Inside The Panama Canal
A SHIMMERING MIRAGE, PINPOINT small, hovered on the horizon—one big ship floating on two razorthin hulls like ice-skate blades. It grew slowly, so it must be approaching us. We were a crowd of forty people on a sixty-five-foot cabin cruiser waiting by a dock at seven o’clock in the warm breezes of a January morning in Panama. To our southeast, in the direction of that strange, distant craft, the Pacific Ocean spread out, dotted with tankers and container ships; to our northwest lay the passage over the continent, the Panama Canal, the world’s most monumental work of civil engineering, opened in 1914 and in its essentials unchanged ever since, a forty-mile chain of deep channels, thousand-foot-long locks, and man-made lakes, stretching from sea over the continental divide to sea. This day we were to transit the canal, Pacific to Atlantic.
WE HAD SPENT the week on a study tour of the canal organized by the Society for Industrial Archeology, an organization devoted to appreciating and preserving engineering landmarks, and we had already gone behind the scenes, visiting locks and dams and other pieces of the canal and talking to many of the people who run it, so we felt in every way ready for our trip. But we had to wait for the pilot. The Panama Canal Commission, which runs the canal, employs 240 professional pilots (just one of whom is a woman) who take over command of every craft for as long as it is in canal waters. They never actually touch the controls of a ship, but they have absolute authority over its movements, and it can not enter the canal without them.
While we waited, the strange ship approaching us grew until it was upon us; it turned out to be the Radisson Diamond , a gleaming white catamaran cruise ship, something like an ordinary boxy new cruise ship with an open tunnel running its length through which a boat like ours could easily have passed. The Diamond ’s 105.7-foot beam meant it had been designed with the Panama Canal in mind; it could just squeeze through the 110-foot-wide locks. Like most cruise ships, it was doing so without ever berthing in Panama. Cruise lines love the canal but not the country, which was never much of a tourist destination and has been even less of one since Gen. Manuel Noriega came and went in a wave of authoritarianism and anti-Americanism.
The Diamond glided past us, and before long our pilot appeared on the dock and hopped into an outboard motorboat that brought him out to us. He wore slacks and a jersey and dark glasses and carried a briefcase that contained, among other things, a computer printout of the schedule and dimensions for every ship transiting the canal that day and a paperback book to occupy him between locks. He climbed up to the pilothouse and conferred with the captain, and we started out into the channel.
Within minutes we were passing under the soaring arch of the Bridge of the Americas, which carries the Interamerican Highway over the canal’s waters. The Interamerican Highway begins in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, right across the river from Texas, and covers more than three thousand miles before reaching a dead end in the impenetrable jungle of eastern Panama. That no passable road connects it to South America is one of many oddities of the Republic of Panama. Others are: The nation has its own currency, the balboa, but has never printed money and uses American dollar bills instead; it has no mail delivery, so you need a post office box to get mail; it has, as a legacy of the canal’s builders, tap water that is not only safe to drink but delicious; its residents call January, February, and March summer, even though they’re in the Northern Hemisphere, because those are the dry and pleasant months when school is out; in the canal region you can see the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic.
The sun had blazed up more than an hour earlier that day, and the morning breezes were dying away as we began to gain on the Radisson Diamond . Past the port of Balboa, Panama City’s outlet to the canal, the waterway narrowed to several hundred yards, and the industrial landscape fringing it—docks and terminals and boatyards—gave way to the green of solid jungle that edges the canal for most of its length. Presently we were arriving at Miraflores Locks.
A ship transiting the canal passes through three locks at each end, which raise it a total of eighty-five feet to cross the isthmus and then lower it to a matching sea level at the other ocean. When Ferdinand de Lesseps launched the first effort to build a Panama canal in the late 1870s, no one knew for sure if the two oceans had the same level. It was eventually determined that they did but that the tides in the Atlantic averaged three or four feet while those in the Pacific ranged from twelve to twenty. Despite this last fact, Lesseps persisted in undertaking a sea-level canal like the one through the flat, dry sands at Suez that had made his fame. The result was nearly a decade of heroic effort in an utterly hopeless cause. Disease struck down most of the ever-increasing numbers of workers, the jungle swallowed up most of their digging, and the costs so outpaced an escalating series of lotteries and bond issues held to finance the project that its final collapse actually brought down a government of France with it.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT SPEARHEADED THE AMER ican resumption of the canal. In 1902—the year before the United States championed a swift, almost bloodless revolution that transferred local power from Colombia to friendly Panamanians and paved the way for work to begin—a commission appointed to devise a new plan for the canal made its report. The commission suggested flooding much of the highlands on the Atlantic side of the divide to create a large artificial lake; cutting a swath through the very highest point, right at the divide, to hold water at the same level as in the lake; and connecting this inland waterway to the seas by a series of locks at each end. So it was done.
