Tallahassee Families Celebrate Panama Canal Centennial

By Julie Montanaro
August 15, 2014

The Panama Canal opened 100 years ago today and Florida's Governor has declared this "Panama Canal Centennial Day."

Nearly 100 hundred Tallahassee families once lived in the Canal Zone or worked on the canal itself.

We spoke with just a few.

"I'm the one who actually opened the gates and let the water up and down and let the ships go," Skip Rowley said.

Skip Rowley is a retired lock master who worked on the Miraflores, the Pedro Miguel and the Gatun locks as they methodically guided ships through the Panama Canal.

Rowley is in Panama for the 100th anniversary of the canal's first passage. We spoke to him right before he left.

"Nothing's untouched by the Panama Canal. You buy furniture from Taiwan on the east coast, it's come through the Panama Canal. If you're on the west coast and you want to buy a German car it goes through the Panama Canal," Rowley said. "Everything."

"It's been described as the funnel for world commerce or the path between the seas," Joe Wood said, "so it's brought the world together and to be part of that is just a marvelous experience."

Joe Wood was a top administrator there in the 1980's and early 90's before retiring and moving to Tallahassee.

He says most people just see the canal in their history books, but to see it close up as massive ships from all across the world squeeze through that 110 foot canal never ceases to amaze him.

"The biggest ships right now are 106 feet wide, leaving two feet on either side and many of them leave the canal with these stripes ... they call it Panama Canal striping ... but it's when they hit the cement wall a little bit as they go through," Wood said. "It's impressive. You can stand there every day of the week and still be impressed."

Hundreds of people are gathering in Gainesville this weekend to celebrate the centennial. The University of Florida now houses the Panama Canal Museum collection.

As to why there are so many Panama Canal Zone families in Tallahassee? Wood says one big reason is Florida State University has a branch campus in Panama and many students come here to finish their degrees.

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