Modern history

21

Triumph

Everything is on a colossal scale.

—Scientific American

March 18, 1911

I

“It is hard for me to transmit to you the feeling we all possessed toward the work,” Robert Wood said. “Rarely can man see his own work, but we saw it physically . . . year by year . . .”

They saw it in the deepening of Culebra Cut; in the rise of docks and warehouses; in the new railroad; in the fortifications being built at Toro Point and Margarita Island in Limon Bay and on the islands of Perico, Flamenco, and Naos in the Bay of Panama. (The giant 16-inch guns being installed were the largest, heaviest weapons in the possession of the United States and had a range of twenty miles.) They saw it in the hydroelectric plant built adjacent to the spillway of Gatun Dam, and in the dam itself, which in its final stage looked as if it had been there always, more like a huge glacial moraine than anything else. It was all measurable progress.

And there was the lake. It had begun its rise with the closing of the West Diversion channel in 1910, when the dam was still incomplete. In the time since, as the water inched steadily up the long, sloped inner face of the dam, as the Chagres gathered and spread inland mile by mile, the realization of what a very different kind of canal it was to be, the conception of a long arm of fresh water suspended in the jungle, began to take hold and with good effect.

Popular interest at home mounted proportionately, the nearer the dream seemed to fulfillment. In the last years of construction, hundreds of articles appeared in magazines and Sunday supplements under such titles as “The Spirit of the Big Job” or “Realizing the Dream of Panama,” “Great Work Nobly Done,” “The Greatest Engineering Work of All Time,” “Our Canal.” In 1913, in anticipation of the projected grand opening, close to a dozen different books were published about Panama and the canal.

But it was also in the closing years of the task that the great locks took form for all to see and they were the most interesting and important construction feats of the entire effort. They were the structural triumphs at Panama. In their overall dimensions, mass, weight, in the mechanisms and ingenious control apparatus incorporated in their design, they surpassed any similar structures in the world. They were, as was often said, the mighty portals of the Panama Gateway. Yet they were something much more than monumental; they did not, like a bridge or a cathedral, simply stand there; they worked. They were made of concrete and they were made of literally thousands of moving parts. Large essential elements were not built, but were manufactured, made in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Schenectady, and other cities. In a very real sense they were colossal machines, the largest yet conceived, and in their final, finished form they would function quite as smoothly as a Swiss watch. They were truly one of the engineering triumphs of all time, but for reasons most people failed to comprehend.

•   •

To build all the locks took four years, from the time the first concrete was laid in the floor at Gatun, August 24, 1909. Most impressive of all was their size, and especially if seen during the last stages of construction before the water was turned in. Visitors who stood on the dry floor of a single lock chamber when all of it was still open to the light felt as though they had suddenly lost their sense of scale. Each individual chamber was a tremendous concrete basin closed at both ends with steel gates. The walls, one thousand feet long, rose to eighty-one feet, or higher than a six-story building. The impression was of looking down a broad, level street nearly five blocks long with a solid wall of six-story buildings on either side; only here there were no windows or doorways, nothing to give human scale. The gates at the ends, standing partly open to the sky, were like something in a dream.

Greatest of the “ocean leviathans” in the year 1913, a ship larger than the Titanic had been, was the proud new 52,000-ton Imperator, of the Hamburg-American Line. The Imperator accommodated 5,500 people (for whom there were no less than eighty-three lifeboats); she had a “Pompeian Bath,” a “social hall” that could accommodate seven hundred passengers traveling first class; and the Imperator could have been contained within a lock chamber with ample room to spare (six feet on each side, nearly sixty feet at either end). A single lock if stood on end would have been the tallest structure in the world, taller even than the Eiffel Tower.1

The artist Joseph Pennell, having climbed down to the floor of an empty lock chamber at Pedro Miguel, found the shapes of gates and walls towering above him so “stupendous” that he was almost unable to draw. Walter Bernard, editor of Scientific American,returned from a visit to the Isthmus to write an article on “The Mammoth Locks” in which he conceded that it is impossible even to consider the subject “without drifting into the superlative mood.” Another visitor would recall “the feeling that follows a service in a great cathedral.”

To build the Great Pyramid or the Wall of China or the cathedrals of France, blocks of stone were set one on top of the other in the age-old fashion. But the walls of the Panama locks were poured from overhead, bucket by bucket, into gigantic forms. And within those forms there had to be still other forms to create the different culverts and tunnels, the special chambers and passageways, required inside the walls. Everything had to be created first in the negative, in order to achieve the positive structure wanted.

Moreover, the creation of the building material itself was a “science” requiring specific, controlled measurements and a streamlined system of delivery from mixing plant to construction site. Timing was vital.

Concrete—a combination of sand, gravel, and portland cement (itself a mixture of limestone and clay)—had been known since the time of the Romans, but was used very little as a building material until the late nineteenth century and then mainly for subbasements and floors. Dry docks and breakwaters were built of reinforced (or ferro) concrete—concrete in which metal rods are added—and in the early 1900’s several major buildings were built of the same material in Europe and the United States, as well as silos, some small bridges, and a Montgomery Ward warehouse in Chicago. George Morison drew up plans for his concrete bridge over Rock Creek Park in Washington, and by 1912 a tremendous concrete railroad bridge, the Tunkhannock Viaduct, was under way near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Nothing even approaching the size of the Panama locks had yet been attempted, however, and not until the building of Boulder Dam in the 1930’s would any concrete structure equal their total volume. The largest amount of concrete ever poured in a day anywhere else was about 1,700 cubic yards. At Gatun alone the daily average was nearly double that.

“No structure in the world contains as large an amount of material,” William Sibert wrote proudly of the great flight of locks at Gatun. With their approach walls, they measured nearly a mile from end to end. The volume of concrete poured was more than 2,000,000 cubic yards—enough, somebody figured, to build a solid wall 8 feet thick, 12 feet high, and 133 miles long. Taken together, the locks at the other end of the canal, at Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, were larger still, with a volume of some 2,400,000 cubic yards.

The lock chambers all had the same dimensions (110 by 1,000 feet) and they were built in pairs, two chambers running side by side in order to accommodate two lanes of traffic. The single flight at Gatun consisted of three such pairs. There was one pair at Pedro Miguel and two at Miraflores, making six pairs (twelve chambers) in all.

The chambers in each pair shared a center wall that was sixty feet wide from bottom to top. The width of the side walls was forty-five to fifty feet at the floor level, but on the outside they were constructed as a series of steps, each step six feet high, starting from a point twenty-four feet from the base level. So at the top, the side walls were only eight feet wide.

