A trip through the Panama Canal should certainly be on your bucket list. But before you go, you should read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870—1914 ( Simon and Schuster, 1977).
You can expect some information as you pass through the canal on a cruise ship, but it won’t be as thorough as the book, you might not hear it all, and you will have distractions. Many might find it a bit of a struggle to get through 698 pages, and most of us are unlikely to remember everything. But as you pass through the cuts, locks, and Gatun Lake, you will find yourself saying “oh, I remember that.”
The canal is 48 miles (77.1 kilometers) long. It passes through rugged hills with very unstable soil. The French started construction in 1881 under the guidance of the man who built the Suez Canal. The Suez was flat, and they thought they could build another sea level canal. They built a railroad to support construction, and the old road bed can still be seen in places, but the project failed because of the engineering challenges and the workers’ high death rate from disease.
U.S. efforts in 1904 benefited from knowledge gained during the Spanish American War in Cuba. Walter Reed and Carlos Finlay discovered mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever, and Colonel William Gorgas implemented methods to control the spread of the disease during construction.
Also, the U.S. decided on a system of locks watered by the creation of Gatun Lake, the world’s largest artificial lake at the time. But they still faced the problem of cutting through unstable soil. Landslides and the need to dredge continue to plague canal maintenance to this day.
We went through on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance several years ago, and our ship barely made it through the 110 foot-wide locks. After trying many different methods over the last hundred years, canal officials found it still is best to drop lines from ships to men in row boats. The lines are then attached to mechanical “mules.” The mules don’t pull the ships; they just hold the ships in place so that they don’t brush the sides of the lock.
As with many things, the more one knows about the subject, the more one “sees.” The scenery is interesting, but knowing about the engineering challenges makes the trip much more worthwhile.
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