The Panama Canal Administration Building - Putting Things Into Historical Perspective

Friday, August 11 2006 @ 09:12 PM UTC

Contributed by: Don Winner

The Panama Canal Administration Building was inaugurated on July 15, 1914, exactly a month before the official opening of the Canal. According to records dating back to the construction era, the entire building cost $879,000, a sizeable sum at the time. The building is at the top of a hill, prominently overlooking the Canal, the town and port of Balboa, and parts of Panama City. The Administration Building serves as the headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and houses administrative offices. Of particular interest to tourists are the Administration Building's colorful murals that adorn the ceiling of the inner rotunda. These murals were painted by New Yorker William B. Van Ingen, who is also known for his murals in the U.S. Library of Congress, and the Philadelphia Mint. They depict the monumental labor involved in building the Canal through four scenes: the Culebra Cut excavation, the Gatun Dam Spillway construction, the Miraflores locks construction and the building of one of the colossal lock gates. These murals commemorate the efforts, courage, and heroism of the multinational workforce dedicated to building the famous canal that united the world's two greatest oceans. (Source:
The Panama Canal Administration Building

The following comes from a plaque in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration building - "It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt in the Panama Canal

Consider This: How much did it cost to build the Panama Canal? The numbers vary depending on the source but for the sake of conversation I'm going to peg it at $352 million dollars including the cost to buy out both the French and Colombia in 1914 dollars. In case you're wondering that converts to $7.04 billion in 2006 dollars. What a bargain...

Historical Side-note: What was the original name of the first ship to officially transit the Panama Canal? Do your Google search and come back later with the answer. This article ends with a picture of the bell from the ship (no peaking...)

(From the Panama Canal Website) "The story of the heroic effort that produced one of the supreme achievements of all time -- the construction of a water passage between the world's two greatest oceans across the isthmus of Panama -- is powerfully depicted in graphic detail in the Panama Canal murals. Mounted in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building at Balboa Heights, Republic of Panama, the murals have been a major Canal area attraction throughout the years."

Construction of the Miraflores Locks

The panel depicted here shows construction of a side wall culvert at Miraflores Locks. The huge locks culverts, that direct the flow of water, are large enough to drive a train through. The murals tell the overall story of the building of the Panama Canal in four main scenes, which show Gaillard Cut at Gold Hill, where the Canal passes through the Continental Divide; the building of the spillway of Gatun Dam, which dams the Chagres River to create the Gatun Lake; construction of a lock miter gate; and the Miraflores Locks near the Pacific entrance to the Canal. The frieze below presents a panorama of the excavation of Gaillard Cut. The power of these vividly portrayed scenes has the effect of linking all who view them in an unbroken chain with those engineering masters and the heroic work force that created the Canal.

Gatun Dam Spillway Construction

Construction of the Gatun Dam spillway is shown here. Gatun Lake was formed by the damming of the Chagres River, and the dam's fourteen spillway gates maintain the lake at 85 feet above sea level. At the time of its formation, Gatun Lake was the largest manmade lake in the world.

Canal Lock Gate Under Construction

This panel shows a partially completed lock gate. Steel structure 65 feet wide and 7 feet thick, lock gates vary in height from 47 to 82 feet and weigh from 390 to 730 tons. The Canal uses some 80 of these gate leaves at the various locks. Canal Chief Engineer George W. Goethals is credited with having the foresight to ensure that a record of the monumental labor involved in the building of the Canal was preserved in this art form, so that all who come after might not only marvel at what was accomplished and appreciate its grandeur, but might share in the sense of pride and commitment that this magnificent achievement has always evoked, not only in those who built the waterway, but also in all who have been involved, throughout the years, in its operation and administration.

Goethals chose carefully the person who would be entrusted with this special project, selecting William B. Van Ingen of New York, an outstanding artist who had achieved considerable fame for his murals in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Van Ingen agreed to produce the murals at $25 per square foot, which was the way such work was contracted for in those days, and the finished murals cover about 1,000 square feet. Van Ingen and two assistants, C.T. Berry and Ira Remsen, made charcoal sketches of Canal construction activities for the mural during two visits to Panama in 1914, while on the latter of the construction work. Van Ingen then painted the murals on separate panels in his New York studio. The panels were shipped to Panama and installed over a 3-day period in January 1915 under the artist's personal supervision. The paintings have the distinction of being the largest group of murals by an American artist on display outside the United States.

Van Ingen identified completely with the Canal work. In discussing the murals at that time, he said he had become so caught up in the construction effort that he felt that he, too, was a Canal worker. He said, "I forgot I was an artist and had genuine regret at not being entitled to a number and a brass identification badge." According to Van Ingen, his challenge in producing the murals had been how to portray the magnitude of the Canal construction. In explaining his approach to the task, he said, "I tried to compose into one picture the views to be seen from different standpoints, but united in the mind. It enabled me to combine different periods of time in the construction work." Commenting on his perspective in composing the paintings, he added, "Any success the paintings may have had, came, I believe, from an endeavor to see with the eyes of the man in the ditch."

The murals were restored in 1993 by art conservator Anton Rajer, of Madison, Wisconsin, and rededicated in a special ceremony on September 29, 1993.

The Culebra Cut

Excavation through the Continental Divide, shown here, required digging down some 270 feet through the lowest of this mountainous area to form the bottom of the Canal in Gaillard Cut. The Canal's original width in the Cut was 300 feet, and trains were used to haul away some 262 million cubic yards of earth and rock from this area.

Restorer's Remarks: "The Panama Canal murals in the Administration Building rotunda are the masterpiece of their creator, artist William B. Van Ingen. The light, impressionist colors reflect the atmospheric quality of Panama and the bold compositions commemorate in pictorial form, the actual building of the Panama Canal. Over the years, mold and dirt settled on the murals necessitating cleanings in 1929, 1932, 1939, 1960 and 1993. During the 1993 conservation effort, over 22,000 cotton swabs were used to clean the murals of dirt and grime, as well as old overpaint that was covering many areas of the mural, particularly the sky of the frieze. The cleaning was accomplished with a combination of cleaners that removed the grime and old varnish, but did not harm the murals. A few areas of touch-up were needed, though not many, as the murals were in good condition despite previous cleanings. The entire project was documented with video and hundreds of photos, both black and white and color, and an extensive written report was prepared in English and Spanish to serve as a guide for any future restorations. "

Living Waters: The peninsula which became known as Boston was originally referred to as Shawmut (believed to mean "Living Waters") by the Algonquin Indians. Shawmut was renamed Boston on September 7, 1630. Many of the original settlers came from Boston, England. The 9,606 gross ton steamship "Shawmut" was built in 1902 for the Boston Steamship company and was sold in 1908 to the Panama Canal Commission and renamed the "Ancon." It was used to haul cement and other material components required for the construction of the Panama Canal from the US to the port of Cristobal. The ship made the first official passage of the Panama canal on 15 August 1914 and officially opened the Panama Canal. The event went largely unnoticed by the world press due to the outbreak of WWI. In four days the canal will turn 92. Happy birthday, Panama Canal.

Bell from the "SS Shawmut" (right side)

Bell from the "SS Shawmut" (left side) 1902

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