The floors of the chambers were solid concrete, anywhere from thirteen to twenty feet thick.

Once completed, the stepped backs of the side walls would be filled in, covered entirely with dirt and rock. And the locks, once they were in use, would never be less than half full of water. So their size would appear nowhere near so overwhelming.

Seen during construction they were a fantasy of huge, raw-looking concrete monoliths, of forms of sheet steel that looked like colossal, blank theatrical flats, of monstrous cranes and soaring cableways—aerial bucket brigades, as somebody said—and of little automatic railroads shunting here and there. The swarms of workers at the lock sites appeared lost beside the rising shapes and the incredible array of mechanical contrivances. The noise was shattering.

At Gatun big square buckets of concrete, nearly six tons to a bucket, were swung through the air high above the locks, dropped to position, and dumped, all by means of a spectacular cableway. Eighty-five-foot steel towers stood on either side of the locks (four on each side) and the cables stretched across a span of some eight hundred feet. The towers were on tracks, so they could be moved forward as the work progressed.

Sand and gravel were brought up the old French canal in barges and were stockpiled near a mixing plant. Then sand, gravel, and portland cement were fed into the plant (a battery of eight concrete mixers) by a little automatic railroad, the cars running in and out on a circular track. Another small railroad carried the buckets of wet concrete from plant to cableway, two buckets on two flatcars pushed by one of the French locomotives. At the cableway two empty buckets would descend from overhead, the two full buckets would be snatched up, delivered through the air at a speed of about twenty miles per hour, then returned to repeat the cycle.

The advantage of such an overhead delivery system was that the work area could be kept free of everything except the essential forms within which the concrete was poured. As fast as a bucketload was deposited, men knee-deep in wet concrete would spread it out.

All the locks were constructed in thirty-six-foot sections, each a single monolith that took about a week to build to its full height. The big steel forms, also on tracks, would then be moved ahead to the next position.

At Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, where the terrain was not so open or spacious as at Gatun, division head Williamson and his civilian engineers decided to use cantilever cranes rather than cableways, cranes so enormous in size that they could be seen rising above the jungle from miles distant. Some of these were in the shape of a gigantic T. Others looked like two gigantic T’s joined together and were known as “chamber cranes,” because they stood within the lock chambers, their long cantilever arms reaching out over the center and side walls. All the cranes moved on tracks and were self-propelling.

The T-shaped variety were the “mixing cranes.” One arm of the T hoisted sand and gravel and cement from stockpiles to mixing plants located in the base of the T. The other arm transferred buckets of fresh concrete to the chamber cranes that in turn swung the buckets to the desired position. The complete operation was about as mechanized as it could possibly have been and to the average onlooker a very weird, unearthly sight to behold. The operator of a chamber crane, the man who guided the concrete to its destination, sat alone in a tiny box hanging from the delivery arm of the crane, nearly a hundred feet off the ground.

Five million sacks and barrels of cement were shipped to Panama to build the locks, dams, and spillways, all of it from New York on the Ancon and the Cristobal, and an idea of what such quantities amounted to is imparted by a single budgetary statistic: an estimated $50,000 was saved in recovered cement after Goethals issued a directive requiring the men to shake each sack after it was emptied.

Gravel and sand for those structures closest to the Atlantic—Gatun Locks, the Gatun spillway—came by water from points twenty to forty miles east of Colón, the gravel from Porto Bello, where a big crushing plant was built, the sand from Nombre de Dios.2On the Pacific side, the rock (basalt, or traprock) was quarried and crushed right at Ancon Hill, while the sand came from Chamé Point, in the Bay of Panama.

By latter-day standards the engineers were novices in the use of concrete. Numerous discoveries had still to be made about the critical water-cement ratio in the “mix design” and the susceptibility of the material to environmental attack. To build anything so large as the concrete locks at Panama was an unprecedented challenge, but what was built had also to hold up in a climate wherein almost everything, concrete included, could go to pieces rapidly. Yet, however comparatively crude the level of theoretical technology may have been regarding the material, the results were extraordinary. After sixty years of service the concrete of the locks and spillways would be in near-perfect condition, which to present-day engineers is among the most exceptional aspects of the entire canal.

•   •

The design and engineering of the locks, the results of years of advance planning, can be attributed largely to three men: Lieutenant Colonel Hodges and two exceptionally able civilians, Edward Schildhauer and Henry Goldmark. Schildhauer, slight of build, clean-shaven, very businesslike, was an electrical engineer and still in his thirties. Goldmark, who with his starched collars and thin, well-brushed hair looked like a corporation lawyer, had responsibility for designing the lock gates.

The fundamental element to be reckoned with and utilized in the locks—the vital factor in the whole plan and all its structural, mechanical, and electrical components—was water. Water would lift and lower the ships. The buoyancy of water would make the tremendous lock gates, gates two to three times heavier than any ever built before, virtually weightless. The power of falling water at the Gatun spillway would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate the system, as well as the towing locomotives or “electric mules.” The canal, in other words, would supply its own energy needs.

No force would be required to raise or lower the level of water in the locks (and thus to raise or lower a ship in transit) other than the force of gravity. The water would simply flow into the locks from above—from Gatun Lake or Miraflores Lake—or flow out into the sea-level channels. The water would be admitted or released through giant tunnels, or culverts, running lengthwise within the center and side walls of the locks, culverts eighteen feet in diameter, as large nearly as the Pennsylvania Railroad tubes under the Hudson River. At right angles to these main culverts, built into the floor of each lock chamber, were smaller cross culverts, fourteen to a chamber, these about large enough to admit a two-horse wagon. Every cross culvert had five well-like openings into the floor, which meant there were all together seventy such holes in each chamber, and it was from these that the water would surge or drain, depending on which valves were opened or shut.

The valves in the large culverts were immense sliding steel gates that moved on roller bearings up and down in frames in the manner of a window. There were two gates to each valve and they weighed ten tons apiece. To fill a lock, the valves at the lower end of the chamber would be closed, those at the upper end opened. The water would pour from the lake through the large culverts into the cross culverts and up through the holes in the chamber floor. To release the water from the lock, the valves at the upper end would be shut, those at the lower end opened.

The reason for having as many as seventy wellholes in the chamber floor was to distribute the turbulence of the incoming water evenly over the full area and thereby subject chamber and ships to a minimum of disturbance. It was the engineers’ intention to be able to raise or lower a ship in a chamber in about fifteen minutes.

