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Creating the Canal 1
Written by Rick Archer
October 2011

Creating the Panama Canal

Have you ever wondered how they made the Panama Canal?  Most people - and that includes me - assumed they dug an enormous 50 mile trench across the Isthmus of Panama.  In fact, that was the original plan - dig dig dig till the oceans connected.  Call it the "French Connection".

Many people do not realize the French tried first. The French began work on a Panama Canal of their own back in 1880. They stayed with the project for 10 years until they gave up in utter futility.  The Americans had been following the progress of the French closely.  The USA wanted that canal built in the worst way.  But if they took over the project, could they do any better?

When it was proposed to build the Panama Canal there were those who believed it was possible to cut down the backbone of the Cordilleras until the waters of the oceans could sweep through unhindered to a depth which even at low tide would carry the largest steamship afloat.  The "Dig Down" concept was at the core of the French Connection Plan.

There were others who held that a more feasible plan would be to lift up the waters.  This alternative plan was to raise the waters in the middle of Panama to an elevation as high as 85 above sea level.  Then they would lift the ships to meet them using a lock system. The latter idea prevailed.  The American people owe their triumph at Panama to this bold gamble. 

The French Plan... aka Dig Dig Dig... had called for excavating the entire 50 mile stretch.

The Americans proposed to connect the bend in the Rio Chagres (see map) with the Miraflores Lake by creating a giant gap in the mountains. The American "Raise the Waters" plan meant they only had to dig about one-fifth of the way... 10 miles or so.

After that, the Americans would raise the waters.  What exactly did that mean?  How do you "raise the waters"?  Keep that in the back of your mind; we will get to it later.  

The American plan was still a heck of a lot of work.  They had to carve a gap one-third of a mile wide and 120 feet deep through solid mountain rock.  It was the modern-day equivalent of creating a replica of the Grand Canyon down in Panama. 

The Grand Canyon took eons to create.  How long would it take humans to do it and was it even possible? 

In this case, it really was nearly impossible.  The time, effort and expense involved turned out to be so great that the engineers said afterwards they would have never attempted the project had they known its difficulty in advance.

But try they did.  And once they got into the project, they were determined not to fail.



In addition to its thick jungle, Panama is extremely rugged.  Panama has no giant mountains like the Andes, but has plenty of mini-mountains and very large hills.

The major river of Panama is known as Rio Chagres (find it on the map).  You can see the Chagres River is much closer to the Pacific Ocean than the Atlantic.

However, since the Chagres is on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide, like the Amazon it is forced to take the longer route to the Caribbean side.

What the engineers proposed to do was dig out the 10 mile stretch between the bend in the Chagres at Gamboa and connect it to Miraflores Lake on the other side of the Continental Divide.

There is a mountain chain that runs through Central America that connects the Rocky Mountains to the Andes. 

Fortunately Panama has the lowest point on the chain, but the lowest point was still 360 feet above sea level.  Located directly over the Continental Divide, this was solid rock.  Cutting a gap through it wasn't going to be easy.


In order to connect the Chagres River to the Pacific Ocean, the engineers would have to cut through solid rock at a small town known as Culebra located right next to the Continental Divide. 

"Culebra" is Spanish for 'snake'.  At first the men speculated this term referred to the zigzag path of the linked chain of hills.  However, once the rattlesnakes began to slide out of the jungle on a regular basis, there was no more doubt where the name came from.

The engineers would have about 10 miles of hills and rocks to deal with before they finished.

Of this ten mile stretch, fortunately only one mile required abnormally hard work - the stretch right along the Continental Divide. 

This difficult stretch was nicknamed the Culebra Cut.

The entire 50 mile body of water that crosses Panama is considered the "Panama Canal", but it was this 10 mile stretch that involved the lion's share of the work.  It was a massive project.

The French had tried to build a canal in this same spot starting in 1880.  Most of the hard work was done by blacks recruited from impoverished Eastern Caribbean islands.  Some of them had been slaves as children while most were descendants of the slaves who had worked the sugar plantations.

Little did those men realize they were facing a death sentence.  Over 22,000 men would die from malaria and yellow fever.  Sad to say, most of them died in vain.  The French got nowhere.  In 1890, the French threw in the towel.

The United States took over in May 1904. The Americans started work on a wider, but not so deep a cut.  Unlike the French who believed it was possible to create a canal at sea level, the Americans had a new plan based on an elevated lock-based canal.

Unfortunately, both plans had the same obstacle: a hole had to made in the mountain range.

Yes, man had dug tunnels through massive mountains before.  And yes, man had widened existing gaps in mountains created by rivers to build railroads and highways. 

However, knocking a gap through a mountain where there was no previous river gap to work with was almost unthinkable. 

Fortunately, in the enormous mountain chain stretching from Alaska all the way to Chile, there was one single point where the mountains had conveniently turned into low-lying hills - Panama.

The lowest point in the saddle between Gold Hill on the east and Contractors Hill on the west was only 333 feet above sea level.  That is where the cut would go. 

The depth wasn't the biggest problem; it was the length.  They would have to cut through ten miles of rock.  That was a daunting task.

The always cheerful American press had a name for this 10 mile valley. 

They called it "The Big Ditch".

The new plan called for a bottom width of 300 feet.  This required the creation of a valley up to a third of a mile wide at the top and eight miles long.  The gap would have a vertical distance from the bottom to top 120 feet deep. 

That would call for a lot of digging. 

The Americans had one huge advantage over the French - the French had already done nearly half the work! 

Of the entire 50 mile Panama Canal, the French had already started work on 11 of the miles.  The Americans had a big job ahead of them, but at least they weren't starting from scratch.

A vast amount of new earthmoving equipment was imported and a comprehensive system of railways was constructed for the removal of the immense amounts of earthen and rocky spoil.

Major David du Bose Gaillard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was put in charge.  Gaillard brought dedication and quiet, clear-sighted leadership to this difficult, complex task.

The scale of the work was massive. Hundreds of large steam drills bored holes into the mountainside.  Tons of dynamite were planted were planted in these holes. 

They blasted the rock out and excavated it using steam shovels which transferred it to trains. Dozens of trains took the loose dirt and rock from the shovels to landfill dumps in the Pacific Ocean about twelve miles away.

