ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., -- To most people, the Panama Canal is a great engineering achievement that makes commerce and travel cheaper, easier, and faster. But to District employee Patricia Lewis, administrative tech in the Construction Branch, it was the setting for “an awesome childhood.”
As the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal nears, Lewis sat down with me and shared some of her experiences growing up in the Panama Canal Zone.
Lewis moved to the 10-mile wide, 50-mile long Panama Canal Zone at the age of 5 and lived there until she was 30. One of the first things she mentioned was being able to watch the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic. While this seems like a typo, she explained that there are places where it happens due to the way the isthmus curves in Panama. Another related memory she shared was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with friends and then deciding to swim in the Pacific later the same day.
Lewis’s father piloted ships through the canal and she grew up watching ships from around the world travel through the canal. The captains of the ships going through the canal give up control of their vessels to the Panama Canal pilots while traversing the canal.
Without the Panama Canal, ships would have to sail approximately 8,000 miles around the southernmost tip of South America, a dangerous journey of many weeks. The Panama Canal makes the trip from ocean to ocean a matter of mere hours.
“Depending on the size of the ship, it can take up to 25 hours to traverse the canal and only in transiting the Panama Canal does the pilot have the full responsibility for the navigation of the vessel, including nuclear submarines,” Lewis said.
She added that larger vessels might require four to six pilots to get them through the canal. Lewis recalls that her father piloted the Queen Elizabeth 2 through the canal and it only had 1 ½ inches clearance on either side! Currently a project to expand the canal will soon be completed that will allow larger ships to pass through the canal.
Lewis recalled swimming in Lake Gatún at the Gatún Yacht Club and waving at ships only a few hundred yards away as they passed through the lake on their journey from the Atlantic to Pacific (or vice versa). Other times she would join friends on motorboats and catamarans as they went out to wave at the ships passing by. She participated in Sea Explorers which she described as “like Boy Scouts, but associated with the sea.”
“We lived the history throughout the day,” Lewis said. She remembers swimming in places that had machinery left behind by the French. The French had attempted to build a canal in the 1880s, but weren’t successful due to the project’s cost in terms of money and lives.
Growing up in the Canal Zone was different than growing up in the continental United States Lewis said. She described it at a “socialistic experiment that worked.” The “Zonians,” as the Americans who lived in the Canal Zone are called, worked for the Panama Canal Company or the U.S. Government. The Panama Canal Company became the Panama Canal Commission in 1979 when the U.S. ratified a set of treaties that ultimately gave control of the canal to Panama in 1999.
The Canal Zone had its own police force, courts, and judges. There was even a college that Lewis attended. She studied criminal justice at the Panama Canal College (which later gave way to a local branch of the Florida State University.)
Lewis said that everyone was pretty much equal. They shopped in the same commissaries, went to the same schools and things such as housing and utilities were taken care of by the government/Commission. Everyone knew everyone else. Kids played in the streets and the close-by jungles and it was considered normal and safe. Lewis said she misses seeing the “toucans and parrots flying in the backyard and the exotic wildlife running through the jungle.”
Even outside the zone, Lewis said that when two people who have lived in the zone meet, they have a special bond. Odds are if they don’t know each other, they know many of the same people as the population in the zone was never very large. And every year there is a reunion in Florida for Zonians to get together and reunite.
Growing up, Lewis said she learned about the Corps of Engineers in grade school. While the canal was not technically a Corps of Engineers project, U.S. Army engineers were very influential in shaping the lock and dam construction plan that was used. The Corps of Engineers offered unrivaled expertise in hydrology, lock and dam construction, and construction management.
On March 4, 1907, President Roosevelt appointed Col. George W. Goethals as chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) which oversaw the canal’s construction. Many talented engineer officers serving on detail under Goethals held key positions on the project. It was under Goethals’ watch that the SS Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal – traveling from ocean to ocean in under ten hours, on August 15, 1914, opening up the world to easier and faster sea journeys.