Of all the moving parts in the system, the largest and most conspicuous were, of course, the lock gates, or “miter gates,” as they were known, which swung open like double doors and closed in the form of a flattened V. The leaves of the gates weighed many hundreds of tons apiece and were the largest ever erected. Their construction was begun at Gatun in May 1911. As structures they were relatively simple and posed no special challenge, except, again, for their magnitude. A skin of plate steel was riveted to a grid of steel girders in exactly the manner of a steel ship’s hull—or of a modern airplane wing, which they much resembled in vastly enlarged form. And being both hollow and watertight, they would actually float, once there was water in the locks, and thus the working load on their hinges would be comparatively little.

The leaves were all a standard sixty-five feet wide and seven feet thick. They varied in height, however, from forty-seven to eighty-two feet, depending on their position. The highest and heaviest (745 tons) were those of the lower locks at Miraflores, because of the extreme variation in the Pacific tides.

During construction, inspectors went down inside the gates through a system of manholes to check every rivet, an extremely uncomfortable task with the sun beating on the outer steel shell. All imperfect rivets were cut out and replaced and the watertightness of the shell was tested by filling the gate leaves with water.

As a safety precaution there were also to be duplicate gates throughout. One set of double doors was backed by another, in the event that the first set failed to function properly or was rammed by a ship. And since each lock chamber (except the lower locks at Miraflores) had its own set of intermediate gates, the complete system consisted of 46 gates (92 leaves), the total tonnage of which (sixty thousand tons) was almost half again greater than that of a ship such as the Titanic.

The purpose of the intermediate gates was to conserve water. While the locks were built to accommodate ships as large as the Titanic or the Imperator, or larger, each lock chamber could be reduced in size, by closing the intermediate gates, if the ship in transit was not one of the giants and could be accommodated by a chamber of six hundred feet or less. And of all the oceangoing ships in the world at that time, approximately 95 percent were less than six hundred feet long.

To lift a great merchant liner, or any ship of more than six hundred feet, to the level of Gatun Lake would require an expenditure from the lake of 26,000,000 gallons of water, the equivalent of a day’s water supply for a major city. For a complete lockage through the canal, for one ocean-to-ocean transit, the expenditure would be double that amount, all of it fresh water and all washed out to sea.

The technical challenge of the lock gates was in their mechanical engineering, in the design and manufacture of all the devices needed to make them open, close, shut, and lock. So basic an “accessory” item as a hinge assembly called for specifications unlike any previously prepared for a manufacturer. Flawless, precision hardware had to be cast of special steels in pieces that weighed several thousand pounds and that could withstand a strain of several million pounds. The yoke assembly used to fasten the tops of the gates to the lock walls weighed seven tons and looked not unlike the metal creations of some latter-day sculptors.

The gates were opened and closed by a simple, very powerful mechanism devised by Edward Schildhauer. The leaves of the gates were connected by steel arms, or struts, to enormous horizontal “bull wheels” concealed within the lock walls. These wheels, nearly twenty feet in diameter, were each geared to a big electric motor; and wheel and strut worked like the driving wheel and connecting rod on a locomotive, only here the action was reversed since the power was being delivered from the wheel. To open or close a gate, the wheel revolved about 200 degrees.

In the design of such a fundamental piece of apparatus the young engineer had had no established model to go by. Available data “were at variance,” as he wrote, and he had to reckon with such forces as mechanical friction, acceleration, wind resistance, and the effect of different water levels on the two sides of a gate. The extreme test would be the opening and closing of the heaviest gates in a dry chamber. But in recalling the first of such “dry lock” tests, Bishop wrote that the gates swung to and fro “as easily and steadily as one would open an ordinary door.”

But as resourceful as Schildhauer had been in this and other designs, as notably as he and Goldmark succeeded in everything they undertook, the end results were, above all, a stunning demonstration of how very far industrial technology had advanced. Among the more fascinating facts about the Panama Canal, for example, is that all hardware for the lock gates—the lifting mechanisms for the stem valves, the special bearings, gears, and struts for the gate machines, all ninety-two bull wheels—was made by a single manufacturer in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1878, only thirty-five years before, the Quaker ironmaster Daniel J. Morrell had marveled at certain relatively simple steel castings displayed by the French at their Universal Exposition in Paris. Most of what he had seen was quite beyond the most advanced work at Pittsburgh then or at his own mills in Johnstown. Now a comparatively small organization, the Wheeling Mold and Foundry Company, in a comparatively small industrial center, could produce castings in sizes and quantities unimagined in 1878, and of alloy steels formerly used in small quantities only for fine tools and cutlery. Carbon steel, nickel steel, vanadium steel, steels of exceptional strength and high resistance to corrosion, were being developed for naval armament before the turn of the century, but it was the advent of the automobile that spurred their real production. Vanadium steel, for instance, had been adopted by the Ford Motor Company for use in its engines in 1904, and it was of vanadium steel that the most important casting in the lock gates was made, the huge plate upon which the base of each gate leaf turned, a plate that had not only to bear the weight of the gate, but withstand constant immersion in water.

The most obvious and frequently emphasized differences between the French and American efforts at Panama, between failure and success at Panama, were in the application of modern medical science, the methods of financing, and the size of the excavation equipment used. But it should also be understood that the canal that was built was very different from what could have been built by anyone thirty years earlier. It was not only a much larger canal than it would have been (the locks were nearly twice as large as those designed by Eiffel, which measured 59 by 590 feet); it was constructed differently and of different materials. And its means of operation and control were altogether different. “Strongly as the Panama Canal appeals to the imagination as the carrying out of an ideal,” wrote one astute editor, “it is above all things a practical, mechanical, and industrial achievement.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the city of Pittsburgh, where some fifty different mills, foundries, machine shops, and specialty fabricators were involved in the canal, making rivets, bolts, nuts (in the millions), steel girders, steel plates, steel forms for the lock walls, special collapsible steel tubes by which the main culverts were formed, steel roller bearings (18,794 steel roller bearings) for the stem valves and spillway gates. The building of the gates themselves had been entrusted to McClintic-Marshall, a Pittsburgh contracting firm that specialized in heavy steel bridge construction.

The giant cranes in use on the Pacific locks traced their structural lineage to the Eiffel Tower. The steel rope—wire cable—used in the cableways and on the cranes, used in fact on every steam shovel and dipper dredge, had its origins in the Brooklyn Bridge, and indeed most of the cable had been manufactured by John A. Roebling Sons.

