The Panama Canal


My initial plan coming to Panama was not to see the Panama Canal.  After all, it’s just a big ditch, right?  Wrong.  Missing out on this sight means missing out on Panama altogether.  This engineering marvel is so inextricably tied to this land and its people that you can honestly say that the Panama Canal IS Panama.

I take the “Hop on, Hop Off” bus from the Multi Centro downtown.  These fun double-deckers offer a lot of bang for the buck, stopping at 6 different locations and, as the name implies, allowing you to get on and off at your whim.  Another one will come around to get you in no more than an hour.  While you’re en route, you can hear all about the city in English using a set of earphones.  Best $29.95 you can spend in P.C.

I don’t bother to get off until we get to Miraflores Locks, which is the most popular place to see the canal from.  Here, you pay $8 for admission, which includes a museum exhibit, 10 minute movie (very worthwhile), and of course a view of the Canal itself from a great vantage point.

My advice is to come hungry, not because the restaurant is so good, but because it is on the top floor of this building and provides unobstructed views of the entire area from its fourth story terrace.  Sit here and enjoy a sip of vino while you watch the ships come and go.  Allow about an hour to see a couple of them.

It really is an amazing thing to see these massive vessels maneuvering through this narrow channel with virtually no clearance.  To keep them from scraping the sides, small locomotives called mules (after the Erie Canal animals that used to pull boats in PA) keep them straight using a system of cables.

Basically, the drill is that the ship enters the lock and the water is drained from the “tub” its sitting in while simultaneously filling the lock beneath it.  When the water level is equal, the ship can proceed.  Repeat this process until the ship has moved a total of 80 vertical feet over the 50 mile length of the canal, a process that requires some 8-10 hours.

After viewing a couple of ships, take a look at the excellent and informative bi-lingual museum.  There are numerous displays that show the rigors of life for the ordinary workmen on the canal, as well as the genesis of the idea for such a structure, dating all the way back to Charles V in 1534.

This is an amazing sight to see, and I can’t imagine coming to Panama without experiencing it.  It’s one of those rare feats of civil engineering (one of the seven wonders of the modern world) which just leave you gape jawed with awe.  It’s (literally) a concrete reminder of what men can do when imagination and money meet hard work and ingenuity.  A marvelous thing to behold.

And who built this?  Who are these heroic figures, these men with vision, grit, and determination?

John Frank Stevens was a self-taught engineer who oversaw construction of the railway and the Lake Gatun reservoir.  He was responsible for improving the safety and working conditions of the 56,000 workers who were paid mostly about a dollar a day.

Colonel George Washington Goethals was chief engineer from 1907 until the canal was completed in 1914, ahead of schedule and under budget.

Major David Dubose Gaillard was responsible for the most difficult section.  The Culebra Cut is a V-shaped notch sliced through the center of muddy mountains in the middle of a tropical jungle.

These men and many more provided the brains and brawn to get the job done.  The numbers are almost unimaginable: 200,000,000 cubic yards of earth moved.  The biggest concrete pour in the world.  The world’s largest dam and lake (at that time).  Lock gates that are 110 feet tall.  And distressingly, more than 27,000 men lost their lives during both the American and earlier French effort, mostly to malaria.

Many of the these guys came from the East Indies, but there were Irish, Greeks, Armenians, and Turkish workers too, along with other nationalities, who lived and worked (and died) together in this monumental effort, and somehow they managed to communicate and get along with each other.

This is engineering on an epic scale.  New rail systems were invented.  A mechanical computer was devised to control the locks.  Cities and hospitals were built.  It was by far the largest American engineering project ever undertaken until that time.  It makes me proud to see that, almost 100 years and a million ships later, the Canal is still there, delivering what it promised.  American ingenuity.  It didn’t used to be just a slogan.  It was a fact.

Now, if you are easily offended, quit reading.  That was the end of my travelogue on the Canal.  Now I’m going to rant, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The canal was imagined, designed, and conceived by white American men.  More than that, they were almost all Christian men.  I’m tired of the revisionists out there in academia and our press who keep disparaging my race and my religion, and I’m going to at least take one small step to correct that imbalance whenever I can.

Yes, it’s true that many blacks worked and died in the effort.  It’s something they can and should be proud of.  It’s also true that the French did some of the hard work for 20 years before we got a shot at it, and put some of the infrastructure in place.  But make no mistake: without Americans, white American men, American engineering, this job wouldn’t get done.  It’s a standing testimony to the brilliance of American civilization and culture at its best, and its something I am proud of.

We used to strive for great things.  We used to build great things.  Things that lasted, like the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, or the Interstate Highway System.  We used to invent great things, like airplanes, computers, light bulbs, and air conditioning.  And we rightly idolized men like Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Henry Ford.

What happened to us?  Now we invent pornographic websites.  We create money out of thin air and idolize Ben Bernanke, Tiger Woods, or Oprah Winfrey.  We build football stadiums that will not last long enough for the fans to enjoy for even one generation.  And on the rare occasions when we actually do invent something new and useful, we ship the jobs overseas for assembly, short-changing American workers.

Almost every ship, locomotive, cable, dredge, steamshovel, and piece of steel for the Panama Canal was made in America.  The new mules used on the Canal today are made by Mitsubishi.

What do you think Teddy Roosevelt would do, were he alive today?  I’m thinking he’d give us all a collective kick in the ass.  He’d make the welfare bums go to work building roads or dams or something useful they can be proud of instead of just collecting a check for nothing.  He’d tell the bankers if they need a bail out maybe they should just pass the hat among themselves.  And he’d tell other countries that free trade is a two-way street and if they don’t want to play that way they can’t sell here.

He’d tell young people today that the road to fame and wealth isn’t going to be through currency swaps, “Civil Service”, or community development, but through engineering and science.  And he’d make it stick.  No “free” money for majoring in “international relations” or “sports management”.

We need to recapture the imagination of young Americans like John Kennedy did in the 1960’s when he conceived of a project to send men to the moon.  Now we have to ask the Russians to boost our spare parts and satellites into orbit.

What happened to us?  We got lazy.  We’ve let the world blow by us while we partied, and it’s damned time we stopped.  The party’s over.  Now we have to get back to the real work of making the world a better place, not by bombing things and messing around in countries we can’t ever hope to understand, but by building things right here in the good ole’ USA again.

We need to do that and a whole lot more.  But we need to understand our roots.  America was built in large part by white Christian men, and we should be thankful to those great ones that came before us, not try to tear them down every time we get the chance.

And one last thing.  We don’t need to apologize to the world for who we are.

The Panamanian people started whining for control of the Canal almost as soon as the cement was dry back in 1914, and they kept whining until Jimmy Carter gave it away.  Kind of like asking for the keys to the car after Daddy bought a new one.  Well, OK.  You got the canal now, but don’t forget one thing:

You couldn’t have done it by yourselves.  You needed Americans to do the job.  The French tried, and failed after 20 years.  You guys?  You didn’t even make a go of it.  You people were hunting down lemurs for supper while we were accomplishing the greatest engineering feat of the twentieth century.  The Panama Canal is the ultimate statement for American engineering.  On time.  Under budget.  Built to last.

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5 Responses to The Panama Canal

  1. Frankie says:

    great pictures, Jon….thanks for sharing. You must be having so much fun! Frankie

  2. Lisa says:

    Hi John! Really enjoyed your article and amen!!!

  3. Lisa says:

    Hi Jon… Really enjoyed your article and amen!!!

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