Gruening: What history tells us, part II

In my last column, while sailing nearly 5,000 miles between San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale, I discussed the history of the construction of the 48-mile long Panama Canal. Along with 1,300 cruise ship passengers, I then spent a full day transiting the Canal on our voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Only then, can you truly appreciate the vast engineering feat accomplished there.


Following the failed French effort to build a canal, Americans, championed by President Teddy Roosevelt, successfully conquered deadly diseases, rebuilt Panama’s infrastructure and simplified the canal design using a series of locks that raised and lowered ships 88 feet between sea level and a man-made lake.

The engineering challenges were enormous.

The most daunting task facing engineers was how to carve the canal through a nine mile stretch known as the Culebra Cut — the highest point on the route where the Continental Divide bisected Panama — an elevation 333 feet above sea level.

To create enough space for two ships to pass each other safely required a channel 300 feet wide. With the base of the canal no more than 40 feet above sea level, excavation in the Culebra Cut would need to reach almost 300 feet. Initial calculations estimated 54 million cubic yards of earth would need to be removed but after several revisions, the total reached 100 million cubic yards.

New equipment was needed to handle the volume of excavated material. Giant Bucyrus steam-shovels were put in place to load rail flat cars which were rebuilt to allow a special “unloader” plow to clear a 20-car train of the excavated soil in 10 minutes. Another American innovation — a giant dirt-spreader — was devised to spread and level the unloaded material. A special crane was invented to lift whole sections of track and move them 9 feet to allow trains to continually move excavated material to new locations.

Much of the excavated material was used to build the giant Gatun Dam — the largest earthen dam in the world —eventually creating the 164-square-mile Gatun Lake — the largest man-made lake in the world (at the time).

Then there were the concrete locks themselves. Each of the 12 locks were 1,000 feet long — with three pairs of locks (six total) required on each side of the canal to handle traffic side by side in both directions at the same time. The science of concrete was relatively new and, as a building material, had never been used in the quantity or scale required for this project.

The locks’ gates, varying in height from 47 to 82 feet, were 7 feet thick but their lower half was hollow and watertight making them buoyant. This allowed each of the two 64-foot wide double doors comprising a gate to be opened easily with just a 40 hp electric motor powered by hydropower from the dam.

No pumps were needed to operate the locks. Water from Gatun Lake was (and still is) fed by gravity into each lock as needed to lift vessels on one side of the canal and drained into the ocean to gently lower them on the other side.

Although a wider and longer set of locks was recently added for larger ships, it’s a tribute to the ingenuity of those original engineers that the same equipment and structures still function flawlessly today — over 100 years after the canal was completed in 1914.

Even more amazing, after ten years of construction, the American effort was completed ahead of time and under budget.

It took spirit, imagination and determination to build the Panama Canal 100 years ago. And those very same traits built the Alaska Highway and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Can you imagine our state without either of those major projects? Would anyone suggest now they should not have been built?

Yet, here in Juneau, it’s taken ten years just to complete the permits and studies needed for a road the same length as the Panama Canal — a project that would also greatly benefit our state.

Gov. Bill Walker declined to move forward with the Juneau Access project even though, like the Panama Canal, it would lower transportation costs, increase employment, spur development, increase commerce, and make travel less expensive and more convenient.

In his day, Teddy Roosevelt could have settled for the perfectly serviceable — though longer and more costly — sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Instead, he convinced the country there was a better way.

The Lynn Canal Highway can and should be built. Alaska’s workforce wants to build it. It makes sound economic sense.

What Alaska needs now are leaders willing to finish this project and reigniting our traditional Alaskan can-do spirit that built our country and our state.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.


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