Cranes, cableways, rock crushers, cement mixers, all ran by electricity. The canal’s own motive power, its entire nervous system, was electrical, and an all-electric canal was something quite new under the sun and something that would have been altogether impossible even ten years earlier.

Operation of the locks would depend on no less than 1,500 electric motors. All controls were electrical. The most important part played by any one manufacturer was that of the General Electric Company, which produced approximately half the electrical apparatus needed during construction and virtually all the motors, relays, switches, wiring, and generating equipment that was installed permanently, in addition to the towing locomotives and all the lighting.

Besides the ninety-two motors used to swing the lock gates, there were forty-six small motors to run “miter forcing” mechanisms that locked the gate leaves once they were in the closed position. On top of every gate was a footwalk with a handrail, so attendants could go back and forth from one side of the lock to the other whenever the gates were closed. With the gates open, the handrail would be in the way, so it too was raised or lowered by an electric motor.

There were more than a hundred 40-horsepower motors to operate the big stem valves in the main culverts, while the largest motors installed, motors of 70 and 150 horsepower, similar to those being developed for heavy duty in steel mills, were needed for two “extraordinary precautions” taken to safeguard the lock gates from damage.

As a ship approached the entrance to the locks, its path would be blocked by a tremendous iron “fender” chain stretched between the walls. The chain would be lowered (into a special groove in the channel floor) only if all was proceeding properly—that is, if the ship was in proper position and in control of the towing locomotives. If the ship was out of control and struck the chain, then the chain would be payed out slowly by an automatic release until the ship was brought to a stop, short of the lock gates. (A 10,000-ton ship moving at five knots could be checked within seventy feet.) The length of the chain was more than four hundred feet and its ends were attached to big hydraulic pistons housed in the lock walls. There were pumps to supply water for the pistons and more electric motors to run the pumps.

If by some very remote chance a ship were to smash through the fender chain, the safety gates would still stand in the path, the apex of their leaves pointed toward the ship. To break through the safety gates would take a colossal force, and it was almost inconceivable that the forward motion of any ship could be that great, having just encountered the fender chain. But in the event that this too occurred, there was still one further safeguard.

The most serious threat to the locks would be from a ship out of control as it approached the upper gates, a ship, that is, about to go down through the locks and out of the canal. For if the upper gates were destroyed, then the lake would come plunging through the locks.

So on the side walls at the entrance of each upper lock, between the fender chain and the guard gates, stood a big steel apparatus that looked like a cantilever railroad bridge. This was the emergency dam. It was mounted on a pivot and in a crisis it could be swung—turned electrically—across the lock entrance in about two minutes’ time. From its underside a series of wicket girders would descend, their ends dropping into iron pockets in the concrete channel floor. The girders would form runways down which huge steel plates would be dropped, one after another, until the channel was sealed off. It was an ungainly contraption, but it worked most effectively.

The likelihood of a ship even hitting the chain was extremely small. The chance of a ship hitting the chain and breaking it was reckoned at perhaps one in ten thousand.3

Under normal procedure a ship would be controlled by the towing locomotives all the way through the locks, with four locomotives to the average-sized ship, two forward pulling, two aft holding the ship steady. At no time in the locks would a ship move under its own power.

Like nearly every detail of the locks, the towing locomotives were the first of a kind. Presently they would become one of the most familiar features of the canal. They were designed by Schildhauer to work back and forth on tracks built into the top of the lock walls and to move a ship from point to point at about two miles an hour or less. But they also had to negotiate the 45-degree incline between the locks.

Built at Schenectady, the early model cost $13,000. The first order was for forty. Each machine was a little more than thirty feet long, weighed forty-three tons, and had identical cabs at either end, duplicate controls and driving engines, so that it could run in either direction without being turned around. The key feature, however, was a big independently powered, center-mounted windlass that handled some eight hundred feet of steel cable. With the windlass the locomotive could control a ship without even moving. Line could be payed out or reeled in at rapid speed and with loads on the line of as much as twenty-five thousand pounds.

For the still young, still comparatively small General Electric Company the successful performance of all such apparatus, indeed the perfect efficiency of the entire electrical system, was of the utmost importance. This was not merely a very large government contract, the company’s first large government contract, but one that would attract worldwide attention. It was a chance like none other to display the virtues of electric power, to bring to bear the creative resources of the electrical engineer. The canal, declared one technical journal, would be a “monument to the electrical art.” It had been less than a year since the first factory in the United States had been electrified.

In the broader context, the arrangement was also a historic forerunner: a large, novel, technological objective was to be obtained in abnormally little time and according to the most stringent standards through the combined efforts of the federal government and a specialized industry. (It is, to be sure, a very long way from the electrical installations at Panama to the Manhattan Project, but the lineage is plain.) Furthermore, the outstanding success of the arrangement, the most original and important piece of work to come out of the contract, was that for which the spirit of government-industry cooperation was the most pronounced.

The advantages of electrical power were many: it could be transmitted over long distances; in complicated installations each different machine or mechanism could have its own motor drive (exactly as in the locks), instead of the power being transmitted here and there from one central source by an elaborate system of drive shafts, belts, and pulleys (as in a conventional steam-driven factory). The motors themselves were relatively small, compact, watertight; they turned at constant speeds irrespective of the loads put upon them; they required a minimum of attention; they would not blow up.

But the chief virtue of electricity was in the degree of control it afforded. Things could be made to happen—stop, start, open, close—with the mere press of a button or the turning of a few simple switches on a central control board. And so it was to be at Panama, and with one other extremely important feature. In this operation, things could be made to happen only as they were supposed to, in exactly the prescribed sequence.

Though the fundamental principles were much like those developed for railroad switchboards, no comparable control system had been produced heretofore. Again credit for the basic conception belongs to Edward Schildhauer, but otherwise it was a wholly joint effort. “No specifications could have been more exacting or explicit as to the results to be accomplished,” wrote one of the engineers at Schenectady, “or have given a wider range as to the method of their accomplishment . . . . It was the single aim of all concerned to produce something better, safer and more reliable than anything before undertaken.” A special department was set up at the General Electric works, wherein picked employees concentrated solely on the Panama project. Company engineers were sent to the Isthmus to become thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the problem; Schildhauer and members of his staff came to Schenectady. The result was an unqualified success.

