I’ve been fascinated by the Panama Canal and its history for years. Before 1993 I didn’t give the ‘big ditch’ much thought, then one day in ’93 I got a phone call from my Army assignments officer telling me I’d been selected to do a tour with the US Army South headquarters at Fort Clayton in the old Panama Canal Zone. At first I resisted, thinking an assignment to Panama in the waning days of American influence was a backwater job (which it was), but my good friend Gil Rios, who had spent several years in Panama, called and told me that it was a damned interesting place and that I’d have a lot of fun (which I did).
Before heading down there my wife and I read everything on Panama we could get our hands on. This included David McCullough’s excellent one volume history of the Canal, Path Between The Seas. I also got the opportunity to dig through the Fort Belvoir, Virginia post library (home of the US Army Engineer School) to review their fairly extensive historical holdings on the Panama Canal. Since the US Army Corps of Engineers had a significant hand in the design and construction of the Canal a lot of reports, pamphlets, books and articles were written by Engineer officers, and many of those papers made their way to the Fort Belvoir library. We read our books, got our shots, packed our household, said goodbye to friends and family and headed to Panama.
Our time in Panama proved to be just as interesting as Gil promised. My geospatial team ended up working on counter drug projects across Central and South America. We also got pulled into a wide range of Panama Canal turn-over issues, working to identify abandoned US facilities across the isthmus, assisting in property remediation studies and conducting analysis on the effects of deforestation on siltation levels in the Canal. Our daughters enjoyed endless summer in a tropical paradise and experienced first hand a culture and and environment that few other American children got to see.
One of the things I took away from this experience is a life-long fascination with the Canal and its history. Along the way I became an accumulator of Panama Canal bric-a-brac, particularly if it has a topographic connection. In the early 1900’s America was fascinated by the Canal and proud of our nation’s achievement in building it. Magazine articles, professional publications and early newsreels gave Americans a peek at what was going on in a place so exotic yet not so far away. We were conquering disease, rugged topography, rain, raging rivers and dangerous rock slides to join the oceans and improve world commerce. This triggered a flood of Panama Canal ephemera – publications, maps, photos, commemorative coins, plates and post cards. Lots and lots of post cards. Most of these knickknacks sported a map, because to understand the Panama Canal and its relationship to the United States you need to put it in geographic context.
So today we’ll take a look at one of the more unique Canal related items I’ve come across. It’s a standard sized post card published by I. L. Maduro in Panama City and is likely a reprint of a report published by the Panama Canal Company in the early years of the Canal’s operation.
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What makes this card unique is that it’s an information dense geographic analysis. It effectively combines a nicely done relief map with a corresponding elevation profile that serves as a comparative chart highlighting the difference between material removed during the initial French effort to dig the canal (1881 – 1893) and the subsequent and successful American effort (1904 – 1913). The card also includes key statistical information about the Canal – passage times, channel depths, lock sizes, construction cost, workforce size and other interesting tidbits. Also included is a mileage chart that highlights the amount of shipping distance saved by using the Canal. This was a thinking man’s post card, a high level engineering report squeezed onto a 3.5″ x 5.5″ piece of cardboard. Even more interesting, the map is embossed; it has raised relief, making it a miniature physical relief map.
Overall it’s extremely well done. Yes, you need a magnifying glass to read all the information, but that’s OK. It’s worth the effort. I can imagine hundreds of professional men visiting the Canal Zone or transiting the Canal stopping off and picking up one or more of these post cards to help them explain to friends and family just what a unique and extraordinary achievement the construction of the Panama Canal was. That’s why these cards are not particularly rare. A quick eBay search for ‘panama canal post card’ will usually turn up one or more of these for sale or auction.
But let’s remember this is a post card, designed to be scribbled on and dropped in the mail. So it is with this particular card. In 1934 Uncle Gerry mailed it from Panama to his nephew Don at a YMCA camp in Connecticut. Just what was Uncle Gerry doing in Panama? Was he a crew member on a ship transiting the Canal? Was he working for the Panama Canal Company? Was he a tourist who dropped in to see what this big ditch was all about? We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.
The Panama Canal was an outstanding American engineering achievement that continues to serve world commerce. We turned the Canal over to the Panamanians in 1999 and they continue to operate and improve it, most recently expanding it to handle the newest generation of supercargo carriers. This has triggered a ‘port war’ here in the US as various cities along the eastern seaboard scramble to improve their port and rail facilities in an effort to capture a larger share of the increase in shipping traffic. Over 100 years after it’s opening it’s great to know that the Canal is still contributing to the world’s commerce. That’s precisely what the thousands of engineers, surveyors and laborers were working towards back at the dawn of the 20th century.
Brian, I enjoyed reading your article and agree with all you said. Our assignment there was very interesting and my boys to this day still talk about going out with the Boy Scouts there and also life in general living on Ft Clayton. I’d love to return someday to the country again someday and I hope the Panamanians have moved forward instead of backwards as was my experience from visiting in 1977 and then 1988-90. Keep up the great writing sir as its always a great pleasure to read your work. V/R. Gil
My Dad was in the army in the mid 1920’s and served two hitches at Ft. Clayton in the Canel Zone. He loved the place. I went to Panama on business just before Carter gave it away, and one of the local folks I worked with down there said she wanted to show me the Zone before it was ruined. We went on a tour and I had my picture made in front of one of the locks, close to the same spot I remember my day’s photo from 50 years earlier.
Quite a contrast in the late 1970’s as you drove from a slum area into the gates … it was beautifully maintained.
Larry, fascinating! I was assigned to Fort Clayton too, and my office was on the 2nd floor of the HQ building that looked out over the Miraflores Locks. Although my office didn’t have any windows (we were part of an Intel shop, so all of our windows were boarded up), I did have a door that opened onto the 2nd floor roof and offered an excellent view of the Canal. My assignment to Panama was, hands down, one of the most interesting experiences of my life.