CHAPTER IX

THE GEOGRAPHY OF PANAMA

Click for Canal Zone Map

Nature quietly, but imperatively, asked the engineers who favored a sea-level canal at Panama: Why will you insist upon the prodigious disarrangement natural advantages that lie here awaiting the utilization of a lock type?

The geography of the Isthmus is adapted peculiarly to the lock type of canal.  Aside from the obstacle to a sea-level canal that existed in the continental divide, the Chagres River followed a course which, at the same time, would have been a baffling problem in a sea-level plan, but the most beneficient arrangement for a lock-type canal.

The territory comprised in the scope of this book is the same as that within the boundaries of the Republic of Panama.  In area, it is about 32,000 square miles, slightly smaller than the State of Indiana.  On the Atlantic side it is 379 miles long, and on the Pacific side it is 674 miles by the coast line.  The population, native and foreign, is around 400,000 today, though considerably less in the days of exploration and conquest.

Our treaty with the Republic of Panama ceded us a strip of territory ten miles wide, from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific.  This territory, officially designated the Canal Zone, is determined by a line drawn five miles from each side of the center line of the route of the canal.  Thus, the Canal Zone is not bounded by straight lines from ocean to ocean, but curves as the channel of the canal curves.  The area of the Canal Zone is 448 square miles, of which 73 square miles are privately owned, but may be bought in the discretion of the United States.  While within the limits of the Canal Zone, the cities of Panama and Colon, at the terminals, remain under the sovereignty of the Republic of Panama.

Some confusion is caused by the fact that the isthmus of Panama runs nearly East and West, instead of North and South, as might be imagined, at the pint where the canal traverses it.  Panama City is almost due south of Buffalo, and is southeast of Colon, the Atlantic terminal.  The canal route, therefore, runs in a southeastern direction from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and, to the astonishment of the tourist, the sun rises in the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic.

We are not building our canal at the narrowest point on the Isthmus.   This point is found at the Gulf of San Blas, 60 miles east of Colon, where the Isthmus is only 30 miles wide, whereas, at Panama, it is 47 miles wide.  Because the mountain barrier at San Blas has an elevation of 700 feet above sea-level, no serious though of a canal there ever was entertained long.  The absence of rivers makes the sea-level type the only kind of canal that could have been attempted at San Blas, involving a staggering task of excavation.  Besides, it was in the complete grasp of the jungle, while at Panama there was a beaten path, from ocean to ocean, four centuries old.

The Chagres River (pronounced Shag-gress) originates in the San Blas Mountains, and drains a basin of 1,320 square miles.  After running parallel with the coast line, nearly midway between the oceans, it turns sharply at right angles and empties into the Caribbean Sea, a few miles west of Colon.  The point where the Chagres makes this turn is within the Canal Zone, and about 30 miles from the Caribbean, running through the Canal Zone for that distance.  From the Caribbean Sea to Bohio, about seventeen miles, the bed of the river is only slightly above sea-level, and from Bohio to about the entrance of the Culebra cut, it rises to 48 feet above sea-level.

Engineers were divided on the utility of this natural geographical situation.  Those who favored the lock-type canal believed that the Chagres River could be dammed up so as to form the longest part of the canal, and thus save a vast amount of excavation that would be required in a sea-level type.  While not denying the saving in excavation in a lock type, the engineers who favored a sea-level canal believed that the fixed limitations of the lock type made it inadvisable, when the expansion in the size of ships was considered.  Their plan was to divert the Chagres and tributary rivers, of which there are 26 in the Canal Zone, but digging new channels for them, and so get them out of the way of the canal.

The French, in 1880, had started out on that theory.  They thought of digging a great tunnel through the mountains to divert the Chagres River into the Pacific Ocean.  This tunnel would have been 10 miles long and, needless to say, a rather visionary undertaking.  Five years after they began operations they abandoned the sea-level plan and adopted the lock-type canal.  But their dame across the Chagres River was to be at Bohio, seventeen miles inland from the Caribbean, while the American engineers advised a dam at Gatun, only seven miles inland.

