Panama City, Panama – The Panama Canal, a technical accomplishment

The Panama Canal is still considered to be one of the biggest human accomplishments of all times. The French tried to build it in the end of the 19th century. They had a good engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the architect of the Suez Canal, but the wrong plan. The idea to create a canal on sea level was their financial ruin. After Lesseps’ death, 17 years of construction, and 22,000 casualties they had to give up their plans. After negotiations of the United States with Colombia regarding a canal failed, Panama declared its independence and signed the canal contract with Teddy Roosevelt, the work was resumed in 1904. But the Isthmus-Canal-Commission with seven members worked bureaucratic, inefficient, and was too far away from the scene. Workers fell like flies and nobody listened to Canal physician William C. Gorgas who couldn’t prove his theory that mosquitoes were the carriers of the dangerous diseases. After one year the project ran the risk of failure. Roosevelt quickly reacted in appointing a new commission with three heads only and a new chief engineer. Health matters received priority since all kinds of tropical illnesses carried off the workers in epidemic waves. And the train as a lifeline of the canal was extended.

Only in 1906, after resumption of construction work the final decision against the plan to build a canal on sea level in favour of the Gatún plan with locks and an artificial lake in-between was made. The Culebra Cut, a cut into a mountain range, was the biggest technical challenge. With the dug soil the Gatún Dam was built, that kept the largest artificial lake at the time in place. It took 15 years to flood it. Still today, the three-phase Gatún lock works at the Atlantic side, the one-phase Pedro Miguel and the two-phase Miraflores lock in the south with unrevised doors. The lock chambers are each 305 m long, 33.5 m wide and 26.3 m deep and contain 101,000 cubic metres of water. The canal was finished on time in 1914, cost 386 million Dollars and another 6,000 casualties.

The Miraflores Locks have a good visitor centre where we can watch the cogwheel locomotives helping the big ships to stay in place while locking that takes ten minutes each. Every ship has at least one pilot who has to invest eight years in his education, and the larger ships two tugboats that actually don’t pull but help the ships to navigate. Around 14,000 ships pass the channel each year, one million so far. The canal was built for ships no longer than 294 m, no wider than 32.3 m and 12 m draught. To guarantee profitability in future an extension for larger ships than the so-called PANAMAX class was inevitable. Building was started in 2007, and the third lane shall be finished in 2014. Admission fee for the Miraflores Locks visitor centre is 5 US$ for the roof terrace, 8 $ including museum and film showing. Best time for a visit is the morning around 9 am or the afternoon between 3 and 5 pm.

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