Photo of the Week
January 21, 2018

The story of the Gatun hydroelectric plant continues with new developments this week:

After the Gatun spillway and hydroelectric plant were finished in 1914 it became evident that  this current hydroelectric plant was too small to accommodate all that it was intended to support the canal and surrounding areas.  Willis J. Abbot, Author of The Panama Canal An Illustrated Historical Narrative of Panama and the Great Waterway Which Divides The American Continents - 1917 summarizes what the Gatun Hydroelectric Plant was intended to provide power to.

"The spillway further serves a useful and an essential purpose in that it harnesses the water power of the useful Chagres, and turns it into electric power to open and shut the colossal gates of the various locks; to propel the electric locomotives that tow the great ships through the concrete channels; to light the canal towns and villages, and the lighthouses on the line; to run the great cranes at Balboa and Cristobal; to run the machinery in the shops at Balboa; to furnish motive power, if so determined for the Panama Railroad, and to swing the great guns at Toro Point and Naos Island until their muzzles bear with calm yet fright­ful menace upon any enemy approaching from either the Caribbean or the Pacific. There will be power for all these functions, and power too to light Panama and Colon, to run the Panama tram­way and perform other useful functions if the present grip of private Panama monopoly upon these public services shall be relinquished. The water drops 75 feet through huge penstocks to great turbines in the spillway hydroelectric station with a capacity of 6,000 kilowatts, but the amount of water power is sufficient for double that current, and turbines to supply the addition can be installed whenever the need for the power develops."  

When they pulled the switch in 1914 to send the power to all, there wasn't enough power.  Poor planning or bad forecast to blame?  I think the planning part was good as there were provisions to enlarge the hydroelectric plant if needed.  This was addressed in the articles I provided from the Canal Records last week. Well,  this is what this week's photos are all about.  Within just two years, the original power plant building is to be enlarged to twice the size as the original.  The above photo from the 1917 Report to the Governor shows work beginning for the addition.  In addition a larger outlet  was needed to discharge the water used to turn the turbines.  See the bottom photo of the building and large outlet today. The original ports were small to handle the volume of water.  

Just below is an old colorized post card from the time the spillway and hydroelectric station was being built.  It shows the penstocks for the conveying of water to the power plant.  Originally only three were needed as there were only three turbines.  As you see there are three more to the left that were constructed for future use if the plant needed to be enlarged....which it did and they were put in service to operate the three new additional turbines installed . (photo courtesy of czimages contributor Bill Fall)

The next old colorized post card below shows the interior of the enlarged power plant.  Compare this with the interior photo from last week of the original plant. (photo courtesy of czimages contributor Bill Fall)

Once again, the photo at the very bottom is a modern day photo of the plant which hasn't changed physically since 1917.

This has been an interesting two weeks of study once I realized that the original plant had to be enlarged.  All the years I drove over the Gatun Spillway bridge to visit the ski docks or go tarpon fishing on the apron of the spillway, I never paid much attention to the power plant nor even considered the significance of this plant in it's early days up till today.

For additional reading about the early Panama Canal Electrical Division and it's components, click the link below for an excerpt from the 1916 and 1917 Annual Report to the Governor.






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