Through the Panama Canal by Cruise Ship
Day dawned crystalline blue and hot over the Gulf of Panama. The sea’s surface assumed a silk sheen. The Infinity, stretching 964.6 feet from bow to stern and rising 11 decks above the ocean, had already accepted its local pilot at 0645, and now thread its way through the eight-mile channel whose lush green, but narrowing banks inched closer to its hull. Some 40 ships anchored in the distance awaited entry spider excavator clearance, yet the Infinity itself, oblivious to them, continued its approach. That approach had been to the Panama Canal, which would facilitate its continental cut from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Lying only a short distance away, it stretched almost 500 years behind in origin.
As far back as 1517, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to have reached the Pacific, had envisioned a pan-Central American canal which would have connected the two oceans, and 17 years later, Charles I of Spain had actually proposed one, specifically via water. During Spain’s 300-year reign of the area, a rugged land trail, facilitating mule-train transport of gold from one coast to the other, had been hacked out of the jungle in Panama.
During the early-1800s, both the United States and the United Kingdom had continued to focus on the feasibility of such a water artery, although the then-envisioned route had traversed Nicaragua, and the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty had ensured its neutrality, regardless of its actual Central American location.
In 1846, Colombia, then one with Panama, had signed a treaty with the US to retain a potential canal’s neutrality and to guard against its capture by any other country, seeking to control this potentially important and lucrative passage.
This importance, and the seed of a “rail canal,” had been demonstrated in 1849, when an influx of gold rushers, destined for California, had sailed from the eastern part of the US to the Panamanian isthmus, crossed it by mule or foot, and continued up the west coast by sea. The demand, prompting construction of the Trans-Panama Railroad, had, for the first time, connected Colon, on the east side, with Panama City, on the west side, when the $8 million project, undertaken by New York businessmen, had been completed in 1855.
The first serious attempt to construct a water passage across Panama, however, had taken place 23 years later, in 1878, when a French company, headed by Suez Canal Director Ferdinand De Lesseps, had secured the rights from Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, who himself had received the original ones from Panama. He had also bought control of the Panama Railroad for $20 million.
Actual digging, for a sea level canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, had begun in 1882, and thousands of French engineers and construction workers engaged in the project. Conditions, however, had vastly differed from those encountered during the comparable Suez Canal project, entailing impenetrable jungles, flooding, excruciatingly high temperatures, humidity, cost escalations, controversy, corruption, inadequate preparation, crude tool and machinery usage, and malaria- and yellow fever-caused deaths. After 24 years of effort and the unearthing of 76 million cubic yards, the company, now bankrupt, had succeeded in digging a canal less than ten miles in length.
Additional survey and analysis, conducted in 1886, had indicated that a continuous-level canal had not been feasible, and could only be successfully completed with a step-and-lock system, requiring ships to progressively in- or decrease height in water-contained chambers before sailing to the next level.
Reorganizing themselves as the New Panama Canal Company in 1894, the French accomplished little more, hoping instead to attract a secondary buyer in order to attain a profit from their franchise.
During that same year, US businessmen had attempted to commission their own canal across the isthmus-in this case, across Nicaragua; however, after rapidly depleting their finances, they had made little progress of their own.
Urgency, however, soon presented itself. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the battle