Panama’s Canal

The size of the locks was extraordinary for the time. What was not envisioned was how ships would grow to fit them.

The size of the locks was extraordinary for the time—each 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. That was determined in 1908, the idea being to have plenty of room for the largest battleship then envisioned, the USS Pennsylvania , which was to have a beam of 98 feet. What was not envisioned was how ships would grow to fit the locks after the canal’s 1914 opening. Today about a third of the ships that go through are built to a size called Panamax, between 105 and 106 feet wide. They pass through the locks with just a couple of feet to spare on either side (cables pulled by special locomotives on the lock walls keep them in place). And the locks—there is a parallel pair at each step up and down to accommodate two lanes of traffic—are so capacious and efficient that the biggest modern bottleneck has been not at them but in the Gaillard Cut, where the canal slices through the highest peaks at the continental divide. Panama-size vessels have had to be restricted to one-way, daylight passage there. A widening program begun in 1992 will soon allow them unrestricted two-way passage 24 hours a day, but even now the canal efficiently handles all the traffic it gets, which includes carrying roughly half the Japanese automobiles that reach the eastern United States.

Although the shift to Panamanian ownership officially took place at noon last December 31, it had actually been going on for decades. A gradual transition had been under way since 1979, when the Panama Canal Act was implemented, and the canal work force has been predominantly Panamanian for years. Major repair and renovation programs had also been under way, and they too continue, including modernizing the tugs and locomotives that guide ships through the canal, putting in new hydraulics to operate the gates, and installing up-to-date computerized controls and global positioning systems. Almost everything has been undergoing modernization except the concrete locks and steel lock gates themselves, all of which remain the pre-1914 originals.

Looking ahead, canal officials are studying the idea of adding a whole new set of wider and longer locks to fit bigger “post-Panamax” ships. This would require additional flooding to create at least one more big lake to add to the water supply. Is it really likely to happen? I asked Richard Wainio, long-time director of the canal’s Office of Executive Planning and now director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Panama. “It looks increasingly likely,” he said, “but it’s not going to occur within the next few years. I think the canal officials will recommend doing it, the government of Panama will want it, a lot of international support will grow, and then they’ll try to find sources of financing. Then some years down the road you may actually see them start moving ahead with construction.”

Would that guarantee longer-term usefulness for the canal? “I have to say I have doubts about an investment like that,” Wainio told me. “It could take 50 years or more to pay for this multi-billion-dollar project, and I just think the world will change dramatically by then and a canal like this won’t be what you need to serve world trade. World trade and the way it’s moved will be fundamentally different that far off. I just can’t lack that imagination.”

In other words, the canal was built most of a century ago to excel at its job for as long as its job might last, a glory of 1914 high tech that continues to help keep the 2000 high-tech world moving. And the place even keeps offering up more of its remarkable past. A couple of years ago, when droughts caused by El Niño were reducing water levels in Lake Gatún, a cross poked up out of the water. It was the top of the steeple of a church in a French village that grew up during the Lesseps era. It had been underwater since the Americans flooded the highlands.

This past May, salvage workers raised a locomotive and 15 tilt-unloading hopper cars from the bottom of the lake. Plates on the rolling stock identified them as having been built by the Société Anonyme Franco Belge. They carried the inscription PARIS 1885.