The Panama Canal

There are few engineering projects in the world that have had the impact which the Panama Canal has had on the country of Panama and world trade shipping. This man-made canal has claimed approximately 30,000 lives since inception and is recognised as one of the most difficult projects ever undertaken in the modern world. The canal may only be 48 miles in length but it has the potential to save around 8000 miles for a ship sailing from New York to San Francisco with many more routes also supported. When you consider the number of ships using this route the number of miles saved per year runs well into the millions.

The Panama Canal is now central to the success of the Panamanian economy although as we will cover in detail it has something of a controversial and rocky past.

The idea of a trade link

History shows that the earliest mention of a canal across Panama was recorded back in 1524 when the King of Spain investigated the idea of a canal to save time sailing between Spain and Peru. However, the idea was not really pushed and seemed to die a death.

In 1698 the Kingdom of Scotland attempted to create a trade link overland however like so many in the past and so many in the future the people behind the plan had failed to do their homework. The terrain was treacherous, the working conditions were impossible and the plan was dropped in 1700 however in 1855 the Panama Railway was opened and this was the catalyst for the creation of the Panama Canal (allowing displaced soil to be transported away from the region).

In January 1880 the French government, using the blueprint of the Suez Canal, began the construction of a sea level canal across Panama and while the idea was good, again they had not studied the area with geology and water supply issues come to the fore. However one of the main issues was the safety and security of the workforce which was highlighted by the fact that nearly 22,000 workers died between 1881 and 1889 with malaria and yellow fever the main diseases in prominence.

While the French government attempted to cover up the rates of death in the building of the Panama Canal the project itself died a death in 1889 as fewer and fewer workers from France and the surrounding regions were prepared to take the risk.

The real Panama Canal

Legend has it that back in 1898 the leader of the French canal syndicate, which had been at the head of the earlier failed attempt, decided to lobby US Congress with regard to the Panama Canal idea as they had been discussing a similar venture across Nicaragua. The vote in Congress was very tight and the name William Nelson Cromwell came to the fore as a lobbyist on behalf of the French syndicate.

Cromwell decided to try and sabotage the Nicaraguan venture and succeeded in doing so by spreading false rumours that a local volcano had erupted. He then contacted each and every member of Congress to peddle his lies and three days later Congress had voted through the Panama Canal option. Cromwell is said to have received a sum of $800,000 for his efforts, which back in 1902 was a very tidy sum.

The building of the Panama Canal

1903 saw the signing of a significant agreement between the United States and Panama in relation to land on which the canal would be constructed and the transfer of rights the US for this area. At the time the issue of the US controlling any area of Panama was treated with contempt by the public and riots resulted in a number of deaths. There was also an issue due to the fact that Columbia had control over Panama and could cause serious problems for the US. However, this potential problem was removed in 1904 when President Theodore Roosevelt paid the Colombian government $25 million to ensure Panama’s independence.

The project began in earnest in 1904 and under US guidance the canal was completed in 1914 an impressive two years ahead of schedule. Formally opened in August 1914 the creation of the Panama Canal has resulted in a massive change to the economy of Panama and the surrounding regions. Even though hygiene and worker accommodation had been improved markedly by the US authorities, during the construction of the canal 5609 workers still died between 1904 and 1914.

Practical issues

In the 1930s water supply became a major issue for the canal and a dam was erected purely and simply to supply the Panama Canal. The dam created the Madden Lake which has for many years acted as a storage vessel for the vital water supply.

1974 saw a number of conflicts between the US and Panamanian government in relation to the Panama Canal and the control which the US authorities still had in the region. This caused major concern for the Panamanian people and an uprising began in the late 70s. However, even though US President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement in 1977 stating that the Panamanian Canal would be transferred to the Panama government, this transfer was not completed until 31 December 1999.

As the size of shipping has increased over the years the Panama government has invested billions and billions of dollars in an attempt to increase capacity and increase income for the Panama economy. This renewed vigour with regards to improving and expanding the Canal is seen by many as one of the reasons why Panamanian property has become so sought after during the last few years.

Interesting facts on the Panama Canal

Tolls for the Panama Canal today range from $500 per vessel to hundreds of thousands of dollars and there have been a number of high-profile ships through the canal over years. The most expensive passage ever was the Disney Magic cruise liner which paid a record $331,200 in May 2008 and the lowest toll was just 36c which was charged to American adventurer Richard Haliburton who swam the canal in 1928.

Each of the lock doors in the canal weighs a massive 750 tonnes, the lock area itself is 300 metres long and the opening and closing of these devices is a marvel to watch.

It is estimated that 52,000,000 gallons of water are drained into the surrounding sea with each and every vessel which goes through the Panama Canal. Rainfall in the region is sufficient to replenish this loss of water but the patchy rain fall seasons have caused issues in the past.

While the size of the Panamanian Canal is enormous, on average there are 40 ships which pass through the canal each and every day. The quickest journey ever was just over two hours.

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