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Christopher Columbus is reputed to have discovered the “New World.” What is not known by most is that he never actually stepped foot on the main land of North, Central, or South America. It was in fact Vasco Núñez de Balboa who became the first Spaniard to establish a permanent foot hold on the mainland when in 1510, he founded the settlement of Santa María la Antigua del Darién in present-day Panama. Soon thereafter, inspired by rumors of a kingdom rich in silver and gold, Balboa, in the company of Pizzaro – the future conqueror of the Incas – became the first European to see and name the Pacific Ocean when he crossed the Isthmus in 1513. From that day until the early 1800’s the thought of creating a waterway dissecting the continent and connecting the two oceans played on the mind of explorers, governments and investors alike.
Initially a canal was planned to be built through what is modern day Nicaragua but the area was deemed too prone to earth quakes to be a viable choice. Besides, the Panama concession as purchased by the US was cheaper. Coincidentally, a Chinese consortium has resurrected the Nicaragua plan with view to creating an alternate canal, but as of writing, it is more a dream than a reality.
In 1819 the Spanish authorized construction on a canal to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans through what became Panama. As numerous surveys were carried out, diplomatic and government bureaucracy continually stalled any shovel from breaking ground. It was not until 1876 when the French won the concession from Colombia – to whom modern Panama belonged at the time – to begin construction on the canal.
The man who had successfully steered the Suez Canal project to fruition, Ferdinand de Lesseps was put in charge of this equally daunting project. With him at the helm, almost $400 million was raised from investors and ordinary citizens. However, de Lesseps, despite his previous success, was not an engineer. The construction of the Suez Canal, essentially a ditch dug through a flat, sandy desert, presented few challenges; but Panama was a very different story.
Some of the geographic challenges to what would be a sea level canal were the mountain range – albeit small at 110 meters – which runs through Panama, the many rivers, and unforeseen challenges including tropical diseases such as Malaria and yellow fever. This aspect would prove to be the project’s biggest obstacle.
The disease and resulting high death toll (estimated at over 22,000 between 1881 and 1889) with little knowledge of how these diseases were contracted or treated, combined with little true engineering skill or oversight saw the project fall behind schedule. It soon began to bloat, exceeding original budgets. Fatalities increased through mud slides and floods, and work eventually shut down due to the company going bankrupt in 1889.
The horrific trials and tribulations of the project also highlighted the fact that a sea level canal was not practical and that an elevated canal with locks was the best answer.
The French tried to recuperate and a second government backed investment company was established, recommencing work. This time, however, politics would have a direct impact. Further investment in the canal company 2.0 was severely hampered by US speculation in a cheaper option, specifically a canal through Nicaragua. The French soon began looking for a way to get out of the canal. The price tag by this point was $109 million.
In 1901 a US commission recommended a canal through Nicaragua unless the French where willing to sell their concession for $40 million. Pushed into a financial corner, the French sold the concession to the US in who formally took over in 1904.
The US inherited a work in progress and began the huge task of turning the project into a functioning, viable operation. Apart from the amazing engineering aspects, the biggest contributor to the canal’s eventual success was control over the many tropical diseases that infested the area and infected the workers.
In March 1904, the Canal Commission appointed Colonel William Crawford Gorgas as head of hospitals and sanitation. Under his leadership the first two and a half years of the American canal effort were substantially dedicated to preparation, much of it making the area fit for large-scale human habitation. A significant part of this was the sanitation program put in place by Gorgas. Nearly $20 million was spent on health and sanitation during the ten years of the construction period.
In the end, these efforts were a success. By 1906, yellow fever was virtually wiped out within the Canal Zone, and the number of fatalities caused by malaria also saw a significant drop. Local hospitals were by far the best to be found anywhere in the tropics, treating some 32,000 patients every year.
The still under-construction Panama Canal became the first place visited by a sitting US president when Theodore Roosevelt checked on progress in 1906. The Canal was completed in 1913, and a grand opening planned, but the outbreak of World War 1 saw any the cancellation of any grand ceremonies. The Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon, piloted by Captain John A. Constantine, the Canal’s first pilot, made the first official transit of the canal on August 15, 1914. There were no international dignitaries in attendance.
