The unexpected connection between the panama canal and san diego

Both the Panama Canal, and San Diego Port are important to our industry.

Here are a few facts in brief: 

The Panama Canal is an artificial 51-mile waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and is an essential conduit for maritime trade. It greatly reduces the time for ships, enabling them to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route. 

Annual traffic has risen from 1000 ships in 1914 when the canal opened to approximately 14,000 now.

San Diego Port, California is one of America’s top 30 container ports

Annual Cargo tonnage: 2,873,613

Annual Container volume: 823,560

The Port of San Diego administers two marine cargo facilities.  The Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal is a 96 acres multi-purpose eight berth facility. Inbound cargo includes refrigerated commodities, fertilizer, cement, break bulk commodities and forest products.  The National City Marine Terminal is a 125 acres seven berth facility, which processed over 450,000 vehicles during 2016. 

Other than the Maritime connection between the Panama Canal and the Port of San Diego, there is a highly unlikely link and that is the San Diego Zoo, which was a result of two unrelated events.   That is the opening in 1914 of the Panama Canal and the 1916 storm damage to the West Coast of the USA. In 1909 San Francisco was still recovering from the devasting earthquake of 1906, but it was in direct competition with San Diego to host the 1915 Panama Pacific.

International Exposition.  The world fair would be to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, after ten years of challenging construction under the auspices of the USA.  San Diego lost the bid to San Francisco, but decided to go ahead anyway on a much smaller basis. 

San Diego’s Exposition was mainly an open space referred to as City Park.  It was then re-named Balboa Park during construction in recognition of the Spanish explorer/conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who was the first European to cross Central America to the Pacific Ocean in 1513.  Four hundred years later the Panama Canal would make this economically-valuable crossing, easier, faster and safer.

The Exposition was incredibly successful, so the organizers extended it for another year and renamed the event the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition.

One of the attractions at the fair, were the animals on display.  Peacocks, pheasants and pigeons roamed the grounds and were fed by the visitors.  Exotic animals were also there in pens.  Some of these exotic animals were rented from the nearby Wonderland amusement park, that included lions, bears, leopards and 56 varieties of monkeys.

It was directly due the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 that led to Wonderland’s closure, as there was a huge drop in attendance attributed to the Exposition.o add to Wonderland’s problems a winter storm in January 1916 destroyed its biggest attraction The Blue Streak Racer, which was the largest roller coaster on the West Coast at that time.  The roller coaster was dismantled and sent to Santa Monica, north of San Diego.  The animals that had lodged at Wonderland, were take on by the Panama-California Exposition.

Dr. Harry M. Wedgeforth was a San Diego surgeon who also served on the Exposition’s Board of Directors.  One day when driving past the Exposition he heard a lion roar and at that point decided it would be an excellent idea to have a zoo in San Diego.  He then founded the Zoological Society of San Diego on October 2nd 1916.

Today San Diego Zoo houses over 12,00 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies. Its parent organization San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is a private nonprofit conservation organization and has the largest zoological membership associations in the world. 

The Zoo was a pioneer in the concept of open-air cageless exhibits.  With more than 4 million visitors in 2018, San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the USA and has been cited as on of the best in the world.



Sandy McInnes
MPL Newsletter Editor

Details of the origins of San Diego Zoo, were found in an article written by Katie Dillon, who is managing editor of La Jolla Mom.