Other trains took an equally large amount to a project near the Gatun Locks which were under construction. 

In a typical day, 160 trainloads of material were hauled away from the 10-mile long valley affectionately known as the "Big Ditch". 

Actually, there probably wasn't much affection involved.  The work was incredibly arduous.  When it wasn't raining in cascades, it was miserably hot.

At the busiest times, there was a train going inbound or outbound almost every minute.  This meant the workload on the railroads required some skillful co-ordination.

Six thousand men worked in the cut, drilling holes, placing explosives, controlling steam shovels and running the dirt trains. They also moved and extended the railroad tracks as the work moved forward.

Twice a day work stopped for blasting.  After the blasting finished, the steam shovels moved in to take the dirt and rock away and pile it into the trains. More than 600 holes filled with dynamite were fired daily.

The excavation of the cut was one of the greatest areas of uncertainty in the creation of the canal.  It could be dangerous.  There were many unpredicted landslides caused by destabilizing the pressure that had once compressed the loose dirt and rock on both sides of the cut.

There were many minor slides such as the rock slide pictured on the left.  As problems go, this was nothing compared to the gigantic mudslides.

The first slide was the worst.  Known as the Cucaracha Slide, it occurred in 1907.  The initial crack was first noted on October 4, 1907. Soon it was followed by the huge slide of 500,000 cubic yards of clay.  Months of work was destroyed overnight

The black and white picture on the right doesn't lend itself to understanding the problem very well, but let's try anyway.  One problem is that this picture was taken after some of the damage had already been repaired.

The white area on the side of the mountain is where the gigantic mud slide broke away.  The mud oozed and dispersed into the channel.  Those steam shovels had to excavate the slide and start over. 

Another very destructive slide occurred in nearly the same place in 1912 when the canal was nearly complete.  Seventy-five acres of dirt near the town of Culebra broke away.  It moved foot by foot into the canal, carrying hotels and club houses with them down into the valley.  It took nearly half a year to repair the damage.


Here are four different views of
the 1912 landslide that
caused so much consternation.

In the picture on the left, the steam shovels appear to have already made some progress clearing the area.

I added the red arrows to illustrate that you are seeing two different angles of the same problem.

As you can see, at first the mud slide completely dammed the Canal.


The first slide in 1907 caused many people to bring up the sore subject again that the construction of the Panama Canal would be impossible.  It was such an enormous setback that the opponents of the Canal argued long and hard that now was the time to acknowledge the entire project was sheer folly and quit.

Gaillard was undeterred.  The big slide was a setback, but not a catastrophe.  He described the slides as "tropical glaciers".  A glacier, of course, is made of slow-moving ice.  The Big Ditch slides were made of mud instead of ice, but were just as disheartening.  It was painful to see so much work undone, but that was the risk they took.  When you loosen the earth, it has a mind of its own. 

The huge mounts of clay were a tough problem because it was too soft to be excavated by the steam shovels.  Eventually Gaillard's engineers discovered the clay could be removed by sluicing it with water from a high level.  The slides still continued to cause minor problems after this, but the trick of liquefying the clay had turned the corner.

Overall the Panama Canal took ten years to finish.  The delay caused by the various slides was estimated at two and a half years.  Nevertheless, even despite the delays, the work on the Big Ditch was completed two years ahead of schedule.  Much of the credit was given to Gaillard's steady leadership.

In a sad twist of fate, Gaillard died from a brain tumor in December 1913.  He never saw the opening of the canal a few months later in 1914.  The Culebra Cut, as it was originally known, was renamed to the Gaillard Cut in 1915 in his honor.  However, from what I gather, the original name still continues to enjoy great popularity, especially with those who speak Spanish.  So consider the Gaillard Cut to be its formal name, but the Culebra Cut seems to be the nickname everyone uses.  Whatever the name, much of the credit deservedly goes to David Gaillard.

The term "Culebra Cut" specificially refers the toughest one mile cut at the Continental Divide.  However, over time, the term "Culebra Cut" has come to also refer to the entire 10-mile valley from Gamboa to the Pedro Miguel Locks once known as "The Big Ditch". 

This is the most dramatic part of the Culebra Cut.   Notice the Pedro Miguel Locks and Lake Miraflores in the background.  That is Panama City way in the back.

This image is so serene that Cruisers looking up from water level are fooled.  They often by have no idea the amount of work that went into cutting that gap.  To them it just looks like big hills on either side of the canal. 

People exclaim, "Oh, look at the cute little terraces!  Wouldn't that be a pretty spot for a hanging garden?"





The Chagres is the Mississippi River of Panama.  It is 120 miles long and serves as the main escape route to the ocean for much of Panama's rainwater.  But which ocean does it go to? 

There is an enormous, unbroken mountain chain in the Americas that starts up in Alaska, continues through Canada and the US as the Rocky Mountains, on through Central America, and then down through South America as the Andes Mountains.  It is sometimes called the "Cordillera of the Americas", 'cordillera' being the Spanish term for "chain of mountains" (actually that unbroken chain is now broken for the first time thanks to the Culebra Cut, but you know what I mean). 

The Continental Divide is the name given to the mountainous highpoint that separates the water systems that drain into the Pacific Ocean from those river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean (including those that drain into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea).

For example, in the United States, the majority of rivers head east due to the placement of the Rockies in the west.  But not all Rocky Mountain streams head to the Mississippi River.  The major exception is the Colorado River.  Located on the western side of the Continental Divide, the Colorado River heads southwest towards the Pacific, carving out the Grand Canyon along the way.  Obviously some waters head east while other waters head west.  That's why it is called "The Divide". 

So what about the Rio Chagres?  Where does its water head... Pacific or Atlantic?  That is actually a very clever trivia question.  Thanks to the Culebra Cut, Rio Chagres is the only river in the world that empties into two oceans.

But it wasn't always that way.   The Chagres is on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, so its original ocean of choice was the Atlantic.

The Chagres River is one of the moodiest streams in the world. One day it flows along as a peaceful, lazy little tropical river barely over two feet deep in some places.  It moves sleepily on its journey to the sea.

But watch out when it rains!  After rainfall, the Chagres becomes a wild, raging torrent with waters 40 feet deep racing madly toward the sea.

