The Panama Canal: A Story of Blood, Sweat and Rebellion

The history of the Panama Canal is a very long and interesting one.
Christopher McFadden

The Panama Canal is one of the 20th century's greatest engineering achievements. This not-so-humble piece of infrastructure connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific across the Isthmus of Panama, saving travel time and costs for countries and companies around the world.  

Officially opened on 15th August 1914, the Panama Canal is a waterway, constructed first by France and then the US, across the Isthmus of Panama. The canal is a 50-mile (80.4 km) long passage that enables ships to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America, and the even less popular route through the Arctic Archipelago and the Bering Strait.


The canal, which uses a system of locks to lift ships 85 feet (26 mt) above sea level, was the largest and most ambitious engineering project of its time.

What is the history of the Panama Canal?

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

This discovery triggered a quest for a natural waterway linking these two 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 not convinced it could be done.

In the ensuing centuries, various nations attempted to pick up the ball but no serious attempt was made until the 1880s. In 1881 the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, broke ground in their attempt to build a crossing. Plagued with poor planning, engineering issues, and tropical diseases, thousands of laborers met their untimely demise. De Lesseps's plan was to complete the project at sea level, eliminating the need for locks but the geography and geology had other ideas.

Although the Panama Canal needed to be only 40 percent as long as the Suez Canal, it was much more of an engineering challenge, due to the combination of tropical rain forests, debilitating climate, the need for canal locks, and the lack of any ancient route to follow.

De Lesseps had visited the site only a few times, and only during the dry season which lasts just four months of the year. As a result, his men were totally unprepared for the torrents of the rainy season. On top of this, the dense jungle contained venomous snakes, insects, and spiders, along with yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases. Thousands of workers died, and by 1884, the death rate was over 200 per month.

Frustrated by this, the French team recruited Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame, to design and create the lock system needed for the canal.

panama canal lock
Source: haluk ermis/Flickr

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 home in France, with De Lesseps, Eiffel, and other executives indicted for misappropriation of funds.

De Lesseps and his son were convicted and sentenced to five years in jail, although this 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.

When was the Panama Canal built?

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

In the late 1890s, 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.

panama canal ship
Source: haluk ermis/Flickr

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, which refused to ratify the agreement. Monsieur Bunau-Varilla and the U.S. government wouldn't take no for an answer, and support was given to Panamanian rebels who wanted to win independence from Columbia. With U.S. support and troops, the rebels overthrew the Columbian government, and Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903.

Soon after, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed, giving America the right to a zone of more the 500 square miles (1,300 sq km) in which to 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.

Surprisingly, the Nicaraguan option is still on the table today, 100 years on, with a Chinese company announcing that it had struck a 40 billion USD deal to begin construction of a canal there.

How long did the Panama Canal take to build?

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

panama canal bridge
Source: John6536/Flickr

Most of the deaths during the French attempt resulted from yellow fever and malaria. The American attempt fared better, as medical knowledge had improved significantly. There was a better understanding of sanitation, in particular, including the need to drain mosquito breeding grounds, which significantly reduced the spread of the disease during the project.

How much does it cost to cross the Panama Canal?

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 36 cents (7p) to swim the canal. 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 busy
Source: Victor/Flickr

Who owns the Panama Canal?

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

There had been simmering tensions between the US and Panama 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 in 2007 to expand the canal system in order to accommodate post-Panamax vessels. Post-Panamax are those ships which 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. But as shipping has grown, the need for larger ships, to carry more cargo, has also grown. The new works were completed in June 2016.

Once completed, the newly expanded canal was able to handle larger cargo vessels carrying 14,000 20-foot containers. This is nearly three times larger than the current capacity and doubled the Canal's capacity.

This expansion program consisted of new larger locks and widening and deepening of existing channels. The expansion has allowed many modern ships to use the canal, although some super-sized cargo vessels, such as Maersk's Triple E Class Ships will still be excluded.

And that, as they say, is a wrap.

The history of the Panama Canal is a very long, and interesting one. Its construction has inspired revolutions, cost many lives, and is, today, one of the most important waterways in the world. 

Never again will you look at the canal in the same way.

Correction: This article has been updated. The canal expansion part of the text previously lacked the prefix "post" which was inadvertently left out, leading to confusion. IE regrets this error.

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