Canal's locks are a product of ingenuity
By ARON PILHOFER
Gannett State Bureau
The system of six locks that allows
ships to cross from one ocean to another is as much a feat of
engineering as the Panama Canal itself.
The earliest French plans called for a sea-level canal that
would not require locks at all. But when that plan proved impossible,
American engineers devised a system of six locks to raise ships
to 85 feet above sea level, where ships would cross the 50-mile
isthmus on a man-made inland lake.
The canal has six sets of locks, three on the Pacific side
and three on the Atlantic side.
At the time construction began in 1909, nothing like it had
ever been attempted.
The locks were designed to be 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet
long...large enough for most cargo ships and Navy vessels. The
doors would have to withstand enormous water pressure, yet be
light enough to swing easily open and closed.
Each lock has a pair of double doors, which taper at the bottom
forming a `V' shape. The gates were built hollow, so the doors
were partly buoyant in water, relieving pressure on the hinges.
Each of the gates is 64 feet wide and 7 feet thick. They range
in height from 47 to 82 feet.
Water levels are raised and lowered without the use of pumps.
Once a ship enters the lock and the doors are closed, electric
motors are used to open valves upstream or downstream to allow
the surface level to rise and lower.
Ships are towed through the locks by a specially designed
electric locomotive, which runs on tracks alongside. Each series
of locks can be controlled from a central command station.
Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth and chairman of the
New Jersey Battleship Commission, went through the locks for
the first time in 1982 when he served as a special assistant
to the captain on board the New Jersey.
It was an unforgettable experience, he said.
"I had never gone through any lock before, and it was
a thrill," Azzolina said. "We stayed on deck the whole
time there was daylight to watch. I think it's amazing how they
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