Up in the mountains of central Panama, the Rio Chagres and its tributaries receive up to 100 to 200 inches of rainfall each year.  So is that a lot of rain?  By comparison, the island of Kauai, one of the wettest spots on earth, gets 460 inches per year while my hometown of Houston, Texas, gets about 50 inches.  So, yes, as you might gather, even 100 inches is a lot of rain.

When it rains, the Chagres goes into action instantly.  Unlike the gigantic peaks of the Rockies and the Andes that deposit much of each rainfall into lakes and ponds, when it rains in Panama, very little rainwater is contained.  Instead the water is delivered almost instantly to the Chagres.  And since practically every other major Panamanian river connects to the Chagres, back in the old days this peaceful stream would instantly turn into a raging beast any time there was a storm.

At these times, the Chagres River would rush like a raging monster through narrow riverbeds and canyons with sheer limestone cliffs.  Doubtless many an unsuspecting Indian in a canoe has been startled by the sudden surge in the river. 

However, towards the end of its journey to the Caribbean, the Chagres would slow down as it flowed into a giant valley.  Before the transformation of Rio Chagres, this valley was a vast swampland that would periodically flood whenever there was a significant rain.  The valley operated as a gigantic retention pond.  Let me add this swampland was largely responsible for breeding the massive swarms of mosquitoes that plague Panama.

Malaria is the curse of Panama.  It is a mosquito-borne infectious disease common to tropical and subtropical regions, including much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Malaria is prevalent in these regions because of the significant amounts of rainfall and consistent high temperatures.  The last ingredient necessary is large pools of stagnant water.  The Chagres Valley was the perfect breeding ground.  This large, flat marshland had everything - a warm, consistent temperature, high humidity, along with abundant stagnant waters providing mosquitoes with the environment they need for continuous breeding


The Rio Chagres has a very colorful past. That color would be the color of gold.
Or maybe red for all the blood shed fighting over the gold.

It is likely that more gold has passed down the Chagres than any other river in the world.  When the Spanish Conquistadors looted the Incan Empire in the 1500s, the fastest way to get their gold from Peru on the Pacific side back to Spain was across Panama using the Chagres.

The coming of the Spanish to the Americas was a curse of the highest magnitude for the people who already lived there.  The two words that best described the Spanish were greed and cruelty.  Death, destruction and disease followed the Spanish wherever they went. 

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a nobody farmer in northern Spain who would lead a rags to riches life.  Captivated by news of Columbus and his discovery of the New World, Balboa joined an expedition in 1501 that landed in Panama.  There weren't enough men to take on the hostile natives, so the expedition didn't stay long.  The ship headed back to the Spanish settlement in Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic). 

In Hispaniola, Balboa became a pig farmer, but not a very good one. Deep in debt, in 1509 he stowed away on a ship headed to Panama.  He hid inside a barrel with his dog. When discovered, Balboa nearly thrown overboard by the unpopular captain Fernández de Enciso.  Fortunately Balboa was a fast talker. He was spared after claiming he knew everything about their destination.

That was the break he needed. 
During the trip, Balboa became popular with the crew.  Balboa had charisma and was quite the storyteller.  He kept the crew fascinated with tales of what he had seen on his first visit to Panama.  Plus they liked his dog (just kidding).  By the time the ship made it to land, Balboa had somehow managed to become the unspoken leader of the crewmen.

The ship landed in Colombia at a small Spanish settlement that would someday become modern day Cartagena.  When the ship arrived, the men discovered the settlement was virtually leaderless.  A soldier named Pizarro with no rank was in charge because the captain had been wounded by a poison arrow and had returned to Hispaniola.  The natives were busy subjecting the few remaining Spanish to relentless attacks.

Balboa suggested an area he had been to that was much less dangerous.  On Balboa's word, the Spanish got in the ship and sailed 180 miles to a place called Darien.  This location was just a few miles from today's Panama/Colombia border.  

At Darien, it was good new/bad news.  As it turned out, the natives were just as hostile as they had been at the other place.  The moment they landed, the Spanish had to fight for their lives.  The moment they put to shore, they encountered a force of 500 villagers armed and ready for battle.  Badly outnumbered, the Spanish won a fluke victory when the leader panicked and headed for the jungle.  His men gave up and ran after him. 

To their amazement, the Spanish discovered the villagers had left behind a vast treasure trove of golden ornaments.  The world would never be the same.  

The victory led to the founding of Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the spot of their landing.  As it turned out, Balboa had been right.  Other than that single tribe, this was indeed a relatively calm region.  The Spanish were finally safe.  Balboa's successful gamble earned him respect among his companions. 

Meanwhile, Fernández de Enciso, the much-disliked Captain, made a serious mistake.  He kept confiscating the gold trinkets found by the men.  The men grew increasingly hostile towards the Captain whom they considered a greedy despot.

Balboa took advantage of the situation.  Acting as the spokesman for the disgruntled settlers, while Fernández de Enciso was away, Balboa took the position of alcalde mayor for himself.  Upon his return, Fernández de Enciso did not try to get the position back when he saw the men had turned against him.  Instead he left for Hispaniola and would spend the rest of his life trying to get Balboa arrested. 

His nemesis gone, Balboa settled in.  He made sure his men were safe by defeating various tribes and befriending others.  He made sure to explore the nearby rivers, mountains, and the sickly swamps.  The men discovered the thick jungle made further exploration both difficult and dangerous, so they never went very far.  The existence of the nearby Pacific Ocean 50 miles away remained a secret.

Balboa succeeded in planting corn, received fresh supplies from Hispaniola, and got his men used to life as explorers in the new territories. He was always searching for gold and slaves and ways to enlarge his territory. Balboa managed to collect a great deal of gold, much of it from the ornaments worn by the native women. He obtained the rest by violence.

Balboa, the former stowaway, faced constant threats from visiting Spanish officials who upon discovery of his lack of "official" authority would threaten to have him removed.  Balboa showed an uncanny political savvy for survival that allowed him one narrow escape after another.  Like the Old West, Balboa took advantage of his remote location from Spanish Law.

Even his own men became a problem.  Balboa was able to quell revolts among those of his men who challenged this authority. 

As for the natives, Balboa could be ruthless, but was basically a huge cut above the other notable Spanish invaders of the day.  Although he had the ever-present threat of force at his disposal, Balboa preferred to use diplomacy and negotiation to earn respect among the natives.  Plus they feared standing up to him.  An uneasy peace settled over the area.