The operation of each flight of locks was to be run from the second floor of a large control house built on the center wall of the uppermost lock. From there, with an unobstructed view of the entire flight, one man at one control board could run every operation in the passage of a ship except the movement of the towing locomotives.

Each control board was a long, flat, waist-high bench, or counter, upon which the locks were represented in miniature—a complete working reproduction. The board at Gatun was sixty-four feet in length and about five feet wide. There were little aluminum fender chains that would actually rise in place or sink back out of sight on the board as a switch was turned. The lock chambers were represented by slabs of blue marble. There were aluminum pointers placed in the same relative positions as the lock gates and these opened or closed as the actual lock gates opened and closed. There were upright indicators showing the positions of the rising stem valves, and there were still taller upright indexes showing the level of the water in the chambers to within half an inch.

Everything that happened in the locks—the rise and fall of the fender chains, the opening and closing of the gates—happened on the board in the appropriate place and at precisely the same time. So the situation in the locks could be read in an instant on the board at any stage of the lockage.

In addition, the switches to work the fender chains, lock gates, stem valves, all the switches for every mechanism in the system, were located beside the representation of that device on the board. To lift a 40,000-ton ship twenty-one feet in a lock chamber, one had only to turn a small aluminum handle about like that on an ordinary faucet.

The genius of the system, however, was in the elaborate racks of interlocking bars concealed from view beneath the board. For not only was the operator able to see the entire lockage process in miniature and in operation on the board before him, but the switches were interlocking—mechanically. Each had to be turned in proper sequence, otherwise it would not turn. It was impossible therefore to do anything out of order or to forget to take any crucial step in the necessary order. For example, the switch to lower the fender chain would not operate until the switch to open the lock gates had been thrown into the opening position. Thus no one at the control board could inadvertently lower the chain for a ship to proceed and not have the gates open for the ship to enter the locks. Nor could the same gates be closed once the ship was in the lock without first turning the switch to raise the fender chain again, thus assuring that the chain would always be in the up position to protect the gates whenever the gates were closed.

The gate switch was further interlocked with the switch for the miter-forcing machine (to open the gates the operator had first to unlock the miter-forcing machine). When the stem valves in the culverts were to be opened, to raise the water and lift the ship to the next level, it was possible to open only the correct valves. At Gatun, for example, this would mean that an operator could not possibly flood the lower locks in the flight by opening the valves for the middle and upper chambers at once.

Only with a system run by electricity could the locks have been controlled from a central point. In some instances the distance from an individual motor in the system to the control board was as much as half a mile.

More than half a century later the same control panels would still be in use, functioning exactly as intended, everything as the engineers originally devised. “They were very smart people,” a latter-day engineer at Miraflores would remark. “After twenty-one years here I am still amazed at what they did.”

•   •

Once, just before the canal was completed, the Commission of Fine Arts sent the sculptor Daniel Chester French and the landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, Jr., son of the famous creator of New York’s Central Park, to suggest ways in which the appearance of the locks and other components might be dressed up or improved upon. The two men reported:

The canal itself and all the structures connected with it impress one with a sense of their having been built with a view strictly to their utility. There is an entire absence of ornament and no evidence that the aesthetic has been considered except in a few instances . . . . Because of this very fact there is little to find fault with from the artist’s point of view. The canal, like the Pyramids or some imposing object in natural scenery, is impressive from its scale and simplicity and directness. One feels that anything done merely for the purpose of beautifying it would not only fail to accomplish that purpose, but would be an impertinence.

Consequently nothing was changed or added. The canal would look as its builders intended, nothing less or more.

II

For all practical purposes the canal was finished when the locks were. And so efficiently had construction of the locks been organized that they were finished nearly a year earlier than anticipated. Had it not been for the slides in the Cut, adding more than 25,000,000 cubic yards to the total amount of excavation, the canal might have opened in 1913.

The locks on the Pacific side were finished first, the single flight at Pedro Miguel in 1911, Miraflores in May 1913. Morale was at an all-time high. Asked by a journalist what the secret of success had been, Goethals answered, “The pride everyone feels in the work.”

“Men reported to work early and stayed late, without overtime,” Robert Wood remembered. “ . . . I really believe that every American employed would have worked that year without pay, if only to see the first ship pass through the completed Canal. That spirit went down to all the laborers.”

The last concrete was laid at Gatun on May 31, 1913, eleven days after two steam shovels had met “on the bottom of the canal” in Culebra Cut. Shovel No. 222, driven by Joseph S. Kirk, and shovel No. 230, driven by D. J. MacDonald, had been slowly narrowing the gap all day when they at last stood nose to nose. The Cut was as deep as it would go, forty feet above sea level.

In the second week in June, it would be reported that the newly installed upper guard gates at Gatun had been “swung to a position halfway open; then shut, opened wide, closed and . . . noiselessly, without any jar or vibration, and at all times under perfect control.”

On June 27 the last of the spillway gates was closed at Gatun Dam. The lake at Gatun had reached a depth of forty-eight feet; now it would rise to its full height.

Three months later all dry excavation ended. The Cucaracha slide still blocked the path, but Goethals had decided to clear it out with dredges once the Cut was flooded. So on the morning of September 10, photographers carried their gear into the Cut to record the last large rock being lifted by the last steam shovel. Locomotive No. 260 hauled out the last dirt train and the work crews moved in to tear up the last of the track. “The Cut tonight presented an unusual spectacle,” cabled a correspondent for The New York Times,“hundreds of piles of old ties from the railroad tracks being in flames.”

Then on September 26 at Gatun the first trial lockage was made.

A seagoing tug, Gatun, used until now for hauling mud barges in the Atlantic entrance, was cleaned up, “decorated with all the flags it owned,” and came plowing up from Colón in the early-morning sunshine. By ten o’clock several thousand people were clustered along the rims of the lock walls to witness the historic ascent. There were men on the tops of the closed lock gates, leaning on the handrails. The sky was cloudless, and in midair above the lower gates, a photographer hung suspended from the cableway. He was standing in a cement bucket, his camera on a tripod, waiting for things to begin.

But it was to be a long, hot day. The water was let into the upper chamber shortly after eleven, but because the lake had still to reach its full height, there was a head of only about eight feet and so no thunderous rush ensued when the valves were opened. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of this phase of the operation, so far as the spectators were concerned, was the quantity of frogs that came swirling in with the muddy water.

With the upper lock filled, however, the head between it and the middle lock was fifty-six feet, and so when the next set of culverts was opened, the water came boiling up from the bottom of the empty chamber in spectacular fashion.

