Wednesday, December 05, 2018

a boy's affair with a ditch

Some life experiences define who we are.

That photograph is one of mine.

I first saw it in Mrs. Dix's sixth grade class. What twelve-year-old boy could avoid the allure? A steam shovel. Teddy Roosevelt. And the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal was not new to me -- even then. I had been introduced to it in the mid-1950s through the Flags of the Word trading cards I collected. But our sixth-grade history textbook pulled together all of the historical threads for the first time. That passage through the 40 miles of the Panama isthmus took on a new allure for me.

The notion of building a canal through Panama was not a new one. In the 1500s, when Spain ruled that part of the new world, Charles V looked at a map and saw an easy way to transport silver from Peru to Madrid. Just build a canal through the isthmus.

Nothing came of the idea. But the Spanish did establish a rudimentary road system for pack mule to convoy goods across Panama to the Caribbean and on to Cartagena and Spain.

Several canal plans were floated in the 1800s, but nothing came of them until gold was discovered in California in 1848. Transporting gold from California to the east coast was treacherous -- especially when shipped around the horn of South America.

The United States obtained a concession from Colombia to build a railroad across Panama (Panama then being a province of Colombia) in 1855. Essentially, it was the same idea as Charles V's mule train road, but this time with trains.

And that inspired a lot of plans for a ship canal. Finally, in 1881, the Frenchman who had built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal. He believed that what worked in Egypt would work in Panama.

It didn't. He ran out of money -- and Yellow Fever killed thousands of his workers. When he shut down the operation in 1889, only a few miles of canal had been dug. Some of it can still be seen.

Then, Teddy Roosevelt, who had recently inherited the presidency, stepped in. When the Colombian Senate failed to ratify a treaty giving rights to the United States to build and operate a canal, Roosevelt agreed to support Panamanian rebels who had periodically fought for independence from Colombia.

With American help, the Panamanians had their independence on 3 November 1903. Three days later, Roosevelt had his treaty with Panama -- and construction was under way. Linguist and US Senator S.I. Hayakawa said it best: "We stole it fair and square."

The treaty would be a thorn in American-Panamanian relations until the United States agreed to return sovereignty of the canal zone to Panama in 1979. The two countries jointly ran the canal for 20 years. It is now Panama's sovereign territory.

After 10 years of construction and the deaths of almost 6000 workers from disease and accidents, the canal was opened in 1914 under the control of the United States. The late Senator John McCain was born in the Canal Zone while his father was stationed there.

The canal was an immediate commercial success. It was far cheaper to put cargo on a ship once and go through the canal than to use the connecting railroad system. And it was certainly cheaper than being forced to go around South America. Our ship paid a toll of a half million dollars and considered it a bargain.

The canal also had a military purpose. Because the canal opened in 1914 (during the onset of World War One), the United States, who only recently had become a two-ocean military power) could now move its fleet easily between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Teddy loved that. His Great White Fleet had mobility. 

This was my second cruise through the canal. The first was in 2000 with my cousin Dennis.

What struck me most on both trips is how little the operation has changed in the hundred years the canal has been in operation. De Lesseps wanted to use the Chagres River as the foundation for his sea-level canal. He discovered how unworkable that was when the river flooded.

The American engineers took a different tack. They decided to dam the Chagres and form one of the world's largest man-made lakes -- right in the middle of Panama. Locks would elevate ships into the lake and then lower them on the other side. All of that is still in operation.

The weakest link in the operation is Lake Gatun -- the reservoir for the water that runs the entire system. A dearth or excess of rain could jeopardize the canal. A natural or terrorist disaster that released the lake's water could also destroy a large portion of Panama City on the Pacific side of the canal -- and put the canal out of operation for years.

The only big change has been the expansion of parallel locks to allow larger ships to transit the canal. Those locks have been in operation since 2016.

But the whole operation looked quite similar to what Dennis and I witnessed in 2000. I suspect if Teddy himself were to return to Panama today, he would recognize the same canal operation he could see through a mirror darkly sitting in the seat of that steam shovel.

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