Panama Canal – History & Facts

What is the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal, which is also known in Spanish as Canal de Panamá is a long stretch of man-made waterway which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Measuring 82 km in total length, the canal joins the two oceans by cutting through an isthmus in Panama – a South American country. Engineering work on the canal was actually completed in August of 1914.

Today, the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the most iconic symbols of 20th-century human ingenuity. It serves as a navigable short route for ships traveling between the eastern coastal harbors and the western coastal harbors of the United States of America. Without using the canal, ships in those regions would have to waste a lot of time and fuel by going round South America – Cape Horn. This would lengthen the journey by 8k nautical miles (15000 km).

From a North American direction, it has been reported that using the Panama Canal can shorten an inter-coastal voyage between South and North America by a distance of up 3.5k nautical miles (6500 km). The Panama Canal also shortens the sailing distance between Europe and Eastern Asia by 2k nautical miles.

From the above maritime advantages afforded by the canal, it was naturally convincing that governments spent millions and millions of U.S. Dollars to create the artificial waterway. On 31st December 1999, the US handed over the administration of the canal to Panamanian Authorities.

Geographical Location and Navigation

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal (Canal de Panamá). Image source: Holland America Line.

The Canal is situated at the latitudinal coordinate of 9° N. This coincides at the coordinate where the Continental Divide of North America falls to one of its minimum values. From an Atlantic view, the canal takes its entrance from Colon and passes through the Gatun Locks. It then continues its path through the broadest section of Gatun Lake. From here, the canal runs down sharply due east until it meets with the Bay of Panama where it continues to the Pacific. A railway and a highway run parallel to the Panama Canal.

When traveling from the Atlantic side to the Pacific, ships begin their navigation by moving to the approach way in Limon Bay. This stretches about 11 km (7 miles) to the Gatun Locks where 3 different locks take ships 26m to Gatun Lake. In the lake, the channel depth varies from 14 m to 26 m and it spans through a distance of 37 km before reaching Gamboa.

A cut then goes from Gamboa through the Continental Divide. In the cut, the channel depth measures about 13 m and it covers a distance of 13 km before reaching the Pedro Locks. The function of the locks is to lower ships 9 m to the Miraflores Lake. This is at an elevation of 16 m above normal sea level.

To get vessels to normal sea level, the ships pass through a 2 km channel to a 2-stepped Miraflores lock. This is where the ships are lowered to normal sea level.

The ending section of the canal comprises a 7-mile dredged passage, which carries ships to the Pacific Ocean. From end to end, the Panama Canal’s minimum width at the bottom is 150 m.

Below is a brief video on the functionality of this great man-made canal. 

History of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal has a long history which dates back to the early 16th century. The Spanish people realized that a canal would be a great navigation solution which would simplify the movement of goods and people across the isthmus in Central America.

Technical decisions and conclusions fell on creating one aquatic path through Panama while Nicaragua would host the other canal. By the mid-19th century, motivation for selecting the Panama route was driven from the American construction of the Panama Railroad. The canal would be built along the railroad.

Failed Earlier Attempts

Initial attempts to create the Panama Canal started in 1881. The government of Colombia awarded the contract to a private construction company under the command of a French man by name Ferdinand de Lesseps. Because of his earlier success in building the Suez Canal, Lesseps gained trust and some funding to execute the Panama Canal project

Unfortunately, Lesseps wasn’t much familiar with the Panamanian topography; it was very different from the Suez project. It took the engineering knowledge of Baron de Brusly and Lepinay to resist Lesseps from attempting to build the canal. Lepinay was well-versed with the Panamanian Isthmus.  He proposed a more feasible way to build the canal, taking into consideration the Continental Divide, the land features of Panama and rivers which could be converted into artificial lakes.

Lepinay envisioned the need for a dam to be constructed at Gatun and Miraflores. This would raise the water level to about 25m. The lakes would then be joined together by cutting through the Continental Divide. Locks would connect the canals to the oceans. Unfortunately, Lepinay’s great proposal was not taken.

Lesseps later ran out of ideas, while trying to build the Canal. Construction workers contracted diseases due to the unfavorable Panama jungle conditions. His company collapsed and the canal project wasn’t executed.

It took the intervention of America under President Roosevelt, to negotiate a treaty with Colombia before construction works on the canal resumed.

Cost of Human Labor and Completion

As mentioned earlier, tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, killed tens of thousands of French workers who attempted the construction of the Panama Canal. Even though the Americans put in adequate measures to reduce the loss of lives, misfortunes, and diseases killed over 5000 workers. A lot of the skilled laborers were American engineers.

Heavy duty machines were used for the construction. Over 100 steam shovels were used to excavate the Culera Cut. Rocks and unstable soil posed huge engineering challenges to the building of the canal. In addition to that, dynamite blasts and landslides further killed more workers.

Upon all the technical challenges and the numerous deaths, the Panama Canal was successfully completed and inaugurated in August 1914. After the first failed attempts, it took more than 30 years for engineers to finish up the project.

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