"Staircase Over Mountains" Raises, Lowers Ships During Canal Transits
The Panama Canal Review - December 7, 1951

Overweight should not be an occupational ailment of the men who work on the Panama Canal locks. They walk too much. Even the control house operators whose movements are circumscribed by the size of their control boards, plus occasional observation sorties onto the balconies and hikes up and down several steep flights of stairs, to keep their waistlines within bounds. The operations of the locks, which A.A. Albright, a Junior Operator in the Gatun Control House, calls a "staircase over the mountains," fall naturally into three parts. There are the operations above ground -the control houses. There are the operations on the ground -the lock walls. And there are the operations under the ground -in the network of tunnels thousands of feet long which few people ever see.

Take Gatun Locks, where three steps raise or lower ships to or from the 85-foot level of Gatun Lake. Its men above ground level are the nine control house operators. On duty the other day were the Senior control house Operator, W.C. Smith, who has 28 years of service with the Panama Canal, all of it on the locks. He has been the senior operator since last October 14. And there were two of the Junior Operators, Mr. Albright and Arthur F. Crusey.

Mr. Albright started with the locks in 1934 as a towing locomotive operator - as most new locks people do -and later worked in the tunnels. He went on the control house six years ago. Mr. Crusey, whose Canal service dates back to 1936, also was a towing locomotive operator and a tunnel operator before he moved up to the airy heights of the control house in March 1950.


Control house people are sort of fabulous characters, like Paul Bunyan. it can't be said that they don't know their own strength, for they do; but with a twist of a wrist they start or check the flow of the 26,000,000 gallons of water which fill a lock chamber. Another flip of the wrist and they move gates which weigh some 700 tons apiece. By the turn of a handle they raise or lower chains which are made of three-inch iron, whose links weigh 110 pounds each.

Take the other day, for instance, Mr. Crusey was locking the tanker Cristobal up the west side of the Gatun locks when the freighter Pioneer Tide came along for the east side, which Mr. Albright was handling. Her pilot signaled lockmaster Fred Newhard (more of him, later) that the ship was in position to enter the lower chamber. The lockmaster telephoned this information to Mr. Albright. he quickly turned the handles which set in motion the machinery that opens the lower pair of gates and then lowered the chain fender into its groove in the lock floor.

This first call the control house operators consider the most important of a routine lockage. The incoming ship is still moving and its speed is such that unless the gates are opened quickly and the chain lowered at once, an accident might occur. the chains, which are worked by a hydraulically operated system of cylinders, are there to protect the gates from being rammed by ships which might get out of control. The chain, if struck by a ship, pays out by an automatic release and a 10,000-ton ship, travelling at four knots, can be stopped in a little over 72 feet.


When the Pioneer Tide was well inside the lower chamber, Mr. Newhard telephoned from the wall to the control house that she had cleared the chain and lock gates. Mr. Albright started the machinery which raised the chain and closed the gates; when the gates were mitered (that means closed so that their meeting faces were tightly sealed against water pressure) he began to flow water into the chamber to raise the ship to the level of the next lock. Visitors are sometimes told that the locks are like big bathtubs, connected and set on different levels. Pull the plug out of the top one and the water flows into the next.

Water for use in all of the Canal's locks, at the rate of some 40 billions of gallons a year, comes from Gatun Lake. It is fed into the main culverts which average 18 feet in diameter and which run through the lock walls.  The flow of water in these culverts is controlled by rising stem gate valves. From these main culverts, the water is fed into smaller lateral culverts which run at right angles from the walls at intervals under the lock floors. Cylindrical valves which control the center wall lateral culverts cam be opened or closed in ten seconds; it take one minute to open or close the rising stem valves on the main culverts. From the lateral culverts the water boils into each floor at such a rate that a chamber can be filled in eight minutes.


The control table is a miniature replica and diagram of the locks, by which the operators can see exactly what is going on below, as it happens.  Slender towers of glass and metal indicated to Mr. Albright the level of the water in each chamber,. while gate, chain and valve indicators showed the positions of their respective machines. When the water levels in the middle and lower chambers were equalized, he opened the gates between the two chambers. The ship then moved into the middle level.Moving along the control board, on each side of which five telephones are located for his incoming calls from the lockmaster, Mr. Albright repeated these operations until the Pioneer Tide had been lifted to the level of Gatun Lake.

To lock her up, he had operated three sets of chain fenders, seven pairs of miter gates, had opened and closed eight pairs of rising stem gate valves for the main supply culverts, had opened and closed 60 cylindrical valves for the lateral culverts, had set no less than 98 motors in action twice and had given a cormorant an unexpected dunking. The cormorant had perched itself on one of the fender chains. When the chain began to slide down into the water the bird tried to scramble upward but could not move fast enough to stay above the water level. When it was last seen it was swimming away into the lock chamber just as if that was what it had intended to do all the time.


The men on the ground level, in this lockage, were the lockmaster, Mr. Newhard, the towing locomotive operators and the life-jacketed seamen who had put the lines aboard the Pioneer Tide. The first contact a lock crew has with a ship is through these boatmen.

