The Panama Canal is an artificial 51 mi (82 km) waterway in Panama that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. The canal slices across the Isthmus of Panama and is a channel for maritime trade. One of the most significant and most challenging engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut dramatically reduces the time for ships to travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, allowing them to avoid the long, precarious Cape Horn route around the southern tip of South America via the Strait of Magellan or the Drake Passage and the even less conventional route through the Bering Strait and the Arctic Archipelago.
History of the Panama Canal
The Panama canal idea dates back to 1513 CE when Vasco Núñez de Balboa first passed the isthmus. The small land bridge between North and South America holds the Panama Canal, a water passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The earliest European colonists saw this potential, and they made numerous proposals for a canal.
By the nineteenth century CE, commercial pressure and technological advances allowed the channel installation to start in earnest. Well-known canal designer Ferdinand de Lesseps led an original attempt by France to create a sea-level canal. Beset by price overruns due to the drastic underestimation of the obstacles in digging the rough Panama land, political corruption in France surrounding the extensive project financing, and substantial personnel losses in Panama due to tropic diseases, the canal was only partially complete.
Interest in a massive U.S.-led canal work picked up as soon as France dropped the ambitious project. At first, the Panama site was politically damaging in the U.S. for various reasons, including the shame of the failed French efforts and the Colombian government’s vengeful attitude towards the U.S. carrying forward the project. The U.S. first attempted to construct an utterly new canal through Nicaragua instead.
French financier and engineer Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla played a crucial role in shaping U.S. attitudes. Bunau-Varilla had a significant stake in the failed French canal company and stood to earn money on his investment only if the Panama Canal was finished. Widespread lobbying of U.S. lawmakers coupled with his backing of a nascent liberation movement among the Panamanian tribes led to a synchronous revolution in Panama and the negotiation of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which ensured both freedom for Panama and the right for the U.S. to lead a revamped effort to build the canal. Colombia’s response to the Panamanian freedom movement was strengthened by U.S. military presence; the move is often cited as a typical example of the period of gunboat diplomacy.
American success hinged on a couple of factors. First was transforming the initial French sea-level plan to a more practical lock-controlled canal. The second was checking disease, which decimated management and workers alike under the initial French attempt. The first chief engineer John Frank Stevens made much of the infrastructure required for later construction; gradual progress on the canal itself led to George Washington Goethals’ replacement. Goethals managed the bulk of the canal’s excavation, including naming Major David du Bose Gaillard to supervise the most demanding project, the Culebra Cut, through the route’s roughest terrain. Almost as significant as the engineering advances were the healthcare advances made during the development, led by William C. Gorgas, a specialist in restricting the spread tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Gorgas was one of the first to understand the role of mosquitoes in the spread of these infections, and by focusing on controlling the mosquitoes considerably raised worker’s health and hygiene conditions.
On 7 January 1914 CE, the French crane ship Alexandre La Valley became the first to make the traverse. On 1 April 1914 CE, the foundation was officially completed with the project’s hand-over from the construction company to the Canal Zone administration.