Panama Canal

Officially opened in August 1914, the 77-kilometer channel joins the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean at the isthmus of Panama. It made the world smaller.

A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama!

"There is no humaine power able to beat and break down these strong and impenetrable mountains.... Those who seek to build a canal should fear punishment from heaven, in seeking to correct the workes, which the creator by his great providence hath ordained."
Jesuit scholar Josephus Acostus, 1625

"The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization."
"The Path Between the Seas"
David McCullough

Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Panama Canal is perhaps the most crucial piece of infrastructure supporting the free flow of trade and goods in the Western hemisphere. Ships passing through the lakes and locks travel approximately 51 miles between the Atlantic Ocean entrance and the Pacific Ocean entrance, eliminating the lengthy and often precarious 8000-nautical-mile trip around South America's Cape Horn. The economy and stability of the region largely depends on the safe transport of the more of 235 million tons of cargo that transits through the canal every year.

Ever since Balboa crossed the Central American isthmus and named the Pacific Ocean in 1513, the world's seafaring countries have dreamed of a passage that would broach the thin isthmus that separates the two great oceans. Engineers soon began to explore the challenge. Where to build such a canal? How shall it be excavated? What shall be done with the rock? They returned to these questions again and again over the next 250 years, developing plans that relied on the power of new technologies such as the steam shovel.

Among the great peaceful endeavors of mankind that have contributed significantly to progress in the world, the construction of the Canal stands as an awe-inspiring achievement. The unparalled engineering triumph was made possible by an international work force under the leadership of American visionaries, who made the centuries-old dream of uniting the two great oceans a reality.

In 1903, the United States entered into the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama for the perpetual use, occupation, and control of a 10-mile-wide piece of land across Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans to construct and defend a canal. The United States purchased the rights to construct a canal through Panama for $40 million from the French Canal Company (FCC), which had attempted to construct and finance a sea-level canal, only to fail two decades after starting construction in 1880. The United States paid the Republic of Panama $10 million and an annual annuity of $250,000 to build and use the land on which the canal was constructed. The annuity gave the United States the rights to operate the canal in perpetuity.

The U.S. government needed 10 years and $387 million to design and construct the canal, which opened in 1914. Between 1903 and 1999, the United States invested $3 billion to modernize and update the canal, but recovered more than two-thirds of that investment. To construct the canal, the United States had to overcome engineering, sanitation, and organizational challenges.

Engineering the canal required extensive digging through the Continental Divide, building the largest dam at the time, installing enormous canal locks and gates, and obtaining adequate water storage for the system to function.

Disease had been a major problem for the French Canal Company (FCC) during its construction attempt. The United States implemented sanitation and insect-control programs around the Canal Zone to reduce deaths related to disease. An estimated 25,000 people died of disease and accidents during the entire construction period.

An extensive organization was also required to design the canal, allocate funds for construction, coordinate labor, and attend to visitors.

The Panama Canal opened to oceangoing vessels on Aug. 15, 1914. Its benefit to world trade was as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For the United States, the canal meant a quicker trip by water between New York and San Francisco. Before the canal, there were only three feasible routes: sailing around Cape Horn, a 67-day, 12,000-mile journey; sailing to Panama's narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (the present location of the canal), where passengers and cargo were unloaded and transported over the isthmus and the Continental Divide to the other ocean, then reloaded on another ship to complete the journey; or a transcontinental journey across North America.

Between 1914 and 1999, the United States operated the canal, managed the land extending 5 miles on either side of it (the Canal Zone), and set tolls for transiting vessels through the Panama Canal Company - the U.S. organization that operated the canal at that time. The canal stood as a monument to human ingenuity and perseverance. Although the need for the canal was obvious 400 years before, the task eluded the grasp of the world's finest engineers until the technology existed. It was completed as a result of the confluence of ideas and technology, after yellow fever had been conquered in Havana, after the transcontinental railroad boom had provided the heavy machinery requisite for the work, and after U.S. engineers had devised a canal with locks.

The canal's purpose is to allow vessels of various types and sizes to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Bulk ships carry homogeneous commodities, containerships transport unitized containers loaded with numerous commodities and products, and tankers carry bulk liquid products. Military vessels, such as battleships and submarines, use the canal during deployment. Passenger ships carry vacationing tourists, and mariners take their yachts, sailboats, and other personal water craft through the canal

Each time a vessel passes through the Canal, it uses 52 million gallons of fresh water. That is over 1.5 billion gallons of water to move an average of 32 vessels through the Canal each day. This water comes from the abundant 130 inches of rain that annually falls in Panama's rainforest. Historically, whenever there has been an increase in commercial development in a tropical environment such as Panama, there has been a corresponding reduction and loss in valuable rainforest watersheds. Nowhere else in the world does a rainforest have such collateral importance as it does in Panama. Without the rainforest, greater water runoff will occur during the rainy season. Consequently, there may not be enough fresh water held in the watershed to operate the Canal during the dry season.

By allowing vessels to transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Panama Canal saves time and money for the transport of waterborne goods. For cargo shipped from the U.S. Atlantic or Gulf Coast (U.S. East Coast) to destinations in Asia, for instance, the canal saves about 10 days' sailing time, savings which are integral to route selection by shipowners and operators. The canal is a preferred alternative for shipowners if the average daily revenue of a vessel's transit through the canal is more than an extra 10-day routing.

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