Amazing Engineering – Panama Canal

Amazing Engineering is an introduction to the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, a list of modern engineering marvels compiled by the American Society of Engineers (ASCE):

By now, you may be familiar with our previous pages on the subject. In the first installment, we learned a little bit about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. In part two, we traveled out of the United States to northwestern Europe to learn about the Netherlands North Sea Protection Works. After that, we headed to South America where we learned about the Itaipu Dam on the borders of Brazil and Paraguay. After that, we traveled to Canada to learn about the CN Tower in Toronto. We then traveled the Channel Tunnel, which connects England and France under the English Channel. Last time, we made our way back to the United States to learn about the Empire State Building in New York. Today, we finish out our series by heading south to the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal project has been described as “one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.”

The Canal itself is a 48-mile ship canal in Panama (Central America) that connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The construction of this route was beneficial to the shipping trade because ships would no longer have to travel around the southernmost tip of South America to reach a destination.

Ideas for a shipping route cut through the Isthmus of Panama (the narrow strip of land linking North America to South America) surfaced as early as the 16th century when Charles V, King of Spain, ordered a survey to find quicker traveling routes in order to obtain a military advantage.

Over time, other countries showed interest in finding a quicker route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but it wasn’t until the discovery of gold in California that the interest prompted the construction of a railway which opened in 1855. While this link over land was beneficial to the trade industry, a water link was still see as the ideal option.

In 1877, two French engineers surveyed the route and drafted a proposal for the construction of a canal. Thanks to backing by Ferdinand de Lesseps, diplomat and developer, France began its first attempt at construction of a canal in 1881. However, due to poor foresight of the local conditions (the area was Colombian land at the time), many lost their lives mostly to yellow fever and malaria (although venomous snakes, insects, and spiders were also a danger).

Even though the death rate of workers was as high as 200 per month, de Lesseps continued funneling in more workers from France to keep the construction going. In 1889, after more than 800,000 investors spent reportedly $287 million and an estimated 22,000 lives were lost, the project ran out of money.

Five years later, another company sought to take over the project, but by this time the United States was interest in establishing a canal. During the negotiation process, Roosevelt and the United States backed a Panamanian rebellion that led to the establishment of Panama as its own country.

The United States formally took control of the canal property in May of 1904 and established the Isthmian Canal Commission to oversee construction. Major projects followed, including the rebuilding of housing and other important communal buildings to entice workers needed for the project. Also, measures were implemented to minimize the spread of the diseases that plagued the French workers in the past.

The Panama Canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914.

Over time, there have been projects to improve and update the canal, with the most recent being a project to add a third set of locks which is estimated to be completed in 2016.

Other Facts:

  • Before the construction of the Panama Canal, a journey between New York and San Francisco, California (by water) measured about 13,000 miles and took months to complete
  • The sea level at the Pacific side is about 8 inches higher than that of the Atlantic side due to differences in ocean conditions, such as water densities and weather
  • The Panama Canal currently serves more than 144 of the world’s trade routes
  • The increasing rate of melting ice in the Arctic Ocean has led to speculation that the Northwest Passage or Arctic Bridge may become a more viable route for commercial shipping between Asia and Europe, as opposed to the Panama Canal
  • In December 2010, record-breaking rains caused a 17-hour closure of the Canal–the first since the United States invasion of Panama in 1989
  • Tolls for the canal of based on vessel type, size, and type of cargo carried. The average toll for a ship using the canal is around $54,000. The highest paid toll:  $375,000. The lowest toll:  $0.36, paid by an American swimmer who swam the canal in 1928


Credits and Other Links of Interest:

Panama Canal Authority – Homepage

Twitter – Panama Canal

Instagram – Canal de Panama

flickr – Canal de Panama

Visit Canal de Panama (en espanol)

The Atlantic – Expanding the Panama Canal

PBS – Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal

History – 7 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Panama Canal – Wikipedia

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