Panama Canal

A ship at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.

Many folks have “must see” destinations, while others refer to these places as “bucket list” trips. Whatever name you want to use to identify your list, I am fairly certain this unique place is included in your wishes?

The Panama Canal, aka “The Big Ditch”

Because ocean cruising has exploded in popularity since our turn into the 21st century, many cruise lines offer this special journey through this famous place, located in Central America’s Isthmus of Panama.  The various cruise companies offer trips both directions, east to west or vice versa.  Most of the time, the vessels traverse this modern marvel from the Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic Ocean, or from the Pacific Ocean on-board the many cruises that usually originate in California.  However, a few times each year, ships go through the canal after having cruised northward up the coast of western South America, after the vessels have sailed around legendary Cape Horn at the southern tip of the continent.

My bride, Debbie, and I have been fortunate enough to have experienced going through the canal both directions, twice from the east, and once from the west.  Each time, it has been a thrill to view the entire 11 1/2-hour, 51-mile, process, from the outer decks of our individual cruise ship. It truly is quite an exhilarating experience from start to finish!.

How about a brief history of this man-made wonder?

France began working on this mammoth project in 1881, but couldn’t finish it due to engineering problems, and a great loss of construction workers, due to diseases, accidents, etc..  In 1904, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt got our country involved in the construction, and the canal was finally completed 10 years later, on August 15, 1914.  The canal was operated by our U.S. government until 1999, when the local Panama Canal Authority assumed ownership following an agreement our President Jimmy Carter signed with Panama in 1977.

Until 2016, it contained only 2 parallel waterways, each 110-feet wide, to either lift vessels 85 feet  to the artificially-created massive Gatun Lake on the eastern side, or lower the ships 85 feet that were headed west to the Pacific Ocean from Gatun Lake. However, since June 26, 2016 (it took 9 years to construct), a 3rd (and wider) passage has been open, allowing huge, post-Panamax vessels to traverse the canal now. These mega-ships are wider, and, thus, are able to carry much more cargo through the structure today.

All three of our trips featured an on-board historian who educated us throughout our passages.  These knowledgeable individuals speak over the ship’s public address systems to inform all interested people just what they are witnessing in-and-out of the various locks that are functioning to raise or lower the cruise ship.  Some of the cruise lines allow passengers to disembark their ship, and walk part of the journey on the land surrounding the canal as their ship progresses through it. Also, occasionally, some Panama shore excursions are offered that take passengers away from the canal to see various sites in the small country of Panama.  This possibility exists for those passengers that have previously experienced the canal crossing, and want to have a different experience during their ship’s short time in Panama.

The true spirit of the human “can do” attitude shows through in an incredibly convincing way when you cruise through the historic Panama Canal.

Hopefully, readers in Our Town and far beyond, you will be able to witness this engineering marvel up close and personal!

Robert Breedlove is an Oklahoma State University news-editorial journalism graduate, and a former newspaper (including News Press) reporter. He resides in Stillwater, and has for most of his life. He has been a contributing writer to various media over the United States for years. He may be reached at

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