The French Canal
The picks and dredges and the army of rough and tumble diggers have long been silenced. 
But their ghostly presence somehow can be felt as one looks
over remnants of the old French canal

by Robert L. Austin

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On the West Bank of the Panama Canal, a mile north of Gatun Locks, a small wooden bridge crosses a narrow waterway.  If you stand in the middle of the bridge and face east toward the morning sun, you can see where the still water joins the Canal a short distance away.  Now and then a ship goes by, leaving a pattern of waves that break against the mangroves on the shore.

As you stand there the creaking planks give rise to a ghostly rhythm: the dull thud of absent picks, the clatter of long gone dredges, the ribald laughter of men now silent.  For this narrow channel was dug by men determined to build a "Straits of Panama."  It is the last remnant of an abandoned dream—the French sea level canal.

Today little note is taken of the French canal.  The old equipment has rotted away and time and the jungle have erased most of it from sight and memory.  Children growing up here have only a vague idea of the French canal although part of it is still in use.

Bones and Sweat

The French originally planned to build a channel from Colon southwest along Mindi Hills to the Chagres River at Gatun.  From Gatun the channel would boldly follow the Chagres as far as Gamboa then turn abruptly south through the Continental Divide.  This is the general route that the canal follows today over the "bones and sweat" of that first effort.

The French work near Balboa and in Gaillard Cut forms part of the present Canal but is not discernable.  On the Atlantic side, however, the French excavations were not used as part of the American canal and it is here that the French work can be seen.

Every visitor to Fort San Lorenzo crosses the old canal and everyone going to Gatun or Fort Davis from Margarita, Coco Solo or Rainbow City goes along East Diversion, a small drainage channel dug by the French in the early 1880's.

The oil cargo dock at Pier 16, the Cristobal Yacht Club, the Maintenance Division, and the Industrial Division shops at Mount Hope are all on the old French canal.

The French removed more than 4.5 million cubic yards of spoil from the Atlantic area, including excavation in the ship canal, diversions, and harbor, and completed this sector almost as far as Bohio, 8 miles south of Gatun.  (Later the French would select Bohio as a site for a dam and lock when the sea level canal plan was abandoned.)

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Top left:  The French left their indelible mark at Mount Hope when in 1886 they built the drydock now used by the Industrial Division.  Originally for small sailing ships, it was enlarged in 1933 to accommodate large steel hulled ships.  Top right: The narrow French canal enters the channel at Buoy 16 along the sea level approach to Gatun Locks.   Below:  An old French excavator lies partially submerged near Tabernilla after it was abandoned following the French failure.  The photo was taken in 1913.

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Chagres River

French work was divided into three main excavations: the ship canal; East Diversion, a small channel draining water west of the Chagres River; and East Diversion, draining off water east of the Chagres into Manzanillo Bay.

The West Diversion was kept open as a temporary channel for the Chagres River until the spillway sill was completed at Gatun and the river finally closed in 1910.

After 1914, the East Diversion was not used.  Now, partially hidden by second growth foliage, it has degenerated into a sluggish course that follows the road from Rainbow City, past Margarita, along Mindi to Fort Davis.

East Diversion

Many people mistake the East Diversion for the French ship canal and often taxi drivers pass on this misinformation to their tourist passengers.  Others erroneously believe it is a jungle river.

Although the Americans dug a different channel, they did make temporary use of the existing French excavations.  The French canal's location adjacent to the proposed lock site at Gatun made it ideal for use as a boat slip.  Barges loaded with crushed rock from Portobelo and sand from Nombre de Dios were brought by sea to Cristobal and then towed up the old channel to the cement storage docks at the huge mixing plant at Gatun.

When the locks were finished the mixing plant was no longer needed and use of this portion of the French canal was discontinued.   The hustling, sprawling shops are gone and the clanking machinery is silent.   The only evidence of this old bustle are the iron rails left in the jungle.

At its northern end the French canal is still alive and busy.  Here the myriad facilities of the Industrial Division occupy the east shore of the old channel.  This northern end of the French canal is the only part that has felt the hulls of oceangoing ships.  The drydock built by the French in 1880 is used today to hold modern ships.

The Roosevelt

But here also is a trace of the old.   Along the mud flats on the west bank are the rusting hulks and equipment of the French and Americans.  These rotting relics recall past heroic days.  The sad remains of the Roosevelt rest among the old dredges and barges.

(The Roosevelt was specially constructed to take Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary to the north polar region.  The rugged little ship did her job well and on April 6, 1909, Peary planted the Stars and Stripes atop the North Pole.  She was sold and resold many times and finally, in January 1937 while being operated as a tug, the Roosevelt was taken to the Mount Hope Shipyard to repair a leak and storm damage.  But she was too far gone.  The work was never started.  The historic vessel was ordered beached on a mud bank of the Old French canal to keep it from sinking at dockside.)

It may be too romantic to believe there's an awareness here.  Somehow it seems the old canal feels the drama with a consciousness that pushes through the channel keeping it alive and proud of the part it played.

Farther down where the French canal joins Limon Bay and the Cristobal basin are Pier 16 and the Cristobal Yacht Club.

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The Panama Canal Yacht Club at Cristobal is host to Atlantic side boat fans and to yachtsmen from all over the world.   The club is located on the east bank of the French canal where the channel turns left into Limon Bay.

The yacht club is host to many Atlantic side boat fans as well as yachtsmen from all over the world.  Few of the transient visitors are aware of the historic significance of the busy channel and the water drifting past the mooring piers.

The Marine Bunkering Section's oil cargo dock on Pier 16 is an offspring of the older coaling station.  As coal gave way to oil on more and more ships, the coaling station gradually shifted to marine oils exclusively.  Coaling operations were finished in 1952 and many of the buildings destroyed.  Currently the dock handles thousands of tons of marine oils and bunkers hundreds of foreign and American ships.

Still Alive

The spirit of the French canal is still with us even though the locks type canal ended the dream of a "Straits of Panama."  Back on the west bank near Gatun Locks just a few miles from the busy industrial shops,the French canal lies quietly in the jungle.  Ships of all nations pass it where the channel juts into the present day American canal at Buoy 16.

Perhaps this is the way the Chagres River once looked with Gatun nestled on its banks.  The area abounds with ghosts—from the pirates and conquistadores to the French who worked and dreamed.

From: The Panama Canal Review, Fall 1971
Robert L. Austin is an employee of the Navigation Division at Balboa

May 27,2001