History of the Panama Canal & how the locks work

Ships move into the canal with the help of tugboats to prevent the wind and currents from blowing them off course

History of the Panama Canal

by Davy Vogel

The Panama Canal is a connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Ships can cut through the canal rather than going all the way around South America. The Panama Canal took 33 years to make, from 1881 to 1914. It is 51 miles long.

The French started building the Panama Canal. They were trying to make a flat river between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. At that time there were no bulldozers or dump trucks. They cut through the lowest and narrowest part between the two oceans. The French were trying to do it all by hand. That didn’t work very well. First of all, they were trying to dig a steep walled canyon and the rock wasn’t as strong as they had thought. There were lots of landslides. Secondly, they were moving huge boulders with nothing but muscle. Lots of men were leaving because they just couldn’t take all the work. And thirdly, many of the men that stayed fell sick due to poor housing conditions and couldn’t work. The French left in 1899.

In 1904 the Americans started working on the remains of the French work. They decided to use something called locks in order to raise the boats up and over the hill between the two oceans. There are many types of locks. The type they used worked by getting water into a no-ceiling room, raising the ship up. They did not use pumps. Instead they use gravity.

You can guide a ship through the canal in the simulator in the visitor’s center.

Each lock has two artificial lakes. If a ship comes in on the bottom they open the first set of doors, then they open the gate of the top lake and water rushes in to raise the ship. They make the water in the lock even with the water level in the next segment of the canal. Then the doors higher up open to allow the ship to pass into the canal. No water rushes out because the water is even with the new water level. The ship can just come out. It is the same with top to bottom except they empty the water into the bottom lake. A lock can raise or lower a ship 5 meters. Over all you need to go up about 85 feet to get through the Panama Canal.

Since both the oceans are about the same level, why raise and lower the ships? Because they would go over the mountains rather than go through them. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the main ones are for ecological reasons – they don’t want to mix the water from the two oceans, and because it was easier to build locks than to dig out all the dirt and rock between the oceans.

The ships are pulled through the Panama Canal by engines called mules. Usually there are six mules per ship. About 12,500 ships come through each year. A private sailboat costs about $2,000 to cross. The cost depends on how big and how heavy it is. Once, a swimmer swam across it for thirty six cents. I don’t think you are allowed to swim through it. I think that the swimmer was doing a long distance swim or something that the government allowed.


Once a ship leaves the Miraflores locks, then head out into a lake and make their way to the next set of locks.



How the Locks of the Panama Canal Work

by Daryl Vogel

Mules at Panama CanalThere are 3 sets of locks in the Panama canal. The most northern lock is the Gatun Locks. The Gatun locks have 3 individual locks. It takes about 26,000,000 gallons of water to fill a Gatun lock.Then it is the Pedro Miguel locks. That is the smallest set of locks. It has only one. That lock is 4 feet. The most southern lock is the Miraflores locks.It is the highest locks because of the extreme tidal variation. They are so high it takes about10 minutes to get to the top of one. That set of locks has 2 locks the total height is 27 feet. They are the most visited place in Panama because of the closeness to Panama City.

How do locks work

To go up: A boat will enter a little enclosed area through a door, then the door will close making a waterproof area. After that water will leak in and the boat will rise. When it reaches the top, a small gate will open and the boat will go to the next lock. It does vice versa to get down.

The Geography
From north to south you go through the Gatun locks then the Gaillard Cut . After that you go through the Pedro Miguel locks and hit the Miraflores lock. Then after the approximate 51 miles you have crossed the Panama Canal.
Extra facts
  • The price of a boat depends on the weight and cargo.
  • Big boats must be guided by electric cars.
  • The Miraflores locks are so famous they have a visitor center, it costs $8.00 for tourists and $5 for locals.


In the visitor’s center, you can experiment with opening gates like those in the lock.
The Panama Canal has been in operation since 1913. The Miraflores locks are the closest to the Pacific Ocean.
Once the ship is in the lock and the gate is closed, they pour water into the chamber in order to raise the ship.
The gates can only open if the level of water is the same on both sides.
It takes a ship 8 – 10 hours to pass from one ocean to the other. If they went the long way it would take two weeks!

by Daryl E. Vogel

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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