Panama Canal


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Lloyd’s Casualty Week for December 10 just arrived this morning at the library.  Along with the usual information about vessels grounded, stranded, disabled, sunk, captured by pirates, or embroiled in civil unrest or labor disputes, there was an interesting note about the Panama Canal.  Lloyd’s reports that for the first time in 20 years, the Canal has been closed down.  Heavy rains filled up the Gatun and Alhajuela lakes, making the transit through them unsafe and forcing traffic to a halt.  They are expecting a backlog of 60 ships by Friday, and as much as a two-day wait for vessels arriving without a booking. 

This is a bit more than a blip in worldwide sea traffic.  The Canal handles up to 5% of the world’s seaborne commerce, according to Lloyd’s.  The Panama Canal Authority (ACP), through its vice-president Manuel Benitez, says they are “planning to open flood gates to relieve one of the lakes.”

This closing of the Canal reminded me of an intriguing letter we have in the Archives, part of MS 243, the Clinton Havill Papers.  In this July 1915 letter, Havill, then a Junior Officer of the Deck during the midshipmen cruise of USS Ohio (BB 12), describes the passage of Ohio with USS Missouri (BB 11) and USS Wisconsin (BB 9) through the Canal.  His sketch of a sectional view of the Canal is below.  In his letter, he writes, “All along the Culebra Cut the bank was lined with people, mostly soldiers and marines, who were down to see the first American battleships go through the Canal (his emphasis).” 

The Canal has truly proved its worth, not just to commercial fleets but also to the US Navy, since that first passage 95 years ago.

The Panama Canal, as sketched by CLinton Havill in July, 1915

4 thoughts on “Panama Canal”

  1. I would like to access a list of the deaths when building the canal. I believe my cousin, Philip Kassela who passed in 1912, was working on the canal. I am 80 years old and really would appreciate any help you could give me. Thank you so very much.

    1. I have just seen your note, Ms. Petersen, and I am happy that you wrote. I think the Panama Canal workers were some of the most courageous people I can imagine. The chief engineer, John F. Stevens, says this about the working conditions: “Colon at the northern, and Panama at the southern terminus of the Canal, were, up to 1907, two of the most forbidding, dirty, unhealthy places on the earth.” And in that environment, almost all the foremen and the higher grades of skilled labor had to come from the United States. They were completely lacking in Central and South America at the time. Did your cousin come in the first wave in 1905, or after 1908? I gather many went back home from the first wave, as living conditions were so bad.

      I have not so far seen a death list, Ms. Pedersen, but one may exist here in the Library. We can keep trying to find one, if you like. Any of our readers can get research help on particular questions by contacting the library at [email protected]. We are only too happy to oblige!

  2. I’m interested in any information you would share regarding Richard L. Metcalfe who was the Governor of the Panama Canal from 1913 – 1914. Richard is the great-grandfather of my husband.


    1. Hi Beverly, and thanks for your comment! I will make sure to forward your request to our researchers, who will get back to you. Indeed, any time you have a request, do not hesitate to email us at [email protected] and we’ll be happy to try to find whatever we can.