February 26, 2015

Kaiser ship was first through Panama Canal, 1914

S.S. Ancon in the Culebra Cut, Panama Canal, 1914

One hundred years ago the United States celebrated a major engineering and political accomplishment – the completion of the Panama Canal. The feat was the centerpiece of two giant expositions in California; the Panama-California Exposition (January 1, 1915-January 1, 1917) in San Diego and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (February 20, 1915-December 4, 1915) in San Francisco. Vestiges of those events still remain in their respective cities, and historical societies have mounted centennial retrospectives.

One little-known fact is that the first ship to formally steam through those locks from ocean to ocean was the S.S. Ancon – later to become the S.S. Permanente, part of the beginning of Henry J. Kaiser’s utilitarian cargo fleet.

Commemorative coin with S.S. Ancon from the Panama-California Exposition, 1915
Commemorative coin with S.S. Ancon from the Panama-California Exposition, 1915

Built in 1901 as the S.S. Shawmut in Maryland, the steamer (along with a sister ship, the S.S. Tremont) was bought to carry cement for the construction of the canal under the Panama Railroad Company's Panama Railroad Steamship Line. They were renamed for the two ocean termini. The Shawmut became the S.S. Ancon, a township in Panama City where the canal opens to the Pacific Ocean. The Tremont became the S.S. Cristobal, named for the Atlantic port city.

The Ancon wasn’t the first vessel to navigate the canal from ocean to ocean, but it was designated as the first honorary official ship to complete the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which it did on August 15, 1914 with some 200 dignitaries aboard. However, the elaborate, festive plans – which originally included major U.S. warships and even the U.S. president – fell through when the First World War broke out on July 28.

During the war, the Ancon was commissioned into the Navy as the U.S.S. Ancon and ferried troops home from Europe before returning to canal service. In 1939 Henry J. Kaiser bought the Ancon and the Cristobal for his nascent Permanente Steamship Company.

The Ancon was renamed the S.S. Permanente, fitted to deliver bulk dry cement rather than cement loaded in sacks (a Henry Kaiser innovation), and went into service in March, 1941, under contract with the U.S. Navy delivering cement to Hawaii. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and her cargo was vital to the rebuilding of that devastated facility. She was eventually scrapped at the end of the war, replaced by the more modern S.S. Permanente Silverbow and the S.S. Permanente Cement.

Thanks to Steve Gilford for help on this article.