History of the Panama Canal

Do you own a Toyota? Is your TV a Samsung? Look around your house and ask yourself how many things you own that were made in another country. As consumers, we enjoy the convenience of global trade, but have you ever thought about how it all gets to the store?

Many of these goods arrive through an engineering wonder: the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is an essential trade route connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. It enables ocean freighters the size of skyscrapers to cut across South America in as little as 10 hours. Originally a shipping route around South America would take seven full days. The creation of the Panama Canal made global trade easy and the demands on this canal continue to grow today.

This shipping shortcut of the modern world brings over 300 million tons of goods across its narrow passageway each day. Although the Panama Canal was constructed over a century ago, it continues to accommodate freighters quadruple the size and mass of the original ships it was intended for. This engineering marvel is able to lift ships weighing 56,000 tons and towering at eight stories high through three chambers before passing them into the Pacific Ocean.

However, this man-made isle is struggling to keep up with our 20th century demands. Freighters have become massive—barely able to squeeze through the canal—some only sparing six centimeters on each side. This is causing concerns in the shipping business. Damage to their ships along with delays from traffic congestion are costly risks some businesses are not willing to take.

The cost to pass through the Panama Canal is also a burden. The one-day transit toll for a freighter to pass through the canal is $250,000 in U.S. dollars. Panama is beginning to lose customers as freighters opt for a longer route through the Suez Canal.

A $5 billion expansion of the canal is now underway in attempt to keep trade moving through Panama. The goal is to double the canal’s capacity.

Where It All Began

Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat who developed the Suez Canal, was the first to attempt construction of the Panama Canal. He believed that creating a divide through Panama would expedite the shipping of goods and unite the world economy.

In 1881, after receiving substantial financing from France, Lesseps was able to break ground and begin construction. The initial design was for a sea-level canal only. Engineers later changed this design to incorporate a technical system using locks (concrete blocks) to elevate ships 25 meters above sea level.

Initial attempts to construct the canal failed. Torrential rain and bad weather made excavation impossible for Lesseps and his team. Workers attempting to excavate massive amounts of dirt from the canal were fighting mudslides and storms that would wash dirt right back in—sometimes taking men with it.

Weather set construction on the canal back 15 years, but worse, it brought disease. It was at this time that jungle fever swept through Panama, killing thousands. The term jungle fever refers to a variety of blood-related diseases passed through mosquito bites, like malaria and yellow fever.

Work-related accidents, malaria, and yellow fever were claiming an average of 350 lives each month. In 1889, Lesseps’ company went bankrupt and the project was brought to a halt, leaving a muddy eyesore in the middle of Panama.

Lesseps’ failed attempt triggered a catastrophic financial crash in France. Over 20,000 men perished during the project and France went broke—Lesseps was prosecuted and charged with imprisonment, although he never served his sentence.

Lesseps died soon after this scandal, never seeing the completion of his vision.

The U.S. Acquires Construction

The United States acquired the Panama Canal and took over construction from 1904 to 1914. President Theodore Roosevelt hired John Wallace as the head of engineering. Wallace had seen success as the engineer over the Illinois Central Railroad. John Frank Stevens, a self-taught engineer, succeeded Wallace and worked on the project until Roosevelt began giving orders himself.

In 1905, it was suggested that the canal use a locks system to elevate ships above sea level. This was not implemented immediately, but would eventually become part of the main design.

In order for the U.S. to complete the project without the threat of disease, Roosevelt appointed Col. William Gorgas as Chief Sanitation Officer. Sanitation practices required a large investment, including implementing a new water system, large-scale fumigations, and mass installation of mosquito netting.

Although the U.S. went to extensive preventative measures, nearly 6,000 men still died from disease during the canal’s construction.

The canal was completed in 1914. The United States spent $375 million on the project; today, that number is equivalent to $8.6 billion dollars. The Panama Canal is the largest engineering project the United States has completed to date.

The Next Steps

In order for large ships to continue using this canal, a three-step expansion plan is currently underway. The first stage will straighten the walls of the isle way. The second stage will deepen the canal using drills and explosives. The final stage will widen the walls of the canal to allow for large freighters to pass through easily. The expansion is slated to finish and be open for business in 2016.

When you consider the many belongings you have from around the world, be grateful for the Panama Canal. Remember that many men have died to allow for transport of these goods.