Electric mules in Panama    MULES TOTE THE PAYLOAD

Our ship takes its place in line to enter the first lock of the Panama Canal on our voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Immediately, my eye catches sight of the scooting electric mules. What are these toy-like creatures? Can they really pull this dead-weight ship through these locks? Well, they can and they did.

Mules have carried loads over the Isthmus of Panama for centuries. Before construction of the railroad and the canal, the four-legged kind of mule hauled the conquistadors’ golden loot along the Porto Bello Trail connecting the west coast of Peru to Spain.

Four hundred years later, a different breed of mule still moves goods and people over the land bridge separating the two great oceans. These mechanical mules run up and down their rail tracks at a frantic pace. A musical humming of their wheels and electric mechanics grips my attention as our ship rises from lock to lock.

Clickety-clack, the mules climb up the cog rail. Hmmmm, a high-pitch whirring of electric motors, they scurry ahead of the ship to cinch the cable hooked to their cargo and begin pulling their pay load.

Why do I think about mules while making the Panama crossing in the comfort of a slick cruise ship? Years ago, I read how early travelers endured the misery of the overland passage. First came the Spaniards hauling their gold back to Spain, and then the Forty-niner gold seekers toted their gear by mule in the opposite direction on their way to the California mines. I wanted to see where these historic ventures began.

Long ago, transients suffered from smothering heat, disease, and crude travel facilities while penetrating the forbidding jungle. Here I am today on the same travel course but moving along in air-conditioned luxury. My view from the ship deck is quite different than what the gold seekers saw from the back of a mule.

Personal accounts of the early travelers tell of the severe hardship and danger endured crossing the isthmus by canoe and mule. Jessie Benton Fremont, a celebrity from antebellum Washington D.C. society, survived the ordeal. She traveled to California with her young family in 1849 to join her famous husband, John Charles Fremont. The story is an epic travelogue that even in its day was a no-frills adventure.

After a stormy voyage from New York to the east coast of Panama, the Fremonts were dumped into dugout canoes. Poling up the Chagres River for three nights, they slept in crude Indian huts during the daytime sweltering jungle heat. Then Jessie and children mounted mules to cross over the Continental Divide while enduring torrents of rain.

Despite the ordeal, her journal records the thrill of standing in the footprints of explorer Vasco Balboa who had the first view by a European of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 from the same spot.

Crossing the isthmus was only part of the trip from Hell. On the Pacific side, the Fremonts joined several thousand gold-seeking emigrants who were raging over the lack of ship transport to California. Journals kept by hundreds of other California-bound emigrants repeated Jessie’s tale of spunk and endurance.

Demand for reliable travel information about the Panama Isthmus passage spawned several books. In Gregory’s Guide for California Travelers (1850), emigrants were warned, “Let no promise induce you to leave your baggage to be forwarded.” This popular guidebook advised how to negotiate fees for canoe and mule transport and described risks along the route.

Arriving at the head of the Chagres River, Gregory suggested, “In two days you can walk to Panama City…Should you prefer riding, a mule will cost from ten to sixteen dollars.” Tips on how to engage carriers, fees expected and what to wear helped the traveler plan the hazardous passage in a style reminiscent of the movie film “The Accidental Tourist.”

The land bridge between North and South America at Panama is only fifty miles wide. Most of this low-elevation land mass is now covered over by 163 square miles of water, the second largest man-made lake in the world. Along the canal route, I could barely see the shore from the center of the 200-million-gallon Gatun Lake. Vegetation is absolutely essential for producing an adequate water supply. Imagine annual rainfall, averaging 200 inches a year, all falling in the eight-month wet season.

A key factor keeping the canal open to free trade is environmental. Try to imagine 200 million galleons of water a day. That’s what it takes to flush vessels through the Panama Canal. Each opening of a lock releases the water reserve into the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.Without the ability to replenish the reservoir, the waterway between the two great oceans is closed for business. Landmasses protruding out of the water become tropical rain forests and absolutely essential to produce an adequate water supply. That’s why it rains so much on the Isthmus of Panama.

Before the railroad and canal spanned the isthmus, the passage promised a high risk of death in a jungle fraught with malaria and yellow fever. Despite the danger, anxious Forty-niners suffered the crossing to get to California gold.

Finding a better passage across Central America was a quest for centuries. In 1534, Charles I of Spain ordered a survey of a water route through the Isthmus of Panama to transport his plunder taken from the west coast of South America.

Four centuries passed before it was a reality. A cobblestone footpath, known as the Porto Bello Trail, was the remote passage used between Peru and Spain until gold seekers traveled by canoe and mule over the isthmus. The French, overconfident from their successful Suez Canal feat, labored for twenty years to fulfill the dream of a waterway through the Panamanian jungle. Disease and financial problems defeated their effort at the end of the 19th century.

Americans saw trade opportunities in connecting the eastern seaboard with the Pacific Rim. They approached the awesome task cautiously. Scientists first found a preventative for yellow fever and malaria. Twenty thousand Frenchmen had lost their lives to the diseases before they abandoned the canal project.

With pestilence under control, the canal project was taken over by U.S. railroad engineers. They created unique designs for rail equipment to dig the heroic ditch then used the rail system to pull the ships through the locks. The canal project was so eminent for American prestige that Teddy Roosevelt made it a first-time-ever visit abroad for a president in office.

The cut at Gold Hill broke through the Continental Divide and converted the land bridge into a waterway. American ingenuity mandated a series of locks at each end to manage an enormous flow of water. To supply the system required construction of the largest earth dam ever built to capture and store the critical water source.

As conceived by a dynamic U.S. team ninety years ago, the Panama Canal still operates efficiently almost 24 hours a day. Today’s modern waterway transits 14,000 vessels a year on a strict priority schedule. Precise mechanism operating the locks also controls the torrent of water and dozens of unwieldy vessels within the confines of the canal. Despite the clockwork system, the queuing time and passage take more than 30 hours.

American engineers, backed by political interests, were challenged to dig a canal where the French had failed. This foremost engineering feat of the 20th Century followed an historic Spanish trail. Before the canal opened, an American railroad line finished in 1855 also used the same route. It took four years and 6000 workers to hack through the jungle from sea to sea and lay the track. The Panama Railroad served travelers for over a century by easing the hardship of an isthmus crossing. Five miserable days by canoe and mule were reduced to three hours on the railroad line.

On August 15, 1914 the little electric mules went into service. Festive inauguration ceremonies to open the Panama Canal were overshadowed by falling on the same day that war was declared in Europe. Despite four years of hostilities, the short cut to the Pacific Rim was an instant boon for commerce. Both San Francisco and San Diego celebrated by hosting popular California-Pacific Expositions featuring their respective deep-water ports as gateways to the lucrative Asian trade.

The Panama Canal never sleeps. It operates efficiently almost twenty-four hours a day still utilizing the original design of 95 years ago by U.S. railroad engineers.

As the giant steel doors of the last lock swing open to expose our ship to the open sea, I feel 52 million gallons water rushing out from under us. It’s like a gigantic toilet flush. Again, I hear the electrical whirring of the mule locomotives tuning up into a musical humming sound. The little engines now haul passengers and cargo out into the open sea.

Monumental projects, like the Panama Canal, can depend on a small piece of mechanism, like a cog on a wheel. Whether on four legs or on rails, the mule cargo carriers are the cogs helping to move the traffic over the isthmus. After four hundred years of toting, that’s a lot of payloads.

Published September 12, 1999 by the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, a Tribune paper. My  first travel article in the press. 

Electric mules pull through Panama

Photos  J.P. Ford