After three years of settling in at Santa Maria, Balboa felt secure enough to begin a more extensive exploration of the surrounding areas.  However, he stayed pretty close to the Caribbean shoreline, moving along the coast but not inland.  Any trips deep into the interior of Panama were deemed too dangerous. 

At the end of 1512, Balboa arrived in a region dominated by the native leader Careta, whom he easily defeated and then befriended. Careta was baptized and became one of Balboa's chief allies; he ensured the survival of the settlers by promising to supply the Spaniards with food.

Balboa then proceeded on his journey, arriving in the lands of Careta's neighbor and rival, native leader Ponca.  Ponca immediately fled to the mountains with his people, leaving his village open to the plundering of the Spaniards and Careta's men.  Balboa had learned a secret - he could use the natives to help conquer other natives.  While Balboa was busy using the sword to do God's work in the New World, the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing back home. Considering how religious Spain was, it was truly a barbaric empire.

Days later, the expedition arrived in the lands of the leader Comagre.  This tribe of natives were reportedly dangerous, but Balboa was received peacefully.  Preceded by his reputation, he didn't even have to fight.  Balboa was even invited to a feast in his honor; Comagre, like Careta, was then baptized.  Spreading Catholicism was lucrative business.

The Spanish, as always, were greedy for more gold.  One day a squabble broke out between the Spaniards and the Indians.  The Spaniards were unsatisfied by the meager amounts of gold they were being allotted.

Comagre's eldest son, Panquiaco, was angered by the Spaniards' avarice. He knocked over the scales used to measure gold and exclaimed, "If you are so hungry for gold that you leave your lands to cause strife in those of others, I shall show you a province where you can quell this hunger."

Panquiaco told them of a kingdom to the south where people were so rich that they ate from plates and drank from goblets made of gold.  He added with a smile that the conquerors would need at least a thousand men to defeat the tribes living inland and those on the coast of "the other sea."

The other sea?   What other sea?

The promise of a new kingdom rich in gold was a major lure, but Balboa's curiosity about the sea was an even larger motivation. 

Balboa returned to Santa María at the beginning of 1513 to get more men from Hispaniola for a major expedition. It was then that he learned that his old enemy Fernández de Enciso had told the colonial authorities what had happened at Santa María.  Balboa was considered an outlaw.  After seeing that there would be no assistance from Hispaniola, Balboa sent Enrique de Colmenares directly to Spain to look for help.

Colmenares returned with two pieces of bad news.  Enciso's case was widely known in the Spanish court.  Angered by Enciso's allegations, the King was in no mood to send more men.  Therefore, Balboa had no choice but to carry out his expedition with the few men that he had on hand in Santa María.  This would be a risky adventure.

Balboa had been told he needed a thousand men, but he only had less than two hundred men.  However he did have several vicious bloodhounds.  Yes, even the Spanish dogs were mean.  The natives had always been especially terrified of the dogs, so he would take them along.

Balboa was undeterred by the danger.  He had waited long enough. So with just a few men and a lot of guts, Balboa entered the interior of Panama.

Slowly but surely Balboa fought his way through the thick jungle in search of "the other sea".  The expedition's rate of advance through the jungle was at times only a mile a day. The rivers were swollen during the rainy season. Numerous bridges had to be improvised from tree trunks. Even in the sweltering jungle, the Spaniards wore helmets and breastplates of polished steel, thick leather breeches, woolen stockings, and thigh boots.

Heatstroke, hostile Indians, and disease began to thin their numbers.  Balboa was down to one-third of his men.

On September 25, Balboa reached a small hill along the Continental Divide.  The guides whispered to Balboa that he could see the Great Ocean from the summit.  Balboa told his men to stay and set off alone.

From the high point Balboa viewed the Pacific Ocean for the first time.  Only a mere 12 miles separated Balboa from the gigantic body of water.  Balboa was the first European to ever see this amazing ocean from the Americas.  At the top, he turned one way and then the other; he could see both oceans quite clearly. 

It was now 1513.  This had to be an awe-inspiring moment for the group.  However life is full of irony. Who would ever imagine that Balboa's greatest moment would also mark the beginning of his end?

Among the men in Balboa's group peering down upon the great ocean was none other than Francisco Pizarro, the man who would conquer the vast Incan Empire 20 years later.  However, before his days of glory in Peru, Pizarro would first play a hand in Balboa's death.

After his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, Balboa returned to Santa Maria.  From there, he sent word to the King Ferdinand of Spain of his amazing discovery as well as a treasure chest full of gold as a present to the King.  Since Balboa's discovery was almost as impressive as that of Columbus, ordinarily you would expect the King to be pleased.  Not this time.

The gold definitely got King Ferdinand's attention, but there also these troubling reports made by the political enemies Balboa had incurred during his illegal rise to power in Panama. 

King Ferdinand dispatched Pedrarias, a Spanish nobleman, to take charge in this lucrative new world.  Pedrarias was a tough guy known for his cruelty.  He landed in Panama in July 1514 along with 17 ships and 1,500 soldiers.  Faced with that kind of muscle, Balboa knew the gig was up.  His reward for discovery the Pacific was to lose his job. 

Balboa was no longer governor and mayor.  Balboa was imprisoned as well.  Fortunately, his prestige and his fast-talking ability got him free, but he was kept on a short leash.

Pedrarias was no fool. Balboa was the local hero and had the loyalty of many.  Pedrarias kept a close eye on Balboa at all times. He knew as long as Balboa was around, his own position would always be in danger in this remote location. 

Balboa could tell he was a marked man.  For the next five years, Balboa did everything he could to ingratiate himself with the thug.  Balboa went to the trouble of marrying one of Pedrarias' daughters, but even that couldn't save him from his ruthless father-in-law.  Pedrarias refused to trust Balboa's motives.  He knew as long as the popular Balboa was around, there would always be the threat of an insurrection. 

In 1519, Pedrarias ordered Pizarro to intercept Balboa on the way back from a mission.  He gave Pizarro the authority to execute Balboa on some trumped up charges.  It was basically a Mafia hit.  There was no evidence that Balboa was planning any coup; Pedrarias had simply grown tired of keeping the threat around. 

