The construction of the Panama Canal began in 1880 by the French; but they did not progress much. In 1903, Panama gained independence from Colombia after a rebellion supported by the US; as a result, the US assumed control in finishing the canal. In 1914, the first maritime traffic flowed through the canal. During the construction the US remained in control of the area known as Panama Canal Zone. During Jimmy Carter’s presidential term, the US gave the Panama Canal Zone back to the Republic of Panama, effective January 1, 2000.
President Teddy Roosevelt oversaw completion of the 48 miles long Panama Canal, a sea transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A century after the first ship passed through the canal locks, it still remains an integral hub of global commerce and is one of the greatest engineering feats and 2014 marks the centennial of the Panama Canal. Prior to the canal, ships seeking to cross the Americas needed to circumnavigate South America, a very timely process.
The canal offered a solution to that problem by the following process of locks:
- The ship or vessel enters a gated chamber and is roped to posts.
- Gates are closed and the chamber is sealed watertight.
- Water is pumped into the chamber, for raising the boat, or emptied out, to lower the boat, depending on the ship’s direction.
- Once the levels of water are equal, the gates are opened and the boat or vessel is ready to continue their voyage.
- The system of locks can handle boats traveling in either direction.
From the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, one can sit at the restaurant’s outside balcony table that gives you a great view of the ships headed Pacific bound as they travel through the canal. The price to enter the museum is $15 and includes a two hour optional tour and a visit to the four exhibition halls. The halls offer the history of the Panama Canal, its international trade impact, how it works, and about the canal expansion. There is a 3D movie showing the story of the canal as well. Make note that the visitor’s center closes at 5 pm so allow for adequate time.
Visitors at the Miraflores Locks have access to special viewing platforms that are great for photographing the ships approaching and transitting the locks. They also have a nice gift shop. An admission ticket is not required to go to the restaurant, but you are only allowed on the second floor where the restaurant is located. The price of the buffet is $37.50 per person, which is too pricey in my book, but there were at least decent options of food to choose from: a salad bar with many toppings, a fish, beef, and chicken entree, pasta, several vegetables, soup, and a variety sampler of desserts. Food was average but we had great service.
Looking out from the viewers’ platform, you will see the arched Bridge of the Americas, which is the original bridge to span the width of the canal. The second cable-stayed designed bridge, carries the Pan-American Highway. The Bridge of the Americas opened in 1962 and was the only major road crossing the canal, with traffic estimated at 10,000 vehicles per day. By 2004, that number jumped to 35,000 per day. Due to the high rate of traffic, the decision was made to build a second bridge and the opening date was slated for 2003, which was the 90th anniversary of the first ships transit of the canal.
Named for Panama’s centennial, the Centennial bridge is 262 feet high, which allows large vessels to pass below it, and has six lanes of traffic crossing the canal. Keep in mind that the cars the bridge was designed for were smaller cars as that’s all there was in Panama at that time. Today, crossing the bridges in an SUV, for example, is a tedious and trying, using those words in place of scary and dangerous, venture. The traffic moves at fast speeds,when not full of traffic, and the lanes are very tight. Nine miles separate these bridges.
Images from the Panama Canal Visitor Center’s Restaurant
Watching the colorful container ships, sometimes stacked so high its a wonder they float, is a fun thing to do. The canal is under construction at this time to widen the lanes and create another shipping lane which will allow for larger and more ships, but the project is taking longer than anticipated. Make sure to download the ship finder app on your phone, which shows a map with live moving ships, and from that, you can see specific facts about that ship such as name, dimensions, speed, and more.
FYI: Gatun Lake is an artificial lake created during the process of the canal to control the different elevations of the water levels.
FYI: In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the Panama Canal as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
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