporting the fundamental wisdom of the Nicaragua route.

On January 28, Senator John Coit Spooner introduced an amendment to the Hepburn Bill. It authorized the President to acquire the French company’s Panama property and concessions at a cost not to exceed $40,000,000; to acquire from Colombia perpetual control of a canal zone at least six miles wide across the Isthmus of Panama; and to build a Panama canal. If a clear title or a satisfactory agreement with Colombia could not be reached within “a reasonable time,” then the President was

He ended on a warning. If the United States were to build a Nicaragua canal, what then was to prevent some other power—by which he meant Germany—from finishing the French canal? Our competitors then, he said, would have all the advantages.

If one traces back through the chain of events that led to the Senate vote, keeping count of who was influencing whom and when, and if it is remembered that Morison, unlike Hanna, Bunau-Varilla, or the garrulous Cromwell, made no effort to glorify his contributions, at the time or later, then Morison emerges a bit like the butler at the end of the mystery—as the ever-present, frequently unobtrusive, highly instrumental figure around whom the entire plot turned. The significant thing about

News of the landing was immediately telephoned to Panama City, and to those conspirators who had been kept in the dark this whole time, it was a crushing revelation. Word of a Colombian warship standing off Colón would in itself have had a devastating effect; but far worse was the realization that the American ship had made no move to prevent the Colombian troops—and assuredly a Colombian firing squad—from coming ashore. All the bravado engendered by the arrival of the Nashville the evening before was undone in an instant. The conspirators saw themselves as the victims of a diabolic Yankee betrayal.

And in all that time, throughout the entire second half of the nineteenth century, there had been no serious misunderstandings as to the critical agreements of the treaty contained in Article XXXV. In no way was the arrangement to impair Colombian sovereignty over the Isthmus; Colombia was to remain the sole protector of the Isthmus and of the isthmian transit against domestic obstruction. The clear specific intent was to safeguard for Colombia its sovereignty in perpetuity, a guarantee for which Colombia had been willing to grant to the United States the right to create an isthmian transit—rail or canal. The United States was obligated to maintain order only when requested by Colombia

But Panama was the lead story everywhere in the days that followed, and many powerful papers immediately commenced a blistering attack on the Administration, holding Roosevelt strictly responsible for what had happened.

The explaining, the affirmations of high purpose, would continue for weeks, months, indeed for years—in a special message to Congress, in private conversation and correspondence, in magazine articles, speeches, his memoirs. The United States had a mandate from civilization to build the canal, he told Congress on January 4, 1904, in a message devoted entirely to the subject. “The time . . . for permitting any government of antisocial and of imperfect development to bar the work, was past.”

Others in the Cabinet fell into line, without apparent qualm, nor with anything approaching Roosevelt’s solemn air of righteousness. Attorney General Knox, having been asked by Roosevelt to construct a defense, is said to have remarked, “Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.” At another point, during a Cabinet meeting, Roosevelt talked of the bitter denunciations in the press, then entered into a long, formal statement of his position. When he had finished, the story goes, he looked about the table, finally fixing his eye on Elihu Root. “Well,” he demanded, “have I answered the charges? Have I defended myself?” “You certainly have, Mr. President,” replied Root, who was known for his wit. “You have shown that you were accused of seduction and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”

For Colombia, already crippled by a costly civil war, Roosevelt’s “most important action” meant the loss of what since the days of Bolívar had appeared to be its most valuable natural treasure, the Isthmus, with its unique geographic position “between two oceans.” It meant also the loss of the $10,000,000 lump sum that was to be paid by the United States, the $250,000 annual payment by the Panama Railroad (for decades a crucial part of the national income), and the $250,000 annual payment that was to be forthcoming from the United States as part of the canal agreement. There were riots in Bogotá; desperate offers were to be made by special Colombian emissaries dispatched to Washington, including an offer to accept the treaty as it stood, which served only to satisfy the Administration conclusively that the earlier rejection of the treaty [was unjust].

The damage done to American relations with Colombia, indeed with all of Latin America, was enormous, just as John Tyler Morgan had prophesied. As an American minister at Bogotá, James T. Du Bois, would write in 1912, the breach worsened as time passed. By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared, the indignation of every Colombian, and millions of other Latin-Americans, was aroused and is still most intensely active. The confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has completely vanished, and the maleficent influence of this condition is permeating public opinion in all Latin-American countries, a condition which, if remedial measures are not invoked, will work inestimable harm throughout the Western Hemisphere.

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. At the then

The problem in essence was that Admiral Walker, Governor Davis, and several others on the Isthmian Canal Commission, as well as a very large part of the populace and its political leadership, did not seriously entertain the notion that mosquitoes could be the cause of yellow fever or malaria. To spend time and money chasing after mosquitoes in Panama would be to squander time and money in a most irresponsible fashion.

