The Panama Canal: A story of blood, sweat and rebellion

December 16, 2016

The Panama Canal, one of the 20th Centuries greatest engineering achievements. This not so humble piece of infrastructure connects 160 countries and 1,700 ports across the planet.

Officially opened on 15th August 1914, the Panama Canal is an American-built waterway across the Isthmus of Panama. The canal is a 50-mile long passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans enabling shipping to “shortcut” between the two. Before the opening of the canal, ships would need to make the treacherous route around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. The canal, which uses a system of locks to lift ships 85 feet above sea level, was the largest engineering project of its time.

panama-canal-298972_960_720[Image Source: Pixabay]

If at first you don’t succeed

The idea of building a canal across Panama is not a new one. In 1513 the Spanish Explorer Vasco Nunez de Balbao discovered that the Isthmus of Panama was but a slim land bridge separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

This discovery triggered a quest to search for a natural waterway linking these two great oceans. Following several decades of fruitless searching, Charles V (the then Holy Roman Emperor), commissioned a survey to ascertain if building one was possible. Much to his disappointment, the surveyors at the time were unconvinced it could be done.

In the ensuing centuries, various nations attempted to pick up the ball but a serious attempt wasn’t made until the 1880’s. In 1881 the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, broke ground to attempt to build a crossing. Plagued with poor planning, engineering issues, and tropical diseases, thousands of laborers met their untimely end. De Lesseps plan was complete the project at sea level, eliminating the need for locks but the geography and geology had other ideas. Frustrated by this the French team recruited Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame, to design and create the lock system needed for the canal.

panama[Image Source: ChantYip/Youtube]

The complexity of the project ended with the De Lesseps company filing for bankruptcy in 1889, having sunk 260 Million USD into the project. The venture’s failure was a scandalous event back at home in France with De Lesseps, Eiffel and other executives indicted for fraud and mismanagement. They were sentenced, which was later overturned. De Lesseps died in 1894. That same year, a new French company was formed to take over the assets of the bankrupt business and continue the canal; however, this second firm soon abandoned the endeavor as well.

Step aside we can handle this

The United States had shown great interest in a trans-American canal for economic and military reasons had originally considered one in Nicaragua. They were persuaded otherwise by one Phillipe-Jean Banua-Varilla (a French engineer involved in the previously failed French attempts).

In the late 1890’s Bunau-Varilla began lobbying American lawmakers to buy the French canal assets in Panama. He eventually convinced a number of them that Nicaragua had dangerous volcanoes, making Panama the safer choice.

Congress authorized the purchase of the former French assets in 1902, but there was one small problem. Panama was at that time part of Colombia who refused to ratify the agreement. Monsieur Banua-Varilla wouldn’t take no for an answer and unbelievably Panamanians actually revolted and won their independence from Columbia.

Soon after the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed giving America the right to a zone of more the 500 square miles in which to the build the canal. Under the treaty, the zone was to be an American protectorate for perpetuity.

All told, the United States would shell out some $375 million to build the canal, which included a $10 million payment to Panama as a condition of the 1903 treaty, and $40 million to buy the French assets.

The Nicaraguan option is still on the table 100 years on with Chinese company announcing that is has struck a 40 Billion USD deal to begin its construction.

You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet

It is estimated that the construction of the canal cost more than 25,000 workers. These unfortunate souls had to contend with challenging terrain, hot, humid weather, heavy rainfall and ferocious tropical diseases. The French effort tallying around 20,000 with the American attempt (between 1904 and 1913) somewhere in the region of 5,600 workers.

Most of these deaths resulted from yellow fever and malaria during the French attempt. The American attempt fared better as medical knowledge had improved significantly. The understanding of sanitation, including draining of mosquito breeding grounds which significantly reduced the spread of the disease during the project.

Use it or lose it

Every year between 13 and 14 thousand ships traverse the canal. On average it takes between 8 and 10 hours to pass through. American ships make up the bulk of the users followed by China, Chile, Japan, Columbia and South Korea. A toll must be paid for each transit which is based on the ship size and cargo volume. For large ships, this can be 450 thousand USD.

The smallest fee was paid by Richard Halliburton who paid a penny 36 cents (though he did swim it). Today, some $1.8 billion in tolls are collected annually.

Ship captains aren’t allowed to transit the canal on their own; instead, a specially trained canal pilot takes navigational control of each vessel to guide it through the waterway.

In 2010, the 1 millionth vessel crossed the canal since it first opened in 1914.

panama-canal-42639_960_720[Image Source: Pixabay]

Pass it on

In 1999, USA rescinded control of the canal to Panama. This was a less than charitable act, however.

There have been simmering tensions since the canal opened. Panamanians rioted in 1964 after being prevented from flying their flag next to the US one in the zone. In the aftermath, Panama temporarily ceased diplomatic relations with the US.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos of Panama signed treaties that transferred control of the canal to Panama in 1999 but gave the United States the right to use military force to defend the waterway against any threat to its neutrality.

Back to the future

As successful as the canal has been it is unable to handle modern mega ships.

Work began to expand the canal system in order to accommodate post-Panamax vessels in 2007. Panamax being those ships to exceed the dimensions of the canal. Previously ships were typically designed to fit the locks of the canal which are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. This was completed in June 2016.

Once complete the new expanded canal will be able to handle larger cargo vessel carrying 14,000 20-foot containers. This is nearly three times larger than the current capacity. This expansion program consists of new larger locks and widening and deepening of the current channels. The expansion will allow many modern ships to use the canal, super-sized cargo vessels such as Maersk’s Triple E Class Ships will still be excluded.



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