At the Pacific end the first two steps up occur at Miraflores Locks; the third occurs two miles later at Pedro Miguel Lock. At Miraflores the Radisson Diamond , right ahead of us, approached the locks. There are two parallel sets, to accommodate two lanes of travel, and as the cruise ship approached the right-hand set, two men in a wooden rowboat put out from the end of the low wall that extends out from between the locks. They rowed right under the bow of the ship; there they caught a line tossed down from on deck and rowed back to the wall, where the line was attached to a wire cable playing out from an electric mule locomotive. The men on the bow of the Diamond hauled on their end of the line to bring the cable up to the deck, where they made it fast to a large cleat. This was the first of four cables that would connect the Diamond to four mule engines, which would tighten and loosen the cables in order to guide the Diamond into and through Miraflores Locks.
The 110-foot width of each lock was established in 1908, with the idea of easily accommodating the largest battleship then planned, the Pennsylvania , which had a beam of 98 feet. The allowance of extra room was fortuitous (the locks had previously been going to be 95 feet wide), for more than a quarter of the large tankers and cargo ships that use the canal today are built to the maximum width it can easily accommodate—between 105 and 106 feet. Thus the mule engines, which have guided ships through the locks from the beginning, are performing a more delicate, difficult task than ever. And the locks still aren’t big enough to hold the largest supertankers or aircraft carriers.
The mule engines, which run on straight tracks along the tops of the lock walls, were originally supplied by General Electric; the first model, in 1914, cost $13,000. In 1964, when the power was switched from twenty-five- to sixty-cycle direct current, the contract for mule engines was captured by Mitsubishi, the maker of all the engines in use today. The last time any new ones were purchased, in 1986, they cost $1.2 million each.
THE MULES’ JOB has not changed. They keep a ship aligned within inches as it moves forward under its own power at two miles per hour or less; if necessary, they also provide braking power. They do this in both directions without turning around and while climbing inclines of forty-five degrees between the locks.
Once the lead engine on the center wall between locks had a secure line to the Diamond , it led the ship forward within several feet of that wall. The wall on the other side of the lock extends less far from the end of the lock; another mule was waiting at its end to attach cable to the Diamond ’s other side. In all, four mules accompanied the Diamond into the lock, two fore and two aft. At 430 feet she is less than half the maximum length a lock can handle; the longest ships require as many as eight mules for passage.
We, it turned out, were to ride through in the same lockage with the Diamond . Once she was securely in place toward the front of the lock, the mules at either side pulled back gently to brake her forward motion; then they inched ahead again to be in place for the next forward movement after the lock filled. We cruised up behind the Diamond , relying on no mule engine; our captain’s mate simply made sure we were firmly tied up at the side when the water started rising.
We didn’t exactly nestle behind the Diamond ; the lock was too long to require that, but once we were in place, the big iron gates slowly swung out from the walls behind our stern to enclose us. The gates are hollow double doors of steel mitered so that they meet in a flattened V pointing toward the higher water. They all are as old as the canal, made between 1911 and 1914 by the McClintic-Marshall Company, a Pittsburgh bridge builder. All their hardware —bearings, gears, struts, gear wheels, and so on—was cast by the Wheeling Mold and Foundry Company, of Wheeling, West Virginia. The gates in effect float, and despite being as much as eighty-two feet high (the tallest is this first Miraflores lock, which has to accommodate the steep Pacific tides) and weighing up to 745 tons, they are so well balanced that each is pushed open and closed by a forty-horsepower electric motor and in the event of an electrical failure can be opened by hand by a single person turning a crank.
