Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Our Programme

The Isthmus of Panama extends from Costa Rica, in Central America, to Colombia, in South America, and in shape resembles the letter "S" turned on its side. It is 425 miles in length, and has an average breadth of about 70 miles. The Canal crosses a part which is only about 40 miles broad; its shore to shore route lies between Colon on the Atlantic seaboard and the city of Panama on the Pacific seaboard. The relative position of these towns being as north-west to south-east, the Canal had necessarily to be made in an oblique general-line of direction. The nature of the country to be crossed is responsible for a little zigzagging in the actual line of route, and for the astonishing way in which the course switchbacks over the highlands from sea to sea.

The popular idea of the Canal as the scene of a wedding between the waters of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific is delightfully romantic but entirely wrong. For a number of years many clever heads tried to bring about the marriage, but all their schemes were frustrated by the natural obstacles which stand in the way thereof. To effect such a union a sea-level passage, of sufficient width for a serviceable canal, would have to be carved through a formidable barrier of highlands; and all the work of removing mountains would only be preparatory, for throughout the length and breadth of the smoothed passage a ditch would have to be dug to a depth in which the seas could unite to float ocean-going craft. The great De Lesseps, who won immortal fame by making a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Suez portion of a sandy desert, failed in an attempt to pierce a similar passage through the rocky mountains of the Isthmus of Panama.

The Panama Canal, an outcome of American enterprise, is an epoch-marking artificial waterway. Therein lies its only kinship with the Suez Canal, a French triumph. As regards construction, appearance and character these two masterpieces are entirely dissimilar.

The Suez Canal, as all of you know, has long been in use as a short cut to the Far East. When I saw the Panama Canal, in the autumn of 1912, that short cut in the interests of Far Western development was still in the making. Much had been done, much had yet to be done, in the sea sections at either end. At this stage of our talk I can best serve my purpose by confining definite particulars of these terminal works to the simple statement that both in the Atlantic and the Pacific deep-water channels had been buoyed off and partially dredged. Of the actual pass across the Isthmus a portion at each extremity was so nearly completed that water had been allowed to fill the vast gaps; the extensive central portion was in various advanced stages of preparation for receiving water. It was expected that the Canal would be officially opened on January 1, 1915, but that it would be ready for a ship to be taken through on a trial trip by the autumn of 1913. The men in charge of "the biggest engineering job that has ever been done in the world "were looking forward to making that trial trip on the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific by Balboa, the explorer—second only in fame to Columbus—who first beheld the great South Sea on September 26, 1513 (October 7, according to the calendar now used). With a view to emphasizing the sharp contrast between the features of the Suez and Panama Canals, I am going to anticipate the general appearance of the latter in its finished state.

In going through the Suez Canal, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, a vessel passes from the open ocean into a sea-level ditch at Port Said, slowly makes her way for several hours along this duct, creeps into a series of natural lakes, steers a course through them into the confines of an obvious continuation of the duct and keeps on in this groove to Suez, whence she glides into another spacious sea where she can once more go full steam ahead. This Canal neither scales hills nor drops down dales: the entire surface of its waters is level with that of the seas it unites, and the flat surface of its desert confines is only slightly above the water-level. It is too miles long; of sufficient depth to accommodate vessels drawing twenty-six feet of water; and wide enough to permit of traffic being carried on simultaneously in opposite directions—but when two ships are about to meet, one receives orders by signal to tie up to the side until the other gets past, and if they are both big ships the people on their respective upper decks can very nearly reach to shake hands whilst the moving vessel is being carefully piloted clear of the stationary one.

In passing through the Panama Canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a vessel sails for about four miles within the buoyed boundaries of a deep-water channel in Limon Bay, then enters the Isthmus of Panama through an opening in the low-lying arena of a hill-girt amphitheatre. Here she begins an adventurous journey through a region of jungle-clad wilds. For about three miles her course lies along a broad ditch, the water in which is kept at sea-level by the Atlantic. Suddenly she has to come to a standstill, for the ditch is blocked by a massive gateway, which supports two pairs of giant gates that are tightly closed. Presently, the twin gates on one side are flung wide, giving access to a lock chamber; the vessel is towed into that chamber, the gates behind her are closed, and by a flight of three locks she is lifted 85 feet to the level of an artificial lake. Through that fresh-water lake, whose basin is an enormous reservoir for the waters of a large river fed by numerous tributaries, the ship travels about twenty-four miles, then, slowing down, she passes into a ditch in the depths of an artificially made ravine. At the end of this nine-milelong passage between mountain walls she enters a lock, and is lowered 30i feet to a second, and much smaller, artificial lake, which is fed by the waters of another river. By way of this lake, which is at an elevation of 54 feet above sea-level, she gets one and a half miles farther on her journey, and is then lowered by locks in two steps to a sea-level ditch, wherein mingle the waters of a river and of the Pacific Ocean. A run of about four miles between jungle-clad banks brings her to Balboa, which is situated on the outskirts of Panama city and at the land's end of the Canal on the Pacific coast. Here the ditch merges into a deep-water channel in the Bay of Panama, and within its buoyed boundaries the vessel sails on for about four and a half miles, when she passes out into the naturally deep waters of the open Pacific.

