Bert Wilson at Panama
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For this trip from end to end of the canal was one of the most cherished features of their general plan. They wanted to study it at their leisure – the dams, the locks, the gates, the lakes, the feeders, the spillways, the attractions – the thousand and one things that made it the marvel of the twentieth century. And they vowed to themselves that what their eyes did not take in would not be worth seeing.
Colon, itself, held them for two more days, and during that time they lost one of their party. Wah Lee – for that they had discovered to be their Chinaman's name – had justified his statement that he had "flends in Panama." They had rather suspected that these alleged friends resembled the mythical Mrs. Harris, whose chief claim to fame was that "there wasn't no such person." They were agreeably surprised, therefore, when, before they had been twenty-four hours in the city, he told them that, through one of his "flends," he had found employment in the household of a wealthy Japanese residing in the suburbs. He would have gladly stayed with the boys, to whom he had become greatly attached. But although they were fond of him, and got a good deal of amusement from his quaint ways, they had really no need of him, and he was a clog on their freedom of movement. They wanted to be footloose – to go where they pleased and when they pleased – and they were glad to learn that he was so well provided for.
"Me clome and slee you melly times," he assured them, benignantly.
"Sure thing, old boy," answered Tom. "We're always glad to see you."
"Me play you back," said Wab Lee.
"Pay back nothing," responded Bert. "You don't owe us anything. You've worked your passage, all right."
"Me play you back," he repeated, as calmly as though they had not protested, and pattered off, after including them all in his irresistible smile.
"And he will," affirmed Dick, despairingly. "We're just clay in the hands of the potter, when we come up against that old heathen. If he says he'll pay you back, paid back you'll be, as surely as my name is Dick Trent."
Which proved to be true enough, although the payment was made in different coin and in an other fashion than they dreamed of at the moment.
Two days later, bright and early they took the train on the little railroad that runs from Colon to Panama. Their first stop was to be at the Gatun Dam and Locks, the mightiest structure of its kind in the world.
As they came in sight of it, the boys gasped in amazement and admiration. What they had read about it in cold type, had utterly failed to give them an adequate idea of the reality. Here was a work that might have been hammered out by Thor. There were the mighty gates, weighing each, from three hundred to six hundred tons. The locks each had four gates, seven feet thick and from forty-seven to seventy-nine feet high. The gates were operated by electricity and open or shut in less than two minutes, and absolutely without noise.
In these locks were three chambers, lower, middle and upper.Each was a thousand feet Long, one hundred and ten feet wide and eighty-one feet deep. As the vessel enters the lower chamber, it finds there a depth of over forty feet. The gate is closed and the water pours in, lifting the vessel as it rises. In fifteen minutes, the water rises over twenty-eight feet. Now the ship has reached the middle chamber, and again the gates are closed and the process repeated. The upper chamber is the last stage, and then the vessel reaches the artificial lake of Gatum. It has climbed eighty-five feet in about ninety minutes.
"Just like climbing a flight of stairs," exclaimed Dick.
"Precisely," said Bert. "Where a train climbs a mountain by a steady grade, the vessel leaps up to the top in three jumps."
"Think of trying to lift one of those enormous vessels with a derrick or a crane," murmured Tom; "and yet how gently and easily the water does it by pushing up from underneath."
"Look at the width of those concrete walls," pointed Bert. "Fifty-two feet thick!
"Well, twenty-five million dollars will do a lot, and I've read that it cost that much for these locks alone. And that's only a fraction of the entire work."
At every turn, they came across something that evoked their wonder and admiration. Most of the figures and statistics connected with the colossal work they were already familiar with, but the information thus gained was, in a certain sense, hazy and unreal. It was seen through the mirage of distance, and not until their eyes actually saw the work in course of construction, did the knowledge lying in their minds, take a sharp and clearly cut outline.
As they moved about the dam, they came in contact with many of the engineers connected with the work. These were picked men, Americans like themselves, and of the very highest class of skilled engineers. They were glad to meet the young fellows from the States – "God's country," as they named it to themselves, in moments of homesickness – and the intelligent interest of the boys, in marked contrast to many of the "fool questions" put to them by the general run of tourists, made them eager to impart to them all they wanted to know. They grew "chummy" at once, and by the time the boys had spent a half a day in their inspection, they knew more about it than they would have gained in a month of reading.
Among other things, they learned that the locks were the greatest reinforced concrete structure in the world. They had been built in sections, thirty-six feet long, and these had been joined together so as to make one gigantic rock, thirty-five hundred feet long and three hundred and eighty-four feet wide. This reached down fifty feet under tide, and towered one hundred and fifteen feet above the level of the sea. The concrete necessary was brought in barges that if strung along in one tow would have stretched from Colon to the southern coast of the United States, a distance of fifteen hundred miles. Great masses of steel were first erected, and then the concrete was poured into these by giant mixers.
