A Stupendous Task

The Panama Canal opened for business just over 100 years ago, so nobody reading this can remember the world without it. We think of it as a convenient way to move between two oceans and, while we can’t fail to be impressed by the scale of the engineering involved, we forget the commercial and political upheaval it caused at the time – until we read this passage in an old school book, looking forward to its completion.

A lock canal of 40 feet deep, with a width of four or five hundred feet, estimated to cost £75,000,000, and to be ready by 1915, is now being made. The task is stupendous. The length, 49 miles, is not the great difficulty. The tropical river Chagres, whose waters rise nearly 40 feet in a day, has to be crossed many times. A vast lake for the control of this body of water has had to be made. Then the Culebra ridge at its lowest is 300 feet above sea level, standing as it does between hills 3000 feet high. This ridge for more than 5 miles has to be cut down to canal level.



There are three pairs of locks, one pair near Colon, the Atlantic port, and the other two pairs near Panama, the Pacific end. These locks will lift vessels 85 feet, and the whole passage is expected to take no more than 12 hours.


A vintage postcard of Pedro Miguel locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

So successful has the work of the Americans been since they began their task, that it is expected to be complete before the date fixed for opening.

A vintage postcard of Miraflores locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

There is little doubt that the opening of the canal will create a new centre that must largely modify the existing sea routes of commerce, as well as bring others into existence. All ships that use the canal must pass through the Caribbean Sea, and such a focus of trade will centralise large commercial and political interests. To protect and develop its own interests, each nation will regard its possessions in the West Indies as of prime importance. The opening of the Canal will open up the eastern coasts of the Pacific to Europe as well as to the United States, and provide an alternative route to China, Japan, and Australia. The sea journey from New York to San Francisco will be shortened by two-thirds, and to Valparaiso and South American ports by a half. The chief political result will be to make the eastern and western coasts of the United States practically one coast line, and perhaps to necessitate, in the opinion of the government of the United States, the further, as well as the nearer approaches to the canal being fortified and placed under their control. This control is regarded, if not as a necessity of existence, at least as one of full development and national security.


Text from ‘The World’ – a school text book by McDougall’s Educational Co., Ltd., c. 1913.
Images from a contemporary fold-out souvenir letter card by Underwood and Underwood, New York.


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