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Friday, April 29, 2016

Panama Canal Art

Panama Canal, Alson Skinner Clark
Yesterday, April 28, 2016, my wife and I passed through the Panama Canal aboard the MS Island Princess. The journey took some ten hours and covers about 48 miles as seen from our balcony on the Promenade Deck (below). It's a trip I've been planning for about ten years now, though it's been well down on my "bucket list" until recently. However, as I've checked off one "must-see" venue after another around the world, the canal has been steadily moving up the list. Then when my wife let it be known she did not wish to spend another vacation sitting in hotel rooms while I traipsed through a half-dozen major art museums, I suggested, a two-week cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles through the canal. She likes long, nothing-to-do-but-eat-and-relax cruises so, Panama it was.
Princess Cruise Line's Island Princess. Okay, so it's not the most
stunningly beautiful ship afloat, but it's better than a rowboat.
Launched in 2003, it was designed specifically for canal transit.
When one thinks of art, very likely some stunning, early 20th-century engineering marvel like this probably does not come to mind. Except for the Eiffel tower perhaps, most engineering marvels (especially from that period) are very often not particularly lovely--not that such beauty is as absolute necessity in terms of art content. It does help somewhat, though. As with most such works of man, the element of beauty depends entirely on how you look at them--your point of view--and not just the artist's viewing angle, location, and color selection, but also the viewer's frame of mind. The esthete would note that the Panama Canal is a far cry from the Taj Mahal, while the aforementioned Mr. Eiffel might cry, "WOW! What a gorgeous ditch."

The canal project as seen by the French, 1881.

Our friend Mr. Eiffel might also lament the fact that his own countrymen had been the first to attempt such a ditch--and failed miserably. Fresh off their success in digging the Suez Canal, the French moved on to bigger and better things, turning the first spade of Panamanian dirt in 1881. It quickly became apparent that a ditch across a desert was a far cry from the engineering trials and tribulations inherent in digging one's way (at sea level, no less) across the Central American Continental Divide (the Culebra Cut, top). As if that weren't challenge enough, then there were the damned mosquitoes. The worker mortality rate for Yellow Fever (and Malaria) was astounding--over two-hundred a month at one point. Worse still, the French didn't even know what was causing this devastating health problem. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending $287,000,000 and costing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents. It also wiped out the life's savings of roughly 800,000 French investors. The French asking price for a buyout was $100-million. Teddy Roosevelt negotiated them down to $40-million. A little "gunboat diplomacy" and another $10-million managed to free Panama from an uncooperative Colombia.

The politics of freeing Panama from Colombia may have been a bit shady, and billions of mosquitoes lost their lives in the process, but American engineering and the newly invented, but still crude, "steam shove," got the job done.
When U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt (above), took over the project in 1904, he didn't start building locks and dams but in killing mosquitoes to keep them from killing American workers. Having conquered that foe, the key to the success of the Panama Canal was not in ditch digging so much as in dam building, specifically in harnessing the rough and tumble Chagres River which, during the rainy season (nine months out of the year) rises as much as thirty-five feet. The American solution was to create a massive, sprawling lake (Gatun Lake) some twenty-six meters (85 feet) above sea level (the largest dam and the largest manmade lake in the world at the time). This, of course, eliminating a hell of a lot of digging, not to mention supplying a reliable source of water flowing down hill on both sides to allow for gravity-fed system of huge locks, each 110 feet wide and 1,050 feet long. Moreover it was a two-way ditch.

If you build it, they will come...artists, that is...and tourists (above-top).
George Washington Goethals (left portrait) took over the building of the canal. Colonel David du Bose Gaillard (right portrait). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was in charge of the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Gatun Dam, as well as excavating the Culebra Cut.
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 $375,000,000 (roughly equivalent to $8,600,000,000 now) to finish the project. This was by far the largest American engineering project at the time. The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship SS Ancon. Now, flash forward one-hundred years and we find a canal that, while still vital and viable, is, at the same time, hopelessly outdated. An expansion plan now nearing completion has two new flights of locks built parallel to, and operated in addition to, the old locks. Each flight ascends from sea level directly to the level of Gatun Lake. The new lock chambers feature sliding gates, doubled for safety, and are 427 m (1,400 feet) long, 55 m (180 feet) wide, and 18.3 m (60 feet) deep. This allows the transit of vessels with a beam of up to 49 m (160 feet), an overall length of up to 366 m (1,200 feet). As amazing as these numbers sound, some of the newest cruise ships being built today are already too large to pass through even the new and improved canal. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, for instance, has a maximum width of 198 feet. The new locks are scheduled to open in June, 2016, little more than a month from now.

Present day watercolors by New Orleans artist, Al Sprague.
The shipping revolution that antiquated a canal.



  1. Jim, Thank you for using the artwork of my father, Al Sprague in your blog about the Panama Canal. The pieces you highlighted in your blog are from his very early pieces on the canal dating back to the 70s. Born and raised Panama, my father still paints Panama and the Canal and was honored to be commissioned to paint several paintings of the recent construction of the new locks.

    For additional information on him and his work you can visit his website located at

  2. Kassie--
    My pleasure, your father is an exceptional artist allowing us an opportunity to look back as well as looking forward, a bridge between past, present, and future. Thanks for reading and writing.