In The Zone: The Panama Canal
We left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps). However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years: the Panama Canal. Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.
A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century. However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly. But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.
Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction. New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable. And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.
But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.
For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.
We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers.
What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall. These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.
That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system. But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.
So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.
By Richard and Anita