By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
That wasn’t the case 100 years ago once U.S. naval ships started transiting the 51-mile-long mechanical marvel of locks linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
The first U.S. Navy ship to go through the locks was USS Jupiter, then a collier, on Oct. 12, 1914, taking nearly two days to complete the passage. The ship spent a day floating in the fresh lake water of the locks so they could kill their saltwater barnacles before slipping into the Atlantic Ocean.
It was just another series of firsts for the collier built at Mare Island Navy Yard in California and commissioned April 1913 as fuel ship #3. She was the first surface ship propelled by electric motors, yet would spend much of her life hauling coal to fuel other ships.
After her historic crossing (and barnacle-relieving) trip through the Canal, USS Jupiter supplied coal to combat and logistical forces on both sides of the Atlantic through World War I.
In March 1920, Jupiter began her conversion to an aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1). By November 1922, the “Old Covered Wagon” had successfully launched recovered and catapulted aircraft off her deck.
She remained operational as an aircraft carrier until 1936 when she was converted yet again into a seaplane tender (AV-3). During World War II, while transporting Army fighters to the Netherland East Indies, USS Langley was bombed by Japanese fighters. She was so damaged she was scuttled by her escorts Feb. 27, 1942.
Like many firsts, there can be more than one, depending on your perspective. For instance, the first ship to officially go through the locks was the American steamer SS Ancon, as part of the ceremony opening the canal Aug. 15, 1914. Ancon was later purchased by the Navy in 1918, USS Ancon (ID 1467) was used to bring U.S. troops home after World War I.
Powered by Roosevelt
For years the need for a shortcut between the two oceans had been debated. Naval theorist Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote in his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power upon History that a canal in Central America was vital to the defense of the United States. During the Spanish-American War eight years later, USS Oregon (BB 3) further proved his point by taking 67 days to travel from San Francisco to Florida via Cape Horn to assist the Atlantic Squadron in fighting the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Santiago at Cuba.
The defeat of the Spanish gave the United States territories in the Pacific, and a need to be able to get ships and soldiers from one hemisphere to another.
While there was a consensus about the need for a canal, it was much less so about where. The Panama Railroad was built in 1849. From 1857 until 1880, there was much talk about where to put the canal and effort into surveying different locations, but in 1880, the French started an effort to build a lockless, sea-level waterway that would cost $132 million and take 12 years to complete.
By 1888, the project had chewed up twice the amount of money and had covered only a third of the distance, with 16,500 deaths, mostly to yellow fever. By the time the designer realized he would have to go to a lock system in the canal, the project ran out of money in 1889.
Then Theodore Roosevelt became president. After being convinced the best route was along the Isthmus of Panama in the Panama province of Colombia, Roosevelt got both Houses of Congress to first pass the Spooner Act in June 1902 and then the 1903 Hay-Herran Treaty, which offered Colombia $10 million in gold with annual payments of $250,000.
The Colombians, however, wanted to stall the passage of any treaties until 1904 when the land used by the French project would revert back to Colombia. They wanted $10 million from the French and $15 million from the United States.
The Panama province, which had already tried to overthrow Colombia’s rule 53 times in 57 years, threatened to riot – again — if Colombia failed to pass the treaty. But this time Panama had the power of the United States protecting its back along with its own self-interest. When Panama declared its independence Nov. 3, 1903, Roosevelt made sure the U.S. Navy had warships parked in the harbor. Colombia failed to respond to the uprising and the United States was quick to recognize Panama as its own nation.
After that bit of gunboat diplomacy, work began on creating the canal. Roosevelt was the first sitting president to travel outside of the United States when he visited the canal zone in 1909.
When it officially opened for business Aug. 15, 1914, it came in at $326 million dollars, $144 million more than originally planned by the French. It opened to civilian and commercial traffic on July 12, 1920 at the cost of $53 million more, hampered by landslides in 1915-16, strikes in 1916-17 and the years of World War I. All told it cost $375 million, which included $10 million paid to Panama and $40 million to the French. During the American construction, 5,609 deaths were recorded, to be added to the more than 20,000 hospital-recorded deaths during the French construction era.
Secretary of State Henry Stimson declared the Panama Canal “the one spot external to our shores that nature has decreed to be most vital to our national safety, not to mention our prosperity.”
Prosperity indeed. By the beginning of World War II, the United States’ income increased by four percent due to the Panama Canal lopping off weeks in the transportation of cargo. It took approximately 10 hours to make the 50-mile journey through six locks to the tune of $200,000 to $400,000.
Prior to World War II, the United States relied heavily on the Panama Canal to cut short the distance by nearly 8,000 miles as they brought ships back and forth from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
Circumstances changed, however, after the Naval Expansion Act of 1940 that allowed the United States to ramp up its ship-building program as a show of force to Germany and Japan. With an influx of new vessels and the passage of the Destroyers for Bases Act, the Navy could support a two-ocean fleet, keeping ships in both theaters rather than moving them back and forth.
Still, the canal was essential during World War II as the U.S. transited ships from its Atlantic Fleet to augment its decimated Pacific Fleet and to bring new ships to the theater as they came out of east coast shipyards. At the time, Essex-class aircraft carriers, built between 1941-50, could only squeeze through the locks after they took down the lamp posts lining the locks.
By the end of World War II, however, the Panama Canal had lost some of its luster for the U.S. Navy. Strategically, the war established the need for the United States to maintain fleets on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, so there was less pressing need to quickly get ships from one side of Central America to the other. The canal’s importance remains, however, particularly with training exercises that have been held with maritime partners, such as PANAMAX 2014, an exercise on how to defend the canal held in August at Mayport, Fla., with 320 military and civilian personnel from 15 countries participating.
More recently, many of the Navy’s newest classes of ships are too large to fit through the locks, so earning an Order of the Ditch, commonplace last century, has been rare for the 21st Century Sailor.
The Panama Canal, which made the Civil Engineering Seven Wonders of the World list in 1994, is currently undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion to make it more relevant for naval transit in the decades to come. The upgrade, at 80 percent complete now, is slated to open in the spring of 2016 and will be able to handle supertankers known as post-Panamax ships, and today’s aircraft carriers. The lanes will accommodate 50-foot drafts, up from 39.5; vessels 1,200-feet long compared to 965-feet, and 160-feet wide, compared to 106.
Vice President Joseph Biden, visiting the new construction at the Panama Canal, spoke Nov. 19, 2013, expressing to Panamanians that the canal “is a reminder that our futures, the United States and Panama and this hemisphere, are inextricably linked.”