“There is still time to see the wonders of engineers before they are flooded and hidden forever.”
-- North German Lloyd Line travel brochure, 1913

How Do Locks Work?

Canal locks are like water-filled stairs that move ships across sloping terrain. After a ship enters a lock, the gates are closed, isolating the chamber and its contents from the water around it. The chamber is either filled or emptied, thus raising or lowering the water level as necessary. Transit across Panama’s mountains was made possible by damming part of the Chagres River to create Gatun Lake and then building six 1,000-foot-long (305-m), 80-foot-deep (24-m) concrete lock chambers to reach it. The lake fed water to the locks by means of gravity; electricity powered the gates.

The popular press sent writers, photographers, and artists to the Canal Zone to capture the scope and scale of construction. Their reports home ignited the public’s imagination and pride in this mammoth undertaking. Soon the canal became the Caribbean destination, with hordes of vacationers marveling at such wonders as Culebra Cut, the Cucaracha slide, and the massive concrete locks.

The canal opened on August 15, 1914. Although opening-day festivities were overshadowed by the beginning of war in Europe earlier that month, an international exposition in San Francisco the next year celebrated the canal’s completion.

Today, after more than eight decades of efficient operation, the Panama Canal remains a symbol of human creativity, persistence, and achievement.

For those not lucky enough to visit Panama, illustrated books gave readers a sense of being there. This volume’s 700 photographs capture the breadth of work on the canal, aspects of life on and off the job, and the land outside the 50-mile-long (80-km) by 10-mile-wide (16-km) Canal Zone.

The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco celebrated the completion of the canal. The fair’s program used an image of Hercules parting the isthmus to symbolize the superhuman effort required to build the Panama Canal.

Sections of Panama Railroad ties laid in the 1850s were sold as souvenirs at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. According to folklore, one worker died for every railroad tie in the line’s 50-mile-long (80-km) route.

Between 1910 and 1913, an estimated 68,000 American and European visitors arrived in Panama to view work on the canal. Interest was so great that steamship lines diverted vessels from other routes to the Caribbean.

Advertisement for the Great White Fleet, United Fruit Co. Steam-ship Service, from Country Life in America, December 1914

The Tourist’s Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala Reached by Beautiful Sea Trips from New Orleans, issued by the Passenger Department of the Illinois Central Railroad, 1912-13

At Ancon, a town at the Pacific end of the Canal Zone, the Isthmian Canal Commission created a tourist station with a lecture room, relief maps, and models of the locks. Tourists could also visit the work site by taking a special train whose open sightseeing cars had been converted from Panama Railroad flatcars (see postcard at left).

The musicians of Tin Pan Alley played upon public interest in the canal. Cover artwork was often more memorable than the music and lyrics inside.

(left, from top) “Where the Oceans Meet in Panama (That’s Where I’ll Meet You),” by Henry Jentes (music) and Charles McCarron (lyrics), 1914

“The Panamala,” by Gus Edwards (music) and Edward Madden (lyrics), 1914 .

Jamaica, Panama Canal, Central and South America, issued by the Passenger Department of the United Fruit Co. Steamship Service, 1912-13

(above) Panama Canal souvenir postcard book, post marked 1915

See the 49 Mile Ditch Before It Becomes a Canal, issued by the Hamburg-American Line, before 1914