Building the Panama Canal

More than a century after its completion, the Panama Canal remains an impressive feat of engineering. It took the U.S. government more than a decade and $352 million to dig the "Big Ditch," but its inauguration was the culmination of a human drama that spanned centuries and claimed thousands of lives. As early as 1524, King Carlos V of Spain envisioned an interoceanic canal, and he had Panama surveyed for routes where it might be dug, though it soon became clear that the task was too great to attempt. It wasn't until 1880 that the French tried to make that dream a reality, but the job turned out to be tougher than they'd imagined. The Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who'd recently overseen construction of the Suez Canal, intended to build a sea-level canal similar to the Suez, which would have been almost impossible given the mountain range running through Panama. But a different obstacle thwarted the French enterprise: Panama's swampy, tropical environment. More than 20,000 workers died of tropical diseases during the French attempt, which together with mismanagement of funds drove the project bankrupt by 1889.

The United States, whose canal-building enterprise was spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, purchased the French rights for $40 million, and went to work in 1904. Using recent advances in medical knowledge, the Americans began their canal effort with a sanitation campaign led by Dr. William Gorgas that included draining of swamps and puddles, construction of potable water systems, and other efforts to combat disease. Another improvement over the French strategy was the decision to build locks and create a lake 85 feet above sea level. For the biggest construction effort since the building of the Great Wall of China, tens of thousands of laborers were brought in from the Caribbean islands, Asia, and Europe to supplement the local workforce. Some 6,000 workers lost their lives to disease and accidents during the American effort, which, when added to the deaths during the French attempt, is more than 500 lives lost for each mile of canal.

The most difficult and dangerous stretch of the canal to complete was Gaillard Cut through the rocky Continental Divide. Thousands of workers spent seven years blasting and digging through that natural barrier, which consumed most of the 61 million pounds of dynamite detonated during canal construction. The countless tons of rock removed were used to build the Amador Causeway.

By the time the SS Ancon became the first ship to transit the Panama Canal in August 15, 1914, numerous records and engineering innovations had been accomplished. One of the biggest tasks was the damming of the Chagres River with the Gatún Dam, a massive earthen wall 1½ miles long and nearly a mile thick. It was the largest dam in the world when built, and the reservoir it created, Gatún Lake, was the largest man-made lake. The six sets of locks, which work like liquid elevators that raise and lower ships the 85 feet between Gatún Lake and the sea, were also major engineering feats.

Each lock chamber is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide—measurements that have governed shipbuilding ever since and gave the industry the term "Panamax"—and water flows in and out of them by gravity, so there are no pumps. Fears that the canal would fall into disrepair with the changing of the guard at the turn of the millennium never materialized, and experts have credited Panama for its forward-thinking administration and maintenance of the facility. Panama has also made the canal more tourist-friendly than it ever was during the U.S. administration, a boon to you, dear visitor, as you view it in action. A $5.2-billion construction of new pairs of locks to complement Miraflores and Gatún began in 2007 and will allow larger post-Panamax ships, now 7% of the world's shipping fleet, to use the canal. It remains an innovative and vital link in the global economy, and a monument to the ingenuity and industriousness of the people who built it.

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