At Gatun, the natural formation of the mountains permitted the Chagres River to escape into the Caribbean Sea through a gap less than two miles wide.  The lock-type advocates said this gap could be filled in and so create a basin to be filled by the stagnated water of the Chagres River.  The idea was to build a dam high enough to back the accumulated river water toward Pacific for a distance of 32 miles, and at an average depth, in the canal channel, of 45 feet throughout.  Another dam would prevent the lake so formed from spilling down the Pacific slope.  Thus, all but 15 miles of the canal would be made by an inland, artificial lake, 164 square miles in extent.

But even in a lock type there would have to be an impressive amount of excavation.  Not only would the sea-level channels approaching this lake on either side of the isthmus have to be dredged,  but the mountain barrier, running lengthwise with the Isthmus, would have to be pierced with a channel so as to permit the waters of the Gatun lake to reach the point on the Pacific side where the locks would afford the descent to the ocean.  As the surface of the lake was proposed to be 85 feet above sea-level, the bottom of the channel through the mountains would have to be 45 feet lower than the surface elevation, or at 40 feet above sea-level.

The area to be excavated in this lake channel, 32 miles long, was from Gatun to Obispo, following the Chagres River in general, and requiring only about 12,000,000 cubic yards to be removed, in 23 miles.  Then the mountains began, 45 feet above sea-level, and reached their highest pint, in the center line of the Canal, at Gold Hill, 312 feet above sea-level, thence sloping toward the Pacific, to the proposed lock site at Pedro Miguel, a distance of 9 miles.  The average depth of the cut would be 120 feet throughout the 9 miles, and the deepest point of excavation at Gold Hill would require going down 272 feet.

The Culebra cut, as this channel through the mountains was called, was to be 200 feet wide.  In 1880, the French had begun work there, and they removed 18,646,000 cubic yards that were useful to the Americans.  Their machinery was used the first year of our occupation.

At Gatun, on the Atlantic side of the proposed lake, there would be locks to lift ships to the lake, and at Pedro Miguel and La Boca, on the Pacific side the locks would lower the ships to sea-level again.  The Cocoli and other rivers could be used to form a second small lake between the Pedro Miguel and La Boca locks.  The total excavation for the sea-level channels and the Culebra cut was estimated around 100,000,000 cubic yards.

Opposed to these considerations in favor of a lock type were the arguments advanced in behalf of a sea-level canal.  The popular mind could see ships steaming or sailing uninterruptedly from ocean to ocean through a dugout channel that would not grow too small for the largest ships that time might develop, and the engineers who advised such a canal asserted that the difference in time and cost of building the two types was not materially in favor of the lock type.  Time has developed that such a belief was widely erroneous.

The Americans came to the Canal Zone in 1904 with the question of the kind of canal to be built unsettled.  They were to be there more than two years before the violently discussed issue was to be settled.  It was like starting in to build a house without any definite plan in mind.  Meanwhile, however, it was recognized that there was a vast amount of pioneer and preparatory work to be accomplished that would absorb the activities of the organization pending the solution of this problem.

What kind of a country, as to temperature, rainfall, vegetable and animal life, and healthfulness, had we secured?  As to the first characteristic, Panama is only 9 degrees from the Equator.  But it is far from being as hot as that proximity might suggest.  throughout the year the temperature averages about 85 degrees.   The highest recorded temperature in the Canal Zone is only 97 degrees.  At night the atmosphere falls sharply until, usually, light covering is required on beds, and the hot, sweltering nights of American cities in the summer are unknown.  Palm Beach, Florida, in the winter, is not a more desirable resort than Panama.

The northern mind, too, considerably has overestimated the effects of the rainy season at Panama.  During January, February, March, and April there is practically no rainfall.  By the 1st of May light showers occur daily, or every few days, and through June, with an occasional gusher.  From then, on to December, the rains become more frequent and heavier, and have a way of coming up about the same time every day, sometimes in the afternoons, sometimes in the mornings.  Between showers the sun is radiant.  Construction operations have to be suspended during the violent downpours, and the canal employees call any rain that occurs in the noon hours, or after work, "a government rain."