The gates took two minutes to shut behind us, leaving us enclosed in a mammoth reinforced-concrete bathtub with an actual ocean liner for a toy boat. Immediately the water under us began to swirl, as more water, fed by gravity, poured into eighteen-foot-wide culverts in the sides of the lock, into smaller cross culverts under the floor, and out through one hundred holes in the lock’s floor and walls. Twenty-six million gallons collected beneath us in the space of ten minutes, and we rose as if on a giant elevator, up thirty feet to where we could look out over the lock walls at the control-house building on our left and a visitors’ viewing platform on our right; Miraflores Locks is open to the public every day from nine to five.
We had had the opportunity to visit the control house two days before, though it is not open to the public, and there I saw the computer that coordinates and controls all the mechanical operations of the two locks at Miraflores—the opening and closing of gates and of valves for water flow and so on. It is an electromechanical computer built by General Electric in 1910 and unchanged in its workings since.
The computer’s control panel is a tabletop sixty feet long that runs the length of the main room of the control house, twenty feet above ground. Its surface is a three-dimensional schematic map of the four locks (two in each channel) at Miraflores, with aluminum pointers representing the lock gates, upright barometerlike tubes showing the water height in each lock, and smaller indicators registering the positions of all the valves that control the water flow. A glance at it tells the operator—only one operator per channel is necessary—everything going on in the locks, and by throwing switches on the panel, he or she can run everything except the mules.
A low-ceilinged room directly below contains the guts of the machinery, two parallel sixty-foot-long racks of copper sliding switches and wires. The mechanism was designed to do one thing and one thing only, and it is hard wired so that every operation in running the locks can be done only in the proper order. There is no way, for instance, that lock gates can be opened before the water level on either side has been equalized. There is no way a lock can keep filling to where it will overflow. A study was undertaken in the 1980s to see if the old GE control system should be replaced; it found that exchanging it throughout the canal for the latest electronics would cost $600 million and improve nothing. In fact Tom Brohan, deputy director of engineering and construction for the canal, says he has friends on the St. Lawrence Seaway who use a modern electronic system and have two serious problems with it: First, it tends to get knocked out by lightning, and second, parts become unavailable after a decade or so.
However, the Panama Canal as a whole, as opposed to each individual set of locks, is overseen by new technology. A fully computerized marine-traffic-control center coordinates the movement of all the shipping throughout the canal, and the whole length and breadth of the waterway except for the open area of Gatun Lake is monitored by closed-circuit television. The canal also has a highly computerized marine simulator for training canal pilots; it can mimic virtually any situation they might get into on the job. According to Richard Wainio, director of the Office of Executive Planning for the Canal Commission, “The simulator can literally make you sick. There are barf bags nearby.” Wainio also says the canal has a “brand-new security system with total control of all points,” but of course he offers no details about that.
AFTER THE LOCK GATES OPENED, THE DIAMOND eased forward into the second gate, and we moved up behind her and repeated the process of tying up, waiting, slowly rising, and then moving on out. Past Miraflores Locks we were in Miraflores Lake, a mile-and-a-half-long, mile-wide artificial body of water that leads to Pedro Miguel Lock, the last step up on the Pacific-to-Atlantic journey. Pelicans and vultures and frigate birds with ribbonlike forked tails soared overhead, and our two local tour guides, Iván Hoyos and Richard Cahill (of Eco-Tours de Panama, which can arrange canal transits like ours for individual tourists), regaled us with lore about the birds, as they had about much else throughout the week. The black vultures are known locally as the Panamanian Air Force, Richard told us; Iván added that pelicans have an unusually high rate of blindness, because nature does not protect their eyes against infection as it does those of other birds that dive.
We joined the Radisson Diamond again in passing through the Pedro Miguel Lock, and when we emerged from it, we were eighty-five feet above sea level, entering the highest stretch of the canal and the most difficult part to build, or rather to dig: the Gaillard Cut. The Gaillard Cut (pronounced Ge-yard’ originally; Gay’-yard by “Zonians,” Americans who have lived their lives in the former Canal Zone; and Gay-lord by native Panamanians) penetrates the continental divide to connect with the highlands flooded by Gatun Lake. It consists of eight and a half miles of deep, winding trench sliced through the mountains. It was originally called Culebra Cut, culebra being Spanish for a snake or a wriggle; the name was changed in 1915, the year after the canal opened, to honor David D. Gaillard, who had been in charge of the excavation there during most of the final, most productive phase of construction, when the chief engineer was Col. George W. Goethals.