The final canal cut through the continental divide 77km from one sea to the other. It created two artificial lakes plus 12 locks (pairs), and now saves each vessel the 7,872 mile journey around Cape Horn. It was a true modern wonder of the world!
In 1999, US control of the Canal itself and the surrounding lands associated with the canal ended, and the Panamanian government and its people took control of the canal system.
The canal is one of the busiest waterways in the world and a crucial cross road for trade. The technology conceived of in the early 1900s still functions to this day and the canal is rarely shut down. But as the world grows smaller through technology, advancements in ship building have recently seen the need for an expansion of the canal to accommodate new, larger ships. This expansion was completed in 2016 and doubled traffic through the canal.
The canal’s history has been one of political turmoil as well as personal challenges; from the politicians who conceived the idea to the engineers and laborers who constructed the canal, many of whom lost their life in the process. The result is one of modern man’s most amazing achievements that not only cut a continent in two, but opened the door to a world of trade, travel, and commerce.
If Balboa were to stand today, knee deep in the newly discovered Pacific Ocean as he did in 1513, and look back to see what had come to pass with the construction of the canal, not only would he think – “Now, that would have made the trip easier!” – but also how far his trek had led the modern world on its own quest of discovery.
Canal Zone in square miles: 436
Length of Canal from Atlantic to Pacific: 51 miles
Width of the Canal Zone: 10 miles
Time to transit Canal: 8-10 hours
Number of ships crossing daily: 40
Number of ships crossing each year: 12-15 thousand
The highest toll paid for a transit through the Panama Canal until 1995 was paid by the vessel Crown Princess on May 2, 1993; it was US$141,349.97.
With the expanded Canal tolls can now reach up to $829, 468.00. This amount was paid by the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines-operated MOL Benefactor for a northbound transit of the canal on July 1, 2016.
The lowest toll paid was US$ 0.36 and was paid by Richard Halliburton who crossed the Canal swimming in 1928.
The San Juan Prospector was the longest ship to transit the Canal. It was 751 ft (229 m) in length with a 107 ft (32.6 m) beam.
The Hydrofoil Pegasus of the United States Navy did the fastest transit of the Canal by completing it in 2 hours and 41 minutes.
Each door of the locks weights: 750 tons
Time of passage through locks: 3 hours
Maximum bottom width of the channel: 1000 feet
Minimum bottom width of the channel at Culebra Cut: 300 feet
Number of locks in pairs: 12
Locks, usable length: 1000 feet
Locks, usable width: 164 square miles
Amount of water filling each lock: 52 million gallons
Gatun Lake (area): 164 square miles
Gatun Lake is at a nominal: 85 feet above the Pacific Level
The draft of vessels using the canal is limited to 40 feet when the lake is at 85 feet.
The channels are maintained to a depth greater than 40 feet to a nominal 45 foot depth.
Some areas in Gatun Lake where the old Chagres River channel ran are considerably deeper than 45 feet.
During periods of heavy rainfall and there is a surplus of was, Gatun Lake is maintained at a level of not greater than 87 feet.
Gatun Lake level is controlled at the Gatun Dam both through a hydropower generating plant and over spillways at the dam.
During periods of sparse rainfall, Gatun Lake is maintained to the 85 foot by releasing water through Madden Dam flowing down the Chagres River to where it meets the lake at Gamboa.
There have been occasions of extremely dry weather (low rainfall) where it has become impossible to maintain the 85 foot level. During those relatively rare occasions, it has been necessary to limit the draft of transiting vessels.
In the case of bulk carriers operating at maximum drafts, the canal gives two weeks notice of any draft restrictions, thereby allowing the ships to compensate for the draft limitation.
Gatun Lake (normal surface level above sea level): 85 feet
Culebra Cut (channel depth): 45 feet
Amount of excavation by Americans: 232,353,000 cubic yards
Total concrete for canal: 5,000,000 cubic yards
Weight of 1 cubic yard of concrete: 1.5 tons
Estimated cost of the Panama Canal built by U.S: $375 million
Toll charge for Disney Magic cruise ship in 2008: $313,200
Tide on the Pacific side: 20 feet
Tide on the Atlantic side: 2.5 feet
Average rainfall on Atlantic side: 130 inches
Average rainfall on Pacific side: 70 inches
Estimated cost for expansion of the Panama Canal: $5.25 billion
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