Monday, February 17, 2020

The Panama Canal

Panama Canal
Agua Clara Locks, 2020

The Panama Canal is a 51 mile waterway that crosses the Isthmus of Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The Panama Canal is an extraordinary engineering marvel lying at the crossroads of the world that benefits the world. It was conceived by a Spanish King, attempted by the French, built by an American President with the labor of thousands of Caribbean workers and improved recently by the Panamanians themselves.

Rodrigo de Bastidas, a Spanish explorer, was the first European to arrive in Panama in 1501.  Christopher Columbus followed Bastidas to Panama in 1502.  The Spanish quickly discovered an overland route through the Panamanian jungle to the Pacific.

Cannon at Fort San Lorenzo
Panama was an important transit point for the masses of gold and silver that were shipped from South America back to Spain.  The Spanish built fortifications such as Fort Lorenzo to protect their hold on a vast empire in the New World.

Commander K. with the the man who conceived the Canal
Charles V (1500 - 1556)
Charles V was King of Spain from 1516 until his death in 1556.  But he was so much more than that.  Charles V wielded power that Henry VIII, his English contemporary, could only dream of.  In Europe he ruled not only Spain but also the Netherlands, most of Germany (as Holy Roman Emperor) along with Sicily and Sardinia.  His  holdings in the New World were vast.  In the Pacific Charles controlled the Philippines.  His empire stretched from Manila to Mexico to Madrid.  It was of the Spanish that it was first said that the sun did not set upon his empire.  Charles V was a visionary who is credited as the first man to conceive of a Canal across Panama in 1520.  He dispatched Spanish soldiers to hack their way through the jungle and chart a route across the Isthmus.

In 1849, the same year that gold was discovered in California, the Panamanian Railway was founded.  In 1855 it began operating a service from Balboa to Col√≥n that continues to this day.

A flood of Gold Rush adventurers travelled across Panama streaming west and up to California.

Ferdinand de Lesseps
1805 - 1894
Panama Canal Museum, Panama City

From 1881 to 1894 the French attempted to build a sea-level canal across Panama.  Their efforts were led by Ferdinand de Lesseps who had built the Suez canal earlier.  The French raised millions for the construction but were thwarted due to due design flaws, poor technology and disease.  Around 20,000 workers were killed in he attempt mainly due to malaria and yellow fever.

Teddy Roosevelt Bust
"I took the Canal Zone!"
Panama Canal Museum, Panama City

Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th US President, was an ardent champion of the Panama Canal.   In the Panama chapter of America Invades we wrote that, "in 1903 when Panama revolted against Columbia, this time the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, sided with the Panamanian rebels. TR dispatched two USN ships (Nashville and Dixie) in support of the rebels. A battalion of marines commanded by Major John Lejeune landed at Colon. A bribe of eight thousand dollars was paid to the Colombian commander to hasten his exit from Panama. TR would later (in 1911) claim, “I took the Canal Zone.” Surely it was Teddy Roosevelt who provided the inspiration for the palindrome, “a man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” The US government recognized the new Panamanian nation and negotiated a treaty to control the Canal Zone. The treaty gave the United States extensive rights in the Canal Zone that extended about five miles on either side of the canal and some rights in Panama outside the Canal Zone and was to be a source of some tension between Panama and the United States in the years ahead."  (Source:

For a more complete account of American military involvement in Panama from the absurd Watermelon to the removal of Noriega by means of Rock and Roll music see...

Americans, led by Teddy Roosevelt, would take up the huge engineering challenge posed by the Canal.  Instead of a sea level canal (like Suez) American engineers opted for a locks based canal.  They built dams creating a man made lake (Gatun Lake) which greatly simplified the construction project.  There were around 40,000 laborers working on Panama Canal with most coming from the Caribbean.  There were also about 2,000 Italians and a around a thousand Greeks working on the project.   Although hundreds were killed in the construction process the human toll was greatly reduced by advances in medicine which identified the mosquito as the culprit in yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria.  Vast swathes of the jungle were sprayed to rid the area of mosquitos.

The SS Ancon was the first ship to transit the Canal in August 1914.  The news was overshadowed by the start of World War I in Europe.  This was the same year that Thomas Wells, my great-grandfather, had his Adventure in 1914 when he witnessed the start of WWI (

John McCain, the Republican nomination of president in 2008, was born in 1936 in Coco Solo in the  Canal Zone.  His father was an admiral stationed in Panama.

During World War II the Canal was a vital transportation link serving the American and Allied forces.  Both the Japanese and Germans hatched plots to attempt the disrupt the smooth functioning of the Canal.  The Japanese, for example, constructed the huge I-400 Class long range submarines that carried on board three aircraft capable of bombing the Canal.  In June of 1945 the Imperial Japanese Navy even constructed a model of the Gatun Locks that were used for practice bombing.  Ultimately the plan to attack the Canal was called off.

In 1977 President Carter negotiated the Torrijoes / Carter treaty that would relinquish the Canal back to Panama in the year 1999.  In 1989 President George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion of Panama to oust the dictator and drug lord Noriega.  On December 31, 1999 the Panama Canal Zone was returned to Panamanian control.

Under Panamanian control the Canal received a significant expansion in the 21st Century when a third lane was added to accommodate more and larger traffic.  Billions of dollars were spent to make the Canal relevant as a modern Connectivity hub.

Commander K. at Panama Railroad

Tourist Notes
: Many tourists flock to the Miraflores Visitor Center (  Here you will find a museum on the Canal and an elevated viewing platform from which to observe the Miraflores Locks.  An Imax film on the Canal's construction narrated by Morgan Freeman is worth a viewing.  The Miraflores docks is a great place to start to explore the Panama Canal.

Other ways to learn about the Canal include the excellent Panama Canal Museum in the old part of Panama City (

The Panama Rail Company offers a pleasant journey across the Isthmus from Balboa (near Panama City) to Colon that overlooks much of the Canal (

The friendly folks at Barefoot Panama offers excellent guided tours of Panama at good values (

I enjoyed my stay at the comfortable Hard Rock Hotel in Panama City (

The Pedro Mandinga rum bar in Panama City is an excellent place to restore the tissues with rum cocktails and delicious snacks (  Try the empanadas and shrimp ceviche with a rum daquiri!
Pedro Mandinga's Rum Bar
Panama City

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Cindy Kendrick said...

Well written Commander

Cliff Manis said...

During 1961 I went through the Panama Canal... fun 5 days...

Mitch Silvani said...

Did America invade the Canal? The Italians? The Romans??