The wall at the west wing held back the waters of the Chagres River. This was allowed to spread out into a lake, covering nearly two hundred square miles, at a level of eighty-seven feet. From this the water was drawn to feed the locks, and even in the dryest season would prove sufficient for that purpose.
Then there was the great spillway, in the hill that forms part of Gatun Dam. Here one hundred and forty thousand cubic feet of water can be discharged every second. The waters made a magnificent picture as they poured through the gates. As Dick remarked, it was "an abridged edition of Niagara Falls." At the east of the spillway, was the power plant, where the water, dropping seventy-five feet, developed enough electric power and light to operate the canal from end to end.
At Bohio, the southern end of Gatun Lake, they came to the place where the canal enters the foothills of the mountain range. Up to this point, there had been but little digging, but here the real work of excavation had begun. The earth and rock that had to be removed here was equal to that involved in cutting a ditch across the United States, ten feet deep and fifty-five feet wide. The dirt would load a train that reached four times around the earth.
"Only a little matter of a hundred thousand miles," exclaimed Tom. "Gee, these figures are enough to make your head ache. Everything is in thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions."
"Yes," said Bert, "it's simply inconceivable. We mention figures, but we can't really grasp what they mean. It seems like the work of giants, rather than men."
"Right you are," assented Dick. "Why, even the blast holes drilled for the dynamite, if put together, would stretch from New York to Philadelphia."
At the great Culebra Cut, where at one point the depth was over four hundred feet, the wonder grew. Twenty million pounds of dynamite had been used in this cut and the cost of the excavation was over eighty millions of dollars. Yet with such care and skill had this been managed that very few men had lost their lives; not as many as are killed in the erection of an ordinary office building in New York.
And here, at Culebra, the problem had been harder to solve than anywhere else. There had been enormous landslides, that made it necessary to do the work over and over again. Twenty-one million cubic yards of earth had fallen from the mountain side, in many cases covering the engines and shovels engaged in the work of excavation. One slide involved sixty-three acres. At another place, forty-seven acres moved entirely across the Canal at the rate of fourteen feet a day, and rose at one point to a height of thirty feet. Over twenty times, these avalanches came down the sides of the cut. It seemed as though Nature were angered at the attempts of man to change what she had ordained, and were determined to drive him to despair. But the attempts were renewed with dogged persistence, and now the course of the Canal had been fully protected, and baffled Nature could rage in vain. It was heart-breaking work, but when Uncle Sam puts his hand to the plough, he doesn't turn back. Science and pluck, working hand in hand with splendid audacity, had come out triumphant.
Part of the excavation had been made by hydraulic action. Where the ground was soft, tremendous streams of water played upon the banks, washing the dirt away. In other sections, there were enormous steam shovels, some of them weighing ninety-five tons, and scooping up the earth, a carload at a time.
"Nice little toys," remarked Dick, as he gazed into the maw of one of them.
"Right you are," responded Bert, "but they're toys that only giants can play with."
On the third day of their trip, they reached the Pedro Miguel Locks, forty miles from the Atlantic. In its general features, it was patterned after those at Gatun. Here, the vessel, which had been sailing along at a height of eighty-five feet above sea level after it left Gatun, would begin to drop toward the Pacific. It would descend thirty feet, then sail across an artificial lake for a mile and a half, until it reached the Miraflores Locks, the last place where it would be halted on its trip to the Western Ocean. Here there were two chambers, each lowering the ship twenty-seven and a half feet, making a drop of fifty-five feet in all. From there, for a distance of eight miles, it would pass through a channel, five hundred feet wide and forty-five deep, until at last it reached the sea.
And now the whole stupendous plan lay before them as clear as crystal. As in a panorama, they saw the vessel, as it left the Atlantic and prepared to climb the backbone of the continent. It would come up the Bay of Limon to the entrance of the Canal, and there the sailing craft would fold its wings, the liner would shut off steam. On the wide expanse of Gatun Lake they would again proceed under their own power. Through the Canal proper they would be drawn by electric traction engines, running upon the walls. At Gatun, they would climb, by three successive steps, to a point eighty-five feet above sea level. Crossing Gatun Lake, they would pass through the Culebra Cut to the Pedro Miguel Locks. A downward jump of thirty feet here, another of fifty-five feet at the Mirafiores Locks, a level sail for eight miles more, and they would emerge on the broad bosom of the Pacific. Then the sails would be broken out, the engines begin to throb, and away to the western coast or Manila, or Australia, or China and Japan. The dream of four hundred years would have become a glorious reality.