THREE MEN SERVED AS CHIEF engineer for the American building of the canal: John F. Wallace, a Chicago railroad builder, in 1904 and 1905; John F. Stevens, who had been the top engineer in James J. Hill’s railroad empire, from 1905 to 1907; and Colonel Goethals, of the Army Corps of Engineers, from 1907 until the work was completed, in 1914. Wallace was, in the words of David McCullough, author of the definitive history of the canal, The Path Between the Seas , “a competent enough technician” who at Panama was “tentative, withdrawn, wholly uninspirational” and “never displayed the least enthusiasm for the work.” As the vastness of its challenges grew before him and the ravages of disease decimated those trying to meet the challenges, he totally lost heart. Stevens was a stronger man, and he oversaw two great accomplishments that paved the way for Goethals’s consummation of the task: First, he gave wholehearted support and backing to the work of Dr. William Gorgas, who conquered yellow fever and malaria on the isthmus, saving thousands of lives and making completion of the canal humanly feasible; second, he perceived, as Wallace hadn’t, that the biggest technical challenge was one of logistics. As McCullough writes, “Stevens saw at once, as the French had not, that the Panama Railroad was the lifeline along which not only men, food, supplies, everything needed to sustain the work, would have to move freely and efficiently, but the Culebra dirt trains as well. He also saw that there was no sense in working with anything less than the biggest, heaviest equipment possible. … Stevens’ greatest contribution was the basic vision of the excavation of the canal as a largescale problem in railroad freight.” He built the infrastructure that built the Panama Canal.
When Stevens quit, apparently from sheer exhaustion and overwork, President Roosevelt resolved henceforth to have only military men run the operation—“men who will stay on the job until I get tired of having them there, or till I say they may abandon it.” Goethals announced, “I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama,” and he installed his own regime, fostered competition among steam shovels and dredges to see who could dig the most, inspected the length of the canal every weekday morning, opened his office to any employee with any complaint every Sunday morning, and increased the planned size of the locks and the bottom width of the Culebra Cut.
He brought with him Maj. David Gaillard, who oversaw the great bulk of the work in the Cut, patiently digging out and persevering through the many landslides that afflicted it. But after some of the worst of the slides, in 1913, he finally appeared to crack under the strain. At lunch one day with his wife and son he suddenly broke off conversation and started talking very fast and incoherently about his childhood. He remained confused and was sent up to the United States, where it turned out he was suffering from a brain tumor. He died before the year ended.
The Cut makes a swath between steep-sided hills all covered by foliage that is not just dense but impenetrable, broken only here and there by grasses imported a few decades back to provide open areas and now considered a nuisance—Panama’s kudzu. Every fifteen yards or so throughout the Cut a light fixture pokes up out of the water close to the shore; it shines not out over the canal but onto the shore itself, doing the job of the white line on the edge of a highway.
Two miles into the Cut we passed between Contractor’s Hill and Gold Hill, two high points right at the continental divide. Gold Hill rises 662 feet above sea level atop a sheer cliff where its side was blasted away for the canal. The origin of its name conveys something of the incautious spirit behind the French assault on the isthmus: A prospectus issued in Paris when investors were being lured stated 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.” Not an ounce of gold was ever extracted.
When the Cut was being excavated, this tranquil spot roared with activity around the clock, with crews dynamiting through the night and dredging and steam-shoveling through the day. The dirty and sometimes deadly work was carried out by a mostly black and West Indian labor force a world apart from—and far more populous than—that of the Americans in charge. Their efforts were coordinated so that trains were constantly running in and out of the Cut, carrying off dirt and rock, and tracks were constantly being relaid as the Cut widened and deepened. In the single month of March 1912, 3,217 trains carried 65,555 carloads of dirt out of the Cut.
The workers’ enemies included not only tropical heat, torrential rains nine months of the year, and the perils of work with explosives, but above all those landslides. Sometimes the landslides took the form, as Gaillard put it, of a “tropical glacier—of mud instead of ice”; sometimes they were like, in the words of someone else, “snow off a roof”; sometimes when the walls of the Cut came down, the floor rose. “The effect was exactly that of a hand pressed into a pan of soft dough,” McCullough writes. After the umpteenth particularly destructive slide had obliterated tracks and machinery yet again in January 1913, Goethals’s only comment was, “Hell, dig it out again.”
