I am on a ship that will transit through the Panama Canal tomorrow. For me this is a big moment: to be able to see one of the great engineering marvels of the world; to experience the incarnate will of one of my idols, President Theodore Roosevelt; and finally, to see the natural tropical beauty of the Canal Zone. All these things are on my mind as I write these words.
The construction of the canal was one of the supreme achievements of Roosevelt’s life. I’ve written before about his harrowing trip down the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt) with Brazil’s greatest explorer, Candido Rondon; but that personal journey took place after he left public office. Building the canal was a historical event that illustrates the critical importance of personality on history: the individual man can, through the force of his will, shape the environment in which he operates. He can make it conform to his personal vision.
It is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the achievement of building the canal unless we are somewhat familiar with the history of the idea. Before the United States built the canal, a French venture under Ferdinand de Lesseps had failed dismally in Panama. De Lesseps had built the Suez Canal and imagined that constructing a canal in Panama would be a similar challenge. He could not have been more wrong. Suez was a flat, dry area that did not require any specialized knowledge or technology to excavate. But Panama was in an entire class of its own.
The steaming jungles of Panama were one thing, but they were just the beginning. The area was infested with disease; it was not flat but mountainous in places; the tides on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides fluctuated dramatically; and the differences in elevation meant that special technology would be needed to build the canal. Trying to cut a sea-level path right through the isthmus would not have worked; the tides were so high on either side that currents running through the canal would render ship passages impossible. Not only this: a sea-level canal would drain most of the water out of Panama and likely turn it into a waste-land.
De Lesseps had vastly underestimated the obstacles. The project bankrupted his company and literally ruined his reputation. When the French gave up and walked away, they left tons of heavy excavation equipment to rot in the jungle. Roosevelt would later order some of the metal of these abandoned machines to be smelted into achievement medals to be awarded to workers on his own project. Thus Fortune shows us her sense of humor: the legacy of failure is re-fashioned into emblems of success.
But if there was any man who could take on a project of such magnitude, it was Theodore Roosevelt. Construction took place from 1904 to 1914. The canal is about 50 miles in length; it has three separate locks (places to raise or lower vessels). There are also other artificial waterways and lakes that had to be created to make the canal viable. These things are needed to permit ships to pass through Panama’s mountainous central region. The diagram below gives an idea of the details:
The project was the biggest engineering effort that had ever been undertaken. Tens of thousands of workers were involved and the total cost amounted to more than $350 million (without adjusting for today’s currency rates). Untold numbers of men met their deaths from disease and accident during the building of the canal. So it is with a profound sense of respect–and a deep veneration for the power of will to shape human affairs–that I will be entering the canal.
I should also point out that most ships do not go all the way through the canal; they enter and then turn around after clearing the first lock. This is because making a full transit from one ocean to another costs much more in tolls. For this reason I’m fortunate to be on a ship making a complete transit of the canal.
My itinerary tomorrow is the following:
6:00 a.m. Ship at breakwater on Atlantic side.
8:00 a.m. Arrive at Gatun Locks.
9:50 a.m. Due to clear Gatun Locks.
12:00 noon. Departing Gamboa area.
1:30 p.m. Arriving Pedro Miguel Locks.
3:00 p.m. Arriving Miraflores Locks.
4:00 p.m. Due to clear Miraflores Locks