Spectator's Journal

Panama 100 Years Later

My week with an iconic waterway.

By 3.19.14

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Begin with one of the most famous (to some, infamous) quotations from a generation ago: California Republican Senator S. I. Hayakawa (served 1977-83) said during the election preceding the 1977 signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, “We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square.” Yet in 1978 the senator would help shepherd the treaty through the Senate and win ratification.

A trip I recently took to Panama entailed becoming a member of the trip sponsor, the Theodore Roosevelt Association, whose namesake began building the Canal pursuant to the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of November 18, 1903, 15 days after, with U.S. backing, Panama declared its independence from what had been Gran Colombia. The U.S. set up the Canal Zone as a separate entity, governed under Delaware law, with a U.S. governor. The September 7, 1977 Panama Canal treaty, which came into effect October 1, 1979, provided for transfer of full control to Panama on December 31, 1999. Spurred by pressures arising out of the shooting of demonstrating student-nationalists by U.S. soldiers — at the behest of an addled garrison commander — in 1964, the treaty negotiated between the Carter administration and Panama’s dictator, Omar Torrijos-Herrera, proved a rare foreign policy triumph for Carter.

Early plans to build a canal date back to the 16th century. It was after crossing the Panama isthmus that Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513. The one major failed attempt was a 15-year late-19th century effort by Suez Canal architect Ferdinand de Lesseps. His Suez success did not face the significant variations in terrain elevation that made Panama unsuitable for a pure sea-level canal.

It was the brilliant American engineer John Frank Stevens who saw that a sea-level canal would not work; he devised the locks system. Stevens resigned in 1907, and passed the torch to David DuBose Gaillard, who saw the project to completion, under the overall supervision of George Washington Goethals. In November 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Panama (and Puerto Rico), becoming the first president to travel abroad on official diplomatic business.

The Canal’s 27,609-person death toll combines an estimated 22,000 for the failed French effort plus 5,609 for the decade-long American effort. Most of the difference was disease; when William Crawford Gorgas directed the effort to conquer yellow fever, thousands of lives were saved. Nearly 40,000 workers toiled to build the Canal, mostly West Indians; the workers on the French and American efforts moved 268 million cubic yards of dirt — more than 25 times that for the (English) Channel Tunnel. The project cost the U.S. a total of $375 million ($9.5 billion in 2012 dollars, reflecting a 25-fold depreciation of the greenback); the cost was a record for an infrastructure project up to that time.

The Panama Canal locks transit system consists of six locks, depicted here (place cursor over locks for video simulation), the first starting and the last ending at sea level. On the Pacific side there are three locks, two Miraflores, one Pedro Miguel, rising a total of 26 meters (85 feet) to the artificial Lake Gatun; the three Gatun locks on the north side lower the ships to the Atlantic side. Lake Gatun, at about 20 miles, is the largest share of the 50-miles transit, followed by the roughly 9-mile Culebra Cut (also known from 1915 through 1999 as the Gaillard Cut, after the engineer who directed its creation). When Panama took possession of the Canal it revived the original name, which had been used from 1903 to 1914. Initially 92 meters (302 feet) wide, the Cut has been expanded twice, and now is 192 meters (630 feet) in straightaway sections and 222 meters (728 feet) on curved sections. Alongside the Canal is the Chagres River, which is the only river running across the entire isthmus.

Our passage was blessed by a mostly sunny Saturday. We began on the Pacific Ocean side, which, as the Canal isthmus runs east-west, is on the south end, at a colorful place named Flamenca Island [sic]; the north side, at the Atlantic (actually, the Caribbean) end, reaches the port of Colon. Thus in 16th century parlance the Pacific was the Southern Sea (and the Atlantic the Northern Sea). Both ports rest at sea level; the Pacific tide runs 21 feet daily, whereas the Caribbean-Atlantic Ocean side runs a mini-tide of only 1-1/2 feet. All gates for locks on the Pacific side are higher, to allow for tidal flow. The existing gates have functioned for a full century, operating purely on gravity to move water in and out of the lock chambers. The gates on the Pacific side weigh 700 tons each.

We boarded our vessel, the Pacific Queen, at 7 a.m. By 7:15 we had passed under the Bridge of the Americas, rising 100 meters above sea level; across it runs the Pan-American Highway, which goes from Chile, with one gap, 30,000 miles all the way (not as the crow flies) to Alaska. Traversing the three locks on the Pacific side, we reached the midway point, Centennial Bridge, around 11 a.m.; the bridge spans Gold Hill to Contractor’s Hill. Gold Hill was named to help create a stock market commodity price bubble; a predictable frenzy ensued, as investors piled in only to be outmaneuvered by insiders. We see on the east bank a huge red and white construction crane, and are told that it had been used by billionaire magnate Howard Hughes to lift his monster Spruce Goose seaplane out of the water after its only flight, in 1947.