When it was all finished, the Cut was three hundred feet wide at bottom, four times as wide as the French canal would have been. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, the Cut was broadened to five hundred feet. And as we saw ourselves when we had passed a mile or so beyond Gold Hill, it is being widened again today. The jungle gives way in areas to terraced dirt being crawled over by earth-moving equipment; pipes of explosive charges stick up out of the water alongshore.
The latest widening began in 1992. At five hundred feet the Cut remains narrow enough—or rather the turns in it remain tight enough—to restrict the largest ships to one-way travel; generally they pass through toward the Atlantic during the twelve hours before noon each day and toward the Pacific after noon. The bottleneck limits travel through the Cut to about sixteen of the biggest ships per day. By 2003 or 2004, when the new widening is completed, another 35 million tons or so of rock and dirt will have been removed from the Gaillard Cut. Already more earth has been taken from the Panama Canal since 1914—including ongoing dredging operations to prevent silting—than was taken in the entire original construction of the canal. As Richard Wainio says, “the biggest misconception people have is that this is the same canal as in 1914. They did a good job, and they laid a good foundation, but the canal has been changing every day since it opened.”
AFTER EIGHT NARROW MILES IN THE GAILLARD Cut we emerged at Gamboa, where a low railroad trestle over open water entering from our right marked our joining the course to the Atlantic via the Chagres River. The Chagres flows in from the northeast; ten miles upstream it is stopped by the Madden Dam, built in 1935 to control floods and create a second upper lake to feed Gatun Lake. Madden Lake, above the dam, has a usable capacity of 162 billion gallons of water; Gatun Lake, 203 billion. Nine months a year of heavy tropical rains ensure that the canal never need worry about the 665 billion gallons it must annually pass through its locks and out to sea to handle all its traffic.
The rail line that crosses the Chagres is a descendant of America’s first transcontinental railroad, built between 1850 and 1855, which followed, more or less, the path of the present canal and which made a fortune on East Coast-to-California traffic in its early years. It later became the lifeline for the building of the canal. Much of its route had to be moved to one side when the highlands were flooded to create Gatun Lake, and Iván Hoyos told us that rails along the original route still lie under the lake; in fact there is at one place a complete abandoned train from the period of French excavation that divers like to go down and peer into.
We ourselves had had an unexpected brush with the railroad’s history earlier in our tour; one day we stopped the two vans that carried us around to look at the aging passenger cars at a rail yard outside Panama City. A couple of us wandered off to one side and found that the tracks led into a perfectly preserved roundhouse. Only a handful of such structures still operate in the United States, and they all are landmarks well known to any rail buff; this one was news to every train historian in our group. It was Sunday, and we found only a lone guard on duty. When we expressed interest in looking inside, he opened the gate and, to our surprise, ushered us all in.
THREE DIESEL LOCOMOTIVES IN VARIOUS STATES of disassembly loomed above train jacks and machine tools and other equipment from the beginning of the century. The organizer of our tour, David Shayt—a historian with the Smithsonian Institution and an officer of the Society for Industrial Archeology—stepped onto the turntable, whose maker’s plate identified it as built in 1913 by the American Bridge Company, of New York. He tried to push the turntable; it wouldn’t budge. The guard apparently decided he shouldn’t be around for this; he disappeared. Then David found a switch to start the turntable, and with a grinding sound it shuddered into motion and made a slow full circle. When it stopped, David stepped off, shook his head, and said, “I can’t believe it. I just operated a turntable. The folks at home will never believe this.”
Gamboa, where the trestle crosses the Chagres, was envisioned in the 1880s as becoming a metropolis called Lesseps City, but today it is merely the site of the canal’s dredging division and the home of some of the people who work there. Foremost among the dredging division’s responsibilities is the unending job of keeping the canal from silting up. At the north end of its cluster of wharves and sheds a black crane towers a hundred feet over the water. This is Hercules, a steam-driven machine brought through the blockade from Germany in 1914. It is scheduled to be replaced soon by Titan, also known as Herman the German, an even larger diesel-electric crane built in 1941, claimed in the forties as war booty and resident in Long Beach, California, ever since. Much worry surrounds its planned move to Panama, for giant cranes are apparently the hardest things in the world to transport. Hercules’s sister Ajax was sold off a few decades back and sank in the Caribbean; one of Titan’s sisters sank when first being moved after the war.
