The day that I had been waiting for finally arrived. I looked out the window of my stateroom and it was still dark, but I rose putting on my clothes and headed to the tenth floor of the ship, where I knew a cup of coffee would be available at that time of the morning.
By the time I reached the stern of the ship dawn was beginning to break and I could see many ships in the Bay of Colon waiting their turn to go through the infamous Canal.
The Panama Canal is considered one of the engineering wonders of the world and each year thousands of tourists flock to Panama to watch the massive ships move through its complex lock system.
Just 48 miles long, this shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans allows more than 14,000 vessels ferrying nearly 280 million tons of trade goods between the Eastern and Western nations to pass each year.
The first plans for a canal were drawn up in 1539 by King Charles V of Spain, but the project only became feasible 300 years later with the construction of the Panama railway.
As I set down in a chair sipping my coffee. I could not let the research I did before coming to create many thoughts of how this canal came to be.
For some time the railway was used to ferry goods between vessels on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and became instrumental in choosing Panama as the site for a water transit route. Incidentally, there were other sites considered in Central America as well.
Construction on the canal began in 1880 by the French under Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had just successfully completed the Suez Canal in Egypt. Brutal working conditions, yellow fever and malaria claimed an estimated 22,000 lives before the project finally went bankrupt in 1889.
In 1904, the project was taken over by the United States under Theodore Roosevelt and work moved quickly under improved conditions, although it would claim another 5000 lives before completion because of various diseases in the area.
I was aware that it would take about eight hours to go through the canal as it passed through three locks, namely; Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores – each of which has two lanes. These locks serve as lifts, elevating vessels 85 feet above sea level from the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
My first view of the Gatun lock was fascinating. It is the longest of the locks and the date on the building was 1913. However, I watched the mules (engines on tracks) guide the ships through the locks with tighten cables sketched between it and the ships. It was very interesting to watch how meticulous the workers were in performing their jobs.
After about an hour we completed the trip through the first lock as we entered into Gatun Lake, which is the largest man-made lake in the world. The views were beyond my expectancy. Alligators, rare monkeys, and birds of many species were in abundance which occupied much of my time.
By this time my Ohio friends joined me as the deck became completely filled with spectators seeking a vantage point.
I was amazed at how modern many of the buildings and structures had become as we progressed through each of the locks.
We were able to see some of the canals built by the French that were not used and also the new construction for the new canal that will allow larger ships. It was crawling with bulldozers and earth moving equipment.
Near the continental divide was an extremely beautiful and modern suspension bridge that crossed over the canal that relieved some of the heavy traffic from the Bridge of the Americas which are the connections between North and South America. They were both feats of engineering.
At this time, we began to see Panama City with it very high buildings. I was moved by the size of this city. It was much larger than I dreamed.
I was very glad that my camera could take over 4000 pictures because I photographed so much on this day. Needless to say, I was exhausted at the end of the day.
Later, I learned that our ship paid nearly $300,000 dollars to transit the canal. I do not know exactly how the fees are assessed, but about 40 ships made the same trip that day as the Canal operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. More than 922,000 vessels have transited the waterway since the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914
The canal remained under full U.S. administration until 1977, when a treaty was signed to hand over control of the Canal to Panama by 1999, with the U.S. reserving the perpetual right to military intervention to protect its economic interests in the key shipping route since about 68% of the vessels through the canal originate in the United states.
Our ship had over 60 nationalities who, like me, had wanted to transit this world renowned marvel. I could sense from their language adjectives they were as filled with excitement as I was.
While I have traveled 38 countries, this trip was a real highlight and fulfilled a dream next only to the day suggested in the following verse:
“After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred’s, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;” --Revelation 7:9