Tag Archives: maritime history

Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
National Library of Australia (via Wikimedia Commons)
Public Domain

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area. The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born

Building it was another matter. The French gave it a try and it was a complete failure. The construction costs quickly mushroomed, and they lost 20,0000 workers due to malaria and accidents. The company collapsed and many speculated it could not be done. The US, for both maritime and military reasons, decided to buy up the French company and do it themselves. At the time, the proposed canal was in Columbia resulting having to negotiate terms for the digging of the canal. However, Columbia and the U.S. could not come to terms, leaving the U.S. with a problem. The area of Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. So, with the full support of the US, Panama declared its independence in November 1903. The treaty signed between Panama and the US allowed for the construction of the canal but gave the US sovereign rights in the canal zone. This allowed the US to not only build the canal but administer and defend it as well. Fees for using the canal would go to the zone but also to Panama as well.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.


Titanic Chronology: 13 April 1912

RMS Olympic’s A la Carte Restaurant, located in B-Deck level. Circa May 1911
Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Titanic is enroute to New York and people settle into their familiar patterns. Mealtimes are very popular to meet with your fellow travelers and all classes have a place to gather and eat. The ticket price covers all three meals though first class has its own a la carte restaurant where you can buy dishes sold separately. Food portions were plentiful, unlike earlier passenger liners, so you got a lot of food for the ticket. In many ways Titanic and other ships that followed this pattern became adept in creating expert meals at any time of the day with a dedicated crew of food professionals with access to quality foods stored aboard the ship. Working off all that food was not the difficult either. You could take laps walking around the deck or use one of the many exercise equipment aboard. The gymnasium was quite impressive with punching bags, stationary bikes (called cycle racing machines), electric horse and camel, and a squash court (men and women played at different times). The mechanical rowing machine was apparently very popular. Of course you could work up a sweat in the Turkish bath or treat yourself to a nice massage. There was an electric bath which today would be like a tanning bed. It was more of a curiosity than anything else. One had to exhibit a certain amount of bravery to get into something that looked like an iron lung.

RMS Olympic First Class Lounge (1912)
Photo: Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

You might decide to relax in the library or send a telegram off to family using the Marconi wireless. April 13 was actually a nice day to be outside on the Titanic. Spring like temperatures were in the upper 50’s, so one could enjoy walking the deck. Or you could be indoors in one of the smoke rooms playing cards. And there were professional gamblers aboard who made a living plying the ocean liners. They were known to White Star and other liners of the day, but the liners simply warned passengers that they were not responsible for such private games. These gamblers were keen on trying to get as much money from those who could afford to lose. And they readily took advantage of the naïve and inexperienced. The did face steely competition though from men who, like the professional gambler, spent time in their gentleman’s clubs (not to be confused with its modern day nearly porn image with strippers) playing cards with other members. They usually were just as skilled as the professional gambler and knew what to watch out for.

Dinners were when everyone in first and second class had to appear in the right way. Men and women  wore formal evening clothes. It was important to be seen properly attired for the meal especially the higher in status you were. To be seen in anything but such attire was unthinkable. A gentleman or lady who showed up in casual clothes for first- or second-class meals would not only get impolite stares but a discreet word that they must dress up to be seated. Breakfast was the only time you could be casual but even then, you did not show up looking sloppy or in gym clothes.

The Grand Staircase of the RMS Olympic
Photo:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

As Titanic traveled on, by 13 April it had gone about 519 miles. During this time, she received many warnings of ice. At 10:30 PM, she got a warning of heavy pack ice from the Rappahannock.  The weather was starting to change. The nice spring weather was going to be replaced by a cold front that by noon the next day would have people wearing heavy clothing and scarves if they wanted to walk outside.


Behe, George TITANIC: SAFETY, SPEED AND SACRIFICE, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL 1997

Eaton John P. & Haas Charles, TITANIC TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, SECOND EDITION, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1995 First American Edition

Lord, Walter, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York, 1955. Multiple revisions and reprints, notably Illustrated editions (1976,1977,1978 etc)

Lord, Walter, THE NIGHT LIVES ON, Willian Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1986 (First Edition)

Lynch, Don & Marshall Ken, TITANIC AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, Madison Press Books, Toronto, Ontario Canada, 1992


Encyclopedia Titanica


Titanic Belfast: 2 Million Visitors

Titanic Belfast (side view) Image:Prioryman (Wikipedia)
Titanic Belfast (side view)
Image:Prioryman (Wikipedia)

When Michael Sweeney walked through the door, the 25-year-old found out he was visitor 2 million. He is quoted as saying “I feel like the king of the world!” This milestone is being celebrated as proof of the enduring attraction of Titanic Belfast. Titanic Belfast CEO Tim Husbands said:

It seems like only yesterday that Titanic Belfast opened and helped turn the city into a major player in the global tourism market. We are three months short of our third birthday and already we are celebrating our two-millionth visitor. This is a tremendous achievement.

That snark who recently maligned Belfast by saying the iceberg did them a favor is probably choking on his shepherd’s pie right about now.

Source:Titanic Belfast Reaches 2 Million Visitors(22 Dec 2014,Belfast Telegraph)