A flank of blue steel arms whirr as they load containers, bright as children’s building blocks, onto the great vessels churning the soupy waters of Bahía de Limón. Moving cargo from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Panama Canal is the work of thousands – though few backs and thighs are strained with heavy lifting any more. Instead, workers drive forklifts and artics through the walled-in depots of Coco Solo and Colón Free Trade Zone, and along the service roads flanking the concrete headland of Nuevo Cristobál. The ships, sea water rusting spots in their painted skins, plough past them west, then south into a great inlet, migrating along invisible trenches dug from the sea floor.
They advance through waterlogged hills, giant interlopers on the land, each kilometre of their journey paid for in prodigious loss of human life. The combined might of malaria, yellow fever, and neglect carried more than 25,000 to their graves, the vast majority during the first doomed attempt to dig across the isthmus by the French. From 1882, the goldrush boomtown of Gatún, 15 km inland and briefly renamed as Cité de Lesseps, was the epicentre of Ferdinand Marie Comte de Lesseps’ operation. By the end of the century, however, the half finished trenches had fallen silent and the reputation of the Grand Français, feted for his other canal in Suez, was in tatters. Undone by wet earth, an outraged press, and the clamour of 800,000 ruined investors, he narrowly avoided imprisonment not for charges of manslaughter, but rather bribery and corruption.
Theodore Roosevelt took up the cause of the unfinished canal in one of his first presidential speeches in 1901. “No single great work which remains to be undertaken on this continent,” he bristled, from behind monocle and moustaches, “is as of such consequence to the American people.” When the Colombian government failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for his plans for their isthmian province, Washington turned instead to the Panamanian independence movement. In November 1903, the gunboat Nashville sliced sleek and white into the bay at Colón in a pointed show of strength in support of its protege. In return, the nascent Panamanian state granted its powerful northern neighbour a wedge of rainforest 16 km wide and 80 km long ‘as though it were sovereign’ to complete where the French had failed, and thereafter administer their canal ‘in perpetuity’. Even the purse of a superpower was strained by the costs, with a 10 million USD purchase price for the land, 250,000 USD in annual rent, almost as much again to quieten the outrage in Bogotá, and another 40 million USD for French assets on the ground.
Despite presidential orders to “make dirt fly”, excavation progressed with agonising slowness. The Isthmian Canal Commission, meticulous in its duty to avoid a re-run of French catastrophes, held Chief Engineer Findlay hostage with an insistence on checks, double checks, and unanimous approval for every decision. Recruitment drives in Jamaica met with hostility, the memories of French abuses still fresh, and vast inequalities in the treatment of black and white workers unaddressed. After the first Bucyrus steam shovel sputtered into action, chomping at huge mouthfuls of earth, celebration quickly gave way to frustration when the rusting Panama Railroad proved incapable of carrying away the spoils. The threat of another failure to link two oceans loomed over the stubborn piles of dirt like storm clouds. Chief Medical Officer Gorgas had more success. Convinced by the then outlandish notion that the ubiquitous swarms of mosquitoes were not only a nuisance but also carried malaria and yellow fever, he won Roosevelt’s approval to increase his mosquito brigades from 200 to 2,000 and fumigated Aëdes aegypti into oblivion. Wholesale deaths from yellow fever finally halted when Gorgas spent 90,000 USD on copper mosquito screening. It took a new chief engineer, John Stevens, to get the excavations moving again with workers’ welfare and fixing the railroad as his priorities.
The plan to use brute force to plough across the isthmus at sea level wasn’t abandoned until late 1905. Instead, ships purpose built to a maximum of 289.56 m from stern to bow and 32.31 m across the beam now glide into the twin channels at Gatún locks, their flanks all but grazing the sides. Three chambers employ more than 300,000 m³ of water, taking more than three hours to raise the craft the necessary 26 m to the Gatún Dam. This vast earthwork was completed in 1907 and it took another six years for the valleys behind it to slowly sink beneath the waves, creating what was at the time the biggest manmade body of water on the planet. Vessels trace a cautious path across an improbable blue surface over submerged peaks and forests, each ponderous change in direction leading them finally to Culebra Cut. This terraced valley, site of endless landslides, cuts its way through the highest terrain on the canal route and is named for the mountain that was blasted away with over 27,000 tonnes of dynamite to create it. Its end marks the beginning of the descent back to sea level, the blue horizon of the Pacific in sight beyond Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks.
The black and red hull of the SS Ancon, loaded with cement, made the first official passage to great fanfare on August 15, 1914, almost 45 years after the idea of the canal was first taken seriously. ‘In perpetuity’, meanwhile, expired on 31 December 1999, the handover of the canal ending decades of tension, increasing militarisation, and unrest. With the passing years, as the number of vessels using the waterway had multiplied, the proportion of the world’s commercial fleet too large to pass through the locks also grew. In 2007, the Panamanian government busied itself with the largest excavations since works began almost a century before, and the newly broadened channels are all but complete. Each time a ship is disgorged into the final dogleg stretch of bay, the suburbs of Panama City spreading out to the east, it tells a story underscored by the sweat of tens of thousands of labourers, recruited from all over the Caribbean and as far afield as Spain and Italy. It is a story of power, money, soil, and steel.