The Panama Canal: A century of progress in a land that time forgot

One of the greatest engineering projects in the history of the world was the product of vision, hard work, and 5,600 lives; it remains a towering achievement and a great destination.

The Panama Canal has been in operation for more than 100 years (Taylor)

PANAMA CANAL ZONE, PANAMA, June 10, 2017 — Travel tip: If you really want to see the Panama Canal and how it operates, do it by land and sea rather than on a trans-canal cruise.

With a land/sea tour, travelers see the canal from the inside-out as well as the outside-in. They discover the history, tour the man-made Gatun Lake, visit Panamanian craftsmen, scoot across the top of a rain forest and see the country up close and personal for about half the price of a cruise.

Tons of cargo transiting the canal (Taylor)

Collette Tours offers one of the best travel packages going to this “land between the seas,” where the 100 year old waterway connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. You might just say that touring Panama through the countryside is a “lock.”

The 50-mile Panama Canal project began in 1881, when French teams attempted to link the oceans. A high mortality rate, largely due to malaria, and engineering problems halted construction until 1904, when the United States took up the challenge.

Where the original canal meets its new wider sister (Taylor)

One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects in history, the canal opened a decade later in 1914. It reduced transit times between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and let ships avoid the hazardous route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

Heading into the locks (Taylor)

There are only six locks for ships to negotiate, three to traverse at either end of the canal before entering the man-made Gatun Lake, which was created to reduce the amount of excavation work. Though both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean are on relatively the same level, the lake sits about 85-feet above sea level, making the locks necessary.

While the canal has served its purpose magnificently for more than a century, wider locks became necessary to accommodate modern-day ships that are even wider. As a consequence, Post-Panamax ships have been making transits through an expanded canal and a third set of locks which began operation only about a year ago.

The locks close, water fills in and the ships rise (Taylor)

Since its opening in 1914, when approximately 1,000 ships went through the canal, more than 850,000 vessels had cleared the locks by 2013. About 15,000 ships pass through one of man’s finest architectural achievements each year.

Only 18-inches of clearance on each side (Taylor)

As early as 1534, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey across the Isthmus of Panama to determine if it would be possible to bypass the lower tip of South America. Not only would that be a major trade advantage, but a huge military advantage over the Portuguese as well.

Culebra Cut was one of the biggest hurdles. It later became Gatun Lake (Taylor)

Four centuries later there was interest by some Americans to run a canal through Nicaragua rather than Panama.

In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Columbia, and as part of the recognition of the new country, a treaty was signed granting the United States rights to build the canal and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. The language of the treaty was misinterpreted as granting the U.S. a 99 year lease on the project.

Panama remains an environmental paradise (Taylor)

The Republic of Panama became a U.S. protectorate from 1903 until 1939.

Once convinced that Panama was a better location for a canal than Nicaragua, President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”

the face of Panama (Taylor)

Using the abandoned French equipment and excavations, including the Panama Railroad, work resumed primarily in the area known as the Culebra Cut.

Lake Gatun was created by closing off the mouth of the Chagres River, lowering the walls of Culebra Cut and dredging approach culverts. Large military bases were also constructed to defend the project.

Honoring the lives that were lost building the canal (Taylor)

Among the key factors in the success of the canal was the administration of John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer, who had the vision to bypass bureaucratic red-tape and send requests directly to the Roosevelt administration in Washington.

Stevens recognized the need for proper housing, cafeterias, hotels, water systems and repair shops to aide the thousands of workers on the project. Unlike the French, he had the imagination to cut through the mountains and dam the Chagres River.

When Stevens resigned as chief engineer in 1907, he was replaced by Major George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who completed the project.

To this day the names Stevens and Goethals are as revered in Panama as the names of beloved leaders in the histories of other countries.

In October, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson sent a signal from the White House via telegraph to Panama. That signal triggered the explosion which flooded the Culebra Cut and created Lake Gatun. In that historic moment, the Caribbean Sea united with the Pacific Ocean.

On August 15, 1914, the freighter Ancon became the first ship to transit the new Panama Canal.

During the ten years of construction, some 5,600 workers lost their lives.

The embera people were in Panama long before the canal (Taylor)

For travelers interested in not only seeing the locks of the Panama Canal, but searching for wildlife on Lake Gatun, browsing the historic museum in the Miraflores Locks building on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal and immersing themselves in the wonders of the Panama Canal, the only way to do it is by land and water.

Panama’s people are friendly, welcoming and beautiful (Taylor)

Tourism is new to Panama. The infrastructure is there for travelers to savor with all the comforts of home, but the people themselves are still going through the learning curve of how best to adapt to their new role in the world. It is their gentleness and kindness of spirit that makes Panama unique and gives it its charm.

Just another day on the Panama Canal (Taylor)

For visitors, that translates to stepping into the past to tour a land that time forgot while traveling to a place you will long remember.

About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club ( His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News; follow Bob on TwitterFacebook Google +

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