Balboa lost his head.  His amazing run of good luck had run out.


The Spanish Empire

The first man to the New World gets the gold. 

Thanks to explorers such as Columbus (the Americas) and Magellan (Philippines) as well as conquistadors such as Balboa, conqueror of Panama, Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, and Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, Spain began to acquire incalculable amounts of wealth.

Spain would exploit the riches of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean for the next four centuries.

This zenith of Spanish influence would spread Spanish blood, culture, and language to far regions across the planet.  These were the days of the mighty Spanish Empire. 

Now it is true that the Spanish were powerful and aggressive, but I also think they enjoyed the greatest run of dumb luck in history.  It started with Columbus.  Columbus had no idea what he was doing, completely miscalculated the circumference of the Earth, but stumbled onto the Americas nonetheless.  That was sheer dumb luck.  He was so confused he thought he was in India of all places.
And now we celebrate Columbus Day once a year.  Go figure.

Even Balboa was lucky.  When he persuaded Fernández de Enciso to move his men to Darien, 50 Spanish faced 500 armed natives.  But somehow the Spanish prevailed because the indigenous people failed to realize that 50 guns shooting one bullet at a time were not sufficient to stop 500 determined warriors. 

Hernan Cortés conquered Emperor Moctezuma and the vast Aztec empire aided by the good fortune of being mistaken for the return of an Aztec deity.

However, when we speak of dumb luck, the man who takes the cake has to Francisco Pizarro.  Pizarro had the luck of taking on the dumbest ruler in history.

Like Balboa, Pizarro was another commoner with an uncommon amount of ambition.  Pizarro had nothing against Balboa.  Pizarro had served under Balboa in Panama for 18 years.  However, when asked by Pedrarias to take out Balboa, Pizarro was easily bought for the right price.  As reward for his part in the treachery, Pizarro was made major of Panama City. 

While at this post, Pizarro heard rumors of vast wealth at some place called Peru 1,000 miles away.  Pizarro was intrigued.  Pizarro immediately began a series of probes which seemed to bear out the rumors. 

Pizarro spent the next ten years in various maneuvers trying to figure out what to do.  He was underfunded, undermanned, and had become something of a renegade himself.  There was a "wanted" poster out on him.  But his unrelenting ambition kept him going. 

In 1532, Pizarro was finally close to the prize. He took on Atahualpa, the ruler of the Incan Empire.  From what I read, Atahualpa might possibly be the dumbest ruler in history.  He paid zero attention to this new threat. 

Although Atahualpa was in the middle of a civil war when Pizarro showed up, he wasn't at all worried.  And why should he?  There were fewer than 200 Spanish as opposed to his 80,000 soldiers.  That complacency was the mistake that caused his death and doomed the Incan empire. 

And just how did that happen?  Basically Pizarro caught the guy napping, but the sequence of events was so far-fetched that I have trouble believing any of it.  The whole tale is non-stop Pizarro Bizarro. 

It is also much too complicated to do in 3 million words or less. Therefore I suggest for now we stick to our Panama story and save that tall tale for the time we take a cruise trip to Machu Picchu. 

Suffice it to say, after Pizarro miraculously succeeded in overthrowing Atahualpa, pretty soon a vast amount of gold was suddenly headed in the direction of Panama.

The Chagres River is only 12 miles from the Pacific.  Thanks to Pizarro's amazing luck, overnight the Chagres became the most important river in the world. 

First the Incan gold was shipped 1,000 miles from Peru to Panama City on Panama's Pacific coast.  From there it was transported by mules 15 miles across the Continental Divide using El Camino Real - the King's Highway.

At that point, the gold was then loaded onto boats which used the Rio Chagres to cover the remaining 40 miles to reach the Caribbean side. 


The California Gold Rush

Strangely enough, 300 years later after the Spanish Dias de Oro, history would be repeated.  The 1849 California Gold Rush utilized the Chagres River in much the same way as Pizarro had. 

The spark that created the bonfire were some extremely exaggerated press reports about gold discovered in California.  A frenzied migration was triggered by the illusion that every gold digger would automatically become a millionaire if he could just get there in time.  According to some newspaper reports, gold was literally lying on the ground.  All a man had to do was bend down and pick it up.  There was a story circulating about a cleaning woman who swept gold dust worth 500 dollars from a saloon floor within a day. 

Tales like these spurred people's imagination and provided them with false expectations.  They needed to get there as fast as possible before all that wonderful gold was gone.  The fastest way to get from New York City to San Francisco was by boat - sail to Panama, cross the Isthmus, then take another boat to California.  Likewise, the fastest way to transport gold back to the East Coast was through Panama using the Chagres River. 

There are some pretty wild stories involving Panama from that era. 

In the early days of the Gold Rush, when word of the easy pickings reached the East Coast, thousands of men in the East dreamed of striking it rich.  And what was the fastest way to San Jose?  Through Panama! 

So they hopped aboard ships that dropped them off in Colon on the Caribbean side.  Then they took small boats via the Chagres River all the way to the Continental Divide.  Then they walked a mule path the final ten miles to Panama City to await the next ship to San Francisco. 

Except there was one problem -  There were no ships waiting for them in Panama City. 

What had happened was that many crewmen had deserted their jobs aboard ships the instant they reached San Francisco.  They headed straight for Sutter's Mill and other rumored gold areas.  No one in San Francisco wanted to work the ships; like everyone else they wanted to strike it rich. 

As a result, one ship after another entered the harbor, but didn't leave.  At one point, the San Francisco harbor was 7 ships deep in abandoned ships.   Until the captain could find someone to work for him, they would sit there in the water like ghost ships. 

Meanwhile, thousands of impatient would-be miners were stuck in Panama City waiting for the next ship to come pick them up.  Each day when no ship showed up, these men grew increasingly desperate.  If they could just get there in time, they would be rich!  Going nowhere was driving them crazy.  

Idle hands are the Devil's workshop and Panama City was a boomtown without a boom.  Hundreds of men hung around the ticket agencies waiting for news of steamers arriving.  Still others followed the agents around town just so no covert actions would go unnoticed.  They soon realized this tactic didn't do a bit of good. 