The central control board was still not ready. All valves were being worked by local control and with extreme caution to be sure everything was just so. Nor were any of the towing locomotives in service as yet. Just filling the locks took the whole afternoon. It was nearly five by the time the water in the lowest chamber was even with the surface of the sea-level approach outside and the huge gates split apart and wheeled slowly back into their niches in the walls.

The tug steamed into the lower lock, looking, as one man recalled, “like a chip on a pond.” Sibert, Schildhauer, young George Goethals, and their wives were standing on the prow. “The Colonel” and Hodges were on top of the lock wall, walking from point to point, both men in their shirt sleeves, Goethals carrying a furled umbrella, Hodges wearing glossy puttees and an enormous white hat. The gates had opened in one minute forty-eight seconds, as expected.

The tug proceeded on up through the locks, step by step. The gates to the rear of the first chamber were closed; the water in the chamber was raised until it reached the same height as the water on the other side of the gates ahead. The entire tremendous basin swirled and churned as if being stirred by some powerful, unseen hand and the rise of the water—and of the little boat—was very apparent. Those on board could feel themselves being lifted, as if in a very slow elevator. With the water in the lower chamber equal to that in the middle chamber, the intervening gates were opened and the tug went forward. Again the gates to the stern swung shut; again, with the opening of the huge subterranean culverts, the caramel-colored water came suddenly to life and began its rise to the next level.

It was 6:45 when the last gates were opened in the third and last lock and the tug steamed out onto the surface of Gatun Lake. The day had come and gone, it was very nearly dark, and as the boat turned and pointed to shore, her whistle blowing, the crowd burst into a long cheer. The official time given for this first lockage was one hour fifty-one minutes, or not quite twice as long as would be required once everything was in working order.

That an earthquake should strike just four days later seemed somehow a fitting additional touch, as if that too were essential in any thorough testing-and-proving drill. It lasted more than an hour, one violent shudder following another, and the level of magnitude appears to have been greater than that of the San Francisco quake of 1906. The needles of a seismograph at Ancon were jolted off the scale paper. Walls cracked in buildings in Panama City; there were landslides in the interior; a church fell. But the locks and Gatun Dam were untouched. “There has been no damage whatever to any part of the canal,” Goethals notified Washington.

Water was let into Culebra Cut that same week, through six big drain pipes in the earth dike at Gamboa. Then on the afternoon of October 10, President Wilson pressed a button in Washington and the center of the dike was blown sky-high. The idea had been dreamed up by a newspaperman. The signal, relayed by telegraph wire from Washington to New York to Galveston to Panama, was almost instantaneous. Wilson walked from the White House to an office in the Executive Building (as the State, War, and Navy Building had been renamed) and pressed the button at one minute past two. At two minutes past two several hundred charges of dynamite opened a hole more than a hundred feet wide and the Cut, already close to full, at once became an extension of Gatun Lake.

•   •

In all the years that the work had been moving ahead in the Cut and on the locks, some twenty dredges of different kinds, assisted by numbers of tugs, barges, and crane boats, had been laboring in the sea-level approaches of the canal and in the two terminal bays, where forty-foot channels had to be dug several miles out to deep water. Much of this was equipment left behind by the French; six dredges in the Atlantic fleet, four in the Pacific fleet, a dozen self-propelled dump barges, two tugs, one drill boat, one crane boat, were all holdovers from that earlier era. Now, to clear the Cut of slides, about half this equipment was brought up through the locks, the first procession from the Pacific side passing through Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on October 25.

The great, awkward dredges took their positions in the Cut; barges shunted in and out, dumping their spoil in designated out-of-the-way corners of Gatun Lake, all in the very fashion that Philippe Bunau-Varilla had for so long championed as the only way to do the job. Floodlights were installed in the Cut and the work went on day and night. On December 10, 1913, an old French ladder dredge, the Marmot, made the “pioneer cut” through the Cucaracha slide, thus opening the channel for free passage.

The first complete passage of the canal took place almost incidentally, as part of the new workaday routine, on January 7, when an old crane boat, the Alexandre La Valley, which had been brought up from the Atlantic side sometime previously, came down through the Pacific locks without ceremony, without much attention of any kind. That the first boat through the canal was French seemed to everyone altogether appropriate.

•   •

The end was approaching faster than anyone had quite anticipated. Thousands of men were being let go; hundreds of buildings were being disassembled or demolished. Job applications were being written to engineering offices in New York and to factories in Detroit, where, according to the latest reports, there was great opportunity in the automobile industry. Families were packing for home. There were farewell parties somewhere along the line almost every night of the week.

William Gorgas resigned from the canal commission to go to South Africa to help fight an alarming surge of pneumonia among black workers in the gold mines. The understanding was that it would be a brief assignment, after which he was to be made surgeon general of the Army.

Joseph Bucklin Bishop left to resume his literary career in New York.

With the arrival of the new year the Isthmian Canal Commission was disbanded and President Wilson named Goethals the first Governor of the Panama Canal, as the new administrative entity was to be officially known. Goethals’ salary as governor was to be $10,000 a year, which was $5,000 less than what he had been paid as chairman of the I.C.C., a decision made in the Senate, which inspired the popular “Mr. Dooley,” the syndicated creation of humorist Finley Peter Dunne, to observe:

“They say republics are ongrateful, but look, will ye, what they’ve done f’r that fellow that chopped the continent in two at Pannyma. He’s a hero, I grant ye, although I’m sorry f’r it, because I can’t pronounce his name . . . . What is he goin’ to git? says ye? Why, Hinnissy, th’ Governmint has already app’inted him Governor iv th’ Canal at a greatly rejooced salary.”

In Washington after a drawn-out, often acrimonious debate, Congress determined that the clause in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty stipulating that the canal would be open to the vessels of all nations “on terms of entire equality” meant that American ships could not use the canal toll free, as many had ardently wanted and as much of the press had argued for. American ships would pay the same as the ships of every other nation, 90 cents per cargo ton.

In Washington also, and in San Francisco, plans were being made for tremendous opening celebrations intended to surpass even those at the opening of the Suez Canal. More than a hundred warships, “the greatest international fleet ever gathered in American waters,” were to assemble off Hampton Roads on New Year’s Day, 1915, then proceed to San Francisco by way of Panama. At San Francisco they would arrive for the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a mammoth world’s fair in celebration of the canal. The estimate was that it would take four days for the armada to go through the locks.

Schoolchildren in Oregon wrote to President Wilson to urge that the old battleship Oregon lead the flotilla through the canal. The idea was taken up by the press and by the Navy Department. The officer who had commanded the ship on her famous “race around the Horn” in 1898, retired Admiral Charles Clark, hale and fit at age seventy, agreed to command her once again and the President was to be his honored guest.

But there was to be no such pageant. The first oceangoing ship to go through the canal was a lowly cement boat, the Cristobal, and on August 15 the “grand opening” was performed almost perfunctorily by the Ancon. There were no world luminaries on her prow. Goethals again watched from shore, traveling from point to point on the railroad. The only impressive aspect of the event was “the ease and system with which everything worked,” as wrote one man on board. “So quietly did she pursue her way that . . . a strange observer coming suddenly upon the scene would have thought that the canal had always been in operation, and that the Ancon was only doing what thousands of other vessels must have done before her.”

Though the San Francisco exposition went ahead as planned, all but the most modest festivities surrounding the canal itself had been canceled.

For by ironic, tragic coincidence the long effort at Panama and Europe’s long reign of peace drew to a close at precisely the same time. It was as if two powerful and related but vastly different impulses, having swung in huge arcs in the forty some years since Sedan, had converged with eerie precision in August 1914. The storm that had been gathering over Europe since June broke on August 3, the same day the Cristobal made the first ocean-to-ocean transit. On the evening of the third, the French premier, Viviani, received a telephone call from the American ambassador who, with tears in his voice, warned that the Germans would declare war within the hour. The American ambassador was Myron T. Herrick, who had once been so helpful to Philippe Bunau-Varilla, and at the same moment in Panama, where it was still six hours earlier in the day, Philippe Bunau-Varilla was standing at the rail of the Cristobal as she entered the lock at Pedro Miguel, at the start of her descent to the Pacific, he being one of the very few who had come especially for the occasion.

Across Europe and the United States, world war filled the newspapers and everyone’s thoughts. The voyage of the Cristobal, the Ancon’s crossing to the Pacific on August 15, the official declaration that the canal was open to the world, were buried in the back pages.

There were editorials hailing the victory of the canal builders, but the great crescendo of popular interest had passed; a new heroic effort commanded world attention. The triumph at Panama suddenly belonged to another and very different era.

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Of the American employees in Panama at the time the canal was opened only about sixty had been there since the beginning in 1904. How many black workers remained from the start of the American effort, or from an earlier time, is not recorded. But one engineer on the staff, a Frenchman named Arthur Raggi, had been first hired by the Compagnie Nouvelle in 1894.

Goethals, Sibert, Hodges, Schildhauer, Goldmark, and the others had been on the job for seven years and the work they performed was of a quality seldom ever known.

Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life. Dollar expenditures since 1904 totaled $352,000,000 (including the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 paid to the French company). By present standards this does not seem a great deal, but it was more than four times what Suez had cost, without even considering the sums spent by the two preceding French companies, and so much more than the cost of anything ever before built by the United States government as to be beyond compare.4 Taken together, the French and American expenditures came to about $639,000,000.

The other cost since 1904, according to the hospital records, was 5,609 lives from disease and accidents. No fewer than 4,500 of these had been black employees. The number of white Americans who died was about 350.

If the deaths incurred during the French era are included, the total price in human life may have been as high as twenty-five thousand, or five hundred lives for every mile of the canal.

Yet amazingly, unlike any such project on record, unlike almost any major construction of any kind, the canal designed and built by the American engineers had cost less in dollars than it was supposed to. The final price was actually $23,000,000 below what had been estimated in 1907, and this despite the slides, the change in the width of the canal, and an additional $11,000,000 for fortifications, all factors not reckoned in the earlier estimate. The volume of additional excavation resulting from slides (something over 25,000,000 cubic yards) was almost equal to all the useful excavation accomplished by the French. The digging of Culebra Cut ultimately cost $90,000,000 (or $10,000,000 a mile). Had such a figure been anticipated at the start, it is questionable whether Congress would have ever approved the plan.

The total volume of excavation accomplished since 1904 was 232,440,945 cubic yards and this added to the approximately 30,000,000 cubic yards of useful excavation by the French gave a grand total, in round numbers, of 262,000,000 cubic yards, or more than four times the volume originally estimated by Ferdinand de Lesseps for a canal at sea level and nearly three times the excavation at Suez.

The canal had also been opened six months ahead of schedule, and this too in the face of all those difficulties and changes unforeseen seven years before.

Without question, the credit for such a record belongs chiefly to George Goethals, whose ability, whose courage and tenacity, were of the highest order.

That so vast and costly an undertaking could also be done without graft, kickbacks, payroll padding, any of the hundred and one forms of corruption endemic to such works, seemed almost inconceivable at the start, nor does it seem any less remarkable in retrospect. Yet the canal was, among so many other things, a clean project. No excessive profits were made by any of the several thousand different firms dealt with by the I.C.C. There had not been the least hint of scandal from the time Goethals was given command, nor has evidence of corruption of any kind come to light in all the years since.

Technically the canal itself was a masterpiece in design and construction. From the time they were first put in use the locks performed perfectly.

Because of the First World War, traffic remained comparatively light until 1918, only four or five ships a day, less than two thousand ships a year on the average. And not until July of 1919 was there a transit of an American armada to the Pacific, that spectacle Theodore Roosevelt had envisioned so long before. Thirty-three ships returning from the war zone, including seven destroyers and nine battleships, were locked through the canal, all but three in just two days.

Ten years after it opened, the canal was handling more than five thousand ships a year; traffic was approximately equal to that of Suez. The British battle cruiser Hood and the U.S. carriers Saratoga and Lexington squeezed through the locks with only feet to spare on their way to the Pacific in the 1920’s. By 1939 annual traffic exceeded seven thousand ships.

But in the decades following the Second World War, that figure more than doubled. Channel lighting was installed in 1966 and nighttime transits were inaugurated. Ships were going through the canal at a rate of more than one an hour, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Many of them, moreover—giant container ships, bulk carriers—were of a size never dreamed of when the canal was built: the 845-foot Melodic, the 848-foot Arctic, the 950-foot Tokyo Bay, the largest container ship in the world at the time she made her first transit in 1972. Traffic in the canal by the 1970’s was beyond fifteen thousand ships a year, annual tonnage was well beyond the 100,000,000 mark. Tonnage in 1915 had been 5,000,000.

The Queen Mary, launched in 1936, was the first ship too large for the locks and others followed—Queen Elizabeth, Normandie, and, in recent years, supertankers larger even than the Tokyo Bay, ships more than 1,000 feet long with beams of more than 150 feet.5 As a consequence of this and the steadily mounting traffic in the canal, serious proposals were prepared for a new canal. The President of the United States appointed a commission and all the old routes were surveyed once again—across Tehuantepec, Nicaragua, in the valley of the Atrato, and across the Darien wilderness, at San Blas and at Caledonia Bay.

In 1915 tolls for the year were about $4,000,000. By 1970 they exceeded $100,000,000, even though the rates remained unchanged. In 1973, after sixty years, the Panama Canal Company recorded its first loss, as a result of mounting costs of operation, so in 1974 tolls were raised for the first time, from 90 cents per cargo ton to $1.08, an increase of 20 percent.6 Annual revenues from tolls presently exceed $140,000,000.

The largest toll yet paid was for the largest passenger ship ever to pass through the canal, the Queen Elizabeth II. She was locked through in March 1975 and paid a record $42,077.88. The average toll per ship (at the present rate) is about $10,000, which is roughly a tenth of the cost of sailing eight thousand miles around Cape Horn.

The lowest toll on record was paid by Richard Halliburton, world traveler, best-selling author, toast of the lecture platform, who in the 1920’s swam the length of the canal, doing it by installments one day at a time. He was not the first to swim the canal, but was the first to persuade the authorities to allow him through the locks. So based on his weight, 140 pounds, he was charged a toll of 36 cents.

Changes have been made in the canal as time passed: the Cut was widened to five hundred feet, a storage dam was built across the Chagres about ten miles above Gamboa, and the original towing locomotives were retired and replaced by more powerful models made in Japan. But fundamentally, and for all general appearances, the canal remains the same as the day it opened and its basic plan has been challenged in only one respect. It has been argued that the separation of the two sets of locks at the Pacific end was a blunder, that it would have been a more efficient canal had the Pacific locks been built as a unit at Miraflores, just as at Gatun. But those who have had the most experience with running the canal in recent years do not regard the Pacific arrangement as a limiting factor, and indeed various tests run by the Panama Canal Company through the years indicate that Gatun is actually more of a bottleneck. With certain improvements, the engineers believe the capacity of the present canal could be increased to about twenty-seven thousand ships a year.

The one undeniable misjudgment on Goethals’ part was his forecast concerning the slides: he was sure they were over the summer the canal opened. But on a night in October 1914, the side of the Cut at East Culebra gave way and in half an hour the entire channel was blocked. In August the following year the same thing happened again. On September 18, 1915, came the most discouraging break of all in what had been newly renamed Gaillard Cut—an avalanche that closed the canal to traffic for seven months. When the canal reopened, Goethals again insisted that the problem would be “overcome finally and for all time.” But that day never arrived. Hundreds of acres of mud and rock slipped into the Cut as the years passed; dredging remained an almost continuous task and a huge expense. And the angle of repose has still to be found. One slide in 1974 dumped an estimated 1,000,000 cubic yards into the Cut.

•   •

The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.

For millions of people after 1914, the crossing at Panama would be one of life’s memorable experiences. The complete transit required about twelve hours, and except for the locks and an occasional community along the shore, the entire route was bordered by the same kind of wilderness that had confronted the first surveyors for the railroad. Goethals had determined that the jungle not merely remain untouched, but that it be allowed to return wherever possible. This was a military rather than an aesthetic decision on his part; the jungle he insisted before a congressional committee was the surest possible defense against ground attack. (Actually he wanted to depopulate the entire Zone, since, as he explained to reporters, “we, as Americans, have no property rights in it.”) But for those on board a ship in transit, the effect for the greater part of the journey was of sailing a magnificent lake in undiscovered country. The lake was always more spacious than people expected, Panama far more beautiful. Out on the lake the water was ocean green. The water was very pure, they would learn, and being fresh water, it killed all the barnacles on the ship’s bottom.

In the rainy season, storms could be seen long in advance, building in the hills. Sudden bursts of cool wind would send tiny whitecaps chasing over the lake surface. The crossing was no journey down a great trough in the continent, as so many imagined it would be, but a passage among flaming green islands, the tops of hills that protruded still above the surface. For years after the first ships began passing through, much of the shore was lined with half-drowned trees, their dry limbs as white as bones.

The sight of another ship appearing suddenly from around a bend ahead was always startling, so complete was the feeling of being in untraveled waters, so very quiet was everything.

In the Cut the quiet was more powerful, there being little if any wind, and the water was no longer green, but mud-colored, and the sides of what had been the spine of the Cordilleras seemed to press in very close.

Even in the locks there was comparatively little noise. Something so important as the Panama Canal, something so large and vital to world commerce, ought somehow to make a good deal of noise, most people seemed to feel. But it did not. Bells clanged on the towing locomotives now and again and there was the low whine of their engines, but little more than that. There was little shouting back and forth among the men who handled the lines, since each knew exactly what he was to do. The lock gates appeared to swing effortlessly and with no perceptible sound.


1 If placed upright in present day Manhattan, a Panama lock would be among the tallest structures on the skyline, surpassed only by the World Trade Center and the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. The difference between the length of a lock and the height of the Empire State Building, for example, is 250 feet.

2 In their initial search for sand of the proper quality, the engineers had gone as far as the San Blas Islands, ninety miles east of Colón, and found just what they wanted. But the San Blas Indians declared that the islands—land, water, and sand—were God’s gifts to them and that which God had given they would neither sell nor give to the white man. The engineers were permitted only to anchor overnight, and on the condition that they would leave at dawn and never return.

3 In fact, the emergency dams, like the 16-inch guns, would never be used and eventually they were dismantled and removed.

4 Except for wars, the only remotely comparable federal expenditures up to the year 1914 had been for the acquisition of new territories, and the figure for all acquisitions as of that date—for the Louisiana Territory; Florida; California, New Mexico, and other western land acquired from Mexico; the Gadsden Purchase; Alaska; and the Philippines—was $75,000,000, or only about one-fifth of what had been spent on the canal.

5 At this writing there are more than seven hundred “superships” of a size too large to pass through the Panama Canal. But it should be understood that those who built them knew the dimensions of the locks; in other words, use of the canal by such vessels was never intended.

6 By law the canal is designed to be self-sustaining and must break even.

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