Bits & Pieces

April 16, 2009

The Ferries of the Panama Canal

During the construction of the Canal, movement from one side of the canal to the other was by overland means and, later by means of barges and tugboats. Communications between the city of Panama and other localities in the "interior" all the way to David, was by sailboat and small steamers of the National Navigation Company, owned by the Brothers Pinel and also on the luxury liners of the United Fruit Company that would go from Puerto Armuelles to Panama to New Orleans.

But as the population of the Isthmus increased better means of communications were sought and, through the efforts of President Belisario Porras, a National Highway was started. The system of barges to get across the Canal would no longer do. Thus, two new ferries, at a cost of $127,930 each were built and christened Presidente Porras and President Roosevelt arriving on the isthmus in August of 1931.

"President Roosevelt" around 1934

This photo was taken in the 1930s when cars still drove on the left hand side of the road.
Note the car waiting for the ferry on the left side of the photo. You can see the ferry half way
across the canal. Notice also that it is high tide as the ramp is almost level. On low tide
it was a steep 21-foot drop to the waiting ferry.

The crossings, at first, were carried out around the Pedro Miguel locks. However, upon completion of the National Highway strip connecting Arraijan with Panama city, the ferry terminals were moved to Balboa on September 1, 1932.  This section of the highway in the Canal Zone from the ferry terminal to Arraijan was named Thatcher Highway in honor of Maurice Thatcher, who was a civil administrator between 1910 and 1913 and later was elected a Congressman to the House of Representatives where he continued his involvement with matters of the Canal.

This one requires no description. As kids, we loved to cross the ferry. . .
watching the mechanism that raised and lowered the ramp and, if we were lucky to end up with
the car by the ferry island door, we could see below the engines running.
But as we grew older and traffic increased, we would find it frustrating
to wait, for hours sometimes, to get across.

At first, the ferry schedule was from 6 AM until 9 PM. In 1935, however, due to the great demand, the service was offered 24 hours a day. Those of us who made so many transits on these ferries will never forget the experience. While many times we cursed the delays this method of transportation caused for so many years, there is something nostalgic now missing from the crossings over the canal by the Bridge of the Americas which opened on September 1, 1962. The two ferries mentioned here, as well as the newer and larger one. Presidente Amador, were sold at auction one going to Chile and two going to Ecuador.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas