Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lights on the Panama Canal

Today, August 14th, marks 102 years since the opening of the Panama Canal, one of the greatest marine engineering projects in modern history. Great fanfare marked opening day with dignitaries in attendance to give speeches and praise those who designed and built the canal. It was an expectedly hot and muggy day, typical of August in Panama.

Construction of the canal began in 1904. Cost for the project was approximately $387-million. Much of the budget was used for digging the canal and building locks, but there was also money spent on navigational aids.

Forty-six lighthouses were built at the Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific entrances of the canal and its inland lakes. These lights were intended to assist pilots in entering and exiting the canal and negotiating the inner parts of the waterway that were open or contained locks.

Most of the light towers were range lights--beacons built close together so that when lined up one atop the other they kept a ship in the channel. Huge Gatun Lake is home to most of the 46 lighthouses.

Concrete was the primary building material, since wood and steel easily deteriorate in tropical climates. Even the spiral stairways usually were concrete. Three basic designs were used, and most of the lighthouses had ornate embellishments, adding to the beauty of the canal. The original lighthouses ranged in height from 28 to 88 feet tall. A heavy foundation and base design protected against hurricanes and earthquakes.

In the first years after the canal opened, remote lighthouses were fueled by acetylene gas lamps inside Fresnel lenses. The remainder were electric. Of course, today, all of the canal's lights are either electric or solar-powered and operate automatically.

The lighthouses, like the canal itself, are divided into five sections. The Atlantic (Caribbean) section extends from the Atlantic entrance to Lake Gatun. From there, the Lake Gatun sections travels through the lake to Gamboa. Next is the Culebra Cut section from Gamboa to Pedro Miguel Locks. Then follows the Miraflores Lake section from the Pedro Miguel Locks to Miraflores Lake. Last is the Pacific section from Miraflores Lake to the Pacific Ocean.

The Lighthouse Division of the Panama Canal was established on April 14, 1914, four months before the canal opened. Its chief of operations was  W.F. Beyer. The division experienced several reorganizations during its career. It was transferred to the canal's Dredging Division in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the Coast Guard assigned officers to advise the Panama Canal Commission regarding navigational aids as plans were finalized for returning the canal to Republic of Panama. On December 31, 1999, the canal was officially returned to the government of Panama, which now administers its lighthouses.

One of the best ways to see the lighthouses of the Panama Canal is to take a cruise through the canal.

There are several excellent online sources of pictures and information about the lighthouses of the Panama Canal.

Larry Myhre of Washington has excellent images posted here:

Another good source is here:

And here:

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! A part of US lighthouse history we don't usually think about.


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