Aug 152017

On this date in 1914 the Panama Canal was officially opened to maritime traffic. Transportation across the narrow isthmus linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans dates back to the 16th century when Spanish colonial governments routinely sent goods overland through the territory we now call Panama to avoid the long and hazardous sea journey from the west coast of South America, particularly Peru (source of gold, silver, and jewels), to Europe via Cape Horn. Even in those early days the idea of a canal was kicked around and continued for 4 centuries until the idea was actually realized. The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru. Such a route would have given the Spanish a military advantage over the Portuguese.

In 1668 the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne speculated in Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

. . . some Isthmus have been eat through by the Sea, and others cut by the spade: And if policy would permit, that of Panama in America were most worthy the attempt: it being but few miles over, and would open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China.

From 1698 to 1700 the kingdom of Scotland tried to create a colony on the isthmus called Caledonia whose purpose was to facilitate the passage of goods between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It was known as the Darien scheme, named after the Gulf of Darién, and failed because of poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, and devastating epidemics. Furthermore, there was heavy opposition from the English and Spanish who instituted naval blockades.

In 1788, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Spanish should build a small canal and that tropical ocean currents would naturally widen it thereafter. During an expedition from 1788 to 1793, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for its construction, which, of course, never materialized.

In 1846 the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty, negotiated between the U.S. and New Granada (Panama) , granted the United States transit rights and the right to intervene militarily in the isthmus. In 1849, the discovery of gold in California created great interest in a crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Panama Railway was built by the United States to cross the isthmus and opened in 1855. This overland link became a vital piece of  infrastructure, greatly facilitating trade and largely determining the later canal route. For the rest of the century there were continued efforts to survey a canal route by English and French engineers, culminating in a French construction attempt, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps who masterminded the Suez Canal, from 1881 to 1894. Although the Panama Canal would eventually have to be only 40% as long as the Suez Canal, it proved to be far more of an engineering challenge due to the disease ridden tropical rain forests, the climate, the need for canal locks, and the lack of any ancient route to follow.

The U.S. formally took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904, inheriting from the French a depleted workforce and a vast jumble of buildings, infrastructure and equipment, much of it in poor condition. A U.S. government commission, the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), was established to oversee construction and was given control of the Panama Canal Zone, over which the United States exercised sovereignty. The commission reported directly to Secretary of War William Howard Taft and was directed to avoid the inefficiency and corruption that had plagued the French 15 years earlier.

On May 6, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed John Findley Wallace, formerly chief engineer and finally general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project. Overwhelmed by the disease-plagued country and forced to use often dilapidated French infrastructure and equipment, as well as being frustrated by the overly bureaucratic ICC, Wallace resigned abruptly in June 1905. He was succeeded by John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad. Stevens was not a member of the ICC; he increasingly viewed its bureaucracy as a serious hindrance, bypassing the commission and sending requests and demands directly to the Roosevelt Administration in Washington. One of Stevens’ first achievements in Panama was in building and rebuilding the housing, cafeterias, hotels, water systems, repair shops, warehouses, and other infrastructure needed by the thousands of incoming workers. Stevens began the recruitment effort to entice thousands of workers from the United States and other areas to come to the Canal Zone to work, and tried to provide accommodation in which the incoming workers could work and live in reasonable safety and comfort. He also re-established and enlarged the railway that was to prove crucial in transporting millions of tons of soil from the cut through the mountains to the dam across the Chagres River.

If you know anything about canals (which, as it happens, I do because I lived on the remains of a famous canal in New York for 25 years), the chief engineering problem is keeping it filled with water. In Suez the problem was sand which had to be dredged constantly to keep the passage open, and the canal bottom had to be made watertight to prevent constant percolation of the water into the desert. In Panama sand was not a problem, but any canal across the isthmus needed locks to traverse the terrain, and locks drain water downward constantly. A canal with locks needs a liberal supply of water at its summit to provide water through the locks in both directions. Hence a huge artificial lake had to be built in the middle of inhospitable jungle in the middle of the isthmus.

Colonel William C. Gorgas had been appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project in 1904. Gorgas implemented a range of measures to minimize the spread of deadly diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria which had recently been shown to be mosquito-borne following the work of Dr. Carlos Finlay and Dr. Walter Reed. There was investment in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. Despite opposition from the Commission, Gorgas persisted and when Stevens arrived, he threw his weight behind the project. After two years of extensive work, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. Nevertheless, even with all this effort, about 5,600 workers died of disease and accidents during the U.S. construction phase of the canal.

In 1905, a U.S. engineering panel was commissioned to review the canal design, which still had not been finalized. It recommended to President Roosevelt a sea-level canal, as had been attempted by the French. However, in 1906 Stevens, who had seen the Chagres in full flood, was summoned to Washington and declared a sea-level approach to be “an entirely untenable proposition”. He argued in favor of a canal using a lock system to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir 85 ft (26 m) above sea level. This would create both the largest dam (Gatun Dam) and the largest articial lake (Gatun Lake) in the world at that time. The water to refill the locks would be taken from Gatun Lake by opening and closing enormous gates and valves and letting gravity propel the water from the lake. Gatun Lake would connect to the Pacific through the mountains at the Gaillard (Culebra) Cut. Stevens successfully convinced Roosevelt of the necessity and feasibility of the alternative scheme.

The construction of the canal was completed in 1914, 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375 million (roughly equivalent to $9 billion now) to finish the project. This was by far the largest US engineering project to date. Upon completion the canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship SS Ancon.

I sailed through the Panama canal in May 1965 en route from Australia to England. Outward bound I had sailed through Suez and the return journey completed my circumnavigation of the globe at age 14. The family sailed on the Italian passenger liner MV Fairsea stopping in New Zealand, Tahiti, and California before traversing Panama. Five years later the Fairsea was crippled by an engine fire just north of Tahiti and was sold for scrap after being towed to safety. Panama was an amazing adventure, as was the entire voyage. For long stretches you are enclosed in dense jungle, punctuated by stints in the locks, and then sailing across beautiful lakes, all of which came as a much-needed diversion after the long stretches of steaming across the Pacific out of sight of land for days on end. The Pacific was not without its moments. I well recall one early morning waking to the ocean absolutely like glass, as calm as a mill pond, interrupted only by occasional visions of flying fish. Solitude in the middle of a giant ocean is nothing to the exotic wonders of Panama, however. It’s been 50 years and it’s still fresh in memory.

I could give you another Panamanian recipe, but in honor of MV Fairsea I’ll give you baked Alaska.  The food on board was great as long as you stuck to the Italian specialties rather than opting for their “English” cooking, which was routinely awful. When we crossed the equator (always a major event on passenger ships), the evening meal consisted of lobster followed by baked Alaska. The dessert was not just served like any other, though. The lights in the dining room were dimmed after the main course, and then all the food stewards paraded around the tables carrying baked Alaskas with flames erupting from their tops like miniature volcanoes (they called the desert “Vesuvius pudding”), while the ship’s meager band played the March of the Toreadors from Carmen.

Baked Alaska can be made in various ways but the basic idea is the same. You cover ice cream with a layer of cake, freeze it, then top it with Italian meringue which you can either bake quickly in a very hot oven, or caramelize using a culinary blow torch.  Here’s a video. Making the Italian meringue, which is a mix of simple syrup and beaten egg whites, is the key.

 Posted by at 11:25 pm

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