The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was one of the greatest
accomplishments by mankind, in my opinion. Among the great peaceful
endeavors of mankind that have contributed significantly to progress in
the world, the construction of the Canal stands as an awe-inspiring achievement.

The idea of a path between North and South America is older than their

In 1534, Charles I of Spain, ordered the
first survey of a proposed canal route through the Isthmus of Panama. More
than three centuries passed before the first construction was started.

The French labored 20 years, beginning in 1880, but disease and financial
problems defeated them (

In 1903, Panama and the United States
signed a treaty by which the United States undertook to construct an interoceanic
ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The following year, the United

States purchased from the French Canal Company its rights and properties
for $40 million and began construction. The monumental project was completed
in ten years at a cost of about $387 million. Since 1903 the United States
has invested about $3 billion in the Canal enterprise, approximately two-thirds
of which has been recovered.

The building of the Panama Canal involved
three main problems: engineering, sanitation, and organization. Its successful
completion was due principally to the engineering and administrative skills
of such men as John F. Stevens and Col. George W. Goethals, and to the
solution of extensive health problems by Col. William C. Gorgas (

The engineering problems involved digging
through the Continental Divide. Also constructing the largest earth dam
ever built up to that time; designing and building the most massive canal
locks ever envisioned; constructing the largest gates ever swung; and solving
environmental problems of enormous proportions.

Disease, in the forms of yellow fever
and malaria, put much of the work force in the hospitals or six feet underground.

Before any work could begin, the most deadly of the problems on the isthmus
had to be overcome - disease. The government wasn't going to allow
mortality rates like had been seen during the French reign - somewhere
between ten and twenty thousand were estimated to have died at the canal
zone between 1882 and 1888. For this purpose, American doctor William

Gorgas was called to examine the area. The most troublesome diseases
were the mosquito-carried malaria and yellow fever, but almost all diseases
known to man were endemic. Tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, smallpox,
bubonic plague - all were cases on file at Panama hospitals in 1904.

The rocky ground of the formerly volcanic
area proved to be too much for the French steam shovels and dredges, and
headway was made only when a plan for dynamiting the rocks underwater and
dredging up the pieces was put forth by Philippe Bunau-Varilla (who was
later to become one of the most influential individuals in the United States'
interest in the canal). Of no help was Lesseps' insistence on a sea-level
canal, like he had done at Suez, as opposed to a lock canal, while the
latter proved to be cheaper and more feasible even by reports of the time.

In 1908, changes in the design of the
canal had to be made because of unforeseen problems. The width of the canal
was increased to 300 feet (from 200 feet), and the size of the locks to
be used was increased by 15 feet (95 to 110 feet). Because of the threat
of a silt blockage at the Pacific end, a breakwater - the Naos Island breakwater
- was built using excavated dirt from the canal. Also created with the
extra soil was a military reservation on the Pacific side, but most was
dumped in the jungle wherever railroad tracks could be laid. The Pacific
locks were moved inland, both for military strategy - harder to hit from
the water - and necessity - the supports had begun to sink at the first

The canal was completed in August of 1914,
under budget by twenty-three million dollars. The first ship to cross
the isthmus was the concrete ship Cristobal, the official and publicized
ship to make the voyage was the Ancon. Unfortunately, the opening came
just as World War I started in Europe, and so the fact that the greatest
human endeavor had been completed was last on most everyone's mind. Initial
traffic on the canal was around two-thousand ships annually until the war
was over, when it jumped to five-thousand ships a year, then to seven-thousand,
and more in recent times. The toll was initially 90 cents a ton, but was
raised in 1974 due to increasing costs of operation (the canal is only
allowed to break even) to $1.08 a ton. The canal is used by almost all
interoceanic travel, either commercial or private. The only exception being
today's oil supertankers, which were