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Construction of Panama Canal

Panama Canal, also known as Canal de Panama, is a lock-type canal, owned and controlled by
the Republic of Panama. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow Isthmus
of Panama, the canal expands up to 40 miles (65 miles). The canal, which was fully constructed
in August 1914, is one of the two most-strategic artificial waterways in the world; the other one
being the Suez canal.

Before the construction of the canal, ships sailing between the east and the west coasts of the
United States had to round Cape Horn in South America to reach their destination. With the
construction of the Panama canal, the otherwise time-consuming voyages were shortened.

History of the Panama Canal

The history of the Panama Canal goes back almost to the earliest American explorers. There was
a narrow land bridge between North and South America. The American colonists found this
water passage as a great opportunity to utilize it for their own good in some way. Hence,
schemes for the construction of a canal floated around multiple times in the following years.
However, the actual construction of the Panama Canal did not begin until the 16th century.

During the Spanish era, Captain Antonio Tello de Guzman uncovered a trail crossing the isthmus
from the Gulf of Panama to Port Bello. For centuries, this trail was used by the natives for the
shipment of goods. The pathway was further improvised by the Spaniards and it eventually
became El Camino Real. However, this road became quite notorious for the looting of goods
especially the gold. A safer passage was needed to be constructed to ensure a safe and quick
transportation of goods.

In 1524, Charles V, a Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Spain, suggested that a piece of land
must be cut somewhere in Panama so that the transportation of goods could be made safe and
quick. Soon, the survey of the isthmus was ordered and a working plan for a canal was prepared
in 1529. However, the subsequent wars in Europe put the project on hold.

In the early 19th century, the interest in the construction of the Panama Canal was revived again.
Many survey plans were made during the time period of 1850 – 1875 by the Spanish
government. In 1880, a French company was appointed whose chairman was Ferdinand Marie de
Lesseps – the builder of the Suez Canal. He was placed in charge of the construction of the
Panama Canal considering the fact that he was successfully able to build the Suez Canal.

In 1879, he recommended a sea-level canal through Panama. Upon taking charge of the project,
de Lesseps organized an International Congress to plan schemes for constructing a ship canal.

The Construction
The Panama Canal was constructed in two stages – the first half of the construction was done
from 1881 – 1888 by the French company led by de Lessop while the second stage involved the
canal construction by the Americans from 1904 – 1914.

In 1885, the French company began facing financial difficulties that led the French government
to issue lottery bonds. Eventually, in 1899, the construction of the Panama Canal was brought to
a halt. The French invested about $ 25 million for the construction of the canal.

In 1904, the construction of the canal was renewed by the Americans. One of the reasons why
the French failed to complete the project was the spread of diseases in that zone and the
inadequacy of the machinery.

The Americans recommenced the construction by first improving the standard of living. A group
of American men started the work on the Culebra Cut on 11th November 1904. By December
1905, there were about 2,600 men at work. For spoil wagons, sidings and tracks were laid, the
Atlantic and Pacific portions were excavated by the workers and surveys for the construction of
dams were also conducted.

In June 1906, it was finally decided the kind of canal that would be constructed; a lock canal was
decided as it would help the river Chagres to form a lake. The Panama Canal cost Americans
around $375,000,000 in total. At that time, it was the single most expensive construction project
in the history of the United States.

The Opening of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914, with the transit of the cargo ship
Ancon. On January 7, 1914, the Alexandre La Valley, an old French boat, became the first ship
that could make a complete transit of the Panama Canal under its own steam.

After the completion of the construction, the canal workers began to disperse; most of them went
to their hometowns with the accumulated income. Eventually, the towns surrounding the area
were demolished.

On April 1, 1914, the Isthmian Canal Commission was abolished and the area came under the
rule of a new Canal Zone Governor – Colonel Goethals.

Initially, a grand opening was planned for the Panama Canal. With the outbreak of World War I,
all the festivities and celebrations were canceled and the plans for a grand opening of the Panama
Canal never happened. The first official transit of the canal took place on August 15, 1914, by
Captain John A. Constantine.

Importance of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal holds commercial as well as political importance. The canal allows shippers
of commercial goods to transport their cargos between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans quickly.
Before the completion of the canal, a ship had to cover a 14,000 mile voyage in order to reach
Cape Horn from the ports of New York and San Francisco.

But after the completion of the canal, the trip became only 6,000 miles long, saving about 8,000
miles in unnecessary travel. The Panama Canal has significantly reduced the amount of time it
took to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This has positively affected the world’s
trade and travel.

The building of the Panama Canal has helped make the U.S a world power. When Columbia
refused to sign a deal with America to build the Panama Canal, the Americans supported a
revolution which led to the creation of a new country of Panama. Americans found it signed the
treaty when Panama became a country. Now the government of Panama controls the Panama
About the Author: Amita Vadlamudi, whose resume can be found at Cakeresume site is a
former Information Technology professional. Ms. Vadlamudi currently spends her time writing
online blogs and articles. Her many works can be found on Slideshare and Strikingly websites.