Diving Deep into the Panama Canal

History lies just below the lush, natural beauty that defies political change.
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At this very moment in history, I am under 40 feet worth of the Panama Canal, moving cautiously through murky water in my scuba gear. The lake floor materializes before me like a desolate moonscape, bare-limbed tree trunks rising from a thick blanket of dark algae.

With my Panamanian dive buddy Rene Gomez, I am searching for an old French locomotive said to be hitched—still—to a long line of cars, all 30 on the tracks, some sixty feet underwater. The French left them here just before the turn of the century, after canal building took an ugly turn from a grandiose vision into a tragic, Sisyphian embarrassment. Almost a hundred years from the recent transfer of that vision to Panama's control.
To go deeper into Lake Gatun is a bit like going backwards into the memory of this long, slender country that straddles two continents. I am now hovering over what had been a lush tropical river valley back in 1880, when the French started building the Canal Interoceanique. It was still a river valley when the Americans took over in 1904.

By the time the Americans finally got done pushing the last rock to the top of the hill in 1914, they had themselves a dandy engineering marvel, one that made blue-water ships rise and fall 80 feet at a time inside a complex series of gates, dams, and culverts as they traveled between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

More to the point, they also had a vast 163-square-mile artificial lake created by the damming of the Charges River. Unlike the ditch-like southern Canal, this northern channel winds for 23 miles through the man-made Lake Gatun, atop the detritus of flooded dreams—the little riverside villages and chapels, the earth-moving trains, the antiquated machinery of canal-digging too old or unwieldy to be moved.

Published: 28 Nov 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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