One of the few places it becomes clear you are crossing through the canal is when you cross the spine of Panama in a location called The Culebra Cut.
Group Crosses the Panama Canal
As the Explorer docked at the port of Colon in Panama, we connected with U.S. history.
The Panama Canal is considered one of the major manmade achievements in the world. Only a president with the audacity of Theodore Roosevelt could find a way to build a canal across Panama.
First started by the French in 1881, but after losing 22,000 workers to diseases like malaria and yellow fever and $287 million, the sheer difficulty of building a sea-level canal was ultimately determined to be insurmountable.
In 1893, the French gave up and put the project into mothballs hoping for a buyer.
In 1904, the U.S. bought the rights for the Panama Canal from the French company for $40 million. With the increase in disease awareness and prevention, the death of workers dropped to 5,000 during the time period of U.S. construction.
“What is little known is that a majority of that French company was owned by Americans, one of whom was related to Roosevelt,” explained Purdue history professor Charles Ingrao. “So actually most of that money came right back to the U.S.”
Hard to imagine today, the first time in United States history that a sitting president left the country was when Roosevelt inspected the canal construction in 1906.
It took 10 years to construct the 51-mile long Panama Canal. It took our ship, the MV Explorer, eight hours to cross it.
In August 1914, the Panama Canal was completed; in July 1914, WWI broke out in Europe. Overshadowed by that news, the Panama Canal had entered into service less than a month earlier.
As the banks of the Panama Canal passed by outside, I presented a lecture inside about my time with mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
At the end of that lecture, Dr. Julian Bond approached me. Dr. Bond was a student in the one class Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had taught, and Dr. Bond was very instrumental in the civil rights movement.
A soft-spoken Dr. Bond smiled, shook my hand and said, “You give me hope for Nebraska.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
My first lecture had been while crossing the Caribbean in rough seas. The rocking ship had me dancing across the stage almost beyond control.
The calm waters of the Panama Canal were a welcomed change.
When time permitted, I would sit outside and wonder if the ghosts of the 27,000 who died building the Panama Canal wandered the waters. I tried to imagine large steam shovels puffing smoke into the air while moving mountains of dirt into train cars, or large groups of men far from home laboring for 90 cents a day.
A trip though the Panama Canal is almost like a ride down the Missouri River. The history is there, but it remains hidden from view.
One of the few places it becomes clear is when the spine of Panama is crossed in a location called the Culebra Cut. It’s an artificial valley that cuts through the continental divide in Panama. It could be said that it is here where the Pacific and the Atlantic meet.
Construction of the Culebra Cut was one of the great engineering feats of its time. Up to 6,000 men worked drilling holes, placing explosives, controlling steam shovels and running the dirt trains. It took 60 million pounds of dynamite to blast through the continental divide.
By the time they were done, the Americans had lowered the summit of the Culebra Cut from 193 feet to 40 feet above sea level. This gives a whole new meaning to the belief in man’s capacity to move mountains.
At the end of daylight, we entered the Pacific Ocean and steamed south for Ecuador.
The MV Explorer enters the Panama Canal locks near Colon (left). Passengers on the MV Explorer watch the ship enter the locks in the Panama Canal near Colon (right).