Journalist for Life

Panama Canal, Part One: Mission Impossible

Transiting the Panama Canal is a slow affair. Entering the six chambers of the locks, ships might move just 2 miles per hour, and motoring through the entire 50-mile passage can easily take eight hours.

Guided by a mule, lower left, a cruise ship moves through a lock chamber.
Guided by a mule, lower left, a cruise ship moves through a lock chamber.

Along the way, your ship passes lushly forested hills and plains carpeted by palm trees. All of which belies the intriguing blend of tragedy, scheming and an unimaginable amount of human effort need to create the engineering masterpiece. It is hard to conceive that more than 27,600 men died in constructing the canal, dead from accidents, landslides, malaria and yellow fever.

First the French tried to build a canal, but despite two years of surveying, they foolishly plotted a sea-level path. That’s most likely because overseeing the project was the man who ha also shepherded the successful construction of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps.

He had no experience as an engineer or builder but has been a diplomat who gained the rights form Egypt to build that canal, which was at sea level — with no significant elevation to overcome, so it needed no locks to raise or lower ships.

But the route chosen in Panama was saturated by rainwater – never a problem in the Suez – which caused repeated landslides. Plus, medical science had no realistic ideas about the prevention or cure of malaria and yellow fever.

The French project did not stop after eight years, in 1889, because of all the deaths of more than 22,000 laborers but because the company ran out of money.

About a decade later, the Frenchman who was the company’s chief engineer hired an American lawyer, to influence the U.S. Congress in choosing a path on other Panama land owned by the company. After some outright lies by the lawyer, Congress did choose Panama instead of Nicaragua. When Colombia – which then controlled what is now Panama — rejected the U.S. treaty signed with that French engineer, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched warships that blocked Colombia from putting down a Panamanian rebellion.

Newly independent Panama quickly granted America the right to build and operate a canal. In May 1904, work began, with the chief engineer selecting a different route – one not at sea level.

The first transit came in August 1914. The same lock chambers used back then are still used, and the 1-millionth transit through them is expected this year. But by 2015, construction should be complete on a new set of locks, to allow much larger vessels to pass.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

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