The Panama Canal: Miraflores Locks

Last week, we had to leave Costa Rica so we wouldn’t overstay the 90 days of our visa. We visited Panama for a couple days. Of course, everyone has heard of the Panama Canal and it is probably what Panama is most famous for. 

The canal was finished in 1914 and has operated non-stop (24/7, 365) for all 107 years since being completed. It even kept running during World War I and World War II. When America was looking to build a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic, they originally considered Panama to be the worst possible location. Panama is covered in dense jungle and has a mountain range in between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. France tried to build the Panama Canal first, and they worked with the designer of the Suez Canal, which had been completed a few years prior in 1869. He proposed a sea-level canal that would cut through the lowest part of the mountain range (110 meters above sea level). However, that still required quite a bit of excavation of the tough volcanic rock which the mountains were made of.

Progress was slow and diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever resulted in many deaths, slowing construction even more. Eventually, engineers decided that a sea-level canal was too difficult, and an elevated canal with locks was a better solution. By then, America had started considering construction in Nicaragua, because of the large Lake Cocibolca that makes the land distance between the Pacific and Atlantic in Nicaragua much shorter. However, they were dissuaded by the large amounts of volcanoes in Nicaragua which could cause problems if a canal was built there. France sold the canal project in Panama to the US for 40 million dollars in 1902. 

Back then, what is now Panama was part of Colombia. Colombia was not happy with the US taking over construction as the US was not planning to share much of the Canal’s profits. However, the US heard rumors of revolution by the Panamanians to separate from Colombia. Through secret talks, the US decided to help Panama become its own country on one condition, getting ownership of the canal. Panama became its own country in 1903. America completed the 3 sets of locks, Miraflores Locks, Gatun Locks, and Pedro Miguel Locks, in 1913. The first official transit of the Panama Canal was made on August 15th, 1914. Nowadays, to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or vice versa, the entire transit takes around 8 hours. 

Since its completion, new locks have been added in order to accommodate larger ships. The original locks are still being used and the giant lock doors are the original unchanged lock doors from 1914. The locks use fresh water from the artificial lakes made by dams. The water is moved from lock to lock only through gravity. 

On the day we visited, the ships were moving from Atlantic to Pacific, so the ships moved through the far right portion of the lock until the door. The water flows down from the far right portion into the far left portion, balancing the height of the water. As the water lowers on the right, the ship gets lowered as well (like a large wet elevator). The gates open, allowing the ship to move to the left portion. The gates close and the water (and ship) of the left portion lowers to the level of the Pacific, and the gate (not in the picture) opens. The ship is free from the canal. At the same time, water from the lake on the right (not in the picture) flows into the right portion, so it is the same height as the lake, letting ships move from the lake to the right portion.

Close up of the original giant metal lock doors

Before we visited the Canal, I wasn’t expecting the locks to be that exciting. But seeing them up close, with giant ships effortlessly moving through them was quite amazing. We were able to see the water drain from one lock into the lower lock in real-time, and seeing the huge lock doors slowly close was very cool too. It really amazed me how this piece of engineering could run 24/7 without stopping, and still be using the same lock doors and water system from 1913.

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