April 7, 2012
Prior to our recent trip to Panama preparation involved reading David McCullough’s “The Path Between the Seas: The creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914”. What riveted my attention was McCullough’s description of a vast and unprecedented feat of engineering. My imagination was stimulated to view and understand the working of the “largest (engineering) effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth”. My imagination was stimulated with particular focus on the Canal’s Culebra Cut.
Key to understanding is realizing the necessity of raising ships 87 feet above the Caribbean Sea. This was accomplished by constructing three adjoining locks to, at the time, the world’s largest artificial of lake. Gutun Lake, 164 square miles, was created by a dam across the Charges River. The lake accounts for 20 miles of the Panama Canal’s 50 mile route to the Pacific Ocean. Gutun Lake serves as watershed reserve collecting water during the rainy season for operation of the Canal. Clearly marked by giant buoys shipping is guided to the Culebra Cut.
The Panama Canal at its narrowest section of the isthmus, crosses the Continental Divide at the Culebra Cut, a 7.8 mile route connecting locks descending or ascending to and from the Pacific Ocean. This segment excavated through rock and limestone removed material enough to erect 63 pyramids the same as in Egypt. The Cut necessitated excavation to the same level as Gutun Lake 87 feet above sea level.
The Earlier failed effort of the French at the Culebra cut after six years of work completed only a tenth of the excavation prior to American involvement. Mountainous jungle at the Continental Divide created dreadful working condition. Battling mudslides, jungle full of deadly snakes, mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, the work progressed slowly. American canal workers faced their greatest engineering challenge in Panama Canal construction. The hills were subject to deadly mudslides swallowing workers never to be seen again. Over 6,000 men worked on the cut using over 60 million pounds of dynamite. May 20, 1913 excavating shovel No. 222 and shovel No. 230 met nose to nose on the bottom of the Cut symbolized completing the work.
On our Canal Locks Transit Cruise my anticipation experiencing the Culebra Cut at the Continental Divide more than met expectation. In our travels overseas time and again I have experienced the relationship between reading about places of historic import and the keener insight afforded by actual visit. The Culebra Panama Canal Cut proved to be no exception.