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Behind the Cutting Edge

Panama’s Canal

April 2021
5min read

The high-tech wonder of 1914—now out of American hands—helps keep the high-tech world of 2000 moving

As last year ended, three millennial concerns obsessed the public—or at least the press. The first was the utterly anticlimactic concern over Y2K disasters. The second was the utterly semantic concern over when exactly a century ends anyway. The third was concern over the fate of the Panama Canal as it switched to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999.

So far, the Panama Canal fear has proved just as justified as the Y2K fear. The story is far from over, of course, and much may depend on the unpredictable political future of Panama itself, but everything has gone very smoothly in the first months. And the fact that the canal remains so worth worrying about today—indeed that it got built at all—remains extraordinary.

It was when new the most high-tech, advanced, and forward-looking construction on earth—which is the only reason it is still useful more than 85 years later. The United States had both the luck to take it on during the only brief period in history when it would have been possible and the foresight to build , it for the ages.

The French tried first, and they were brought down not only by their hubris but also | by getting there too soon. After his success at building the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French national hero. Casting about for an even greater triumph, he hit on the idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. The man who had cut a sea-level ditch through a flat, open desert would now excavate a hundreds-of-feet-deep trench through the mountainous continental divide in one of the wettest jungles on earth.

The French wildly underestimated the difficulties, and their failure was so spectacular, costing tens of thousands of lives and many millions of dollars, that it actually brought down a government of France. But part of the problem was simply that the technology wasn’t there yet. The machinery wasn’t heavy enough, civil engineering experience on that kind of scale wasn’t complete enough, and medical knowledge was grossly unequal to the scourge of yellow fever and malaria in the Panamanian isthmus. Moreover, even if the French had, beyond all odds, succeeded, their canal would have been quickly obsolete. It was being dug with a channel about 70 feet wide; the channel in today’s canal is at most places 500 feet wide.

The Spanish-American War made the American-built canal inevitable, first by turning the difficulty of moving warships between the Pacific and the Atlantic into a national-security issue and second by catapulting Theodore Roosevelt into renown and ultimately the Presidency. He was the champion the canal would need to get built.

The time was just right. First, in 1903 President Roosevelt was able to engineer a bloodless revolution to break Panama away from Colombia and place it in friendly hands. He said about the Colombians, “You could no more make an agreement with [them] than you could nail currant jelly to a wall.… I determined that I would do what ought to be done without regard to them.” Such an attitude would not have been supportable during most of American history; the nation had just entered its brief imperialist moment. By the end of World War I, the popular mood had reverted to deep isolationism. At the same time, scientists had just learned how to fight yellow fever, which had overwhelmed the French in Panama. Dr. William Gorgas wiped out the disease in Havana at the beginning of the century and then brought his newfound expertise to the canal site. There he attacked mosquitoes by environmental measures unthinkable today, not only removing or screening in all visible standing water but also covering every cistern and cesspool in the area with an oil slick once a week. (He even ordered that the water in the baptismal font of the Panama City cathedral be changed every day, causing some Panamanians to suspect a whole new kind of religious persecution.)

Heavy machinery had grown enormously in the 30-odd years since the French had started digging, and Roosevelt made its use a military operation under the Army Corps of Engineers. The 82-foot-high lock gates were all made in Pittsburgh and shipped down; the huge gears to open them, in Wheeling, West Virginia (those same lock gates and much of their gearing are still in use). Their operation was controlled by futuristic electromechanical computers built by General Electric in 1910 (those computers are just beginning to be replaced with modern fiber optics today). And the locks at either end were connected by flooding the highlands to build the largest man-made lake on earth, an environmental action on a scale that could happen so easily today only in China.

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.

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