Thursday, August 14, 2008
The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, is a 50.7-mile (81.6-kilometer) passageway through the Isthmus of Panama, connecting Cristobal on the Atlantic coast and Balboa on the Pacific at the narrowest point of the landmass of the Americas. By navigating its three locks, each of which raises or lowers them 85 feet (26 meters), ships can move from ocean to ocean in about twenty-four hours; that saves the several days needed to sail the many thousands of miles around South America. The Panama Canal has been acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s greatest engineering triumphs, which displays the combined skills of an international team of structural, hydraulic, geological, and sanitary engineers.
A canal joining the oceans had been suggested as early as the sixteenth century. The conquistador Hernando Cortés proposed a route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, while others favored Nicaragua or Darién. King Charles V of Spain ordered a survey of the Isthmus of Panama in 1523, but although plans were made by 1529, the project lapsed. Several alternative schemes followed, including one of 1534 close to the present canal, but the Spanish then lost interest in the project until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1819 the government approved the construction of a canal but the revolt of Spain’s American colonies meant that control of potential sites was wrested from her. The new Central American republics took up the idea, but they had to find European or U.S. investment to realize it. The California gold rush in the mid–nineteenth century aroused U.S. interest, and a number of feasibility studies undertaken between 1850 and 1875 suggested two routes: across Panama or across Nicaragua. But the Americans were not the only ones interested.
In 1875 the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, flushed with the success of his Suez project, first announced his interest in a Central American canal. On 1 January 1880, the Panama Canal was symbolically inaugurated, and a year later French engineers employed by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique arrived at Colon on the Atlantic coast. Construction of a sea-level canal (as opposed to a lock canal) began in 1882 along the route of the 1855 Panama Railroad. But financial mismanagement, the tropical climate, and disease took their toll. The company was liquidated in February 1889 and by the following May all work had ceased. Following a scandal involving charges of bribery, de Lesseps died in France in 1894. In October of that year the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panamá was established, and work on the canal resumed.
The United States had been involved in canal projects since about 1887 with little success. In 1889 Congress chartered the Maritime Canal Co. to build a canal in either Panama or Nicaragua. Based on cost, the latter location was chosen, but within four years the company failed. At the end of the decade two successive congressional commissions favored the Nica-raguan route, but the French were seeking a buyer for their project. When the asking price dramatically fell from $100 million to $40 million, a canal in Panama became a viable alternative for Congress. The 1902 Spooner Act provided funds to buy the Compagnie Nouvelle and gave the power to negotiate a treaty with Colombia (Panama had been a Colombian province since 1821) over the canal zone. Panama soon declared its independence from Colombia—not without American help—and by early 1904 a treaty was ratified between the new nation and the United States.
The latter’s control of the canal project began in May. Work was set to resume under the management of the Isthmian Canal Commission, which decided to build a canal with locks rather than the sea-level waterway favored by de Lesseps. Before work could begin, the disease that had ravaged the French builders had to be overcome. Dr. (later Colonel) William Gorgas identified malaria and yellow fever as the most dangerous, although cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and even bubonic plague were not unknown. Gorgas took measures to destroy the mosquito population, while other medical teams treated the additional problems.
John F. Wallace, a civilian, was appointed as chief engineer. Arriving on site in June 1904, he started the excavation at Culebra Cut—a 10-mile (16-kilometer) section through the highest, most difficult terrain on the route—and work continued there for about a year. Eventually, almost 100 million cubic yards (77 million cubic meters) of earth and rock would be removed from the cut, using more than 9,600 tons (8,700 tonnes) of explosives. Dissatisfied with the logistical backup provided, Wallace complained to President Theodore Roosevelt, who replaced the commission with new members. Then, in July 1905, when the engineer again complained about his own working conditions, Roosevelt replaced him, too. He was succeeded by John F. Stevens, another civilian. When Stevens soon stated that he was not “anxious to continue in service,” Roosevelt took that as a resignation and U.S. Army Lieutenant (later Colonel) George W. Goethals was appointed in his place. Goethals carried the canal through to completion.
Under his direction, 42,000 men constructed the canal between Colon and Balboa. It comprises the channel (of course), 300 feet (92 meters) wide at the bottom and up to 1,800 feet (550 meters) wide at the top; a massive earth dam at Gatun (to provide water for the locks from what was then the world’s largest artificial lake); and a series of three locks at Gatun at the Atlantic end, a set of two more at Pedro Miguel, and another single lock at Miraflores at the Pacific end. Each of the locks is 110 feet (933.6 meters) wide and over 1,000 feet (304 meters) long. The locks and their gates were built in the United States, transported in sections, and concreted together. Water flows in and out through culverts in their walls, and double sets of doors at each end protect the canal. Railroad locomotives move the ships in and out of the locks. A breakwater at the Pacific end, constructed with the spoil from the excavation, prevents silt blockage of the mouth. Defensive works at both entrances maintain security. The widening of the Gaillard Cut was completed in 1970, allowing two-way passage of vessels through the entire waterway.
The Panama Canal was officially opened on 15 August 1914 by the passage of the S.S. Ancon, although the first vessel to cross the isthmus was in fact the Cristobal. The project was completed on time and under budget by $23 million. American costs over the ten-year construction period totaled $352 million, and it is estimated that the French had earlier spent a further $287 million. More than 80,000 people had been employed to build the canal, and it is surmised that about 30,000 died, mostly through disease. Since 1903 the United States has invested another $3 billion, of which about 65 percent has been recouped through tolls. The Panama Canal is used for almost all inter-oceanic sea traffic. At first around 2,000 ships a year navigated it; currently, the number is in the order of 15,000 and only the modern supertankers and container vessels are too wide to pass through the locks. Ships pay a toll based on tonnage, and although the cost seems high, it is much less than that of the time and fuel involved in sailing around South America.
The original Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama granted the United States a perpetual lease on a 10-mile-wide (16-kilometer) strip of land—the Canal Zone—flanking both sides of the canal. Probably for military reasons, the United States repeatedly interfered in Panama’s affairs until 1936, when it finally gave up its right to use troops outside the Canal Zone. Disputes about the canal contract continued until two new treaties were signed in 1977. They provided that the canal would be operated by the Panama Canal Commission, a U.S. government agency appointed to replace the former Panama Canal Company, from October 1979 until the end of 1999. Then control passed to Panama, in the face of vocal opposition from a largely right-wing lobby in the United States that still refers to the waterway as “United States Canal in Panama,” believing that the handover presented a serious threat to their country.