Where are the Mules in Panama?

When you are writing a travel blog, you cannot do it all yourself (or at least I can’t), so I am quick to muster all the help I can get.  Since sister Barbara is the early bird in the family, her assignment was the 6 AM wake up call to begin the process of photographing our transit through the Panama Canal.  I asked her to please make sure she got pictures of the mules.  When she arrived on deck, she looked around for the animals (mules) but could not find any of them.  She then realized that metal, mechanical mules that moved the ships via steel cables and cogs up and through the locks had replaced the real mules.  Our ship (ms Amsterdam) required the use of six “mules” as did the container ship in the adjacent channel.

It Begins with 2 Men in a Row Boat who attach lines between the mules  and the ship

It Begins with 2 Men in a Row Boat who attach lines between the mules and the ship

The Panama Cana is a masterpiece of engineering and is considered to be one of the Eight Wonders of the Modern World and has shortened the trip around the continent of South America by 7,000 miles.

One of the mules begins the trek up the ramp

One of the mules begins the trek up the ramp

The history of a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates back to the earliest explorers, who came to the Americas. King Charles V of Spain in 1523, prompted by Balboa and Cortez, had a survey of the canal area completed, but the enormity of the task dampened Spain’s construction ideas.

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After the French successfully completed the Suez Canal in Egypt in1867, they were inspired to tackle this new venture in Central America. Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was not an engineer, was chosen to head up the project and he raised almost $400 million to build a sea level canal, but did not take into consideration the sudden flooding (in the canal zone) of the Chagres River after torrential rains and the rocky mountainous spine connecting the two hemispheres.

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Excavations in Egypt had been through desert sand and in Central America construction challenges included varying elevations, an untamable river subject to rapid flooding and wetlands inhabited by mosquito carrying malaria and Yellow Fever.

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Construction began in January 1882. Disease claimed the lives of about 22,000 men in 8 years. The sea level canal design was changed to a lock system in 1887 and the project went bankrupt in 1889. Even though the French were not successful in completing the canal, they made substantial contributions to its construction.

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In 1894 the Gold Rush brought about the completion of both the Panama Railroad across the Isthmus of Panama and the development of the West Coast of the United States.

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After Panama’s independence from Columbia in 1903, Panama and the United States signed a treaty authorizing the construction of the Panama Canal.  President Theodore Roosevelt realized that the completion of the Panama Canal was of strategic importance to America for military reasons and commerce. And as a result, the United States guaranteed Panama’s independence; and, for the sum of $10,000,000, Panama granted the United States power and authority within the then ‘Canal Zone.’ In addition, the United States agreed to pay an annual annuity to Panama, which increased over time.  In 1904 the U. S. purchased the rights and properties of the Canal construction from the French Canal Company for $40,000,000 and took over the partially completed project.

Two lanes of traffic

Two lanes of traffic

The greatest challenges were to construct a way through the 360-foot continental divide, keep men and machines working to complete the project, and to finance it. The project spanned the terms of four U. S. Presidents: William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Taft and Woodrow Wilson, with Taft making several trips to the construction site, but with Roosevelt getting most of the credit. The canal was completed in October 1913 after the building of four dams, creating two lakes, and constructing a two-tier lock system.  The outbreak of WWI subdued the dedication ceremony until 1914.

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The cost of the whole project was substantial:  $632 million ($375 million paid by U.S.) and 27,609 lives (lost mainly from Malaria and Yellow Fever) for a 51-mile canal, which has considerably assisted the U.S in getting troops, supplies, and equipment into the Pacific Ocean for voyages to the Far East and has reduced shipping time and costs for many nations. More than 75,000 people worked to construct the canal and at the height of construction 40,000 people were on the job.

First there was the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama

First there was the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama

The train still runs today next to the Canal.

The train still runs today next to the Canal.

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty with Panama turning the ownership of the canal over to Panama in 1999.

Centennial Bridge

Centennial Bridge

For more information on the Panama Canal, please visit www.ostler.com.  Dan Ostler provided for us a series of three lectures plus on deck commentary during the transit for the Panama segment of the cruise. Dan did a wonderful job of bringing this topic to life for us. His website is a treasure-trove of information about the Canal.


One Response to “Where are the Mules in Panama?”

  1. Patricia Horoschak January 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I remember our trip thru canal with Ted’s father. He couldn’t talk well due to stroke but he told us this was where he swam across to get to the girls. This was in 1937 when he was 23 stationed with army air corps I think.

    Pat Horoschak

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