The futility of mounting the largest overseas effort in the country’s history, the largest public work ever attempted anywhere, by placing its fate in the hands of seven men in Washington had already occurred to Taft, as to Roosevelt.

“Mr. Secretary,” said Wallace, “while there is a difference between us as to the point of view we take concerning my duty, I consider that there can be no question that I have performed my full duty up to this hour.” “Mr. Wallace,” Taft replied slowly, “I do not consider that any man can divide such a duty up to any one point where it suits him to stop . . . In my view a duty is an entirety, and is not fulfilled unless it is wholly fulfilled.”

The trip to Panama to see the canal was one of those small, luminous events that light up an era. No President had ever before left the country during his time in office and so from the day of the first advance announcement in June the journey became the talk of the country.

Presidents of the United States had been photographed at their desks and on the rear platforms of Pullman cars; Chester A. Arthur had consented once to pose in a canoe. But not in 117 years had a President posed on a steam shovel. He was wearing a big Panama hat and another of his white suits. And the marvelous incongruity of the outfit, the huge, homely machine and the rain pouring down, not to mention his own open delight in the moment, made it at once an event, an obvious and inevitable peak for the man who so adored having his picture taken and who so plainly intended to see success at Panama. One of the photographs would quickly become part of American folklore, and as an expression of a man and his era, there are few that can surpass it

To a whole generation of Americans it was Theodore Roosevelt who built the Panama Canal. It was quite simply his personal creation. Yet the Panama Canal was built under three American Presidents, not one—Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson—and in fact, of the three, it was really Taft who gave the project the most time and personal attention. Taft made five trips to Panama as Secretary of War and he went twice again during the time he was President.

The illustrative analogies offered by editors and writers were of little help, since they were seldom any less fantastic.  The spoil would be enough to build sixty-three pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. (To help its readers imagine what this might look like, Scientific American commissioned an artist to draw Manhattan with giant pyramids lining the length of Broadway from the Battery to Harlem.)

In the popular picture of life in the Canal Zone as it emerged in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, that vast force of black men and women who were doing the heaviest, most difficult physical labor—some twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand human beings—could be but very faintly seen. As individuals they had no delineation whatsoever. They were there only as part of the workaday landscape. That they too were making a new life in an alien land, that they too were raising families, experiencing homesickness, fear, illness, or exhilaration in the success of the work, was almost never even inferred. In the United States the public had little if any conception of the part played in Panama by “pioneers” who were neither American nor white, or how very small numerically the white American force was by contrast. To judge by many published accounts, the whole enormous black underside of the caste system simply did not exist.

Five million sacks and barrels of cement were shipped to Panama to build the locks, dams, and spillways, all of it from New York on the Ancon and the Cristobal, and an idea of what such quantities amounted to is imparted by a single budgetary statistic: an estimated $50,000 was saved in recovered cement after Goethals issued a directive requiring the men to shake each sack after it was emptied. 

The reason for having as many as seventy wellholes in the chamber floor was to distribute the turbulence of the incoming water evenly over the full area and thereby subject chamber and ships to a minimum of disturbance. It was the engineers’ intention to be able to raise or lower a ship in a chamber in about fifteen minutes.

Among the more fascinating facts about the Panama Canal, for example, is that all hardware for the lock gates—the lifting mechanisms for the stem valves, the special bearings, gears, and struts for the gate machines, all ninety-two bull wheels—was made by a single manufacturer in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Across Europe and the United States, world war filled the newspapers and everyone’s thoughts. The voyage of the Cristobal, the Ancon’s crossing to the Pacific on August 15, the official declaration that the canal was open to the world, were buried in the back pages. There were editorials hailing the victory of the canal builders, but the great crescendo of popular interest had passed; a new heroic effort commanded world attention. The triumph at Panama suddenly belonged to another and very different era.

In August the following year the same thing happened again. On September 18, 1915, came the most discouraging break of all in what had been newly renamed Gaillard Cut—an avalanche that closed the canal to traffic for seven months. When the canal reopened, Goethals again insisted that the problem would be “overcome finally and for all time.” But that day never arrived. Hundreds of acres of mud and rock slipped into the Cut as the years passed; dredging remained an almost continuous task and a huge expense. And the angle of repose has still to be found. One slide in 1974 dumped an estimated 1,000,000 cubic yards into the Cut.


3 comments on “Visiting the Panama Canal
  • Ben, it sounds beautiful. I spent some time in Alajuela, Costa Rica. A good friend of mine from the area adores vacationing in Panama and never ceases to snap a photo of the canal for me. Thanks for the reminder of the “work of civilization.” I’ll have to crack McCullough’s book.

  • “The Path Between the Seas” is the greatest book ever written. No fiction writer can compare to reality. Reading the book is much more valuable than visiting the canal. The book also explains why a better canal might someday be built in Nicaragua.

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