When a vessel is close to the locks, a small rowboat puts out to meet her.  In the boat are manila running lines from the lock walls. These lines are fastened to others tossed from the ship's deck. Pulled aboard, the lines drag behind them the cables from he towing locomotives. Accidents sometimes happen to the boatmen, but not as often as might seem possible. And they have peculiar occupational hazards. Not long ago one of the Gatun boatmen, was knocked sprawling into the water when he was struck in the back by a tarpon whose leap did not quite clear boat and boatmen.

The Pioneer Tide was a six-locomotive lockage, which meant that she had three of the powerful towing machines on each side. Breaking in as a locomotive operator takes two to three weeks and an operators first solo assignments are usually in the middle locomotives. The front pair of a six-car lockage are the actual towers; the second pair equalize by pulling or braking and the third pair act as brakes.

The locomotive operators, like Texas-born J. H. Bornefeld, who has worked on the locks since 1925, must know what a pilot's signal means. they must remember that hands raised over a pilot's head and brought down in front of shoulder level mean to start towing. (At night these signals are given by flashlights.) the "mule" operators must acknowledge the pilots' signals -by a double ringing of their locomotive bells.


The locomotives normally operate at two miles an hour when they are towing. They do not exceed this speed even when descending the steep inclines which give the effect, in the bumpily riding locomotives, of a roller coaster in slow motion. (Between the lower and middle locks at Gatun, There is a difference in elevation of 29 feet and 7 inches, at a grade of about 32 degrees). Horizontal thrust wheels under the locomotives gripping a center rack track keep them from overturning by the pull on the cables which stretch from locomotive to ship through the revolving turret on the top of each locomotive. The operative power comes from a "third rail," which is in a slot beside the track and which is reached by a pair of "shoes" attached to the locomotives.

As the Pioneer Tide made fast the cables and began to move into the lock chamber, Mr. Newhard walked alongside her. In his hand he carried the portable telephone which is his badge of office and which he plugs into jacks on the light poles along the lock wall. He follows the lockage on foot for the entire length of the locks but it's perfectly proper for him to ride back in a locomotive which is headed for its next job.


Like the other lockmasters in the Canal service, Mr. Newhard is in charge of everyone immediately concerned with the lockage. A native of Pennsylvania, he is an electrician by trade and in the 23 years he has worked on the locks, he has been a locomotive operator, a tunnel operator and, since 1944, a lockmaster. In between lockages he supervises other craftsmen on the never ending round of locks maintenance and during a lock overhaul may be called on to act in a supervisory position.

He had just disappeared into the distance alongside the Pioneer Tide, when his colleague, Floyd R. McDermitt, appeared, hitching a ride on a locomotive to the end of the locks to start another ship through. He is also a lockmaster, but he is a machinist by trade. His duties are the same as those of Mr. Newhard (substituting mechanical for electrical work) and like Mr. Newhard he directs the personnel engaged in locking the ships whose transit he is overseeing.

His incoming ship was the S.S. Belleville, whose pilot did not want to approach while the lower chamber was spilling to sea. he signaled with four blasts of the ship's whistle to Mr. McDermitt, who telephoned the control house, asking that the flow be shut off. That began the S.S. Belleville's transit, the third of the day for Mr. McDermitt. Before that particular day was over (with 14 south-bound transits) he was due to make six trips afoot along the 1-1/5 mile-long lock wall. He has worked for the Locks division since 1929, first as a towing locomotive operator, then as a tunnel operator, and has been a lockmaster since 1950.


The underground at Gatun Locks is a world of its own. When G.G. Thomas, a tunnel operator, comes to work in the morning his first job is to walk the length of his tunnel on the first lockage, checking to see that all the machines are operating properly. Just before he checks out for the day he repeats this long hike. In between he sees to whatever maintenance work is necessary.

Since the tunnels run almost the complete length of the lock walls, his pedestrian activities are considerable. Mr. Thomas is a machinist. he has been with the Locks Division since 1936 and a tunnel operator since 1945. He has an electrical colleague on the same shift whose duties are substantially the same except that in the case of the electrician the work involves the intricate electrical equipment in the tunnels. At some points at Gatun, the machines and electrical equipment are half a mile away from the central control house.

Each tunnel is divided horizontally into three stories, the lower for drainage, the middle for wiring and the top as a passageway with bays, into which the machinery to operate the locks is set. There are, for instance, the huge cast steel "bullwhips," over 19 feet across, weighing some 35,000 pounds and mounted horizontally on a large center pin. These are the wheels which, through a connecting arm, open and close the lock gates. In the next bay, dwarfed by the size of its bullwheel, is the 25-horsepower motor which operates it.


At intervals along the passageways are the transformer rooms, quite literally hot spots, where current coming into the locks from the outside power system is stepped down from 6,900 volts to 230 volts for distribution to the machines.

There are the float wells to determine the depth of the water in each lock chamber for the gauges in the control house. In the underground world at Gatun there are 63 starting panels for the rising stem gate valves, 40 starting panels for the machines which move the gates, 60 starting panels for use with the motors on the cylindrical valves -and these are not all of the machinery and equipment.

Since the Panama Canal began operations in 1914 very few changes have been made to the locks. Some new electrical equipment is being added and at the time of World War II some bombproofing was done. But, generally, the locks are just as they came off someone's drawing board 40 years ago. All of which, Mr. Albright said, goes to show that the planning was good.

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December 24, 1998

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