Beyond Gamboa the waters around us gradually widened into Gatun Lake, where the canal channel passes between islands that were formerly the tops of hills. Here and there, batches of dead wood poked up out of the water—the tops of trees that died more than eighty years ago, when the land was first flooded. A short way into the lake, we were greeted by the strange sight of a patrol boat speeding toward us in a large arc with what seemed dozens of guns sticking out and a U.S. flag on top. The boat gave us a quick once-over and pulled away. Following it was what looked at first like a convex metal raft with a dozen or so men in uniform standing at ease on it as it slid silently through the water. It had a conning tower, and as we learned by consulting our pilot’s computer printout of the day’s canal traffic, it was in fact the Billfish , a nuclear-powered attack submarine 292 feet long, with a beam of 31 feet. Some of the sailors waved as it wafted past us. An antenna-laden PT-type boat followed in Bullfish ’s modest wake.
THE CANAL HAS ALWAYS BEEN KEPT STRICTLY neutral, although, as Richard Wainio said, “the Japanese and the Germans never tested this during World War II.” He added, “The Soviet Union was one of the five biggest users throughout the Cold War, and we often saw trawlers bristling with antennae. That wasn’t our business. We can inspect a ship’s cargo only if we think there may be a danger to us.” Perhaps a dozen transits a year of nuclear cargo go through; they do so on specially designed ships so safe that Wainio said, “I’d rather be riding on a plutonium carrier than an LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] ship.” Only once was a plutonium-bearing ship ever turned back before entering the canal—and not by canal authorities but by Greenpeace. Not only does the canal let anyone through without prejudice, it also does so without cease. The only day it has ever been closed (except for a 1915 landslide) was the first day of the U.S. invasion to overthrow General Noriega, when rioting was feared, and ever since lighting was installed in the Gaillard Cut, even the largest ships have been going through in the dead of night as well as during the day.
On our left we passed a large island with a dock and a handful of concrete houses on its steep side, Barro Colorado Nature Monument. Barro Colorado was the highest mountaintop in the area that became Gatun Lake. When the waters rose, wildlife from all around converged on the island, and it has been kept ever since 1923 as a nature preserve and research center, maintained and operated by the Smithsonian Institution. We had been given a tour of the island several days before and had been introduced to many wonderful things in its tropical jungle: the guayabi, a tree that sheds its bark to remove pathogens; the presence far above us of sloths, which come down from their trees just once a week to defecate; the croccroc sound of the keel-billed toucan; long lines of leaf-cutter ants carrying pieces of leaves down out of high trees and into their anthills, where they use them to grow fungus for food and then carry them back out again to compost; a noise like roaring lions coming from a distant troop of howler monkeys; a tree that in the space of several months had been attacked and killed by beetles, its bark entirely devoured; a tarantula’s molt on the path before us; red-naped tamarins jumping from tree to tree; the “suicide tree,” which blooms once in its seventy-five-year life and then dies; and an inclined plane that brings supplies up the precipitous hillside, with a winder made half a century ago in Cleveland. This last especially interested our crowd of industrial archeologists.
During our several hours on the island I had neglected to tuck my pants into my socks, and the next morning I discovered that I had about eighty jungle chigger bites on my legs and my ankles were swollen fat. But I never saw a mosquito. In fact during the whole week I was in Panama I never saw a mosquito. The way Dr. William Gorgas wiped out yellow fever and malaria in what had been called a “mosquito paradise” was by wiping out the carrier itself. A career Army doctor, he had previously eliminated yellow fever in Havana the same way. He kept records of every house and every barrel or cistern; ordered all standing water, where mosquitoes’ eggs might be laid, removed or screened in; had cisterns and cesspools covered with oil once a week; had the city fumigated house by house; and after a while was tracking down every report of a single mosquito. He even demanded that the water in the cathedral’s baptismal font be changed every day—“a gesture,” McCullough writes, “many Panamanians looked upon as possibly some subtle new form of religious persecution.” He also had plumbing installed to provide safe running water throughout Panama City, the water that it enjoys to this day.
