A man stands in one of the canal locks. 1912.
The concept of a canal through Panama dates back to the 16th century. It was suggested to Charles V in 1524 that by cutting out a piece of land somewhere in Panama, the journeys could be shorter, and the danger of taking the treasures through the Cape would rationalize such an enterprise. This was after it was determined that Peru, Ecuador, and Asia were rich in resources, and after, it was also determined how long it took for the gold to reach the ports of Spain.
After the isthmus was surveyed in 1529, a plan for building a canal was made. The project has been put on permanent pause because of the wars in Europe and the intense competition for control of the kingdoms around the Mediterranean Sea.
Between 1850 and 1875, many surveys were done. The results showed that only two routes were possible: one went through Panama, and the other went through Nicaragua. In 1878, the International Company for the Interoceanic Canal bought the rights to build a version of the canal in Panama. This endeavor was inspired by the construction of the Suez Canal, which took ten years to complete.
The Colombian government authorized the undertaking, which at the time controlled Panama. Ferdinand de Lesseps headed the fundraising efforts. Because of his accomplishments with the Suez Canal, he collected millions of dollars for the new venture. As soon as the engineers began working on the canal’s construction, it became clear that this endeavor would be significantly more challenging than digging a sea-level ditch through a sandy desert.
The terrain of the isthmus was solid, rocky, and mountainous in some places, even though it was only about 40 miles broad at its narrowest point. The suggested path of the canal would go through territory already occupied by mighty rivers, which would have to be relocated. And maybe most importantly, workers were exposed to tropical diseases, a major health risk.
Despite this, de Lesseps continued with an upbeat plan for a sea-level waterway to be finished in only six years at an estimated cost of 120 million dollars. It was decided to get 40,000 men to work on the project. Almost all of them would come from the West Indies, but some engineers would come from France.1881 was the year construction started.
A map of the planned canal. 1910.
The endeavor was a complete and utter failure. It was immediately clear that a canal at sea level could not be constructed, and it became clear that the only feasible plan was to construct sets of locks that would connect to an elevated canal. De Lesseps remained adamantly committed to the scheme involving the sea level. During this time, construction workers and architects fell victim to diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery, and frequent floods and mudslides hampered the process.
When the proposal to install raised locks was finally approved, it was too late to save the ship. An estimated 22,000 workers had perished. The project had fallen behind schedule for many years and exceeded its budget by hundreds of millions. The corporation declared bankruptcy and went out of business, leaving 800,000 investors destitute. In 1893, de Lesseps was found guilty of deception and maladministration, and he passed away two years later in a state of public shame.
In 1902, due to the deliberations of the United States Isthmian Canal Commission and the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States paid $40 million to acquire the assets of France located in the canal zone.
The United States of America, through its military weight behind a movement for Panamanian independence after a proposed treaty over rights to build in a territory belonging to Colombia was rejected, ultimately negotiated a deal with Panama’s newly established government.
French employees of the Panama Canal Company pose for a photograph. 1885.
On November 6, 1903, the United States of America acknowledged the Republic of Panama. On November 18, 1903, the United States and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which granted the United States exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. In return, Panama was given $10 million and an annual annuity payment of $250,000, commencing nine years later.
The treaty, negotiated by United States Secretary of State John Hay and French engineer Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, was denounced by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country’s new national sovereignty. John Hay and Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla negotiated the treaty.
The Americans began an intensive campaign to eradicate mosquitoes to combat the same health issues plaguing the French. (The hypothesis that mosquitoes spread malaria was still in its inception.) This resulted in a significant decrease in the number of sick days and an increase in overall productivity.
After a few years of struggling with insufficient equipment and infrastructure, the excavation finally picked up speed, and the canal started forming. The Changres River was blocked using the Gatun Dam, which created Gatun Lake, the biggest artificial lake at the time. The lake occupies one side of the isthmus and is 21 miles long, making it possible for ships to travel the entire length.
Workers gather to receive their wages. 1885.
The canal’s Atlantic and Pacific sides contain massive sets of locks built during its construction. Ships could ascend to the elevation of Gatun Lake and the canal, which is 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level, by transiting through a succession of chambers in these locks with variable water levels. These locks were 110 feet wide.
The Culebra Cut required the most labor, as it was nearly eight miles long and reached 210 feet (64 meters) above mean sea level. This was the most difficult part of the project. It took 27,000 metric tons of dynamite to break up more than 100 million cubic yards of earth, which was removed using steam shovels and railroads.
