Contemplating the engineering marvels and complicated history of the Panama Canal while watching a cargo ship transit the locks at Miraflores
The Panama Canal was on the top of my list of places to see when I visited Panama City. The Canal changed the world, but I didn’t truly appreciate the magnificence of this engineering feat until I watched a cargo ship go through Miraflores Locks. The Miraflores Locks, not far from Panama City, remain the most popular spot to see the Panama Canal outside of sailing through it.
The Canal provides a waterway through the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It weaves its way for 77 kilometres between the Caribbean and the Pacific. Locks at each end lift ships up to Gatún Lake, a 425 square man-made lake which provides 33 kilometres of the canal route. It takes eight to ten hours for a ship to transit through the Canal.
Miraflores Locks are at the Pacific entrance to the waterway. The two-stage locks raise or lower vessels between sea-level and the artificial Lagos Miraflores. At mid-tide, the difference is 16.5 metres. Three kilometres beyond the Miraflores Locks are the Pedro Miguel Locks, closed to the public. Beyond that, the canal narrows into the Gaillard Cut, formerly known as the Culebra Cut, where most of the excavation for the canal occurred. The Gaillard Cut connects to the Chagres River, a natural waterway enhanced by the Gatún Dam, and into Lake Gatún. Three-stage locks at Gatún Lake raise or lower vessels 26.5 metres.
Panama Canal lock chambers were built in pairs, two lanes running side by side and sharing a centre wall. Mitered gates at each end of the chamber swing open and closed. The highest and heaviest gates are at the Miraflores Locks to deal with extreme variation in the Pacific tides. The walls of the chamber are made of concrete. Concrete had seldom been used as a building material before the construction of the Canal.
Ships are pulled into the chamber by electric locomotives, known as “Panama Canal mules”. Tugboats also assist with the passage through the Canal, especially in the narrow Gaillard Cut. Once the ship is fully in the chamber, the gates are closed. Sliding steel culvert gates open to let water flow in or out of the chamber. There are fourteen culverts in each lock, each of which has five well-like openings to distribute the turbulence of incoming water over the entire area. The ship I watched was making the route from the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The water level needed to be raised to allow the ship to continue through the Canal. It took about eight minutes for the water to reach the appropriate level.
When the water level reaches the appropriate level, the gates at the other end of the chamber are opened and the ship is pulled through, The entire process is controlled electronically from a central control panel. Falling water at Gatún Lake generates the electrical power.
The Panama Canal opened in August 1914 with very little fanfare, due to the outbreak of World War I. Traffic remained light until after the war, but steadily increased after the war. Instead of sailing around South America to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa, a trip which could be dangerous because of winds, large waves, strong currents, and icebergs around Cape Horn, the Canal offered a shortened, safer trip, Even with toll charges, there were significant financial benefits to the using the Panama Canal route. The impact was felt around the world, even as far away as my home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where the Canal was one of the factors in the decline of the city’s importance as a railway hub for shipping goods between the eastern and western parts of the country. Today, 13,000 to 15,000 ships transit the Canal in a year.
A museum at Miraflores Locks contains information about the Canal. The main floor focuses on the history of building the Canal. Although there are some interesting displays, including blasting noises in front of photos of dynamite activity in the Guillard Cut, the museum provides only a cursory history, focusing mainly on the engineering aspects. There is so much more to the Canal story – political lobbying and manipulation, revolution, and human stories of determination, struggle, and fatality. Thousands of people came to Panama to work on the Canal, during both French and the U.S. construction, and their stories are an important part of the history. For a more in-depth look at this side of Canal history, I suggest you visit the Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City.
Serious investigation into a canal began in the 1870s with two possible points under consideration – Lake Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Columbia. In 1881 France began work on a canal at Panama, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man in charge of the building of the Suez Canal. At the time a sea level canal without locks was envisioned. This would have required significant more excavation. The work was hard and conditions tough. Many workers died of yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases. Additional funds were required several times throughout the project. By 1889, no further funds were available and the company in charge went bankrupt. Three years later scandal broke out in France, with a number of people charged with misuse of funds, deceiving the public, and bribing government officials.
The U.S. government took up the challenge of a canal route, initially favouring Lake Nicaragua but changed focus to Panama after intense lobbying by a former acting director of the French company. The Columbian Senate refused to ratify a treaty allowing the U.S. to build the Canal. President Theodore Roosevelt gave unofficial backing to Panama secessionists and on November 3, 1903 the Republic of Panama was declared. A new treaty was negotiated giving the U.S. power and authority over the Canal Zone in perpetuity.
A period of organization and clean-up began before serious construction work started. A program was established which eliminated yellow fever within eighteen months and brought malaria under control. During the French period, a system of different payrolls was adopted from the Panama Railroad. The Americans also implemented a two-tiered payroll system, which became known as the Gold and Silver Roll. White skilled and semi-skilled workers were paid in gold-backed American dollars at a much higher pay scale than in the U.S. The pay included housing, health, and entertainment benefits. Unskilled workers, the great majority from the West Indies, were paid in local silver-backed currency at lower rates. This led to a system of segregation.
If you are interested in reading more about the history and stories of the building of the Canal, I recommend The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. It is a long and well-researched book. It is scholarly at times, but more often reads like a political thriller. The story is very compelling.
In 1964, a three day riot began when university students attempted to raise a Panamanian flag beside the U.S. flag in the Canal Zone. Twenty-one Panamanians and four U.S. Marines were killed. This event is cited as a significant factor influencing the U.S. 1977 decision to turn control of the Canal over to Panama. The actual transfer occurred December 31, 1999.
The second floor of the museum contains information on insects and plant and marine life in the Canal Zone. The Museum also contains a simulation room where you can feel what it is like to be on a ship transiting the Canal. The speed is faster than an actual crossing. I found myself getting dizzy and had to leave the room.
The top floor of the Museum is about Canal expansion. Ships of today’s size were not envisioned when the Canal was built. The Queen Mary, launched in 1936, was the first ship too large for the locks. In 2007, an expansion program began to create new locks 40% longer and 66% wider. The expanded canal began operation in 2016.
The engineering of the Canal is still impressive a century later. I was fascinated to see the locks in action. Rather than compensate for the cruise I hadn’t taken through the Canal, it increased the desire to do the cruise and experience going through the Canal myself (at a normal, non-dizzying speed).
Miraflores Locks is about fifteen minutes outside the city of Panama. The Visitor Centre is open every day from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, but the ticket office closes t 5:00 pm. In addition to the Museum and the observation deck, there is a restaurant, snack bars, and a gift shop. Information about ships transiting the Locks is broadcast on the observation deck in English and in Spanish.
A bus to Miraflores Locks runs from the Albrook bus terminal. We had some difficulty finding exactly where this bus stopped at the terminal. You may need to ask for help as to where to catch the bus. It was not one of the destinations listed on the signs at the various stop areas. When we asked we were directed back and forth a bit until someone finally helped us very specifically and we waited at area D. Alternatively, you could take a taxi. Clarify the fare before making the trip.
It is a good idea to call the Visitor Centre and find out when ships are scheduled to go through the locks. You can then time your visit appropriately. We did not do this and happened to be lucky. A ship was in transit as we arrived. However, if we’d missed that, we would have had a three hour wait until the next ship. Mornings and late afternoon see most of the ship activity.
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