After passing by Barro Colorado Island, we left the main canal channel to take a shortcut called Banana Channel through the remainder of Gatun Lake. As we approached the end of the lake and rejoined the main shipping route, we came upon a gathering of ships coming out of or awaiting their turns into Gatun Locks, the three steps between Gatun Lake and sea level to the north. Beyond the ship, half a mile apart, stood the locks themselves and the big dam that holds back Gatun Lake, below which the Chagres River resumes its separate existence for ten winding miles to the sea.
I WENT UP TO THE CABIN to ask the pilot about all the ships. A tall, soft-spoken, aristocratic-looking young Panamanian named Raú Brostella, he pointed out first the Magleby Maersk , one of five ships, all in the Maersk shipping line, that are the largest to regularly transit the canal, Panamax not only in width, at 105.8 feet, but also in length, at 964.9, or three football fields plus. Elsewhere were a low-riding, filled-up tanker named Tomis Spirit , bearing, like every tanker we saw, a giant legend across its superstructure that might make you think its name was No Smoking ; a carrier named Hanjin Shanghai that Brostella guessed had fifteen hundred containers aboard; the Growth Ring , which he knew from personal experience transported wood chips around the world; a couple of ships that looked like big, featureless boxes with nothing on deck—automobile carriers; and an incongruously rusty and disheveled cargo craft on whose deck shirtless, potbellied middle-aged men were standing around near their parked cars, the Akademia Eugene Paton , from Odessa.
They all were paying tolls typically of $50,000 or $60,000 to pass through the canal, no bargain until you learn that this comes to, say, $30 per container for a container ship, a modest price to avoid the time and expense of steaming down one side of South America, around Cape Horn, and back up. The trip from Tokyo to New York costs thousands of dollars per container for a ship that might be carrying hundreds of millions of dollars of cargo. In those terms the canal transit is almost a steal. The toll for our sixty-five-foot boat was about $500.
The toll system is based on a unit called the Panama Canal Net Ton, which is actually a measure of volume, a hundred cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity. A laden ship pays $2.21 a ton; ballasted ones and passenger and military craft pay less. The highest toll ever paid was by the Crown Princess : $141,000. The toll must always be presented in cash before entering the canal.
The cargoes that pass through in the largest volumes include grains, lately pouring into China as a result of a succession of bad harvests; petroleum and petroleum products, diminished by the completion of a pipeline across the isthmus in 1982 that serves supertankers too big even for the canal; phosphates; coal and coke; and many of the other raw materials of modern life—as well as many of the finished products, such as television sets and automobiles. Around half of all Japanese cars in the eastern United States got there via the Panama Canal.
Last year the canal handled record tonnage, 190.3 million, though not a record number of ships, since they are so much bigger than they used to be. Revenues came to $600 million, within a fraction of a percent of break-even. By treaty, any profit the canal makes must be turned over to the Republic of Panama; any loss is carried forward. This seems to make for a very tightly run business. In fact Richard Wainio was not loath to boast that “the canal has always paid for itself. We don’t need the U.S. Congress, and we don’t need Gramm-Rudman. We’re not like the rest of the U.S. government.”
The Radisson Diamond was in our vicinity again as we took our turn into Gatun Locks, but the ship we tagged along with into the locks this time was the Star Hansa , a six-mule container ship. It was now midafternoon, and the process was starting to look familiar, beginning with the little rowboat greeting the big ship as it approached the first lock. But I noticed several things I hadn’t at the earlier locks. One was a couple of round signs that looked like large bull’s-eyes atop the wall between adjacent locks. I asked our pilot what they were, and he said, “They’re bull’s- eyes. For practice for the men who throw the heaving lines. They have a competition every year at Gatun Locks to see who can do it most accurately.”
I also hadn’t noticed the high steel poles above the locks. Some held high-mast lighting installed to facilitate night transits; others were part of a fire-protection system that can engulf the locks in foam within seconds. And the tops of the lock walls rose a few feet above the lock gates as they hadn’t elsewhere. That was a World War II attempt at bombproofing by putting steel and more reinforced concrete over the gates’ mechanisms; it was never done at Pedro Miguel or Miraflores Locks.
