howler monkey eating in a tree

The Panama Canal: A Bit of U.S. History Surrounded by Majestic Rainforest

Walking through the gorgeous rainforest, I had a much more vivid understanding of all of the hardships the men encountered as they tried to dig through the short distance to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as they were building the amazing Panama Canal.

Posted in: Panama, Rainforest Connection Live

On a map, it looks so easy; just 50 miles through the narrowest section of the isthmus of Panama. Neither the French nor Americans could fully realize the difficulties this short 50-mile project would pose. A 2-hour hike in this beautiful climate left me dripping with sweat (look how wet my hair is in this photo!). I can’t even start to imagine shoveling heavy loads of soil all day long in the sun and heat for $1 a day. How disheartening it must have been for the French to give up the canal project after 18 years of trying to conquer the perils of the tropical rainforest. So many thousands of men died, mostly from tropical diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria. I paused to think of the human suffering and loss of life as we passed a French cemetery. Many laborers just passed out from heat and dehydration. After months of digging, can you imagine the feeling of coming out to “the trench” one morning and seeing all your dredging filled in from mudslides that caved in the steepest, most difficult section of the canal (called the Culebra Cut or Gaillard Cut). This section is still the narrowest stretch of the canal. I relate these massive mudslides to the destruction of a child’s sand tunnel at the beach from no apparent cause. Nothing could seem to hold back the slippery, heavy, rain-soaked mudslides that occurred frequently as the canal was being built. I guess I can understand the frequent mudslides when I picture the average annual amount of rain in the rainy season is about 10 feet, yes, 10 feet of rain. Some Americans had such forethought that they brought their own coffins along with them when they came to Panama to work on the canal. It was a pretty good bet that half of the canal workers would not return home. The rainforest is an amazing, lush, diverse, fully alive biome, yet a formidable one for humans to try to conquer. I realized the frustration the Americans faced when they realized that it was the mosquitoes living and breeding around the canal that carried the 2 deadly diseases-Yellow Fever and Malaria. Dr. Gorgas (an American colonel who was placed in charge of health in the Panama Canal Zone) realized that if we could eliminate all of the mosquitoes both in the villages and in the swamps, we could greatly reduce death and disease. He organized a massive project to kill all of the mosquitoes. Teams of hundreds of men went out daily in search of water where mosquitoes could breed; including the four pans of water that every hospital bed’s legs were sitting in to prevent ants from crawling up on to the bed. They sprayed oil over the surface of any water they could not drain (this suffocates the mosquito larvae) and installed screens on every window in the Canal Zone. Screens were the largest deterrent to keep the mosquitoes from biting people and spreading disease. Can you imagine in the early 1900’s how much screening $90,000 could buy? For more detail on the trials encountered while building the Panama Canal, read The Path Between The Seas by David McCullough. The goal to eradicate all the mosquitoes was very effective, because as you know, the Americans finished building the canal in 1914 and I think that is the reason we encountered so few mosquitoes on our daily hikes in the Panama rainforest.

As I hiked on Barro Colorado Island, I realized that the building of the canal and the associated damming of the Chagres River created an isolated rainforest as the island became surrounded by water and separated from the rest of the rainforest surrounding the canal. Maybe a famous biologist will use Barro Colorado Island, as Charles Darwin studied on the Galapagos Islands, to study speciation or divergent evolution in more detail. And, speaking of damming the Chagres River, I marvel at the forethought the canal planners had almost 100 years ago. 40 times a day, 365 days a year for the past 80 years, the Chagres River has dumped millions of gallons of water into the canal so that the locks can be alternately filled and then drained into the next lower canal lock to allow ships to first be raised 80 feet above sea level on the Atlantic Ocean side of the canal then lowered 80 feet so they will be even with the Pacific Ocean at the south end of the canal. Look carefully at the height of the boats in this sequence of photos. These were taken at the Miraflores Locks where the boats are lowered by going through 2 successive locks. Notice, in the third photo, you can see the large gates open. Each of those metal gate doors weighs 730 tons. Now, here is another sequence of photos showing a tanker going through the canal. This tanker paid more than $120,000 in tolls to pass through the canal that afternoon. . You see smoke coming from the tanker’s smokestack because ships pass through the locks of the canal under their own power, but they are guided by a canal pilot and as many as 8 canal locomotives . It takes a person 13 years of training before s/he can qualify as a canal pilot. Some ships pass through the locks with just inches on each side and if a huge, heavy ship were to bang into the cement sides of the canal locks, it could mean disaster for either the ship or the canal or both. The French tried to dig a sea level canal (with no locks) by blasting and digging through the mountains in Panama. The Americans decided (and it seems that was the correct conclusion) to raise and lower boats over the mountains in Panama rather than trying to blast through the mountains, having them continually collapse and slide into the canal. I stood and marveled at the precision of the canal locks as they opened and closed and water and huge ships flowed effortlessly through, with as little as 11 inches between the massive ship and the concrete walls of the canal, all controlled from the control house. As I watched ships pass thru the locks at Miraflores , I truly understood why many consider the Panama Canal not only an engineering genius, but one of the 7 great wonders of the world. All of the numbers related to the Panama Canal boggle my mind, including the weight of the doors in each lock (each door weighs approximately 730 tons) that open to release the water into the next lock. How about the fact that a tanker ship that we watched pass through had paid over $100,000 in tolls to pass through the canal. If that sounds like a lot of money, imagine how much it would cost the oil company to send that tanker ship all the way around South America (it would be approximately 10 times that cost). Yet, in 1928, Richard Halliburton swam through the Panama Canal. He paid only 36 cents in tolls and it took him 10 days to complete his canal swim.

So, here is this amazing wonder of human creation, cutting right through an even more amazing wonder of nature. I am glad that so much attention is being paid to rainforest education and preservation. I am truly starting to realize how productive this biome is and how crucial it is to the survival of our fragile earth. Please take a minute to breathe deeply, picture dense, healthy, lush, diverse vegetation in all directions, including when you look straight up to the sky and then imagine all of the animals, plants, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans that this ecosystem creates niches for.

When you visit Panama, take some time out to enjoy the engineering feats of the Panama Canal and take a moment to remember the thousands of lives that were lost in the vast construction project. But, more importantly, step back into the rainforest that surrounds the canal and appreciate all it has to offer; beauty, life, mutualism between organisms, complete recycling of organic materials, and much more. Try to picture yourself being a rainforest organism and adjusting to 8 feet of rain for half of the year and then only inches of rain for the entire other half of each year. Are you as versatile as the organisms that I saw who survive and thrive in these conditions that defeated the French and tried to defeat the Americans who built the amazing Panama Canal?

Written by:
Fran Zak
Pascack Valley HS
Hillsdale, NJ