Common section



During the four last years of construction, nearly 100,000 American and European visitors arrived in Panama to view work on the canal. Interest was so great that steamship lines diverted vessels from other routes to the Caribbean. At Ancón the Isthmian Canal Commission created a tourist station with a lecture room, relief maps, and models of the locks. Tourists could also visit the work site by taking a special train whose open sightseeing cars had been converted from Panama Railroad flatcars.

Back in the States, Tin Pan Alley was busy churning out hits such as “Where the Oceans Meet in Panama (That's Where I'll Meet You)” and “The Pamela,” and the press eagerly reported, alongside sombre news of rising tensions in Europe, each and every landmark and breakthrough.

Work on the west breakwater from Toro Point in Limón Bay started in 1910. As the local rock was too soft to withstand the power of the “northers,” 12- to 18-ton rocks were blasted from the quarry in Portobelo and shipped by sea to be dumped by barges along the outside of the breakwater line. Then a series of creosoted piles were driven in to form a trestle on the inland side. Next, local stone was loaded into flatcars, pushed out along the trestle, and unloaded by the plow method on the inside of the line of hard rock. Work progressed steadily and Colón became a safe harbor for the first time. The east breakwater caused more problems, mainly because the French had dredged deep channels across its line, but it was completed in 1915. The digging inland did not all go smoothly. At Mindi huge amounts of explosives were required to break up the rock, and there were constant problems from flooding. However, by the summer of 1912 only a small belt of land 1,000 feet wide separated the open Atlantic channel from the site of the Gatún Locks. By August 1913 it was the same at the other end of the canal, with just a dike holding the waters of the Pacific back from the Miraflores Locks.

Construction had also got under way for the running of the canal after completion. A new Administration Building was built at Balboa, as La Boca had been renamed, while on Toro Point and Margarita Island in Limón Bay and on the islands of Perico, Flamenco, and Naos in the Bay of Panama 16-inch guns were installed, the largest then in the possession of the United States military. Elsewhere, smaller-bore artillery was sited, along with mortar batteries, to repel a land-based attack. In all, some $15 million was spent on fortifying the canal from attack by sea or by land.

At 4:30 p.m. on May 20, 1913, shovels No. 222 and No. 230 met “nose to nose” at the center of the Cut. At 40 feet above sea level, the Cut had reached its full planned depth. The mighty shovels whirred and clanked to a stop and the men cheered and threw their hats in the air. Whistles were sounded all along the gorge and photographers recorded the event. Now all the shovels could concentrate on removing the massive slides from the eastern end of the Cut.

Further red-letter days followed thick and fast. On June 27, 1913, the last of the Gatún Dam spillway gates was closed, allowing the lake to now rise to its full height. On August 31, a Sunday, so that, Goethals suggested, “everyone could join the fun,” a huge charge was exploded in the dike between the Miraflores Lock and the Pacific channel. The hundreds of spectators then settled back to wait for high tide at noon. The Pacific tide at Panama comes in fast. Soon it was pouring over the breach in the dike, and then rushing in, clearing the dam debris as it went. Then the waters of the Pacific were lapping at the closed gates of the Miraflores Lock. Two days later the same operation was completed for the barrier below the Gatún Locks. Steadily, waters from the two oceans were moving inland to meet each other.

The locks were all completed by the end of the following month, and the Gatún Lock had been successfully tested. But in the Cut the battle against the slides was not going well. The slopes at Cucaracha and Culebra had been cut back to as gentle as one in five, but the movement of earth and rocks into the canal prism continued. In October it was decided to flood the Cut and complete the excavation “in the wet” with dredges. In September, the last steam shovel was moved out, the rails lifted and carried away, and old ties piled up and burned.

The huge earthen dike at Gamboa, which separated the Cut from the rising lake, had six large pipes in its base. These were now opened, and water started to pour into the gorge. Everyone who had worked on the canal had imagined and pictured in his mind's eye the appearance of the Cut when full of water. Now it was happening. Then, on October 10, 1913, in a stunt dreamed up by a newspaperman, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington and relayed by telegraph from Washington to New York to Galveston to Panama the signal that blew the center of the dike to complete the flooding of the Cut, and, it was hoped, blast a passage through the slides at the eastern end. Just before the signal was sent, Rose van Hardeveld remembers, “There was a reverent silence” among the hundreds gathered to witness the spectacle. “No one spoke at all.” Then, “there was a low rumble, a dull muffled B-O-O-M! A triple column shot high in the center, turned, and fell gracefully to both sides like a fountain. From the multitude came a spontaneous long, loud roar of such joy and relief that I felt sure I would remember the sound all my life. As the water poured out of the lake into the Cut, hats came off.” Rose and the children could see their father Jan shaking hands with his boss. Both men were crying.