EMERGING FROM GATUN LOCKS FOR OUR FINAL run to the sea—or rather our run to the port of Cristóbal near the sea—we soon passed abandoned channels leading off on either side. The one on the left, which looked no wider than seventy feet and seemed to head back to our left toward Gatun Dam, was a surviving stretch of the French canal, now just an unnaturally straight creek through the jungle. Seeing it, I couldn’t help thinking that if the impossible had happened and the French canal had actually been completed, it could not have lasted very far into this century before its small dimensions would have made it hopelessly obsolete.
A little way past that, another, wider channel led back off the right bank. This represented the beginnings of a third channel undertaken in the 1930s, a sort of separate Panama Canal with its own single set of locks running alongside the original canal’s two sets. The idea was dropped when war came and never taken up again. The potential cost of building it today makes it something nobody remotely considers, and it isn’t really needed anyway.
Close to the third channel we passed the wharves and buildings of the canal’s industrial division, where a rare French relic survives in highly altered form, an 1886 dry dock thoroughly overhauled in 1933. The industrial division is where all the locks’ gates go to be serviced, which happens only once every quarter-century. They are stripped down, cleaned, and given a fresh coating of coal tar made into an enamel by being baked at four hundred degrees—a “nasty, dirty job,” I heard it said, “but that’s the only product anyone’s found since 1914 that will do it.” The process is recorded on videotape for the benefit of the next generation, and it has been simplified by the industrial division’s acquisition of a Syncrolift, a huge apparatus that can dry-dock a lock gate or a ship or anything else enormous in the water in just twenty minutes, using ten synchronized motors to lift it out of the water and carry it on rails into a hangar on dry land.
A sign on a high building at the industrial division reads, IF WE CAN’T DO IT, IT CAN’T BE DONE . We had visited there a few days before, and along with pride we encountered some wistfulness among the minority of norteamericano managers at the place, looking ahead to the day at the end of 1999 when the joint U.S. and Panamanian Panama Canal Commission will turn the canal and all its facilities over to total Panamanian ownership and management. Collin Corrigan, chief of the industrial division, told us, “My grandfather came here in 1906 and was with the railroad. My father worked for the canal, and I worked for the canal, but my career ends in 1999. But,” he added, “of our three hundred and ninety-nine permanent employees in the industrial division, already we are down to fifteen or sixteen U.S. citizens. When we turn it all over in 1999, it will be at a point where nothing will change.”
LIKEWISE, A SU perintendent of production named Robert Rankin told us that his grandfather had come down from Knoxville as a railroad blacksmith around 1906; his father had been a machinist in the industrial division who was promoted to port engineer; his uncle and brother had also worked for the canal; and “I am the last.” I asked him what he would miss most about Panama and the canal when he retired to the States. “The fishing,” he said. Great deep-sea fishing, and peacock bass in Gatun Lake.
My mind was on the canal’s future as our day drew to its close and we pulled up at a small dock in Cristóbal. The canal is at the great turning point in its career, preparing for noon, December 31, 1999, when, according to the 1979 Panama Canal Treaty, Panama will “assume total responsibility for the management, operation, and maintenance of the Panama Canal.” The Canal Zone and its government ceased to exist when the treaty took effect, replaced by the joint U.S.-Panama commission, which has been overseeing the two-decade-long transition.
The transition has gone well. One of its very first steps, the handing over of the Panama Railroad, was something of a disaster. The line was in bad shape already, the Panamanians hadn’t been fully trained to run it, and today it barely survives at all. But that experience served as a cautionary lesson, and it has not been repeated.
In Richard Wainio’s words, “we have been taking all the appropriate steps to achieve a stainless changeover on December 31, 1999.” Already Gatun Locks is 100 percent Panamanian operated and managed, and in every aspect of the canal the majority of employees are Panamanian. As Wainio put it, “They’re going to get a modern facility with great cash flow, totally clear of cash and liens. It will be a gold mine as long as it’s run properly. Right now, as part of the treaty, the Canal Commission pays Panama a hundred million dollars a year out of canal revenues for the right to operate the canal. After 1999 that will go straight to bottom-line profit.”
And what is the canal’s longer future? Wainio surprised me on that one. “We had an eight-million-dollar study done two years ago,” he said, “that found that the canal is good enough to last at least until 2020. It will hold up, and it doesn’t need that third channel. Looking ahead to 2035, by then we’ll have whole new transportation systems, things that skim across the sea, things we don’t imagine now. By then I don’t think there will be any need for the Panama Canal.”
It was built to outlive its purpose.