The Locks of the Panama Canal

Buenas tardes mis amigos!

Welcome back to more Traveling With Tom and our recent visit to the Republic of Panama. Last week, I shared that for the first part of our visit we were on a Road Scholar program on the Panama Canal. This week continues that journey with some background information and photos on the history, administration, and development of the Canal with a focus on the locks that makes possible the transit of vessels from one side to the other. First, let’s begin with a little geography of Panama, crucial to the eventual development of the Canal.

Geographically, the country of Panama is situated as a gently flowing S curve from west (sharing a border with Costa Rica) to east (connecting North America to Columbia and the South American continent). The Pacific Ocean is located on the south side and the Caribbean Sea on the north side of the country. The isthmus that is Panama ranges from between 30 to 120 miles wide separating the two bodies of water. Millions of years ago, the country was formed by the movement of three tectonic plates that created underwater volcanoes and over time filled in the once vacant space between the North and South American continents. This land bridge made it easier for plants and animals to migrate between the continents thus adding to the biodiversity of the planet.

Now for a brief history of Panama, for several centuries the isthmus of what is now Panama was home to indigenous peoples and tribes, a few remnants still survive. In the early 1500’s, European explorers began visiting the Americas, mostly in search of gold. Christopher Columbus also appeared on the scene during this time and attempted to establish a settlement at Darien, but it failed. The well documented overland hike of Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513 from the Atlantic to the Pacific proved there was a path between the two bodies of water, and  he initiated the idea of a canal. Soon, Panama became part of the Spanish empire and a crossroads for trade in the Americas. Balboa’s trail was used to move gold, silver, and other precious metals and over time became known as the Camino de Cruces, or the Road of Crosses, because there were so many grave sites along the path. The passage was not only treacherous geographically, but physically challenging as well because many travelers succumbed to disease and attacks by natives. As a side note, this trail, and the one along the future railroad from Colon on the Caribbean to Panama City on Pacific, became an important passageway for thousands heading to California to claim their stake in the Gold Rush. Here are a couple of photos of our stop at the trail, it’s still in use today by hikers and adventurers.IMG_4318IMG_4319

Panama was under Spanish rule for about 300 years from 1538 to 1821, although because of it’s location, it didn’t have much control over the territory. During this time, natives resisted conquest and conversion to Catholicism but eventually succumbed to the conquerors. The loose control by the Spanish Empire gave license to pirates (mostly  Dutch and English) to invade and plunder parts of the country. In 1671, the famous English pirate, Henry Morgan, became a legend in this part of the planet after he ransacked and burned the original city of Panama. One of the most important Spanish cities in the New World (more on this in a future post). As Spanish influence in the world waned, independence for Panama was in the air. In 1821, Panama declared their separation from the Spanish Empire and aligned with Columbia for the next 80 years. In 1903, Panama proclaimed it’s independence from Columbia and quickly made a treaty with the United States to finish building the Panama Canal. The then ambassador to the US seceded sovereignty to the US in perpetuity for a “zone” the length (about 50+ miles) and the width (five miles on each side) of the Canal, much to the chagrin of the people of Panama. More about this in a future post.

When the US took over the construction of the Canal in 1903, the railroad crossing the isthmus was in place and the French Count Lesseps (he was also the person behind the Suez Canal) failed in his attempt to build a sea-level canal across the isthmus. In addition to his challenges with disease and the tropical climate, the terrain required that locks be built to move ships from one side to the other. IMG_4324

For some in the US, Panama was not the first choice for a canal, some thought the longer route through Nicaragua was more reasonable and feasible, but Panama won out when Mount Momotombo in Nicaragua became active.

The US faced many challenges as it began the construction of the canal with the major being scientific and medical in nature. with the to control and eradicate malaria and yellow fever. Recent discoveries on the control of mosquitos by Walter Reed and William Gorgas and the hiring of Gorgas to head disease control in the Canal Zone helped to eventually overcome this challenge.IMG_4325

Once the disease challenges were under control, the engineering challenges came to the forefront. The first was the sea level versus locks decision. The sea level design required digging the Canal through the Continental Divide necessitating the movement of millions of tons of rock and leaving the Canal susceptible to rock and land slides. This led the engineers to design a system of locks to raise and lower vessels as they made the transit. It also required the damming of the huge and mighty Chagres River to raise the Gatun Lake eighty five feet. This fresh water dam also continues to provide water to raise the gravity feed locks.IMG_4317Locks-0511

The building of the canal required lots of laborers, at times up to 40,000 people at one time. Many came from Panama itself, the West Indies such as Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Trinidad, and other Caribbean countries. Smaller numbers came from the Americas, Spain, Italy, Greece and China. It’s estimated that over 5000 people died during the US construction period while up to 22,000 died during the French construction period, many due to disease. IMG_4328

The Canal was completed in 1914 just as World War I was breaking out in Europe. This event overshadowed the grand opening but was still celebrated because the Canal cut the trip from San Francisco to New York by two weeks and nearly 9000 miles!