As the fountain of earth cleared, the spectators could see a great wave sweep down the channel. At its crest rode two small launches and a native dugout, in fierce competition to see who would be the first to get to the Pedro Miguel Locks at the other end of the Cut. But they were in for a disappointment. At the mighty Cucaracha slide the water was stopped. The frustration was immense. Massive amounts of dynamite were used and dredges were brought up from the Atlantic through the Gatún Locks and across the lake to work away at the blockage from that side. But nothing seemed to work. The explosions threw rocks and earth in the air only for them to seemingly land back in the same place. But then the river came to the rescue. After heavy rain the Chagres began to flood. In three days the level of the lake had risen by 3 feet. A small trench was dug out by hand over the Cucaracha blockage, and a trickle of water began to flow across it. As the water bit into the mud, the stream increased to a torrent, further clearing rocks and mud from its path. Soon the dry section behind the blockage was full, and dredges from the Pacific side could start work on the slide from the other direction. Floodlights allowed round-the-clock digging. An old French ladder dredge made the “pioneer cut” through the slide on December 10, 1913, to open the channel for the first time. Although there were still millions of cubic yards of slide material to be removed before an oceangoing vessel could make the transit, the waters of the two oceans were now unmistakably united.

By April 1914, the channel was wide enough for tugs and boats to pass through it, and when an American Hawaiian Steamship Line vessel showed up in the Bay of Panama wanting to move a cargo of tinned pineapples and sugar from Hawaii across the Isthmus, Goethals was able to have it taken through by lighter. Others followed, and by June the canal had taken over $7,000 in tolls.

Practice continued, however, on dealing with larger ships in the locks. In June, an old Panama Railroad steamer locked up and down the Gatún tier very slowly and carefully but without mishap. Meanwhile plans were finalized for a grand celebration to mark the official opening of the Panama Canal, set for August 15, 1914. The boat given the honor of passing through the canal was the Ancon, another Panama Railroad steamer. This was to be followed by a fleet of international warships—symbolizing global concord—sailing through from the Atlantic to the Pacific, arriving in San Francisco in time for the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Leading the fleet would be the Oregon, whose famous race round the Horn during the Spanish War had done so much in the United States to build a case for a publicly funded canal. On board this vessel would be the U.S. president himself.

There was a final practice run on August 3, using the Ancon ‘s sister ship, the Cristobal. Not everything went according to plan. The “mules” in the locks had great difficulty holding the ship, as one burnt out a motor and another had its cable snapped. Nevertheless, it was not these incidents that overshadowed the first interoceanic transit by a seagoing vessel. Toward the end of the trip news came through from Europe: Germany had declared war on France. Philippe Bunau-Varilla had returned to Panama for the canal's opening, and was on board the Cristobalwith his daughter Giselle. As soon as he heard the news, he declared to the other passengers, “Gentlemen, the two consuming ambitions of my life are fulfilled on the same day. The first, to see an ocean liner sail through the Panama Canal: the second, to see France and Germany at war.”

So just as the great civilizing quest of the Panama Canal was coming to an end and the United States was taking her place as a global power, “Old Europe” was embarking on a ruinous and bloody war. The ending of the Victorian world of de Lesseps, foreshadowed by the Panama story, was now complete. Although the Panama-Pacific Exposition went on as planned, the festivities at the canal were canceled. The Ancon still made the official first trip, but it was a muted affair. There were no international dignitaries in attendance. Observing the transit from shore, Goethals followed its progress by railroad. Claude Mallet was on board, however; he was surely the only man present at both the de Lesseps inauguration of the project on a boat in the Bay of Panama in early 1880, and also at the official opening thirty-four years later. He wrote in his memoirs, “The canal has been a life's work to me. As it progressed, I became more and more absorbingly interested in every detail of the enterprise.”

“Everything went like clockwork,” reported Winifred James, English wife of one of the Ancon's guests. “On board were all the foremost Panamanian citizens and politicians, headed by the President of the Republic and his pretty wife. The ministers and consuls of the different Powers stood in groups together talking of the war and to the ladies alternately… We slid slowly up to the first lock and through it; and everybody looked at his watch and wondered when it would be breakfast time.”

There was no razzmatazz, no music, only a few flags among the largely silent crowd lining the tops of the lock walls. On board, the guests were served “mugs of cold tea and dishes of broken meats.” Occasionally someone would get a burst of energy and go around slapping people's backs, saying what a great day it was, but on the whole most remained solemn. According to Winifred James, “Not very late in the morning the Panamanians began to inquire” if there was anything to drink on the ship. There wasn't.

Because of the war, the news of the official opening, so long anticipated, was consigned to the inside pages. “The Panama Canal is open to the commerce of the world. Henceforth ships may pass to and fro through that great waterway,” announced the New York Times on page fourteen. The Philadelphia Record, however, commented that the “Unostentatious dedicatory act [was] a more appropriate celebration of the triumph of the arts of peace than if it had been associated with martial pomp and an array of destroyers and battleships.” The peaceful American “Army of Panama” had fought for its country well. “The practical completion of this great achievement wins little attention from a world intent upon war and the news from Belgium and Alsace,” wrote another paper. “Americans should find solemn pride in the thought that they have added much to a world from which other nations are taking so much away.” How much, of course, could not have been imagined.

The day after the opening, Winifred James came across a squad of Martinican ex-canal workers in uniform marching down to the station to entrain to Colón and thence to fight for France in the war with “the tricolor waving above them and the Marseillaiseplaying them on. Beside them walked their women,” she wrote, “the older ones wearing the gaudy bandana of the Martinique woman, which is the gayest of all the turbans. They were, men and women alike, smiling a little in a hypnotized way, caught up in the trance of the music and the flying colors. Probably none would come back. But that was nothing: the band was playing and they were going to fight for their country.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!