Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Panama Canal—Autumn, 1912

Colon to Gatun.

From Colon to Gatun the Canal is practically finished, By the courtesy of one of the officials we are going to make the acquaintance of this section by travelling on the famous waterway.

With our host as guide, we leave Colon harbour in a launch belonging to the Isthmian Canal Commission. As the boat emerges into the open sea to sweep round into Limon Bay, we espy the long line of a breakwater, which is being built out from Toro Point to protect the Atlantic entrance of the Canal from the storms that occasionally rage with great violence in this part of the world.

Two acetylene-gas buoys mark the boundaries of a gateway amidst the waters of the Bay; the little launch passes between them—we are on the Panama Canal. The man at the wheel keeps the boat within a well-buoyed passage, which is a 41-feet deep channel. When we are told that beyond the buoys on the shore side the water is only 8 feet deep, and beyond those forming the outer boundary it is but 14 feet deep, we begin to realize that we are travelling along an artificial passage, and to think of the amount of work that had to be done to scoop out such a big ditch in the bed of the Bay.

We can easily understand how the ditch was made, for some of the dredges that performed the feat are still on the scene, busily working to keep the channel in good condition. We pass an old French dredge, a barge-like monster which does its below-water gorging by means of a continuous chain of buckets, like a gold-dredge; every time a bucket "loops the loop" it fills itself to the brim with earth, and dumps a sand-and-mud pie into the capacious hold of the boat to which the chain is attached. A little farther on we see an American suction-dredge. This very large house-boat is as carefully screened as are the shore quarters of the Canal employees. The dredging machinery sucks earth from the bed of the Bay into a pipe, which communicates with the shore; so powerful is the suction action that refuse can be discharged on a dumping ground that is anywhere within a radius of 8,000 feet from the dredge.

Panama Canal


In lowering the bed of the Bay there was a considerable amount of rock to be removed. This was loosened by blasting, then removed by steam shovels, which dived open-mouthed, clawed up into their jaws huge masses of stone, clenched their enormous teeth, then, having been hoisted above water, unclamped their jaws to drop a two-horse-cartload mouthful in an appointed dumping-place.

After a run of about four miles the launch reaches the southern shores of Limon Bay, and, steering inland, passes straight from the buoyed passage into an opening that looks like the mouth of a river. Whilst our little craft proceeds within the broad confines of an inland water-way, we notice that the banks, which were low-lying at the entrance, are gradually getting higher; also, that mountain peaks, which but a short time ago seemed isolated heights in the far distance, are now becoming connected with a fast approaching panorama of hills—evidently we are travelling through rising country. Although the waterway follows a straight course, the lines of its banks are sufficiently uneven to suggest that they were carved by Nature, and that suggestion is intensified by the magnificent tangle of tropical vegetation which barricades the boundaries up to the water's scalloped edge. We cannot help feeling that we are on the long reach of a river, albeit we are assured that the passage is a continuation of the ditch which begins in Limon Bay.

The water along which we are now journeying occupies a trench that, not long ago, was a hive of industry. Working in that trench, on dry land, were hundreds of men—Americans, Spaniards, Italians, Negroes, and Hindoos, together with a vast number of steam shovels and drilling machines; these allies had already excavated millions of cubic yards of rock and earth and still had millions more cubic yards of material to remove before the ditch they were making would be sufficiently wide and deep.

We are thinking of near-at-hand days to come, and picturing liners and merchantmen hurrying along this peaceful stretch of water which we now have to ourselves, when suddenly the launch puts in to the shore. Close ahead the passage is blocked by a remnant of land, which has been left to serve as a dam until the Gatun Locks are completed. We land, and set forth on a climbing expedition to view the wonders of Gatun.

Over mounds of debris, amidst railway sleepers and across plank-bridged gulfs, we pick our way uphill along-side the Gatun Locks. Ears and eyes are assailed by a conflict of claims on intellect and imagination. The wells of the locks are trying to awe us up by their gigantic proportions, great gates of steel and massive walls of concrete are defying us to say what likely accident could possibly wreck them, high over head there are goods-laden cars waving to us to watch them running along the tight-rope of the aerial cableway, all around us men and machines are doing novel things that entice our attention, and in the bowels of the earth there are dwarf-like creatures whose quaint antics bid us speculate on the industrial meaning of their gymnastic exercises. We want to look at all that is going on around, above and below us—we want to imagine that there is water in the wells which form the three tiers of locks, and that a big, ship is going upstairs—and we have to be on the alert to keep out of harm's way, and not to get in the way of the workmen.

The locks are in pairs. Each well is 110 feet wide and has a usable length of 1,000 feet. The gates vary in height from 45 feet 7 inches to 79 feet. Ships will be taken through the locks by motor engines, which will be driven by electric power along railway lines that have already been laid down across the towing-paths. Four engines will be attached to each ship, one on either side fore and aft, so as to keep her to the middle of the locks.

The Gatun Dam across the Chagres River is situated at right angles to the locks and at the top of the hill which they climb. It crosses two valleys, which are separated by a hill of Ito feet in height, now known as Spillway Hill. The Dam has "mended" a break which there was in the basin that Nature formed on the table-land between Gatun and Bas Obispo. The Gatun Dam is an American-made mountain, consisting largely of "dump" from the Culebra Cut; as sightseers who are looking at it in its finished state we can hardly believe that Nature herself did not rear this mighty earthwork at the same time as she piled up the hills to which it is riveted.