In ten hours, the largest steamship could ride in safety from ocean to ocean. The distance from New York to San Francisco by sea would be shortened by over nine thousand miles. Liverpool would be brought seven thousand miles nearer the Pacific Slope. From New York to Manila, five thousand miles were saved. The commercial supremacy of the sea would be taken from the maritime nations of Europe and put in the hands of the United States. That shining strip of water, fifty miles in length, would prove the "path of empire," and mark a peaceful revolution in the history of the world.
"And it's time that we came into our own again," declared Bert, as, their trip finished, they sat on the veranda of the hotel at Colon. "Eighty years ago, our flag was to be found on every sea. But we've been so busy with our internal development that we've let the control of the ocean pass into the hands of others, especially England. It's a burning shame that most of our commerce is carried in English ships. I hope that, now the Canal is ready for use, there'll be a big upbuilding of our merchant marine, and that it'll be no longer true that 'Britannia rules the waves.'"
"I think that the British already see the handwriting on the wall," remarked Dick. "Perhaps that explains their unwillingness to take part in the San Francisco Exposition. They've made a big fuss because we don't make our coastwise vessels pay any tolls for going through the Canal. But I think the real reason lies deeper than that."
"Germany and Russia are none too cordial, either, I notice," said Tom.
"When you come to think of it, we haven't many friends in Europe, anyway."
"No," mused Bert. "About the only real friend that we have over there is France. As a rule, she's been on pretty good terms with us, ever since she helped us in our Revolutionary War. We had a little scrap with her on the sea, once, and we had to warn her to get out of Mexico, when she tried to back up Maximilian there. But our republican form of government appeals to her, and, on the whole, she likes us.
"But Russia feels a little sore, because she thinks we sympathized with Japan in her recent war. And Germany has always kicked like a steer about our Monroe Doctrine. If she felt strong enough, she'd knock that doctrine into a cocked hat. She wants to expand, to establish colonies for her surplus population. She's especially keen on getting into Brazil. But wherever she turns, she finds the Monroe Doctrine blocking her way. She says it isn't fair: it isn't reasonable; it isn't based on international law."
"Well, isn't she right?" asked Tom. "It's always seemed rather nervy to me, for us to say that no other power shall acquire territory in North or South America. By what right do we say so?"
"By no right at all," admitted Bert. "We fall back on the law of self-preservation. We've simply figured out that we want to keep the ocean between us and the nations of Europe. Otherwise, we'd have to keep an enormous standing army. If they had territory near by, where they could drill and recruit and establish food and coal depots, so as to be ready to attack us suddenly, we'd be on edge all the time. As it is, we can go to sleep nights, without any fear of finding the enemy in our backyard the next morning when we look out of the window."
"Well," remarked a Californian, named Allison, whose acquaintance they had recently made, and who now drew his chair nearer and joined in the conversation; "we don't need to worry about Europe. The real enemy lies in another direction." And he pointed toward Asia.
"You mean Japan?" queried Bert.
"Exactly," was the answer.
"Aren't you California people a little daffy on the Japanese question?" chaffed Dick.
"Not a bit of it," replied Allison, with marked emphasis. "As sure as you're alive, there's going to be a tremendous fight between Japan and the United States. Just when it's coming, I don't know. But that it is coming, I haven't the slightest shadow of a doubt. I'd stake my life upon it."
His deep earnestness impressed the boys in spite of themselves.
"But why?" asked Tom. "There doesn't seem any real reason for bad blood between us, as far as I can see."
"Then, too, we opened up Japan to modern civilization in 1859, and brought her into the family of nations," added Dick. "She's always professed the greatest friendship for us."
"'Professed,' yes," answered Allison, "but, for some time past, those professions have sounded hollow. There's the immigration problem. There's the Magdalena Bay concession. There's the California school question and the alien land bill. Have you read of the mass meetings at Tokio, and the passionate harangues against America? Wasn't that pretty near an ultimatum that the Viscount Chenda put before the Washington Government a little while ago? I tell you, gentlemen, that many a nation has been plunged into bloody war for reasons less than these."
"But, after all," objected Tom, "if anything of the kind threatens, we'll have time enough to see it coming, and get ready to meet it."
"Will we?" cried Allison. "Did the Russians have any warning, before the Japanese smashed their fleet at Port Arthur? Do you know that for two years past, her arsenals have been working night and day? With what object? When Japan is ready, she will strike as the lightning strikes. She may be ready now. Perhaps at this very moment, her fleet may be on the way to San Francisco."
In his excitement, he half rose from his chair, and his voice rang out like a clarion.