South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

The Panama Canal

We travel by one of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company's coasting steamers from Callao to Balboa, at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The vessel is a coasting steamer only as regards the service she performs; in reality, she is a first-class ocean liner, run on first-class lines; and as during our trip on her all the passengers form a happy family party, under the kindly influence of the Captain, who makes everyone feel an honoured guest, we are very sorry when the week's cruise comes to an end.

When we reach Panama, in the spring of 1914, the Canal is finished. True, there have been some troublesome landslides; one has taken place just previous to our arrival, and numbers of workmen, steam cranes, and trains are busy shovelling out and removing to a dumping-ground the tons of earth and rock that have tumbled into the section known as the Culebra Cut. But certain privileged vessels have already been through the Canal, so, despite temporary interruptions to traffic, the short cut between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans may be said to be an accomplished fact.

Although at the time of our visit the Canal has not been formally declared open, we have the good fortune to journey by electric launch along the whole course of this marvelous waterway. To the courtesy of American officials we owe the honour of being among the first travellers to pass through the Panama Canal. Previous to the trip by launch, however, we get many interesting and beautiful views of the American "Big Job "in going by train from Panama city, near Balboa, to Colon, at the Atlantic entrance to the Canal, for the railway which crosses the Isthmus of Panama skirts the waterway that has been cut across that Isthmus.

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 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 giant gates that are tightly closed. Presently, the gates are opened, 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, which is fed by a neighbouring river, the ship travels about twenty-four miles; then she passes into a ditch in the depths of an artificially made ravine. At the end of a nine-mile-long passage between mountain walls she enters a lock, and is lowered 30 feet to a second, and smaller, artificial lake, which is fed by the waters of another river. By way of this lake, which is at an elevation of 541 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; here the ditch merges into a deep-water channel in Panama Bay, and within its buoyed boundaries the vessel sails on for four and a half miles, when she passes 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 1,000 feet, and this is maintained for several miles in the channel through the great lake. The depth varies from 41 to 85 feet. The locks are in pairs, hence vessels going in opposite directions can continue their journey simultaneously, some going "upstairs "and others "downstairs,"

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.

When I was first in Panama, in the spring of 1912, the bed of the Canal was a hive of industry. Where there is now a waterway, there were then swamps that told of submerged forests and of lakes in the making, deep and wide ditches that were being made deeper and wider by armies of men and wondrous machinery, camps that looked like large towns, and trains rushing hither and thither in the bowels of the earth, packed with workmen of all shades and nationalities, or with excavated "dirt" for the dumping-grounds.

The first Panama Canal was begun by the French in 1880; the unhealthy conditions of the Isthmus were largely responsible for the failure of that enterprise. When, in 1904, the Americans tackled the "Big Job," they began the work of canal-building by waging war on yellow-fever mosquitoes and other deadly pests, and by providing healthy housing accommodation and organizing good food supplies in readiness for the thousands of labourers they would require in the Canal Zone. For the world-wide renown the United States have won in carrying through the biggest engineering job that has ever been undertaken, Americans are indebted as much to Colonel Gorgas, the head of the Canal Zone Department of Sanitation, as to Colonel Goethals, the Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal.