Américas / July-August 1998
By Larry Luxner
PANAMA CITY -- With less than two years remaining until Panama raises its flag over the Panama Canal, the Perez Balladares government has inaugurated a new museum chronicling the history of one of the world's most important waterways.
The Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama, located in the capital's Casco Viejo district, tells the inspiring, sometimes violent story of the Panama Canal's design and construction through paintings, exhibits and artifacts spanning hundreds of years -- from a 16th-century feasibility study ordered by Spain's King Carlos V to documents authorizing Panama's takeover of the canal at noon on Dec. 31, 1999.
The new tourist attraction is part of the government's plan to revitalize Panama City's historic center, but its importance is symbolic as Panama prepars to step onto the world stage as the canal's owner and operator.
"This museum is important because it's the first time we have an exhibition that tells the story of the Panama Canal from the perspective of Panamanians," said Angeles Ramos Baquero, the museum's curator. "It also demonstrates that we Panamanians are capable of meeting the challenge of administering the canal after 1999."
Politics aside, the Museo del Canal Interoceanico offers maritime executives, history buffs and just plain tourists a fascinating look at one of the world's most impressive engineering achievements.
The museum itself is housed in a colonial structure fronting the city's Plaza de la Catedral. Built in 1875 by French architect Georges Loew, it began life as the Grand Hotel. Only six years later, it was sold to the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique to be used as France's canal administration headquarters. The Americans, who bought all rights to the project in 1903 after France's canal construction efforts failed, took over the building and used it as their own headquarters until 1913.
When the Americans finally inaugurated their own administration building in Balboa Heights, the Panamanian government converted the vacant structure into a post office -- which is how it remained until 1996. Now, thanks to a $5 million renovation project, the building has come full circle and once again occupies an important place in canal history.
At the entrance to the four-story building is a lantern from a lighthouse built by the French in 1879. The first section of the museum is dominated by pre-Columbian artifacts including a funeral mask, pottery, jewelry and sculptures. In a little alcove are four ancient maps (dating from 1754) of the Isthmus of Panama, while various diagrams depict trans-Isthmian life during the 16th to 18th centuries.
The idea of linking the Atlantic and Pacific by water first came up in 1534, when King Carlos V of Spain ordered a study to determine the possibility of constructing a canal. The Spaniards had searched in vain for a way to transport gold and silver from Peru back to Europe without having to sail around the southern tip of South America.
Following Panama's liberation from Spain in 1821, the country became a department of Colombia. The need for a canal intensified after 1849, when the California gold rush precipitated the building of the Panama Railroad. On display at the museum are propaganda posters urging settlers to come out to California, Panama Railroad stock certificates dated 1865, bottles for making moonshine and guns used by the "49ers" to defend themselves.
The first real attempt at constructing a sea-level canal came in 1880, under the direction of renowned French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had inaugurated Egypt's Suez Canal in 1869. But yellow fever and malaria claimed 22,000 lives -- while rampant corruption bankrupted the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique -- and France finally gave up the effort in 1892.
Ten years later, the United States acquired the company's shares, helped Panama achieve independence from Colombia and began work on its own version of the canal, which featured a series of locks to raise and lower ships as they passed from one ocean to the other. On Aug. 15, 1914, the Panama Canal officially opened for business.
History is filled with little-known quirks, and this endeavor is no exception. The U.S. government originally wanted to build its canal in Nicaragua, but that idea fell apart after lobbyists for Panama mailed each senator a 5-cent Nicaraguan stamp depicting the angry-looking Momotombo volcano. The propaganda ploy worked, and a huge blowup of that little stamp -- issued in 1900 -- is now on display for all to see.
So are photos of Richard Halliburton, who in 1928 swam across the canal and had to shell out a transift fee of 36 cents based on his 150-pound weight. At the other extreme is the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship, which last year crossed the Panama Canal, paying a whopping $153,662.66 in fees.
In the same display case are the scissors used to cut the ribbon on the graceful Puente de las Americas bridge, which cost $20 million when completed in 1962 and still spans the canal just outside Panama City.
Political buffs will appreciate the huge blow-up photo of the 1977 signing of the Carter-Torrijos Treaties and a framed letter written and signed by President Carter, congratulating the Panamanian people for the achievement. Next to it is the actual tally sheet used by Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel for the famous roll call. The U.S. Senate approved the Panama Canal Treaty on April 18, 1978, by a vote of 68 to 32. (Jesse Helms, Richard Lugar, Bob Dole, Jake Garn and Strom Thurmond all voted no. That's on display, too.)
Interestingly, at least 68 of the artifacts in the stridently nationalistic museum are on loan from a U.S. government agency, the Panama Canal Commission.
"We believe the canal itself is probably the most important part of the museum, and it wouldn't have done it justice to present it as something of the past only," says María Lorena Riba of the commission's Technical Resources Center. "At the very end of our display, we present a video of the latest improvements and modernization plans to the Panama Canal, and invite the public to go see the real thing."
For more information on the Panama Canal Museum, write to the Museo del Canal Interoceanico at Apartado 1218, Zona 1, Panama, Rep. de Panama, or call +507 211-1649. The e-mail address is: email@example.com, and the museum's Web site is http://www.sinfo.net/pcmuseum.