During our Road Scholar program, we visited two sets of locks. First, prior to our transit through the Canal was to the Miraflores locks, the closest to the Pacific Ocean. The Visitor Center consists of a museum with a English language video and an observation platform to watch the vessels move through the locks. If you are considering a trip to Panama, this is a must see.IMG_4331Locks-0554

There are two flights of locks at Miraflores each raising or lowering the water level 26 feet. Once a vessel completes the transit through Miraflores, down the canal a few miles through the Miraflores Lake is the Pedro Miguel Lock that raise the vessels another 31 feet. Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. It was fascinating to watch the vessels (as they are called in Canal speak) move through the locks. As we watched, we wondered what these vessels were carrying and where they were going. Some carriers are obvious such as the boat (the Ronald N registered in Liberia) the second photo labeled LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas). The vessel in the top photo, the Hawk 1 is registered in the Marshall Islands and is a general cargo carrier working mostly in Chile and other South American countries. IMG_4337IMG_4336Locks-0555Locks-0562Locks-0558

On our way to the Miraflores Locks, one of our Road Scholar guides, Rey Sidnez, had the bus stop along the road at the French Cemetery. While there are only about 300 markers and crosses in this cemetery, they represent the 22,000 of predominately French citizens that died during the French construction period. Only a few souls are actually buried here, most were buried where they died. Here are a few photos from that stop. Locks-0544Locks-0542Locks-0534

Rey also shared with us his efforts to recognize some of ancestors from Martinique and Guadeloupe who perished during the building of the Canal. In August 2005 a group of French citizens from Martinique visited Panama and the French Cemetery. On their return flight, the chartered plane crashed in a mountainous region of Venezuela killing all 160 passengers and crew. Apparently, this plane owned by West Caribbean Airways was of poor air worthiness (the nose cone fell off the month before) and the airline was fined for lack of pilot training and failure to log flights. A sad end to joyous reunion. Locks-0536

On our last full day of the program, we visited the Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side of the Canal. The Agua Clara locks were put into service in 2016 to handle the larger Neopanamax ships that have greater cargo capacity than the standard Panamax that transit the original locks. The new locks can handle vessels that are 160 feet wide and 1200 feet long. The Neopanamax vessels can hold over 14,000 containers, and apparently, there is a proposal for new cargo ships to hold over 20,000 containers requiring an even bigger locks. That a lot of stuff!Locks-0868Locks-0867

These container ships were waiting on Gatun Lake to make the transit into the Caribbean. We learned that if a vessel is behind schedule they have to wait until there is an opening to transit the locks.Locks-0873

The vessel in the following photos is the MSC Anzu that flies under a Panamanian flag deliver cargo around the world. It looks like that it’s not at full capacity; if it was, there would be containers stacked seven high on the deck.Locks-0879Locks-0890

This vessel, the K. Jasmine is registered in Panama and carries LNG (Liquid Natural Gas).Locks-0869

And to finish out this post, we visited the Panama Canal Administration building. It was built by the Americans opening in 1914. This building sits up on a hill near the entrance to the Canal. It’s a beautiful building with some very nice murals painted in the dome depicting the construction of the canal.Locks-0495Locks-0503IMG_4311Locks-0494

This bust of Theodore Roosevelt is featured prominently in the Administration Building. He was a big promoter of the Canal during his presidency and actually visited the Canal in 1906, making him the first President to make a diplomatic trip outside the country while President.Locks-0492

The following photos are views from the Administration Building. In the second photo, note the large Panamanian flag flying proudly on Ancon Hill. This Hill was once part of the US controlled Panama Canal Zone and the home of the US Southern Command. There is an abandoned underground bunker located in Ancon Hill. When the US turned over control of the Canal to Panama, the first act was to erect a large flag of Panama on Ancon Hill. Even today Panamanians point it out as a source of pride.Locks-0504Locks-0505

These photos of the Port of Panama were also taken at from the Panama Canal Administration Building. Some cargo containers are moved across the isthmus by rail rather than send the vessel through the canal. This may become more common if China builds a railroad across Nicaugra. Locks-0496Locks-0501

That does it for this week. Next week, we’ll do the full transit through the Canal and include more history and workings of the Canal. Hope you’ll join me for the fun and photos.

Until next week, happy travels.



6 thoughts on “The Locks of the Panama Canal

  1. Like I knew when meeting you,Tom, your photos are superior to mine. And, most obvious to me…. are from better perspectives. i.e. the French Cemetery’s views exemplary. As are all the others.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Toni for your kind remarks. Don’t under estimate your own photos; evaluate, learn and improve. That’s been my mantra and continues to be after many decades of photography. When I’m stuck then I try something new or different and often happy with the results. Keep after it, like anything in life, one gets better with practice. And thanks for checking out my blog site. Tom

  2. Good Evening! It’s been fun reading your blog and reliving the trip. The experience was unforgettable and the Canal is certainly worthy of the title of being among the seven ? Wonders of the World.

    1. Hi Yvonne, thanks for your kind comments. It’s fun to relive the experience through writing and photos. It’s almost like being there again. Tom

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