The entire length of the Panama Canal, from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific, is about fifty miles. Its length from shore-line to shore-line is about forty miles. Its minimum width of 300 feet is three times that of the Suez Canal; its maximum width is t,000 feet, and this is maintained for several miles in the channel through the great lake. The depth varies from 4t to 85 feet. The locks are in pairs, hence vessels going in opposite directions can continue their journey simultaneously, even when some want to be taken "upstairs" and others "downstairs." The size of the largest vessel which can go through the Canal is limited by the size of the lock chambers; so generous are their dimensions that they can accommodate a titan such as the Olympic.

Panamanian village


The Canal is centrally situated within a ten-miles-wide strip of the Isthmus of Panama. That strip is known as the "Canal Zone" and belongs to the United States of America. Imagining ourselves back in the year 1912, thither we are going to watch the Canal in the making; to follow the fortunes of the Americans in charge of the work: to get a peep at the everyday life of their black, tan, and white labour force, which has been drawn from all quarters of the globe; and to see the now toylike-looking fragment of a neighbouring canal, which swallowed up millions of money and was a gigantic French failure.

The large portions of the Isthmus on either side of the Zone constitute the Republic of Panama. Among the attractions which will lure us into native territory are sights and scenes typical of Panamanian life; remnants of the Spanish Main, which look exactly as they did in the romantic days when the New World was being gradually discovered; Indians, whose ancestors defied explorers and pirates from the Old World; and ruins which tell exciting stories of England and Spain as rival Empire-builders.

To this rough programme of the amusements which Panama has in store for us I must add a warning note. Not a single Panama hat shall we see being made in any part of the Isthmus. The feather-weight and flexible sun-hats which have become so popular under a misleading name are a specialty of the South American Republic of Ecuador. The town of Guayaquil is the centre of the industry, and among the group of little places which contribute to the output Montecristo is responsible for a large proportion of the finest quality specimens. I have made numerous inquiries with a view to discovering how it happened that a unique export from one country came to be so closely associated by name, in the outside world, with another country. There does not appear to be any authentic explanation of this curious misunderstanding, but here is a very plausible one that was suggested to me in Panama city by an old British resident, who can remember the time when the headgear in question was quite a novelty in England.

The rise to popularity of so-called Panama hats dates from about the middle of last century, when the first civilized facilities for traffic across the Isthmus of Panama were provided by the opening of a railway between Panama city and Colon. At that time some specimens of the native-made hats of Ecuador had already found their way to Panama city, one of the nearest neighbouring centres of population; in all probability they were originally taken there as curios by native traders. The short-cut railway between the Pacific and the Atlantic was the means of developing a heavy traffic across the Isthmus. Soon, many travellers were passing through Panama city en route  for the west coast of North, Central, and South America, or on the way home from the far west of the New World. Naturally, they were delayed at this land-and-sea junction, as also at Colon, whilst goods were being transferred from ship to train, or vice versa;  and, naturally, they whiled away some of their time at the junctions by wandering through the streets and seeing what they could pick up in the shops. In the bazaar-like marts of Panama they discovered a new kind of sun-hat; the novelty took their fancy because it was an ideal hat for a traveller in tropical climes—affording shade when needed, and yet capable of being tightly rolled up, umbrella fashion, for packing purposes without suffering any injury. Shop-keepers soon sold their few specimens of these hats, and, as a matter of course, sent for further supplies on a larger scale; equally as a matter of course they began to make systematic efforts to court custom for goods which had attracted attention on their own merits. A brisk retail trade in the imported specialty was quickly established, and each casual patron took his new possession to some destination in a distant land. When, in some far-away spot, the owner of one of these "straws "was encouraged by a particularly sunny day to defy fashion for the sake of comfort, to his surprise friends and acquaintances did not make fun of his strange headgear. In a tone of envy, rather than of jocularity, they asked:

"Where did you get that hat?"

And always the reply was:


Thus, it would seem, these hats acquired the name by which they are popularly known.