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 names.
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 (http://www.historychannel.com/).
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 (http://www.historychannel.com/).
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 location.
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 not designed to travel through the canal (and are nearly 50 feet too wide to fit inside the locks). Surprisingly, the problem over the Culebra Cut has not yet been solved – even today slides put rock and debris at the bottom of the canal, and dredges must be called in to clear the path. Even in this day of man controlling nature, we are not the masters, nor ever shall be.
The Panama Canal was, is, and shall remain the best engineering marvel of the 20th century. Never before nor since has any project accomplished the feats of mastering the elements, of engineering and construction, or of future planning as has been done at Panama. After 87 years of continuous service, it continues to be as useful as the day it became operational. An operation that was impossible only 30 years earlier. Killer diseases, high costs, seemingly impossible excavations, all faced the engineers at the Canal Zone, but one by one they were overcome until the Panama Canal alone stood out from among the rubble and invited people of the world to come and cruise her waters – a new pathway for the ever-expanding, ever-changing human race.