Today’s Illustration: Infinite!

On This Day:  August 15, 1914 — Panama Canal Inaugurated

The Panama Canal was the most ambitious American engineering project of its time.

Approximately 240 million cubic yards of dirt and “spoil” were excavated and removed!

The Panama Canal was the most expensive American public works project of its time in 1914 with an estimated cost of $302 million.

The Panama Canal has been designated as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

The Panama Canal is still a present-day monument to human engineering!


Information & Facts:  

Various attempts have been made to quantify and visualize the amount of “dirt” which was removed over the approximately 50-mile route across the isthmus of Panama to make the canal.

“The earth and rubble removed between Colon and Balboa was enough to bury Manhattan to a depth of 12 feet.” —

“Nine miles long, with an average depth of 120 feet, with a bottom width of 300 feet, and with a top width which reaches at places to a third of a mile, this marvelous canyon presents at once an inspiring and awesome aspect, revealing both man’s audacity and nature’s grim resistance to his efforts.” –

In David McCullough’s book of over 500 pages —  “Path Between the Seas” — McCullough spends quite an amount of words and pages to describe the excavation!  He goes at it from different angles in order to help the reader visualize it.

“For anyone to picture, the volume of earth that had to be removed to build the Panama Canal was an all but hopeless proposition.  Statistics were broadcast — 15,700,000 cubic yards in 1907, and incredible 37,000,000 cubic yards in 1908 — but such figures were really beyond comprehension . . . . The illustrative analogies offered by editors and writers were of little help, since they were seldom any less fantastic.  The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of Chian from San Francisco to New York.  If the United States were perfectly flat, and amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles.  A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.  The spoil would be enough to build sixty-three pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. (To help its readers imagine what this might look like, Scientific American commissioned an artist to draw Manhattan with giant pyramids lining the length of Broadway from Battery to Harlem.)

The material taken from Culebra Cut alone, exclaimed one writer toward the completion of the work, would make a pyramid topping the Woolworth Building by 100 feet, at 792 feet, was then the world’s tallest building, which the total spoil excavated in the Canal Zone would form a pyramid 4,200 feet high, or more than seven times the height of the Washington Monument.” – Mc Cullough – pgs 529-521


“In any one day there were fifty to sixty steam shovels at work in the Cut, and with the dirt trains running in and out virtually without pause, the efficiency of each shovel was more than double what it had been.  Along the entire line of about five hundred trainloads a day were being hauled to the dumps.” — Mc Cullough – pgs 529-521


After Goethals took over the Panama operation, upon Steven’s resignation, some changes were made to the plans . . . .

“The bottom width of the channel through Culebra Cut was to be made half again wider, from two hundred to three hundred feet.  Thus it was to be more than four times as broad as the French canal would have been at that point.” – McCullough – pg 539


“For seven years Culebra Cut was never silent, not even or an hour Labor trains carrying some six thousand men began rolling in shortly after dawn every morning except Sunday . . . . during the midday break and again after five o’clock that the dynamite crews took over and began blasting.  At night came the repair crews, men by the hundreds to tend the shovels, which were not being worked to the limit and taking a heavy beating.” — McCullough – pg 544


“The peak was in March 1909, when sixty-eight shovels, the largest number ever used at one time int he Cur, removed more than 2,000,000 cubic yards, ten times the volume achieved by the French in their best month . . . . The volume removed from the Cut was 96,000,000 cubic yards . . . . No machines had ever been subjected to such a test, and their record was a tribute to the men who designed and built them.”– McCullough – pg 547


At the end of all his descriptions — and that of other — I still cannot get my head around the amount of dirt and spoil which was excavated! What does it mean to excavate, remove, transport, and/or blow up 240 million cubic yards of dirt, rock, and/or spoil?

That question has the potential to result in and lead to an interesting biblical illustration!

There are a good number of articles and books written which attempt to teach how to make large numbers understandable.  Infographics are one such attempt.  Or you can go to the USA Today newspaper, and they typically have a graphic which attempts to help the reader visualize an idea.

Trying to grasp large amounts of money proses the same difficulty.  What is one billion dollars?  If you were offered a billion dollars, as long as you counted out every dollar bill, at one a second, 24 hours a day — you would be 31 1/2 years old before you finished counting the money! — no sleeping allowed or you get much older faster!

usa today graphic

You could use any other similar large excavation projects* which have such large numbers that it becomes hard to fathom!

However, the Panama Canal is the largest engineering excavation project which has ever been attempted in the world!

I one sense, the only way to come close to grasping the vastness of the excavation is by a picture!

