The Panama Canal: An American Masterpiece!

Ships entering and exiting the Canal at the PacificShips entering and exiting the Canal at the Pacific

A Witness of America’s Greatness in the Past

I hope you won’t mind if I begin this story with the end.
I love the canal! It is a fascinating body of water!
No matter from which angle you look, there is always something new to see. Driving across either of the two bridges in Panama City (Puente de las Americas and the Puente Centenario) you can see this impressive waterway from the open sea all the way to the first lock (Miraflores) and beyond.
Now, I need to clarify: you should see this in detail only if you have a driver! If you are navigating across the Puente de las Americas you will be plenty busy keeping your car in the correct lane. The traffic is always huge! After all, we are talking about the Panamerican (or Interamerican) Highway, a highway which goes, with one small interruption, all the way down to the southern end of Argentina!

Miraflores Locks

Since my first visit to the Miraflores Locks, I have visited again to watch and observe one of the industrial wonders in this world. I hope you will all have an opportunity one day to visit. It isn’t just the ships lined up in the Gulf waiting for passage. It’s not just watching how these locks lift and lower huge vessels. It’s a part of America’s history of changing the world for the better! This action brought the world much closer together.

The View from the Bridge(s)

A lovely way to get the “bird’s eye view” of the southern end of the Panama Canal (that would be the Pacific side in Panama City) is to travel over one or preferably both of the bridges which cross the canal. When you cross the Puente de las Americas, you are on the very southern end. Here you can see ships lined up to enter the canal or ships sailing out into the Pacific which have just exited the Canal. Ships that want to sail through the Canal must pay their fee 48 hours in advance into a bank in Panama.
The Puente Centenario goes across the canal to the north side of Panama City. From here, you get a terrific view of the Miraflores Locks.
Of course, this is no substitute for a Canal Cruise or a visit to the Miraflores Locks & Museum!

A Canal is Born

The completion of this canal is a task that the great French nation was unable to complete in the 19th century. The French builder and engineer Ferdinand Lesseps began diggingin 1880 with the goal of connecting the Pacific Ocean with the AtlanticOcean. After 20 years of digging and fighting disease, the French were forced to throw in the towel. Lesseps died in 1894 after almost bankrupting his company.
In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Columbia (with a little help from their American friends) and the UnitedStates subsequently signed a contract with Panama to build and operate the canal “in perpetuity.”
On August 15, 1914, the first US cargo ship, the Ancon, sailed through the canal. What an accomplishment, along with a lot of hardship and big money! Between 1903 and 1914, the United States employed 56,307 construction workers. Of those workers, more than 27,000 from the US, China, Europe and Central America died as a result of accidents and disease, such as typhoid and yellow fever, while working on the canal.
In spite of this depressing figure, the building of this canal made a statement to the world about the greatness of America! Nobody was intimidated, nobody lost his freedom. Everyone just gained big! New jobs were created, America got paid, goods became less expensive and shipping became more affordable!
The total length of the canal is about 50 miles. The total cost to build the canal, locks and storage lakes was $375 million.
The ships are lifted a total of 85 feet in the system of 3 locks as they enter the canal either from the Pacific or the Atlantic. The trip through the canal takes approximately 15 hours, on average.
Each year the canal sees about 18,000 ships going through and paying a total of $2 billion. On a fun note, the lowest toll that was ever charged to go through the canal was in 1928 to a gentleman named Richard Halliburton (no, I’m sure he’s no relation….) who swam the length of the canal for a princely fee of $ .36! Compare this to the highest fee to date of $419,000 for the cruise ship Westerland of the Sea. As you may have figured out, fees are based on weight!

The canal is a time and distance saver: ships that use the canal travel 10,000 miles less than if they traveled around Cape Horn.

The Transfer of Ownership

Although the United States had an agreement to own and operate the Panama Canal forever, in 1979 the US President, Jimmy Carter, and Panamanian Brigadier General Omar Torrijos Herrera (then head of Panama’s government) signed an agreement to hand over the control, operation and ownership of the Panama Canal effective at the end of 1999. What an action!
I know there are plenty of people who think President Carter made a $5 billion plus gift to Panama, but – sorry – I think this was the right thing to do! America built the canal, spent a lot of money and had 85 years to harvest what they sowed! In that time, Panama acquired the knowledge of how to run the canal, how to maintain it (the locks are operating basically the same way as they did 100 years ago) and how to expand the canal to assure business for many years to come.