The Gatun Lake, which we saw in process of formation when we were journeying by train between Colon and Panama, will have an area of 164 square miles. Fluctuations in the lake due to the floods of the Chagres River in the rainy season will be controlled by the regulating works that are being constructed in Spillway Hill.

The Culebra Cut

We travel through the Culebra Cut in an observation car, which is occasionally allowed to be driven over one of the railway tracks which have been laid down for the service of dirt-trains. A train-load of "dump" always takes precedence of the sight-seeing car, which may be held up for several minutes at the points to prevent a dirt-train from losing a couple of seconds on its journey to or from a dumping ground. The "Big Job" has first consideration throughout the Canal Zone. Anyone who is at all inclined to grumble over any little inconvenience caused by his own affairs being treated as matters of minor importance is entirely out of sympathy with the inspiring spirit of the "Big Job," the spirit which induces the navvy, no less than the chief engineer, to feel with pride "I am making the Panama Canal," and which has already brought the American enterprise to the verge of success.

The Culebra Cut, commonly called the "Big Ditch," is the most difficult problem that has had to be grappled with in connection with the "Big Job."

In the Bas Obispo neighbourhood of the natural basin, which it was decided to subject to the service of the Panama Canal, the tableland gives place to mountain ranges. To reach a point where it would be possible to start dropping the Canal to sea-level, it was necessary to cut a nine-miles long ditch through rocky mountains. To make that passage, land rising to a height of over 300 feet, 400 feet and sometimes over 500 feet above sea-level must be reduced to the 85 foot level of the surface of Gatun Lake, and that level must be further reduced so as to allow the ditch, which must have a bottom width of 300 feet, to hold 45 feet of water, which is the minimum depth of water in the Canal channel through Gatun Lake.

Statistics telling the number of cubic yards of earth that have already been removed in the making of the Culebra Cut are more likely to stifle interest than to kindle enthusiasm—the figures are utterly beyond the comprehension of the most intelligent of ordinary mortals. But as from the depths of the Cut we look up to the summit of its confines, and take a sweeping glance at the surrounding mountains, we begin to realize that the vast ravine through which we are journeying was once solid earth, for the most part rock, and to get some idea of the stupendousness of the transformation task.

Culebra cut


The French began to excavate the Culebra Cut. The Americans are following their plan of cutting out shelves, using each shelf as the working platform for widening the opening. The entrance to the Culebra Cut at Bas Obispo is now blocked by a dam, a temporary earthwork which has been constructed for the purpose of preventing the rising waters of the Gatun Lake from entering the Cut until such time as it is ready to receive them. When the Cut is finished, the body of the Gatun Lake will not be allowed to connect itself with the Culebra arm thereof by the dramatic, and probably catastrophic, rush of water that would take place were the dam removed whilst the ditch was empty. Water will be siphoned into the Cut from the great supply-basin, and the dam kept in place until the surface of the water in the Culebra Cut and that of the water in the body of the Gatun Lake have been brought on a level with one another.

From Bas Obispo we travel for some little distance on the actual bed of the ditch. But before the observation car has gone very far, we are seeing a specimen of the havoc which Nature is frequently working in the Culebra Cut—the ditch suddenly seems to take on the appearance of a dumping ground, and beneath the debris which obstructs the passage we see mangled remains of a train. Through landslips, caused by vast areas of clay playing at "slides" on the smooth, sloping surfaces of rock, and by poor quality rock breaking under the weight of the mass of material above it, enormous quantities of material frequently topple over, blocking an excavated area, choking up the drainage trenches, tearing up tracks and upsetting machinery.

In the nine miles journey through the Culebra Cut, from Bas Obispo to Pedro Miguel Lock, we see hundreds of labourers engaged in operations connected with both the excavation of the ditch and the re-excavation of parts that have been choked by landslips. Some of the men are in charge of steam shovels; some are superintending drilling machines; some ramming dynamite into the holes that have been bored in the rock; some driving, or riding on the dirt-trains that are constantly passing us. And more than once our car is held up at a short distance from the scene of blasting operations; an ear-splitting charge goes off; the earth quakes, the smoke rolls away, and we are surprised to find ourselves still sitting safely in the car.

The Pacific Section

At Pedro Miguel we see the lock whereby a vessel, in passing through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, will be lowered in one step from the 85-foot elevation to the little Miraflores Lake, on the 54-foot elevation. And in an observation car we visit the Miraflores Locks, whereby the vessel will be lowered by two steps into the sea-level channel through which she will get to Balboa, and so complete her voyage across the Isthmus. The works from Pedro Miguel to Balboa are very similar to those with which we made acquaintance in travelling from the inland entrance at Colon to Bas Obispo.

The continuation of the Canal from Balboa to deep water in the Pacific is a buoyed channel, similar to that in Limon Bay. We travel along this section in a steamer which is going to take us to the beautiful island of Taboga, otherwise known as "The Pearl of the Pacific," whither we are bound for a bathe in Pacific waters and a picnic among the hills. In passing through the buoyed channel we get a very fine view of the breakwater that is being constructed from Balboa to Naos Island—with material from Culebra Cut—to divert the course of silt-bearing currents that would make constant dredging necessary in the channel.

Town of Balboa