Four seconds to transmit spark to blow up dike in 1913 — Woodrow Wilson Presidential One Dollar Coin

Today, the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Coin remembers when he remotely set off the explosion to open the Panama Canal 104 years ago.

From the Reformatory Press of Anamosa, Iowa of October 15, 1913:


President Wilson Sets Off Charge that Opens the Gamboa Dike.

Washington, Oct. 10.

A little electric spark, originating when President Wilson pressed the button in the White House, sped more than 4,000 miles over land and under water, ignited the immense charges of dynamite and practically cleared the Panama canal.

Electrical experts calculated that within four seconds after the initial impulse, the current threw a small switch at the Gamboa dike, which in turn, set in motion other apparatus, furnishing the current which exploded the charges.

Elaborate preparations had been made by the Western Union Telegraph company and the Central and South American Telegraph companies for the practically instantaneous transmission of the president’s signal.

From Washington to Galveston Tex., 1,556 miles, a single wire carried the spark.

There it was taken up instantaneously by sensitive repeating instruments and sped over the cable along the Gulf of Mexico to Coatzocoaloos, Mexico, 793 miles further.

From that point it sped over land across the Isthmus of Tehauntepec, 188 miles to another cable station at Salina Cruz, on the Pacific ocean, where other sets of sensitive telegraph instruments snatched it up and hurried it 766 miles through another cable on the bottom of the Pacific ocean to San Juan del Cur, Nicaragua, a cable station.

There other delicate machines transferred it to still another cable and shot it 718 miles more to Panama.

When the spark emerged from its long submarine journey it took the overland telegraph wires of the Panama Railroad company and completed its mission at the Gamboa dike.

Hours before the time set, experts of the telegraph and cable companies were busy perfecting their arrangements so the president’s flash might have an unobstructed passage.

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans were not actually united when the Gamboa dike was destroyed and the waters of Gatun lake were allowed to flow into Culebra cut, as lake and cut are, at the normal surface of the water, 85 feet above the level of the sea.

The destruction of the Gamboa dike, however, removes the last obstruction to the navigation of the greater part of the canal by light draft vessels and opens up direct connection between the great Gatun lake, which already is practically ready to discharge vessels into the Atlantic through the Gatun locks and the Pacific division.

The waters of the lake rushing through the broken dike at Gamboa sweep through Culebra cut until they reach the great locks at Pedro Miguel, which mark the beginning of the descent from the top level of the canal to the Pacific.

The first craft to enter will be great steam dredges, whose work is to clear and deepen the channel.

The presence of small craft in portions of the canal, however, does not as yet mean ocean to ocean navigation.

This will be first possible when each link in the canal has a sufficient depth of water and all the locks are working.

In the intermediate stage, navigation may be effected in local lengths of the canal and to some degree may be extended from length to length along the whole waterway.

Holds Chagers River in Check.

Gamboa dike was built in 1908 to hold the Chagers River in check during its turbulent periods and to prevent its waters from entering the nine mile section of Culebra cut and delaying the work of the steam shovels.

It was important solely from its location.

Twenty-four miles to the north, the mighty Gatun dam, which to the uninitiated appears to be nothing more than a low mountain range stretched across a valley, keeps the waters of Gatun lake from seeping to the sea.

These two barriers, one the greatest man-made dam in history, and the other a low ridge of earth and rock which would ordinarily pass unnoticed, have kept in check the rising waters of Gatun lake.

Today there is only one, and the waters of the lake now extend from Pedro Miguel lock on the south to Gatun locks on the north, a distance of about 33 miles, approximately two-thirds of the canal’s length.

1,200 Dynamite Holes.

Drills were at work on the dike nearly the whole month of September and it was mined with over 1,200 holes charged with dynamite.

The barrier contained about 90,000 cubic yards of material, or the same number of two horse wagon-loads.

When Gatun lake rose to a height of 50 feet in the latter part of 1912, the dike was widened to an average of 50 feet by dumping clay on the side toward the cut and raised to 78.2 feet above the sea level.


The Woodrow Wilson Presidential One Dollar Coin shows with an image of the first water to go through the Gamboa dike after the explosion on October 10, 1913.

Woodrow Wilson Presidential One Dollar Coin