As ships ease through the monumental locks and channels bisecting Panama, they follow the wake of maritime icons throughout history that have made this epic aquatic journey linking the seas. For over a century, the 50-mile Panama Canal has facilitated the voyages of famous vessels as they transit this pivotal nautical strait.
From explorers and emigrants seeking new frontiers, to invincible superliners on their maiden cruises, to hulking aircraft carriers projecting global power – the canal has catered to the dreams of advancement sweeping across hulls and into the horizon beyond.
Let’s reflect on some of the most famous ships that have traversed this modern marvel of engineering and explore their unique stories:
RMS Ancon – 1914
The very first ship to officially transit the Panama Canal following its opening in 1914 was not a mighty battleship or luxury liner, but rather the modest cargo and passenger ship Ancon. Starting from the Atlantic entrance, its 14-hour inaugural canal journey set the course for over a million other vessels to follow.
SS Ancon carried a classical legacy as well, since a ship by the same name also made the first full transit of the American-built Panama Railway in 1855, underscoring Panama’s strategic shipping value early on. In its voyage through the newly completed locks and channels in 1914, the reborn SS Ancon initiated Panama’s canal era in earnest.
RMS Lusitania – 1915
The ill-fated British ocean liner Lusitania briefly passed through the Panama Canal at the height of her elegance and fame in 1915, a year before being infamously sunk by a German U-boat torpedo killing 1,198 souls.
Despite the maritime dangers of WWI, the Lusitania was deemed fastest and luxurious enough to tempt the Germany’s submarine blockade and conduct Atlantic crossings. But the risk proved fatal off Ireland’s coast in May 1916 during the ship’s 202nd Atlantic voyage after setting sail from New York.
Oddly enough, the Lusitania had been built with Cunard funding from British subsidies aimed at constructing ships capable of rapid conversion into armed commerce raiders if needed for military purposes. So in a sense, her 1915 Panama Canal crossing occurred under false pretenses of purely civilian luxury transit.
USS Pennsylvania – 1920
As U.S. victory in WWI ushered the world toward a hopeful new decade in the 1920s, the American battleship USS Pennsylvania led a victory naval procession through the Panama Canal.
Following duty escorting troop transports to Europe during WWI, the Pennsylvania carried General John Pershing and Admiral William Sims on a ceremonial victory voyage through the canal in 1920 to thunderous fanfare at ports along the way.
The imposing super-dreadnought set a record size for a warship transiting the Panama Canal upon her journey, extending the full 1000 feet length of the massive lock chambers. Weighing 31,400 tons with a crew of over 1,100, she exemplified America’s naval might coming of age.
RMS Queen Mary – 1936
The elegant British ocean liner Queen Mary sailed through the Panama Canal in December 1936 during her speedy maiden voyage between England and New York. After crossing the Atlantic from Southampton in just 4 days at record pace, she slowed to gingerly navigate the canal passage under guidance from canal pilots.
At over 1,000 feet long and 81,000 tons displacement, the Queen Mary’s canal transit took skillful maneuvering. She was the largest passenger liner ever to pass through the waterway up to that time. Over 1,500 passengers marveled at the canal’s locks raising and lowering their ship.
During WWII the Queen Mary would serve as a rapid troopship. But before war clouds gathered, her 1937 Panama Canal crossing symbolized the golden age of transatlantic passenger liners and British maritime dominance.
USS Texas – 1941
Following Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII, the U.S. battleship USS Texas made haste through the Panama Canal in early 1942 to join the Pacific Fleet at San Francisco, ready to confront Japan’s expansion.
Having trained countless naval gunners and escorted Atlantic convoys earlier in WWII, the aging veteran Texas was urgently needed to bolster battleship numbers in the Pacific. Her speedy canal crossing enabled rapid deployment to the Philippines.
Over 30 years old but armed with ten 14-inch guns and state-of-the-art fire control systems, the Texas provided valued shore bombardment and anti-aircraft support across the Pacific theater during the gruelling island-hopping campaign marching toward Japan.
RMS Queen Elizabeth – 1946
As WWII wound down after Allied victory in Europe, the great British ocean liner Queen Elizabeth carried over 15,000 American troops through the Panama Canal in March 1946 to complete their long journey back home.
The massive Queen Elizabeth had served as a troopship during the war before returning briefly to civilian service. But Panama witnessed her wartime role in this mammoth single transit conveying six entire U.S. Army regiments from European battlefields back to the States.
For the weary troops crowding her decks during the canal passage, the Panama shortcuts represented both a major milestone closer to home and a symbol of the world united again in peacetime cooperation.
USS Missouri – 1951
Fresh from her fame in Tokyo Bay hosting the WWII Japanese surrender in 1945, the American battleship USS Missouri transited the Panama Canal in 1951 on her way to fighting new enemies in the Korean War.
Having just completed a major overhaul, the mighty Missouri now applied her massive firepower of nine 16-inch guns to shore bombardment and coastal blockades on communist forces during Korea’s fierce battles.
Her 1951 Panama Canal voyage sealed Missouri’s legacy as the only American battleship to serve actively through all three wars of the mid-20th century – WWII, Korea, and eventually Vietnam before retiring permanently in 1992.
Cunard Adventurer – 2017
In 2017, the freshly christened cruise ship Cunard Adventurer became the largest ever cruise liner to pass through the expanded Panama Canal since its new three-chamber locks opened the previous year.
Spanning 91,000 tons and over 1,000 feet long, this new mega cruise ship just barely squeezed through the expanded canal locks with only inches to spare on either side.
Her close shave demonstrated the mammoth scale modern cruise ships have now attained. As Cunard Adventurer reached the Pacific, crowds of spectators cheered Panama’s canal entering a new era to serve the next generation of ocean giants.
Whether warships prowling for enemies, opulent liners on pleasure cruises, or battle-hardened troops longing for home, the Panama Canal has witnessed many famous ships and remarkable voyages since its creation transformed global seafaring forever. Their journeys live on in Panama’s waters.