Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

The Panama Canal and its ferries

To those of the pre-1962 generation, the ferrying of automobiles across the canal will always have a special place in their memories, because these ferries fulfilled thoroughly their mission of lending very valuable services in a very important period of our history.

Since 1923, the U. S. Army had established communication between both shores of the great ditch by the use of barges and gasoline-powered tugboats that sailed the locks of Pedro Miguel, to engage in strictly military type work.

By 1927 the control of this operation had been transferred to the Canal Commission Dredging Division, who instituted the service of ten daily round trips, with the exception of Tuesday and Thursday when there were only four.

Inasmuch as the national highway that had begun by initiative of President Belisario Porras was still in the final stages of construction, there was no pressing need to solve the problem of transportation from one bank of the canal to the other. Furthermore the entire population of the Republic of Panama was relatively low; consequently, there were very few automobiles.

Communication to the interior provinces of the country was almost in its entirety by maritime routes. These could be either in small vessels, or the vessels owned by the Pinel Brothers National Navigation Company, which traveled between David and the National Pier; or the United Fruit Company well-appointed ships that traveled between Puerto Armuelles, Balboa, and New Orleans.

By 1930 steam tugs replaced those powered by gasoline and the work schedule was now carried out daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In response to the high increase in the number of automobiles and a soon-to-be-inaugurated central road that lead to Chiriquí, the old Panama Canal Mechanical Division built two ferries in August 1931, at a cost of $127,930 each.

They were christened President Amador and President Roosevelt (in honor of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the first of two U. S. presidents of the same name). These twin vessels, with a capacity for 30 cars, measured 125 feet in length and 38 feet in width, and had 325hp diesel engines capable of displacing 68.7 tons and travel at a speed of 6.8 knots an hour.

They were initially assigned to the Pedro Miguel locks, but after a few months, on September 1, 1932, were transferred to Balboa after the road was built to join the west ferry terminal to the central road in Arraiján.

This road, similar to the ferry service, was named the Thatcher Highway and Ferry Service, in honor of the memory of Maurice Thatcher, an outstanding civil administrator during the period of 1910 to 1913. He subsequently became a congressman in the United States House of Representatives, where he sponsored a bill to establish the Gorgas Commemorative Institute in this city.

Those traveling from the interior provinces of Panama had to do so according to the established schedules, which provided service to both ends every thirty minutes between the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Everything had to be planned to arrive at the ferry at those times, otherwise be resigned to wait patiently until one arrive from the opposite end.

Because the demand for these services was great, on July 1, 1935, the schedule was expanded to 24 hours a day. Thus, the inconvenience to those living on the other side was partially alleviated.

The automobiles embarked and disembarked by a special bridge that allowed access to the ferry and were positioned in place in an orderly fashion by one of the crew.

Crossing the canal itself became quite a show, as both ferries acknowledged each other on their crossing, with roaring bells and whistles.

As the trip was about to come to an end, the master rang the bells to give the order to stop the engines; he would then maneuver freely to find a berth to dock, after having gently nudged the board bumpers on the side.

The reliability of the schedule was one of its main features, in addition to the fact that it was completely free for all the years it was in operation.

Those who made these crossings never forgot the odor of salt in the air, the waves hitting against the keel of the ferry, the chilliness in the wee hours of the morning, and above all, the anticipated rest of those four minutes on canal waters after a long and tiresome trip on a narrow and dangerously winding road.

Another ferry service was inaugurated in August 1940 in the Miraflores Lake. These were barges for military use, primarily, powered by gasoline engines. This was done mainly in response to the possibility of the building of a third set of locks, to absorb the growth from new U. S. Army and Navy townsites and installations.

The peak year was 1941 when cars were ferried 990,000 times, and passengers were ferried 5,590,000 times on the Thatcher Ferry; and on the Miraflores Lake vehicles were ferried 422,000 times and passengers were ferried 1,500,000 times.

These disquieting statistics caused the Canal Commission to consider acquiring additional vessels. Consequently, they purchased two ferries that had been operating the New York-New Jersey route; they were named Governor Moore and the Frank E. Gannett, later renamed the Nassau.

The first of the aforementioned sunk in the midst of a great storm in the Atlantic in January 1942, as it was being towed to Panama. The second arrived in the Port of Cristobal in November that year, and after an overhaul, was christened Presidente Porras.

Ferry President Porras

This ferry, built in 1927 in Camden, New Jersey, had a carrying capacity for 500 passengers and 50 cars. It was powered by diesel engines and had a length of 155 feet. Initially, it was used as a replacement, while the other ferries were being repaired or maintained.

On Labor Day 1950 a new phase begun for tourism in the Gaillard Cut or the locks, ferrying distinguished personalities, and on many occasions, children from the public schools.

The ferries also served to accomplish various emergency and humanitarian missions as well as to move troops during military maneuvers and in armed conflicts.

On June 3, 1942, construction of the Miraflores swing bridge was accomplished and, consequently, the operation of this ferry was suspended.

With the opening of the Bridge of the Americas on October 12, 1962, which was built at a cost of $20,000,000, the ferry service of automobiles across the canal was brought to a close.

It is estimated that during the 30 years of operation, all the ferries combined served a total of 90,000,000 passenger fares and 15,000,000 automobile fares. They made the trip 1,341,000 times, with only one small collision against a ship in the canal, which brought no major consequences to either one. This is akin to 0.00029% of accidents, which is a safety record that will not be easily matched. It stresses and highlights the degree of professionalism and responsibility of the staff in charge of these operations.

Ferry Presidente Porras required $750,000 worth of repairs, and it was clear that such an amount would not be invested. It was decided instead, to sell it to Chile.

Ferry President Roosevelt

President Amador and President Roosevelt were acquired in public bids along with the boarding accessories and replacement parts, by the Simon Canarte B., agents for the American Export and Import Company of New Orleans, Louisiana, for a total of $39,000, and subsequently sold to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

It is a fact that the Bridge of the Americas (The U. S. has always called it the Thatcher Ferry Bridge) is a symbol of progress in the unfolding of open, constant, and expeditious communication between the capital city and the rest of the republic. Nevertheless, it is no less true that the ferry trips are remembered with much nostalgia as a romantic period in the life of the canal, never to be seen again.