Left with nothing else to do, the men spent their time with booze, brawls, and brothels.  There was gambling, stealing, and constant arguing.  During the day men roamed the streets, drinking and frequenting the many gambling establishments.  Although the national pastime seemed to be cockfighting, the gambling houses had roulette wheels, faro banks, and monte boards to amuse everyone.

In the early days of the Gold Rush, there was practically no police force in Panama City.  This was a somewhat uncivilized area in the first place, so the citizens were ill-equipped to deal with this sudden onslaught of impatient men trapped in their city. 

Panama City was quickly overwhelmed by this endless crush of men.  These were rough men to begin with and now they were frustrated.  Some of them turned into thugs and took their anger out on the local citizens. They treated the locals badly, hurting the women and beating the men in broad daylight for no reason. For a while there, the town was in a state of near-constant mayhem.

One day panic broke out.  A ship came in with room for about 1,000 passengers... but there were 3,000 men waiting.  There were insufficient controls established for who would get those spots.  The bullies shoved people out of their way in their rush to get to the front.  The people they were pushing shoved back. 

Suddenly there was fighting everywhere - gunfights, fistfights, and knife fights.  Miners were fighting miners.  Miners were fighting Panamanians.  The riot spread through the city.  Panama City was beset by dog eat dog lawlessness.  During the riot, many stores were looted for provisions and supplies by men whose money and patience had run out.  It was an ugly mess that took quite a while to restore order.

The overcrowding problem was eventually solved in a bizarre way.  Stuck in Panama for months at a time, many of the men got sick with fever, malaria and cholera. 

Just as the police force was unable to cope with the roughhousing, the hospitals were not much help either.  Back in those days, there was no cure for yellow fever.  Whiskey was the main treatment.  An adult had about a 50-50 chance of survival. 

Many of the would-be miners died in Panama far from their homes.  They were alone and had no one to comfort them.  In great pain and full of fear, they died miserable deaths.  Their Gold Fever had turned into Yellow Fever.

Death by Panama Fever.  What an awful way to die.  On the other hand, considering how poorly many of these men had acted, some might say they got what they deserved.

Meanwhile, up in the California gold fields, many of the get-rich-quick types had discovered it wasn't going to be as easy as they had believed,  Full of disappointment, they returned to San Francisco. Men began to hire on ships to get them moving again.  Panama City finally returned to normalcy.  

The heyday of the Chagres River ended 6 years later. It was put out of the gold business by two railroads.  First the Old Panama Railroad was completed in 1855.  Then the USA completed its first transcontinental railroad in 1869.  From that point on, the trains carried the gold. 

Its glory days seemingly over, the Rio Chagres returned to its role as chief waterway of Panama.  At that point, the Chagres River should have disappeared into history as nothing more than a footnote, but in 1880 it made a comeback when the French began their attempt to build a canal.

Although the French effort would fail, the Americans found a way to finally harness the mighty Chagres River.  They used the Chagres River to create the only waterway in the entire world to directly link two great oceans.

The construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of the century had a real touch of irony.  The same waters that had once carried so much gold had suddenly become more valuable to the world than gold itself. 


Trivia Question:
  After the French effort to build the canal failed, the United States immediately showed interest in a canal project of its own.  There were two major routes under consideration, one through Panama and other Nicaragua. In 1897 and 1899 two fact finding commissions appointed by the United States Congress recommended the Panama route.  True or False?  (answer in a moment)



This picture makes me dizzy.  Do you have any idea what you are looking at?

This picture is an overhead view of the Gatun Locks (upper right corner) and the Rio Chagres dam (center). 

The earth and rubble eventually removed from the Big Ditch would be enough to bury Manhattan to a depth of 12 feet.

So where do you suppose all that dirt and rock went to?  The nearby Pacific Ocean?

Well, yes, some of it did.  There was an island about three miles off the coast of Panama.  Using the debris to fill in the gap, the island was connected to the mainland.  The area was turned into a thin peninsula known as the Naos Island Breakwater.

However, they had another very important use for the rock spoil.  Every day for several years 100 trainloads of waste rock and dirt were transported 30 miles from the Culebra Cut and deposited into the Rio Chagres valley.

What do you suppose they were doing? 

They were building a dam at a town called "Gatun".  Gatun was a small fishing village about six miles inland from the Caribbean Sea that sat along the banks of the Rio Chagres.

When people visit the Canal for the first time, almost everybody has the same mental picture of the Canal before their first visit -- a long narrow body of water, twisting and turning through the jungles of Panama.

Unless they study up in advance, they are very surprised to learn that almost half of the Canal is just a lake... and a very big lake indeed!

It is time to learn about the "The Big Bathtub".  The man-made Gatun Lake is the amazing trick the engineers used to finally tame the churning waters of the unpredictable Chagres River. 

If you remember, the French plan was to build a sea level canal, but the American plan was raise the waters.  But what on earth were they talking about?  They were planning to create an artificial lake.

In the picture, you can see the massive dam they put in front of the Rio Chagres.  Once the waters had nowhere to go, the entire Chagres Valley filled up like a giant bathtub. The Chagres River had been about 42 feet above sea level at its Gamboa bend.  Now, thanks to the dam, the river elevation reached 85 feet.  They had indeed raised the water. 

The Chagres Valley was gone never to be seen again.  In its place came Lake Gatun, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time.


Have you ever seen a more amazing transformation? 

They didn't bother "lowering" the Rio Chagres by digging it out.  Instead they "raised" it.  As you can see, by damming the Chagres, a huge valley was transformed into an immense lake.

The new Lake Gatun was 85 feet above sea level.  That red line in the water marks the path of the original Rio Chagres.

The Beauty Contest

Before the Panama Canal was built, it first had to win a beauty contest with another proposed route in Nicaragua.

Trivia Question:  After the French effort to build the canal failed, the United States immediately showed interest in a canal project of its own.  There were two major routes under consideration, one through Panama and other Nicaragua. In 1897 and 1899 two fact finding commissions appointed by the United States Congress recommended the Panama route.  True or False?

 So what did you decide, Panama or Nicaragua?  In fact, both commissions recommended the route in Nicaragua as superior.

So what made Nicaragua so attractive?  Nicaragua had one compelling advantage.  It had a massive lake in the middle of the country.  The lake was 107 feet above sea level, so no digging would be necessary.  Since the lake drained to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River, all they had to do was dredge out the river a bit.