At the north end of Gatun Lake we waited about 45 minutes while the ship we were paired with, the Silverseas “Silver Spirit” — small ships do not get to transit the Canal alone — catches up to us. At 642 feet long and 86 feet wide, it takes more time to position it in the Canal locks. Each lock chamber is 1,050 feet long and 110 feet wide, nearly 42 feet deep; it takes a ship — such vessels are dubbed “Panamax” — up to 965 feet long and 96 feet wide, which allows for a tugboat on one side to shepherd the ship through the Canal. We arrived at the port of Colon at 5:30 p.m., after 10-1/2 hours, lucky that the cruise ship docked there left a half-hour early. But waiting time in the Canal system can make total shipboard time run 24 to 30 hours.

Under construction for the Panama Canal Expansion project, with initial operational capability now no sooner than 2016, are “new Panamax” (same link as above, scroll down) locks, 1,400 feet by 180 feet by 60 feet; these will easily take a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier (named after Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific fleet in World War II). Four monster gates built in Italy will be used for the Canal expansion project; they weigh 3,500 tons each, and look like giant hard disk drives.

But there is more to Panama than the Canal.

Care to walk in the Gamboa rain forest? Not to worry. True, there are 125 species of snake, but only 27 are poisonous. Care for a canal swim? It was done in 1928 by one Richard Halliburton, who swam its 50-mile length in ten days; he paid a weight-based transit tariff of 36 cents ($4.77 in 2012 dollars). He was accompanied by a rowboat, in which a reporter, cameraman, and rifleman kept an eye out for crocodiles (2:10). I asked our guide how large these might be. The biggest ones, he said, are about 21 feet, but 7 feet is more common.

Our tour began with a visit to the U.S. Embassy, where we met Ambassador John Ferrar. A career foreign service officer, Ferrar seems an ideal choice for Panama. Low-key, knowledgeable, and with major issues resolved, what remains is implementation. For this you need a low-profile diplomat who regularly meets with a broad cross-section of locals. Ferrar had headed the American Interests section — absent full diplomatic relations, we have no embassy — in Havana for three years prior to taking this post. He asked if anyone had been to Cuba. Not only had a TRA group done so, but the group saw more of Cuba than did Ferrar and his wife; in their three-year stay in Havana they had been permitted to travel outside Havana exactly once, for a single day.

The Presidential Palace was next, and we found mother-of-pearl is a dominant decorative feature in Panamanian architecture. We visited the Corozal American Cemetery where the 5,424 American military personnel who gave their lives in Panama are interred. Later that day we took the one-hour ride on the Panama Canal Railway. Completed in 1855, it runs alongside the full length of the Canal. We visited Ancon Hill, and saw the entire 25-mile Pacific side half of the Canal under morning sunshine on the one side, and enjoyed a panoramic view of Panama City’s skyline from the other.

My visit was greatly enriched by a delectable dinner an old friend and I had at an elegant French establishment, Restaurant 1985. Our hosts were a lovely, prominent Panamanian couple, whom I had met at a mutual friend’s wedding. We passed three hours in leisurely dining and lively conversation. But friendship for visitors in Panama does not only come from those you already know. Upon my landing at Panama City International Airport I found myself searching in vain for a planned local rendezvous with a van driver sent by the local tour company. A young man saw me and grasped my predicament. He took at least ten minutes from his own day to help me find the driver.

Later in the trip came near disaster. My friend took a sudden spill on the concrete sidewalk downtown. Fortunately, we had asked our English-speaking cab driver to wait for us, and he took us back to our hotel, the Panama Marriott. My friend fell hard on his knees and then his right elbow, then lightly hit his head. He suffered ugly lacerations, and quickly developed a large hematoma on his left knee, partly because he is on Plavix due to his having had a stent put in last fall, in one of the minor arteries to his heart. We were taken by ambulance from the hotel to Pacific Hospital, affiliated with Johns Hopkins. The care was excellent.

Pacific Hospital is modern, far cleaner than most U.S. hospitals I’ve seen. We were there nine hours, not unusual even in America. My friend saw three doctors, all of whom spoke English (the staff did not). The first ordered X-rays, the second ordered an orthopedic surgeon to drain the left knee, and the third did the draining and ordered an added X-ray of his right shoulder area. All X-rays confirmed no fractures. The surgeon drained the knee. Because my friend was alert at all times and in no way mentally impaired and had never lost consciousness or been drowsy, no head X-ray was taken. The doctor filled an antibiotic prescription for my friend to take for about a week, and fitted him with a foam cast for the left knee. The only charge was for the cast. Our tour guide, who had informed and entertained us all week, picked us up around 10 p.m. and conveyed us to the hotel. Alas, we missed the farewell dinner. And I had to depart at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. the next morning.

Everyone was nice, efficient, and professional in administering care. The people of Panama are unfailingly gracious and welcoming. The food — especially seafood, with divine ceviche and corvina — was superb; our hotel was comfortable, with service always with a smile. Panama City is bustling, with skyscrapers going up and an economy growing faster than most.

The Canal is one of history’s most monumental engineering feats, and has been spectacularly successful. It symbolizes not only the growing need for rapid transoceanic commerce, but also a healthy ongoing relationship between the one-time colonial power and the now independent country.

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.