Ditch Digger
A longtime veteran of the Panama Canal awaits an uncertain future
by Dennis D. Smith & Lynn Kane
from Workboat Magazine - July/August, 1997
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In 1914, President Teddy Roosevelt saw one of the projects he championed reach fruition:  The Panama Canal opened for business.

Despite being operational, though, it needed to be widened, deepened and, as now, continuously maintained.  The Bucyrus Co. of Milwaukee was commissioned to supply three idential dipper dredges to perform these duties for "one of the greatest engineering wonders of the world."

The Paraiso and the Gamboa arrived in 1914.  A year later, the Cascadas joined her sisterships at the newly created dredging yard in Gamboa.  The latecomer worked out of the yard for 78 years -- almost 30 years past her planned retirement.

With an overall length of 147' and a 61' beam, the steam-powered Cascadas was large for her era.  Her size mirrored the enormity of the tasks that confronted her.

The 50-mile channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific ocenas is a combination of natural waterways, a huge man-made lake and the spectacular Gaillard Cut.  The cut forms the heart of the "Big Ditch."  This nine-mile stretch was excavated through rock and shale mountains at the expense of thousands of human lives.

Though the Cascadas saw action everywhere, she spent the majority of her tenure widening the cut from its original 300' to its current 625'.  She was also responsible for "chasing the shoals" that present a constantly changing hazard to safe passage.

The Cascadas worked steadily from 1915 to 1976, outperforming both the Gamboa and Paraiso by decades.  In 1977, due to age and safety considerations, she was relegated to stand-by status, and her primary duties were handed over to the diesel-electric dredge Christensen.

But the Cascadas wasn't through yet.  A decade later she would return to service to help avert a crisis.

In 1986, an earthquake caused a landslide that threatened the Gaillard Cut.  The Christensen was in drydock for repairs, so for 71 days the Cascadas led the emergency clearance effort.  Other dredges were rushed from the U.S. to assist, but they couldn't match the pace of the Panamanian veteran (much to the chagrin of some Panama Canal Commission officials).

The captain of the steamer for 10 years, Robert Faeron, said modestly, "It's simply because the crew knew the type of work to be done better than the crews of the other two dredges."

Whatever the case, the Cascadas proved once again that she was, indeed, the queen of the canal.

Mechanically inclined

She earned her title by meeting rigorous standards.  Performance was the mandate, no matter how it was achieved. (A faded sign in the Cascadas' engine room proclaims, "Tomorrow?  No way!   Yesterday?  You bet!")

According to Faeron, two types of digging were done:  maintenance and project, like widening the cut.  "That's where you really produced -- 6,000 cu. yds. per 24 hours," he said.  "There was always a race going on.  The most I can remember anybody ever producing in an eight-hour shift was 5,000 cu. yds.  Four thousand was not uncommon."

Those numbers are even ore impressive considering the boat's bucket capacity was 13.5 cu. yds., which is small by today's standards.

The secret to the Cascadas' success lay in her design -- and human sweat.

Everything on her operated manually, recalled Faeron.  "To put in an eight-hour shift was like putting in 12 hours, because you worked on it," he said.   "Nothing was small, every was big ... and noisy and hot.  She was a true workboat."

Obviously, running the mechanical systems taxed the entire 13-man crew.  But some jobs, like the boom operator's, proved especially challenging.  His control levers worked on a manual linkage that ran theentire length of the boat, making them a chore to even move.  And due tothepostion of his seat, there was a blind spot when loading to port.  A mirrorhad to be instaled to one side of the station, forcing him to work Annie Oakley-style -- backwards through the mirror -- to clear the scow.

The boom oiler didn't fare much better.  He spent his entire time applying ard to the unique woden dipper brakes to keep them operational (regular oil caused too much slippage), and doused them with water when they caught fire.

Another interesting element of the vessel's design is the hoist.  Whereas the momentum for the hoisting systems on today's dredges is created by simple engine speed, the steam-powered hoisting drum on Cascadas relies onthe velocity of a three-stepped gearing system.

And her boom consists of a wooden-beam core plated with riveted steel.  That differs from the hollow, welded booms of today, which, according to Capt. Faeron, "snap under half the pressure."

Aside from being converted from coal to oil, the only major structural changes to the Cascadas were the addition of spud gantries and collision tanks.

The latter was a real necessity, since collisions were a constant threat.  when a supertanker would bear down on the 147' dredge, the race was on to raise the spuds so that she would be "bumped out of the way" instead of run over, remembered Faeron.

Salvage reprieve

With experience comes age, and the Cascadas is no exception.  After the 1986 landslide, her stand-by status remained in effect until October 1993.  then the Panama Canal Commmission recommended that she be retired, because she failed certification tests and bringing her up to code wasn't "economically viable."

According to commission policy, she was put up for salvage bid.  No bids were received, however, due to the intervention of retired U.S. Navy man and history buff Russ Goedjen.  He stalled the sale because, in his words, theold dredge is "really the last piece of equipment that reflects the technology that dug the canal.  This is part of Panama's history that they really need to be capturing while it's still available."

Goedjen's plea led to the formation of a committee and negotiations with the proper U.S. and Panamanian agencies to decide the ultimate fate of the Cascadas.  Plans were initiated to buy, move, and restore the vessel, making her the centerpiece of a museum/park complex.

But, as is often the case, expectation collided with reality.  "What was a wonderful idea turned out to be extremely difficult to put into action,"explained Goedjen.  "Interest among the Americans left in Panama was minimal.  Nobody wanted to take on another project. We've stalled their (the commission's) disposal actions twice trying to find a way to finance the project."

Money has proved a major stumbling block.  It would cost $250,000 just to purchase and move the dredge to a permanent site.

So, the Cascadas deteriorates in nautical limbo at her berth in Gamboa.  The crew's quarters are barren except for vintage bunkbeds and a riting desk strewn with torn charts and old Panama Canal regulation books.  African bees nest in her A-frame and tropical ants sprout from her bucket.

Her future may be uncertain, but her past is immortalized in the memories of her captains and crews, on a commemorative stamp -- and in the Panama Canal itself.


Anyone wishing to help with the Cascadas restoration project should contact Fred Denton at the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Panama.  Apartado Postal 168, Balboa-Ancon, Republic of Panama.  Telefax: 507-223-3508


This article generously provided by the Bucyrus Company

Presented by CZBrats
December 22, 1998

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