The Centennial Year of the Panama Canal
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; and results in the US assuming 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 remained an integral hub of global commerce and was one of the greatest engineering feats. 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 Panama 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.
Meanwhile, At the Locks
From the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, one can sit at the restaurant’s outside balcony table that provides a great view of the ships headed Pacific bound as they travel through the canal. The price to enter the museum was $15 and included a two-hour optional tour and visit to the four exhibition halls.
The halls offer the history of the Panama Canal, its international trade impact, how it works, and info about the canal expansion. A 3-D movie showed 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 were great for photographing the ships as they approached and transited the locks. They also have a nice gift shop. An admission ticket is not required to go to the restaurant, but we were only allowed on the second floor where the restaurant is located.
The price of the buffet was $37.50 per person, which was a bit pricey in my book, but there were good options to choose from. The buffet consisted of a full salad bar, fish/beef/chicken entrees, a pasta dish, vegetables, soup, and a sampling of desserts. The food’s taste was average, but our service was great.
Watching the Ships Pass Through
As we looked out from the viewers’ platform of the restaurant, we saw the arched Bridge of the Americas, which was the original bridge to span the width of the canal. The second cable-stayed designed bridge, carried 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. The opening date for that bridge was slated for 2003, 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. It boasts six lanes of traffic crossing the canal. Keep in mind that the cars the bridge was originally designed for were smaller cars as that’s all there was in Panama at that time. Today, crossing the bridges in an SUV, is somewhat scary and dangerous. The traffic moves at fast speeds and the lanes are very tight. Nine miles separates these bridges.
Watching the colorful container ships, sometimes stacked so high its a wonder they float, is a really fun thing to do. The canal is under construction to widen the lanes and create another shipping lane (to allow bigger ships), but the project is taking longer than anticipated. Make sure to download the ship finder app on your phone for a map with live moving ships and specific facts about that ship such as its name, dimensions, and speed.
FYI: Gatun Lake was 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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