Culebra Cut

culbrae cut 2    culbrae cut 1

The Culebra Cut


Gaillard Photo Albums

The Gaillard Cut


That leads us to the value of using the Panama Canal as our illustration . . . .

“What does infinite love, mercy, kindness, holiness, faithfulness, etc. look like?  How can we come close to understanding God?

Isaiah 64:4 — For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.

I Corinthians 2:9 — But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Is there a book that makes infinity understandable?
Is there a way we can fathom the depths, the height, the breadth, the length of God’s love?
To what can we compare to grasp such an infinite Lord?

Key Illustrative Thoughts:

• understanding the Lord
• beyond our comprehension
• infinite
• what is man that thou are mindful of him
• it will take eternity
• life is but  vapor
• who hath known the mind of Christ
• “count” on it
• language can’t communicate it
• it’s beyond us
• use the greatest limits of your imagination, and you are still not there
• imagine this
• I can only imagine
• We can’t even imagine






Other Interesting Facts about the Panama Canal**

First ground broken by French January 1, 1880
Active work started by the French January 20, 1882
Excavation by French (cubic yards)  78,146,906
Excavation by French useful to present Canal (cubic yards)  29,908,000
Amount of money spent by the French $260,000,000
Number of lives lost during French control 20,000
Amount United States paid French for their rights and property $40,000,000 
Canal Zone acquired by U.S. from Panama by treaty February 23, 1904
Amount United States paid Panama for Canal Zone $10,000,000
Rental paid by U.S. to Panama beginning in 1913 per annum $250,000
Work began by the United States May 4, 1904
First ship through the Canal September 26, 1913
Date of official opening August 15, 1914
Name of first official ship to transit canal S.S. Ancon
Canal Zone in square miles 436
Length of Canal from Atlantic to Pacific 51 miles
Width of the Canal Zone 10 miles
Time to transit Canal 8-10 hours
Number of ships crossing daily 40
Number of ships crossing each year 12-15 thousand
Time of passage through locks 3 hours
Maximum bottom width of the channel 1000 feet
Minimum bottom width of the channel at Culebra Cut 300 feet
Number of locks in pairs 12
Locks, usable length 1000 feet
Locks, usable width 164 square miles
Amount of water filling each lock 52 million gallons
Gatun Lake (area)  164 square miles
Gatun Lake is at a nominal 85 feet above the Pacific Level
The draft of vessels using the canal is limited to 40 feet when the lake is at 85 feet.
The channels are maintained to a depth greater than 40 feet to a nominal 45 foot depth.
Some areas in Gatun Lake where the old Chagres River channel ran are considerably deeper than 45 feet.
During periods of heavy rainfall and there is a surplus of was, Gatun Lake is maintained at a level of not greater than 87 feet.
Gatun Lake level is controlled at the Gatun Dam both through a hydropower generating plant and over spillways at the dam.
During periods of sparse rainfall, Gatun Lake is maintained to the 85 foot by releasing water through Madden Dam flowing down the Chagres River to where it meets the lake at Gamboa.
There have been occasions of extremely dry weather (low rainfall) where it has become impossible to maintain the 85 foot level. During those relatively rare occasions, it has been necessary to limit the draft of transiting vessels.
In the case of bulk carriers operating at maximum drafts, the canal gives two weeks notice of any draft restrictions, thereby allowing the ships to compensate for the draft limitation.
Gatun Lake (normal surface level above sea level)  85 feet
Culebra Cut (channel depth)  45 feet
Amount of excavation by Americans in cubic yards 232,353,000
Total concrete for canal in cubic yards 5,000,000
Weight of 1 cubic yard of concrete 1.5 tons
Estimated cost of the Panama Canal built by U.S.  $375,000,000
Number of lives lost during United States control 5,609
Toll charge for Disney Magic cruise ship in 2008 $313,200
First Panama Railroad completed 1855
Length of Panama Railroad 47.11 miles
Panama Railroad costs $8,984,922
Amount of carloads of dirt removed daily by railroad 200
Tide on the Pacific side 20 feet
Tide on the Atlantic side 2.5 feet
Average rainfall on Atlantic side 130 inches
Average rainfall on Pacific side 70 inches



Size:  1000’ x 110’ x 42’
Gatun Locks – 3 steps and 6 chambers
Pedro Miguel – 1 step and 2 chambers
Miraflores – 2 steps, 4 chambers
Water Flow:  By gravity, down and across chambers
Panamax Ship:  965’ x 106’ x 39 ½’
Maximum Cargo:  4400 TEUs – container ship
Gates:  4 or more miter gates swing per chamber
Water:  52 million gallons lost to sea per transit








new panama canal excavation

The New Enlarged Panama Expansion Project — Excavation

“Like the channel that opened in 1914, the enlarged Panama Canal is a feat of engineering, albeit one that ran over budget and two years behind schedule. The contractors dredged enough material to fill the Egyptian Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, 25 times over. The amount of steel used could have erected 29 new Eiffel Towers.”



