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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Journey Through the Panama Canal

The 48 mile long Panama Canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, opened in 1914, changed ocean voyage. In June 2015, just a little over 100 years later, a new canal lane with bigger locks will open to accommodate massive cargo ships coming from Asia to ports in the eastern United States. This canal expansion will significantly change ocean transport of people and goods (see National Public Radio news story on the widening of the Panama Canal, Port of Baltimore Seeks Boost From Panama Canal Expansion).  Whether by ship, train (see this blog post by Mark White), plane or automobile, modes of transportation have always symbolized the wanderlust of the traveler and, hence, the travel-filmmaker.  The following three silent film clips, from Thayer Soule's travel film, Rainbow Lands of Central America, capture the wonder and beauty of passing through the Canal. (For information on Thayer Soule see here). Excerpts from Soule's transcript of his accompanying lecture are included below the clips.

The Canal runs diagonally, about 50 miles, from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The most dramatic section is Gaillard Cut. Here the continental divide is less than 400 feet high. Ships cross at the level of the canal, 90 feet above the sea -- up to 40 ships a day, up to 11,000 ships a year. The canal is fresh water, obtained by damming up the Chagres River.  During construction, one of the biggest jobs was the building of Gatun Dam....Water not required for the operation of the canal bypasses the dam at the spillway and follows the old course of the river to the sea. Gatun Lake is separated from the Caribbean by Gatun Locks. Above Gatun Lake, there is an additional reservoir of fresh water, used when traffic is heavy, called Madden Lake.

On the Pacific side, two sets of locks, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores; and on the Pacific side, too, the administrative headquarters at Balboa...From the top of a high hill, we look out on the Pacific entrance to the canal-- the islands that guard the bay, and directly below us...We can also see a corner of Balboa. That ship is in salt water, going inland 6 miles to the first set of locks at Miraflores, which you can see on the extreme right, in the far background. As each ship enters the lock there are attached to it, depending upon its size, from 2 to 8 electric engines, or mules, as they are called. They are used in the locks because they can start and stop the ship much more quickly, much more accurately than can the ship's own engines. Incidentally, they are the original equipment, installed when the canal was built, 60 years ago, and still in use today...The lock chambers have a useable length of 1,000 feet, and can accommodate virtually all the world's shipping. Very few vessels are so large they cannot negotiate the Panama Canal . At each end of the lock is a double set of gates. Each gate weighs 700 tons, and is driven by an electric motor, again, the original equipment. When the gates are closed, fresh water comes down from up above, and the ship is raised 30 feet. It's all controlled by a man high in the tower, who has in front of him, among other things, a miniature set of gates that shows the exact position of the main gates outside...One of the largest passenger ships to use the canal on a regular schedule is the "Reina del Mar," which runs between England and Australia. Notice how close we are to it, and how rapidly it's moving. It is still inside the lock...Ordinarily it takes about an hour for a ship to got through Miraflores, but I'm going to condense the whole operation for you into just one shows very plainly what happens. The mules pull the ship in, the gates close, the fresh water comes down from up above, and the ship is raised 30 feet. Then the gates open, the ship moves into the next chamber, and the process is repeated...

Next come Cucaracha Narrows and Gaillard Cut, 300 feet wide, 8 miles long. The grassland is entirely natural...8 hours later [we] arrive at Gatun, where there are three 30-ft. steps down to sea level...Here's a Japanese ship going through...The red and white flag tells us the pilot is onboard. He will be on the  bridge during the entire transit. For each ship that goes through, 52 million gallons of fresh water are required...the canal is carrying far more traffic now than was originally planned. It's an engineering masterpiece...

Many thanks to Angela Forest, University of Maryland intern, for her invaluable work in researching and preparing these video clips (and others) for HSFA's YouTube channel.

Pamela Wintle
Human Studies Film Archives

1 comment:

  1. Excellent compilation of Information regarding the Panama Canal. I am really proud of being Panamanian and to have 1 of the worldwide marvels in my County.

    Thank you for the information.