To the naked eye, 90% of the route was easy pickings.  Only the hills on the Pacific side near San Juan del Sur would present any sort of problem. But since its lowest point was 184 feet above sea level, even this beat Panama's Culebra Pass at 336 feet.

On the other hand, Panama was the shorter route, but it had no lake to use for the "lake and lock" system typically used for canals through uneven terrain.  Furthermore, its major river, the Chagres, was difficult to control while the San Juan River of Nicaragua was not a problem.  Nicaragua had won the beauty contest fair and square.

When Teddy Roosevelt decided it was time to build a canal in 1901, both options were put on the table.  Nicaragua had the inside track.

The French were absolutely panic-stricken.  They had all this money sunk into their failed Panama project.  The only possible way to recoup some of their losses would be to persuade the Americans to change their mind about Nicaragua.  France's New Panama Canal Company began a strong lobbying effort to influence the final verdict.  The French offered to sell its equipment and license in Panama at a major discount. 

This offer put Panama back in the running.  Yes, the Nicaragua route was superior, but the fact that the French had already dug out 11 of the 50 miles needed to finish the project definitely helped to balance the scales.  The French lobbyists persuaded Congress to pass an amendment to a bill that would allow the President to acquire the French company's Panama property and concessions at a cost not to exceed $40,000,000 and to acquire from Colombia perpetual control of a canal zone. 

If the title and an agreement with Colombia could not be reached in a reasonable period of time, the President was authorized to proceed with a canal at Nicaragua.

However, all this was contingent on a vote.  Congress had the final say-so.  Even with the French concessions, some old southern senator had it stuck in his brain that the only place for a canal was Nicaragua.  He wasn’t an engineer but he did have a big mouth in the senate. He used his influence to hold up the process.

The debate went on and on in Congress.  There were rumors that money was secretly changing hands during the debate. 
This was going to be a close and hotly-contested vote.

Then o
ne day, a major Nicaraguan volcano erupted and there were earthquakes.  This didn't help Nicaragua's chances at all.  Volcanoes were Nicaragua's Achilles heel.  This country the size of New York had a very volatile geology. 

Known as the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes, Nicaragua's detractors said the geology was simply too dangerous to risk this expensive project on.  What if a volcano erupted and seriously damaged the canal?  What if it became an ongoing problem?

Good point.  Now it was Nicaragua's turn to panic.

Frantic Nicaraguan officials sent a telegram to the US denying the eruption and earthquakes had taken place. The southern senator claimed his foes had made up the natural disasters. The truth was that they didn’t.  However, news traveled slowly in those days, so the recent eruption remained more rumor than fact.

Someone noticed that a popular Nicaraguan postage stamp was engraved with a fuming volcano.  One of the proponents of building the canal in Panama cleverly sent every voting senator a letter using that stamp for postage. 

When the vote was taken, it was close, but Panama finally won by 4 votes. An unconfirmed rumor hinted the blustering senator blew his top.

Chagres Valley Becomes Lake Gatun

The US engineers breathed a huge sigh of relief when Panama was declared the winner.  By this time, all the US engineers had decided Panama was a better choice.  For one thing, they liked the fact that they could build on the work of the French

Besides, Panama had a railway next to the canal site. Nicaragua didn’t.

Furthermore, the French had already cleared a lot of the jungle. The clearing made it easy to survey and measure distances. Nicaragua was still a jungle and impossible to survey.  There were simply too many unknowns there.

On the other hand, Panama still had its drawbacks. The greatest difficulty of the Panama route was how to control the often-powerful Chagres River and its many tributaries.  The Chagres River rose in the San Blas Mountains and drained a huge basin of 1,320 square miles, nearly half of Panama.  Controlling the Chagres was like telling the Mississippi what to do.

The upper section of the Chagres was a real monster whenever it rained.  However the Chagres slowed considerably when it reached the vast low-lying Chagres valley.  The general elevation of the valley was barely above sea-level.  That meant the Chagres River wasn't nearly deep enough to allow a modern ship to cross it. 

The only solution would be to dredge a deep channel into the Rio Chagres.  But maybe not.  Someone had an idea.  Why not turn the entire valley into a deep lake?  Brilliant!  No digging necessary!

One of the major factors in Nicaragua's favor had been the presence of its massive Lake Nicaragua right in the middle of the proposed canal route.

Yes, Panama had no lake comparable to Lake Nicaragua, but the engineers had figured out how to solve three headaches with just one stone.  They could tame the Chagres River and create a massive lake using the same solution - put a dam across the Chagres in just the right place.  Plus now they had a good spot to deposit all that excess rock and dirt from Culebra.

When the engineers had originally studied the topography of Panama, they spotted an unusual depression in the land near the Caribbean.

What could have created such an immense low spot in this mountainous country?   The features of the valley were such that it didn't look like the Chagres River had created it.  The area was much too wide and "unsymmetrical" for that.  There was none of the usual tapering of hills alongside the river.

That led to speculation that the area may have been the remnants of a volcanic crater.  Many mountain lakes have formed in the cones of dormant volcanoes.

However the depression lacked many of the features commonly associated with volcano craters.  For one thing, volcanic craters are elevated.  This was right at sea level. 

That led to another theory that the vast Chagres Valley might be an impact crater.  In other words, a falling meteor might have created the giant depression.

Whatever the reason, it was apparent to everyone that the terrain was unusually well-suited to creating a reservoir.  A line of hills on all sides of the valley formed a natural bowl. 

Those hills helped make Chagres Valley a natural drainage basin.  Parts of the valley would flood whenever there was a heavy rainfall.  This is what led to marshy conditions that made this area a giant swampland. 

But why was there no lake?  Because there was one noticeable opening in the ring of hills.  The Rio Chagres was nearly a mile wide at the gap where it left the valley. 

No matter how hard it rained, the Chagres would drain the waters through that gap.  The engineers noticed that the tall hills bordering the valley of the Chagres meant there was no possible escape for any water if that gap could be plugged. 

If they could just find a way to close that huge gap, the geography of the area was ideal for the creation of a large lake.