Other Information & Links:


“The first section of the New York City subway opened in 1904. . . .  in 1904 when the very first lines were opened, 3.5 million cubic yards of earth and rock had been removed.”

“The Big Dig is officially named the Central Artery/Tunnel Project in Boston. It’s a 3.5 mile tunnel to route vehicle traffic underneath the city. Construction began in 1991 and sections of the tunnel were opened between 2003 and 2006. The initial cost of the project was estimated to be $2.8 billion, but the final cost was close to $15 billion. Charges of corruption, inadequate materials, and a fatal collapse accompanied the project. The completed tunnel saw the excavation of 16 million cubic yards of earth.”


“Culebra Cut was the “special wonder” of the canal.  Here, men and machines labored to conquer the 8.75-mile stretch extending through the Continental Divide from Gamboa on the Chagres River at the north to Pedro Miguel on the south.  The lowest point in the saddle between Gold Hill on the east and Contractors Hill on the west was at elevation 333.5 feet above sea level.

Holes were drilled, filled with explosives and detonated to loosen the rock and rock-hard clay.  Steam shovels then excavated the spoil, placing it on railroad cars to be hauled to dump sites.   Excavation equipment, in addition to the railroad itself, included steam shovels, unloaders, spreaders and track-shifters.  Of this equipment, only the steam shovel had been known to the French, and then in a much less powerful form.  The Lidgerwood unloader, manufactured by the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company of New York City, was another indispensable piece of equipment.  Wooden flatcars with a rated canal capacity of 19 cubic yards hauled most of the spoil, pulled in long trains by full-sized, American built locomotives.  Built with only one side, they had steel aprons bridging the spaces between cars.  Dirt was piled high against one side.   At the dump site, the unloader, a three-ton plow, was hitched to the last car by a long cable to a huge winch-like device mounted on a flatcar at the head of the train.  Taking its power from the locomotive, the winch pulled the plow rapidly forward, unloading the whole twenty-car train in a single, 10-minute sweep.  One of these machines once set an 8-hour record by unloading 18 trains, about 3 ½ miles of cars containing about 7,560 cubic yards of material.  Engineers estimated that 20 of these unloaders operated by 120 laborers did the work of 5,666 men unloading by hand.

The dirt-spreader was another American innovation.  A car operated by compressed air, it had steel “wings” on each side that could be raised and lowered.  When lowered, they sloped 11.5 feet backward from the rails.  Moving forward, the dirt-spreader spread and leveled the material left along the track by the unloader.  Like the unloader, the spreader did the work of some 5,000 to 6,000 men working by hand

Another machine, the track-shifter, was invented by American William G. Bierd, general manager of the Panama Railroad from September 1905 to October 1907.  The huge crane-like machine would hoist a whole section of track – rails and ties – and swing it in either direction, to relocate it as much as 9 feet at a time.  With the tracks at the dumps needing constant shifting to keep pace with the arriving loads of spoil, the track-shifter was extremely useful.  It took less than a dozen men operating on the shifter one day to move a mile of track, a task requiring not less than 600 men.

A large number of 17-cubic-yard capacity, 4-sided Western and Oliver dump cars (27 cars comprising a train) was also used.  As it was hard to unload the dirt from these cars because the heavy clay would stick to the steel sides, they were used almost exclusively for hauling rock from the Cut to Gatun Dam.  Their 4-sided design made them impossible for use with the unloader.  More than a hundred million cubic yards of spoil had to be hauled away from the excavation site and dumped.  Part of this spoil was used to join a series of four small islands in Panama Bay (Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco) to create a breakwater.  This breakwater is topped by a roadway, making it a causeway that extends three and a quarter miles out into the Pacific.  The stretch between the mainland and Naos Island was a very troublesome dumping area because of a soft bottom into which tons of rock would settle and virtually disappear.  Track and trestle used to haul the spoil to the dumping area would disappear overnight into the ocean and have to be replaced.  In the end, to reach Naos Island took ten times the estimated spoil.

Spoil was also used to claim nearly 500 acres of Pacific Ocean to create the Balboa townsite and the Fort Amador military reservation.  Millions of cubic yards of material also had to be hauled out to big waste dumps in the jungle.  In the largest of these, Tabernilla, 17,000,000 cubic yards of material were deposited.  Balboa was the biggest dumpsite.  Other big dumps were Gatun Dam, and Miraflores.” —


See other illustrations – links


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