Travel Tales

Panama Canal Cruising

I just scratched off my To Do List a cruise through the Panama Canal. The Norwegian Cruise ship: Pearl, took us through the amazing locks and into Gatun Lake, then turned around and sailed to Limon, Costa Rica.

The Panama Canal is a 48-mile waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, important to international maritime trade. I watched in delight as the locks at each end lifted the Pearl up to Gatun Lake, artificially created in 1913 by damming the Chagres River. It provides the millions of gallons of water needed to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through.

These days many ships are built to the maximum size to allow a tight squeeze through the Canal. These are called “Panamax vessels.” A Panama cargo ship has a deadweight of about 80,000 tonnage. The longest ship to transit the Canal was the oil carrier, San Juan Prospector.

In 2010, The Norwegian Pearl paid up to US$375,600 for tolls. It is a wonder that this waterway was ever built in the first place – in fact - The American Society of Civil Engineers has called it “one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”

In 1534, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that might ease the voyage of his ships traveling between Spain and Peru. In 1788, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Spanish should create it since it would be a less treacherous route than going around the dangerous tip of South America. In 1698, the ill-fated “Darien scheme” was launched by the Kingdom of Scotland to set up an overland route. But in 1700, it was abandoned due to the terrible inhospitable conditions of the jungles.

In 1846, the Mallarino Bidlack Treaty granted the United States transit rights with the right to intervene militarily in the isthmus. In 1849, the discovery of gold in California created an enormous interest in a crossing between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The Panama railway was built by the United States to cross the isthmus in 1855.

In 1881, Panama was a province of Colombia, when a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, attempted to construct a canal, but this proved to be a tremendous challenge due to the tropical rain forests, the hot muggy climate, the need for canal locks, and other contretemps, such as the loss of 22,000 lives due to malaria, yellow fever, and accidents. When 800,000 investors lost their savings due to this scandal, Lessep et. al., including Gustave Eiffel, of the Eiffel Tower fame, were prosecuted. Lessep was found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to jail. And in 1894, another French company, Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, was created to take over this difficult project, but was not much more successful.

In 1902, under the Spooner Act, the United States acquired the rights to acquire the Panamanian option, and in 1903, under the Hay-Herran Treaty, the United States agreed to a US$10 million dollar payment, and an annual payment for a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia on the land to build a canal, but the Senate of Colombia did not ratify it. A revolt by Panamanian rebels aimed at separation from Colombia hoped the U.S. would support them with troops and money. President Roosevelt changed his mind and decided to support the separation of Panama from Colombia, and then recognizing Panama as a separate country signed a treaty with the new Panamanian government.

In November 1903, the U.S. warships blocked sea lanes for possible Colombian troop movements to put down the rebellion. Rights were then granted to the U. S. to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone including its defense. But some Panamanians considered this an infringement on their new country’s national sovereignty, causing a contentious diplomatic problem with Colombia, Panama and the United States. After the revolution of 1903, the Republic of Panama became a U. S. protectorate until 1939.

Many parties in the U. S. labeled this an act of war on Colombia, and one of the greatest blunders in American foreign policy. In 1904 the U. S. purchased the French equipment including the Panama Railroad for US$40 million. The U. S. also paid Panama US$10 million and an annual payment of US$250,000.

In 1921, the U.S. paid Colombia US$25 million and granted Colombia special privileges in the Canal Zone. Colombia then recognized Panama as an independent nation.

In May 1904, the U.S. formally took control of the canal area inheriting a French depleted workforce and a dilapidated infrastructure. In May 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, appointed John Findley Wallace, a chief engineer and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project, but overwhelmed by the disease-plagued country and broken French equipment; he resigned in June 1905. He was succeeded by John Frank Stevens, from the Great Northern Railroad.

Stevens was a maverick who bypassed protocol and instead sent demands directly to Washington. His first achievement was to clean up the mess and rebuild housing, hospitals, hotels, water systems, warehouses, etc., badly needed by thousands of incoming workers to ensure their comfort and safety.

Colonel William C. Gorgas, was appointed chief sanitation officer of the Canal and implemented measures to minimize the spread of malaria and yellow fever which had recently been discovered to come from mosquitoes. He fumigated buildings, sprayed insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installed mosquito nettings on windows, and eliminated stagnant water. After two years of intensive work the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. Despite all this effort, about 5,600 workers died of disease, poisonous snake bites and accidents.

In 1905, Stevens told Roosevelt that a “sea-level approach to building the canal was entirely an untenable proposition.” He argued in favor of the canal using a “lock system,” to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir 85 feet above sea level. This created the Gatun Dam, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. The water to refill the locks would be taken from Gatun Lake by opening and closing huge gates and valves and letting gravity propel the water from this lake.

The Americans continued to replace old unusable French equipment with new construction equipment designed for a faster scale of work. About 102 large, railroad-mounted steam shovels and enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, cement mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills were all shipped in from the United States.


In 1907, Stevens resigned convinced of his success and was replaced by U.S. Army Major George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who directed the work to a successful conclusion.

The construction of the Canal was completed in 1914, at a cost of US$375,000,000 (over eight billion dollars today.) The Panama Canal was formally opened in 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship: SS Ancon.

After WWII, the U. S. control of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone became a contentious situation, relations between the U.S. and Panama became very intense. Students demanded that the U. S. hand over the Canal to Panama.

In 1974, President Jimmy Carter, announced that “the days of American Colonialism were over,” and in 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty was signed granting the Panamanians free control of the Canal as long as Panama signed a treaty guaranteeing the permanent “neutrality” of the Canal. The treaty led to full Panamanian control on December 31, 1999, and the Panama Canal Authority assumed control of this waterway. The Panama Canal remains one of the main revenue sources for Panama.

I paid a toll of US$335.00 on December 2016, for the privilege of transiting on the Norwegian Pearl from the Atlantic Ocean to Gatun Lake and back.

On July 2014, Wang Jing, chairman of the Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co., Ltd., advised that a route for a canal cutting through Nicaragua had been approved. The construction work began in 2014, and is slated to be finished in 2019. The company will be responsible for operating and maintaining this canal for 50 years.

I wonder if there is any language in this treaty that also grants China military protection of the canal or whether their war ships will be permitted transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic with impunity?

Dr. Evan Ellis, a US analyst was recently expelled from Nicaragua within 24 hours of his arrival by the Daniel Ortega government for asking the same question.



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