On the Atlantic side the rainfall averages between 130 and 140 inches annually; on the Pacific side from 60 to 70 inches.  At times it rains so furiously that it appears to be one continuous sheet of water falling.  For one hour the record fall is 5,86 inches; for one day, at Porto Bello, 10.06 inches; in three minutes 2.46 inches fell at the same place; and at Panama on May 12, 1912, 6 inches fell in two hours.   The years 1906 and 1909 were the wettest since the American occupation and 1912 the driest.

This heavy precipitation makes the rivers of Panama torrential streams.   The Chagres River has risen 25 feet in twenty-four hours.  During every rainy season the records left by the French and kept by the Americans since their occupation show that this river discharges enough water to fill the proposed Gatun Lake one and a half times.  It is not expected that any lack of water for the lock-type canal ever will be experienced.

Except for the beaten paths and cleared spaces constantly maintained the jungle is king in Panama.  One season's growth will cover an abandoned clearing with the luxuriant tropical vegetation.  When the Americans entered the Canal Zone, most of the French machinery and even whole towns were covered by the jungle.

There are the usual tropical fruits, bananas, cocoa-nuts, alligator pears, papayas, mangoes, and other less well-known varieties.  The vegetation includes the royal poinciana, palm, and other stately trees.  The rare orchid is at home on the Isthmus, about seventy-five varieties being found, a dozen of which are of the most beautiful kinds.  A dry season of four months does not parch the growth, but the rainy season gives it the most brilliant green coloring.

None of the big animal life of Africa is found anywhere in South America, and Panama has even less dangerous species than the mainland.  The tarantula, coral snake, tiger cats, deer, and other larger, though not so dangerous, animals are found, and alligators abound in the rivers and bays, as well as sharks.  The insect life is wonderfully varied, the birds are in infinite variety and most beautiful, while wild flowers of dazzling colors are in profusion.  The Canal Zone, where occupied in the canal operations, long since was freed of dangerous animal life.

Distinct, but inconsequential, earthquake shocks have been felt in Panama for centuries. The San Francisco earthquake, in 1906, was not recorded on the Canal Zone seismograph.  In the seventeenth century a violent shock occurred, but none in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nor has any been recorded in the twentieth century, although in Costa Rica, the republic adjoining Panama, a severe shock, in 1910, caused considerable loss of life and property.  So far as post performance can indicate, the canal should not suffer from earthquakes.

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are on the same level, but the tide on the Pacific side ahs a maximum life of 21 feet, while on the Atlantic side the maximum lift is only 2 1/2 feet.  Allowance for this variation was made by providing a deeper channel for the canal on the Pacific side, so that the passage of ships will be be affected by the tides.  The shape of the Bay of Panama causes the high tide on the Pacific side.

As there is not a favorable geographical arrangement at either end of the canal, in the way of harbors, the defects have been supplied by breakwater.  At the Atlantic entrance a breakwater more than two miles long runs from Toro Point to shield ships lying in the entrance from the violent Northers that occasionally sweep the coast.   Another breakwater a half mile long, running out from Colon waterfront, will protect shipping in that harbor from storms on the east.  At the Pacific entrance storms are not dangerous, but the currents deposited silt in the channel in such quantities as to make a breakwater advisable, and this one runs from the mainland to Naos Island, three miles out in the bay, and connects with the fortifications.  It was built from material excavated in the Culebra cut, whereas the Atlantic breakwaters were built largely of rock quarried at Porto Bello.

Panama and Colon are cities of great interest to the tourist.  The former has about 50,000 population and the latter 20,000.  Panama is the capital of the republic, has a handsome national theater and institute, a street car system is in course of construction, and a number of old cathedrals are interesting sights.  The canal employees travel for half fare on the railroad and are often in evidence in the quaint little victoria carriages than handle the street traffic, at ten cents a ride, in the two cities.

Mardi Gras comes in February in the city of Panama, and is a vivid exhibition of the Spanish temperament at play.  For four days the natives abandon themselves to the festivities and business reaches a standstill.  A queen is elected by popular vote, and receives the homage of all the Panamanian officials, as well as the higher American dignitaries.  The parade of floats and carriages is a dazzling presentation of the Spanish fancy expressed in dress and decorations.