August 15, 1914: What Was the First Ship Through the Panama Canal?

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A Brief History

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was opened for traffic, with the SS Ancon making the first transit of the great canal. Constructed from 1904 to 1914 by the United States, a previous French attempt at building the canal from 1881 to 1894 failed miserably, with thousands of workers killed by disease and venomous snakes, a rate of fatalities that reached 200 per month. Despite an asking price of $100 million dollars, the US was able to purchase the rights to the canal project for only $40 million. Completion of the canal became a great source of prestige and pride for the United States, which had triumphed where a great power had failed.

Digging Deeper

While Americans have historically been somewhat smug about succeeding where the French failed, in fairness to the French it must be remembered that in the 10 years between the end of the French effort and the beginning of the American project, technology with earth moving equipment had progressed, and the war against mosquitoes to prevent disease had taken new levels of understanding. Despite anti-mosquito efforts that were mostly successful, during the American construction period about 5600 canal workers lost their lives through disease and accidents. The French plan of simply digging an enormous ditch, similar to the French construction of the Suez Canal, was replaced by the more realistic plan of including locks to lift and lower ships over the high ground in the middle of the Panama Isthmus. (Note: The author has been through the Suez Canal 4 times, but never through the Panama Canal. Maybe someday!)

A schematic of the Panama Canal, illustrating the sequence of locks and passages

The Panama Canal was originally built and operated for many decades with 2 lanes, each of which was 110 feet wide (up from the 94 feet first specified) and was serviced by 3 locks going up, and 3 locks going down from each respective shore. Locks were limited by a depth of 41 feet, and the US Navy was sure to build battleships and aircraft carriers capable of transiting the Canal, a limiting factor on such large ship construction. With the post-World War II advent of enormous ships, especially super-tankers that were far too wide for the locks on the Panama Canal, the canal lost much of its importance and critical nature to seaborne trade. Thus, a long awaited construction of a larger, third lane added to the canal as opened in 2016 called Neopanamax, a standard for ships capable of passing through the Panama Canal, with ships nearly 1200 feet long, 168 feet wide and drawing 50 feet of draft. This new classification of ships made the older “Panamax” dimension (up to almost 1000 feet long and 107 feet wide with a draft of less than 40 feet) ships obsolete and has led to the scrapping of ships less than a decade old! An even larger 4th lane is being considered. The maximum height of a ship above the water allowed is limited to 190 feet to allow passing under the Bridge of the Americas.

The SS Ancon did not stretch the limits of the locks or the canal, with a length of 489.5 feet and a beam of 68 feet. She drew a tad under 30 feet of water and displaced nearly 9500 tons, a decent sized cargo vessel for her day. The Ancon was commissioned originally as the Shawmut in 1901, and began commercial service with the Boston Steamship Company. In 1909, she was purchased by the Panama Canal and renamed the Ancon. In 1914, right around the beginning of the First World War, the Ancon made her famous transit of the Panama Canal, and the sea going world had a new and exceedingly important canal to plan around. While Ancon made the first official transit, the first unofficial transit had actually been made on August 3, 1909, by the SS Cristobal.

Ancon at the opening of the Panama Canal, 1914

In 1977, the United States and Panama signed a treaty that would turn over control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999, with a guarantee of neutrality in time of war. While the treaty was honored by the US, many Americans felt betrayed by the “giving” of the canal to Panama.

In late 1918, just a few days after the end of World War I, the US Navy acquired the Ancon and designated her as a troopship, ID-1467 USS Ancon. While in naval service, Ancon boasted 3 X 6 pounder Hotchkiss guns (57 mm) and had a crew of 126. In 1919, the United States War Department returned Ancon to the Panama Canal Company, where she served until 1938 as the Ex-Ancon when she was sold to a private owner and renamed Permanente.

Have you transited the Panama Canal? Have you visited this magnificent engineering marvel? If so, please tell us about your experiences.

The panamax ship MSC Poh Lin exiting the Miraflores locks, March 2013

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon & Schuster, 1978.

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (Paperback)


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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.