The much-heralded 1914 transit of the S.S. Ancon from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the brand new Panama Canal received worldwide press coverage and went down in history as an important first. But that ignores one little detail: The Ancon was the second ship (and, by some measures, the third). That’s right—the first true, uninterrupted Panama Canal crossing was made on August 3, 1914, by another ship entirely: the S. S Cristobal.
Almost two weeks before the “official” crossing on the 15th, the Cristobal sailed from its namesake port city to Balboa on the Pacific coast, completing the journey in 12 hours. The sailing (not announced to the press) was a test run planned by Chief Engineer George Goethals to prove that the transit could easily be made—but without the pressure of knowing that the eyes of the world were on him.
It wasn’t exactly a stealth passage: 200 guests made the trip and the ship’s progress was logged meticulously for the Canal Record, a newspaper dedicated to the new route. Even so, it was obscured in history by the official first trip, a journey undertaken with confidence thanks to the success of the Cristobal crossing.
Fascinating Facts about the Panama Canal
- Before its successful opening, a total of 25,000 people died while working on the Panama Canal. Most were felled not by accidents or drowning but disease.
- The truest first complete crossing was that of a French crane ship, the Alexandre La Valley; it didn’t get much credit because it did the transit in stages while it worked, beginning in 1913 and ending at the final port in January of the next year.
- The canal passes through Lake Gatun, which sits a full 85 feet above sea level, so ships must climb and descend with the aid of three sets of locks.
- Each lock is 110 feet wide and holds 52 million gallons of water, and uses the force of gravity to raise and lower levels.
- By eliminating the need to sail around Cape Horn, the Panama Canal shaves 8,000 miles off the old sea route between East and West coasts of North America.
- The toll paid to cross depends on the size of the vessel. The lowest fare ever paid was for the smallest vessel: a human. Richard Halliburton, who swam the whole route in 1928, was charged only thirty-six cents. The highest toll to date, a whopping $829,000, was paid the MOL Benefactor, a cargo ship big enough to carry 10,000 20-foot shipping containers.
- The one millionth ship to complete the passage was the Fortune Plum, a Chinese vessel, in 2010. But nobody realized the milestone was occurring at the time; it was only after a clerk logged the week’s crossings that authorities contacted the ship. Its crew returned a month later to be honored upon their next crossing.
- 2016 saw the completion of the newest Panama Canal project: the opening of locks built for the express purpose of accommodating even bigger ships. These locks, which opened at the end of June, can handle what have been dubbed Panamax vessels—which can be as much as 30% larger than the Benefactor.
Make your own transit of the Panama Canal with Grand Circle Cruise Line on Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United. Meet the local people of Panama City in this short film:
Produced by Oresti Tsonopoulos, Alexandra Stewart ©2015 The New York Times