Unpredictable landslides plagued the excavation due to a misjudgment of the composition of the geological layers. These landslides would sometimes take months to clear away. The mountain’s peak was originally 210 feet (64 meters) above sea level, but by the time the excavation was finished in 1913, it had been reduced to 39 feet (12 meters) above sea level.
Jamaican laborers push a wagon of earth along a narrow-gauge railroad. 1885.
The first successful attempt to navigate a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific waters was made on December 10, 1913. The first vessel to successfully navigate the waterway was the French crane boat Alexandre La Valley, which did so on Jan 7, 1914. Approximately 15,000 ships annually, and 4% of all global commerce travel through the canal. There are discussions to construct an additional set of wider locks and a competing waterway that will go through Nicaragua.
For a cruise ship, the sum of $142,000 was the highest toll that has ever been demanded as payment for passage. The least amount, $0.36, was awarded to the daredevil Richard Halliburton, who, in 1928, successfully swam the waterway through the locks.
In the 20th century, the expansion of global commerce routes was greatly facilitated by the Panama Canal’s construction, which was significantly boosted by the construction of Madden Dam in 1935. In 1977, then-President of the United States Jimmy Carter and then-President of Panama Omar Torrijos signed a treaty that marked the beginning of the transition to local oversight. On December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal Authority assumed complete canal control.
In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the canal one of the seven marvels of the modern world. In September of 2010, the canal saw its one millionth passing ship.
Workers clear the earth by hand. 1900.
A man stands near dredging equipment abandoned by the French. 1906.
President Theodore Roosevelt sits in the cab of a crane during a visit to the canal construction site. 1906.
Interest in a U.S.-led canal effort arose when France abandoned the project.
A dredge removes sediment after a landslide in the Culebra Cut. 1907.
American engineers sent by President Roosevelt. 1908.
Earth is excavated at the site of the Gatun Locks. 1907.
A railroad is displaced after a landslide. 1910.
A mosquito exterminator at work in the canal zone. 1910.
A man stands on the west bank overlooking the construction of the Pedro Miguel Locks. 1910.
President William Howard Taft (left) visits the Gatun Locks with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (seated right) and Chief Engineer Colonel George Goethals (standing right). 1910.
The Miraflores lower locks are under construction. 1912.
A view of the Culebra Cut from the west bank. 1912.
U.S. success hinged on two factors. The first was converting the original French sea-level plan to a more realistic lock-controlled canal.
A view of the upper locks of the Gatun Locks, looking north toward the Atlantic Ocean. 1912.
One of the deepest points of the Culebra Cut. 1913.
By August 1907, 765,000 m cube (1,000,000 cubic yards) per month was being excavated; this set a record for the rainy season; soon afterward, this doubled before increasing again. At the production peak, 2,300,000 m cubes (3,000,000 cubic yards) were excavated monthly.
One of the greatest barriers to a canal was the continental divide, which originally rose to 110 meters (360.9 ft) above sea level at its highest point. The effort to cut through this rock barrier was one of the greatest challenges faced by the project.
The scale of the work was massive. Six thousand men worked in the cut, drilling holes in which 27,000 t (60,000,000 lb) of dynamite were placed to break up the rock (which was then removed by as many as 160 trains per day).
Workers contend with the aftermath of a landslide. 1913.
Workers take a break atop the canal locks. 1913.
Trains and cranes intersect at the Pedro Miguel Locks. 1913.
Locks under construction. 1913.
Engineers stand in front of the massive gates of the canal locks. 1913.
The Gatun Locks are under construction between the Atlantic Ocean and Gatun Lake. 1913.
Men look on as dredges clear the results of a landslide at Cucaracha. 1914.
The spillway of the Gatun Dam impounds the manmade Gatun Lake, a major section of the canal. 1913.
The dike separating the canal from the Atlantic Ocean is blasted away. 1913.
The Panama Canal is under construction. 1913.
Two artificial lakes are key parts of the canal: Gatun and Miraflores Lakes. Four dams were constructed to create them.
The gates of the Miraflores Locks are open for testing. 1913.
The tugboat U.S. Gaton is the first to traverse the Gatun Locks. 1913.
The S.S. Kronland traverses the canal. 1915.
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