Unfortunately a mile-wide gap is an unusually broad span for a dam.  If they wanted to make an
earthen dam, they would need a huge amount of dirt.  Well, we know the answer to that. Thanks to the Big Ditch, the Big Bathtub had all the dirt it needed.

So Lake Gatun was created by a gigantic earthen dam designed to bridge that mile-wide gap between the two hills.  This dam project took all that dirt and rock from the Culebra Cut and put it to good use.  Let's see if we can get an idea of the magnitude.

In the picture, Lake Gatun is to the right, Rio Chagres is flowing out to sea on the left. That entire grassy area was added to the sides of both hills to help create the dam.  Since Gatun Dam is slightly higher than 100 feet tall, don't forget that grassy area is not only a mile and a half long, it is also nearly 100 feet high.  That's a lot of dirt.

Compared to other dams, a height of 100 feet is no big deal.  For example, our own Hoover Dam has a height of 726 feet because it was built to seal a deep canyon.

However, Hoover Dam's width is only 1,200 feet.  By comparison, Gatun Dam is 8,400 feet wide and juts out a half mile into the lake at the base. 

By all standards, the completion of the immense Gatun Dam was a major project equally as important as the excavation of the Culebra Cut.

As predicted, creating Lake Gatun solved many problems.  The raging Rio Chagres would never cause another flood.  Take a quick look at the size of Lake Gatun.  Anytime it rained, the water level of the lake would simply rise a foot or so.  Big deal.  Any excess would spill over Gatun Dam and run out to sea.  The mood swings of the temperamental Rio Chagres were finally tamed.

Thanks to the creation of Lake Gatun, the Chagres River would not have to be dug out. The United States had just saved a decade of more digging that a sea-level canal would have required.   This was an immense relief since the bottom of the Chagres was hard rock, not soft sand like the Suez Canal.  After all the problems with the Big Ditch, no one was in much of a mood to do any more digging.

Once t
he dam was finished, the waters of the Chagres were suddenly trapped by the giant man-made mountain. The Chagres slowly began to fill the valley using the waters of its 1,320-mile watershed.  Lake Gatun was created gradually over a period between 1908 and 1911.

When the waters finally touched the top of the dam, Lake Gatun had become the largest artificial lake in existence at 164 square miles with a shore line of 1,100 miles.  The most important statistic about Gatun Lake is that it now rested 85 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

That impressive depth was more than necessary to get the job done.  A cruise ship, for example, required 25 to 28 feet of water depth.  85 feet was more than enough.  Lake Gatun was perfect. 

So what is the largest man-made lake in the world today?  I knew you were going to ask this question, so I looked it up. 

Unfortunately, recent projects have completely knocked Lake Gatun off the Top Ten list.  Some dam going up in China on the Yangtze is supposed to break all the records.  However, at the moment Lake Volta in Ghana has the record with 3,275 square miles.  That makes it about 20 times larger than Lake Gatun. 

Oh well.  There's always a bigger fish in the sea and I suppose a larger artificial lake as well.  Still, Lake Gatun doesn't have to hold its head in shame; it is just as big as some of the most famous lakes in the world.  For example, it approximates Switzerland's Lake Geneva in size.

The Chagres Valley was not exactly one big level area, but rather many separate valleys with differing elevations. During the flooding process, it took several years for the rain to fill the convoluted valleys

Whenever one valley filled, the trapped Chagres water would start flooding the next lowest one.

Before it was flooded, the Chagres Valley was a low-lying area that drained slowly whenever it rained.  This vast swampland was perfect for two things - breeding cattle and breeding mosquitoes.

The valley also had places that were heavily forested. In the process of flooding the giant valley, the waters killed off all the low-lying forest.  Today nearly a century later ancient mahogany tree trunks still tower over the water in certain places.  In addition, submerged stumps form hidden hazards for any small vessels that wander off the marked channels.

Trees weren't the only things buried by the water.  Raising the waters 85 feet meant that all sorts of things were covered up.  For example, several sections of the Old Panama Railroad went underwater (a new one was built as part of the Canal construction). 

The town of Gatun went under as well.  So did many farms and native villages. Fortunately Panama was not a crowded country back in 1900.  Everyone found new property to start over without much trouble.

Slowly but surely, the rising waters turned hills into islands.  100 foot hills became 15 foot islands.  Some of Gatun's new islands were large while others just barely poked their nose above water.  The cruise ship will pass several of these forest-covered islands as it crosses Lake Gatun.

Islas Brujas and Islas Tigres are small islands which together hold a primate refuge.  Unfortunately, visitors aren't allowed.  Too many wild apes.

Since the flooding process didn't happen overnight, the flood posed no danger for animals.  When the waters grew high enough to pose a threat, the animals simply headed towards the nearest hill. 

Not surprisingly, the most popular hill was the widest and tallest one, Barro Colorado.  Once the animals made a new habitat there, they became permanently trapped as the waters continued to rise.  Not that the animals minded. The island was soon surrounded by so much water it became a sanctuary for them - no predators could reach the place.  The small animals were safe.

Only the larger animals like jaguars disappeared from Barro Colorado after the lake was flooded in 1914.  Because Barro Colorado was so isolated in the middle of the giant lake, the island became a perfect spot for a game preserve and a place to study nature undisturbed by the influence of man.  That is how Barro Colorado became one of the world's first biological reserves.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has a permanent center on Barro Colorado island dedicated to studying rainforest ecosystems.

Because the island's diverse ecosystem has been little altered by humans, Barro Colorado has been studied for over eighty years within a great variety of biological disciplines. 

Many scientific studies have been conducted to document the changes in the species composition of the island.

The lake itself is home to crocodiles - swim at your own risk - as well as manatees.  The favorite fish is peacock bass, a species introduced from South America that is popular with fishermen.  Fishing charters for bass, snook, and tarpon can be scheduled most easily in the town of Gamboa located at the fork where the Rio Chagres merges with the Panama Canal.

Wouldn't it be fun if the cruise ship would stop in the middle of Lake Gatun and let its passengers spend the afternoon fishing for their dinner?  No fish, no dinner.  Hand me a pole!

Our Next Story: How the Locks Work
plus the History of the American Effort
Story of the Panama Trip 1 Story of the Panama Trip 2 Story of the Panama Trip 3
Background on the Panama Canal 1 Background on the Panama Canal 2 Panama Canal Quiz
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