Some 100 years after it was completed, “The Big Ditch” remains an engineering marvel that can best be viewed from the deck of a cruise ship.
The equatorial sun had just begun its ascent over the skyline of Panama City as the Crystal Symphony approached the Bridge of the Americas to begin its trans-oceanic passage.
We had finally arrived at “The Big Ditch,” that incredible feat of engineering bravado that cost more than $400 million and 30,000 lives to build, and still amazes people from around the world some 100 years after it was completed in 1914.
It was only 6:45 am, but wide-eyed passengers were already lining the decks to get a glimpse of the historic canal as we sailed along the seven-mile- approach channel to our first set of locks at Miraflores. By now, my wife Gail and I had already secured two front-row seats at the bow to watch our ship sail 50 miles through the continental divide past the emerald green jungles of central Panama on our way to the Atlantic Ocean.
At Miraflores a gigantic pair of locks stood ready to raise our 51,000-ton ship from the level of the Pacific Ocean to the height of Lake Miraflores some 54 feet above us. Standing 82 feet high and weighing 745 tons, the gates in the lower Miraflores locks are the largest and heaviest in the canal because they must contend with high tides from the Pacific Ocean.
As we entered the locks, two men aboard a small rowboat brought rope lines to our ship that they connected to six electric locomotives or “mules” that run on tracks alongside both sides of locks. While ships use their own power to enter and exit a lock, the mules help guide the vessels along and keep them from moving as the locks add or release water. Ironically, while the Panama Canal uses some of the most advanced technology in the world, the rowboats are still used to bring lines to the ships because they are considered the safest and most reliable method of doing so in this humid and hot equatorial climate.
Once clear of the second lock, our ship sailed 1.5 miles across tiny Lake Miraflores to a single lock at Pedro Miguel where we were raised another 31 feet to the level of Gaillard Cut. The digging of the Gaillard (or Culebra Cut as it was originally know) was the most difficult task in the construction of the Canal because this nine-mile stretch crosses the Continental Divide through rocky hills that once rose more than 400 feet above sea level.
To add to the challenge, the hills were continuously plagued with mud slides that in 1907 alone dumped half a million cubic yards of rock and earth back into the Cut. However, the herculean effort to excavate a 300-foot-wide and 40-foot deep trench across the Divide eventually succeeded, although the cost was huge in both lives and dollars (about $10 million a mile).
After leaving the Pedro Miguel Locks, we sailed along Gaillard Cut past its two most famous peaks — Contractor’s Hill on our port and Gold Hill to our starboard. Gold Hill was given its name by the original French Canal Company that claimed in a prospectus that “this mountain is full of gold and it is believed that the ore from this place alone will be worth more than will be the total cost of the canal construction.” Of course, there was nothing in the hill except rock and dirt, much of which was eventually cut away to prevent further mudslides.
It took an hour for the Crystal Symphony to reach the end of Gaillard Cut at Chagres Crossing, where the Chagres River first enters the canal. Seasonal downpours from the Caribbean supply the lakes and rivers of Panama with the water needed to operate the canal, most of which enters the canal system through the Chagres River. Before the river was damned, it used to flow exclusively into the Atlantic, but now empties into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – the only river in the world to do so.
From Chagres Crossing we sailed along Gamboa Reach into Gatun Lake, which was created by damning the Chagres River near its mouth at the Caribbean Sea so it would overflow its banks and provide water to operate the canal’s locks. Some 52-million gallons of water are used to raise and lower each large ship as it transits the canal, all of which flows through the locks by force of gravity.
The largest man-made lake in the world when it was created, Lake Gatun is a beautiful repository of lush islands, tropical rainforests and rare fauna that provide some of the prettiest scenery in the canal. It’s also where we saw several ships going in the opposite direction, including several container ships and Regent Cruise Line’s Mariner.
After a couple of hours in Lake Gatun, we reached the final set of locks that would lower us 85 feet to sea-level and a channel that flows into the Caribbean Sea. As we watched the ships in front of us transit each of the three locks at Gatun, we were amazed at how large the locks actually are –1,000-feet long, 110-feet wide and with gates that are 65-feet wide and seven-feet thick. And the canal’s locks can handle ships with a draft of up to 40 feet.
As we sailed out of the Gatun Locks towards Limon Bay to complete our nine-hour transit, we finally left our seats completely amazed at what we had seen. Some 100 years after it was completed, “The Path Between the Seas” remains an engineering marvel and a vivid reminder of what imagination and persistence can accomplish.