Visiting the Canal

Now that I have all those numbers behind me (I’ll actually mention the expansion a little later), I can tell you about the good times we always have visiting the canal and locks.
The Miraflores Locks are relatively close to our home (about 1 hour). Miraflores is very visitor-friendly. In the building next to the locks, there is an observation deck with some restaurants as well as a wonderful museum, and a movie theater. The museum is fascinating in its detail on the building of the canal and allows some “hands-on” experiences like piloting a ship through the canal! In the movie theater, they show a 3D movie about the canal. The terraces on both levels are perfect for watching the different kinds of boats going through.
Not far from the Miraflores Locks, you will find the main station for the Canal Train. This is another way to experience the canal. It is very quaint and offers an observation car for watching along the way. I really don’t feel this is the best way to see the canal, as it goes along the water for only a short distance.
Another option for seeing the canal is a Canal Cruise. There are various companies that offer a day cruise that gives you the experience of really being on the canal without having to take a cruise ship through!

Canal Operation Today and in the Future

The Panama Canal has the third largest container traffic in the Americas. Don’t forget, Panama is just about the land size of South Carolina! Major products shipped through the canal include Petroleum (1), Grain (2), Coal (3), Metals (4) and Chemicals (5).
In order to keep up with transportation requirements around the world, Panama decided to expand the existing lock system, which started in 2007. The expansion will double the capacity by adding another lane with an expanded set of locks. The navigation in these new locks will be done with tug boats rather than with the locomotives, which are used at the existing locks. Panamax vessels will be able to double their cargo loads. The completion was scheduled for the 100th anniversary this year, but this has had to be moved into 2014. This expansion has been a very smart move to not only keep existing business but to also capture much more in the years to come.
What a great example of stewardship! A country of this size accomplishes what many of the major countries in this world are not capable of doing with an investment of $5 billion+.


The Panamax & the Windstar

Panamax Ship in the Miraflores Locks

Panamax Ship in the Miraflores Locks

This is the Panamax ship called the Mermaid. You can see how tightly this ship fits into the lock—not much room to put anything in between. You might also be able to see that the ship is positioned in the lock with two locomotives at the front, one of which is visible here. One of the most fascinating things about the locks is that the doors are still the originals, over 100 years old, and still work with precision! The only change that has been made was the addition of hydraulics in the 70s.
The Panamax ship has a load of several hundred 40 foot containers on board. It is difficult to imagine seeing all of these containers on a highway instead of being moved by a vessel! When you consider what is being shipped in these containers (as shared previously), it is pretty amazing what kind of money-movers they are!
Not only do you see the container ships going through the canal, but also cruise ships.
We were fortunate enough to get to see a Windstar cruiser coming through the canal.The people on the cruise ship seemed to be as curious watching the folks at the locks as we were, watching them!


What’s Happening Outside of Panama?

Windstar Cruise Ship in Locks

Windstar Cruise Ship in Locks

When I started writing this newsletter, I told myself it must be fun and definitely nothing about politics!
I just can’t help it, but this month was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is an event that still touches me as the German I was in my first life, but also as the American I am in my second life.
Twenty-five years ago on November 9, 1989, then President Ronald Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” This was the end of the Cold War, extending freedom not only to the East German people, but also to peoples populating the eastern parts of Europe and the Soviet Union.
I have called the Panama Canal a masterpiece of American technical accomplishment and I need to call the destruction of the Berlin Wall one of the greatest contributions to Freedom by the United States. Millions were rescued from oppressive and tyrannical governments. Thank You!
My prayer now for the United States is that we don’t keep building our own “wall” but would rather follow the spirit of this country as created and established by our founding fathers. May God Bless and restore America!


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If you have a question of general interest, please send it to us at and we will answer it in one of our future editions.

Why do we hear about so many Americans and Canadians moving to Panama for Retirement? KR in Indiana
Good question. If you are close to retirement, you may want to look into this. Retirees in general are looking for places that meet certain criteria.
Warm weather, first class affordable health care, inexpensive housing and low cost of living are huge among the reasons for folks retiring to Panama. Ecuador and Colombia are also becoming more popular for these reasons, but, of course, we are partial to Panama!
We will report more details about living in Panama in the coming editions.
For specific questions, please email me at

From Panama with love. Frank and Norma

From Panama with love. Frank and Norma

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