The Panama Canal

In Spanish Canal de Panama, connects both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the narrow Isthmus of Panama in Central America, and is of the lake and lock type. From its deep-water entrance in the Atlantic Ocean to the deep-water entrance of the Pacific Ocean it stretches a total of 51 miles (82 kilometres). Using the canal to sail between the two oceans saves a journey of 8,000 miles (14,800 kilometres) around perilous Cape Horn. The Panama Canal and the Suez Canal are the only two strategically important artificial waterways in the world.

A brief history follows:

The Early Years

The Spanish invaders began work in 1519 to construct a 'Royal Highway' across the Isthmus of Panama. The termini of this highway were Chagres (in the east) and Nombre de Dios (near Panama in the west). It was the intention of this highway was to make it easier to transport treasures that were being taken to Spain from the New World. It was in 1529 that the idea to build a canal across the isthmus was first conceived. Charles the first, of Spain, ordered that a survey be made of the land to see if a canal was feasible. This survey showed that the probability of building a canal was not favourable and the idea was shelved. While the Spanish occupied Panama it was known as Gran Adalucia, later to be called New Granada.

In 1821 Simon Bolivar liberated Panama from the Spanish invaders, and returned it to the Panamanians. Panama now became an independent country, with its own government, and it joined the confederacy of Gran Columbia. Other countries in this confederacy included Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru. The Panamanians held a congress on 20th June 1826, at a Franciscan Convent, where the idea of a canal was discussed, but it got no further than the debate stage. In January 1848 gold was discovered in San Francisco, and this led to an influx of prospectors from other parts of the world. Those coming, by ship, from the eastern side of America favoured landing at Aspinwall (Colon) and crossing the isthmus to join a ship leaving Panama City for San Francisco. This option was quicker than going around Cape Horn, but many fell foul of jungle beasts, fevers, and bandits while crossing the isthmus. Although many prospectors never made it across the isthmus this did not abate the flow. Before 1848 San Francisco had a total of 200 houses, one school, two wharves, and a population of 800. When the prospectors arrived these totals rocketed out of all proportion.

While the gold rush was going on in 1848 William H. Aspinwall, who was the senior partner in Howland and Aspinwall, obtained a railroad concession from New Granada. In New York, during 1849, Aspinwall together with Henry Chauncey (a Banker) and John L Stephens (a Lawyer) founded the Panama Rail Road Company. Stephens was a keen archaeologist but died after contracting a fever while at the construction site in Panama. Work on the railroad began in 1850 at Chagres. During the building of this railroad it has been estimated that approximately 22,000 workers died of fevers (yellow fever and malaria). The company found that these cadavers could become profitable and pickled them in brine and sold them to medical schools all over the world. All the proceeds from these sales maintained the hospital for the rest of the workers at the isthmus.

On the 28th January 1855 the railroad was inaugurated. This was the world's first transcontinental railroad and measured 47½ miles long, and would play an important role in the construction of the canal in years to come. As originally stated the Atlantic terminus was to be at Charges, but the ground condition was so poor that the company built a new township nearby, from where the railway would start, and named it Aspinwall. It was in 1863 that the Spanish contingent of Aspinwall renamed it Colon (Spanish for Columbus).

Many shipping lines extended their voyages to include calling at Aspinwall (Colon), and these included Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1852; Pacific Steam Navigation Company operated between the western coast of Panama and Oregon; United States Mail Steamship Company journeyed between New York and Aspinwall in 1848; and the French Compagnie Generale Transatlantique were contracted to call at Colon (Aspinwall) on its journeys beginning in 1865.

The Canal

A French diplomat, Ferdinand-Marie Vicomte de Lesseps, was put in charge of building the canal. Lesseps supervised the excavation of the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. He formed the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, which was going to construct the Panama Canal. The company began excavating in 1881, but due to poor planning, disease, and accusations of fraud the company collapsed in 1889.

Five years later, in 1894, a new French company was set up entitled Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama. In the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty of 1903 Panama granted the United States the right to build, operate, and control the Canal Zone. The Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama sold its holding to the United States in the same year as the treaty.

Adolphe Godin de Lepinay, in 1879, proposed damming the torrential Chagres River on the Atlantic side and the Rio Grande on the Pacific Side. This proposal would create lakes that were easy to navigate in their respective valleys that would be connected by a cut crossing the continental divide. Both the original French company and the US Commission rejected this proposal. The US Commission favoured a sea-level canal. The Chief Engineer of the U. S. Isthmian Canal Commission, John F. Stevens, used Lepinay's proposal as the basis for his final drafted plan. Congress approved Steven's plan and work began in 1904 under US Supervision. The same problems were encountered while building the canal, as when constructing the railroad and 'Royal Highway' in previous years.

The Panama Canal first opened to traffic in August 1914. Due to the First World War the Panama Canal was not formally opened until 12th July 1920.

The route a ship would take to transfer from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean (and vice versa) is:

At the entrance, which is a dredged channel in Limon Bay, proceed for 11½ miles (18½ kilometres) to Gatun Locks. Gatun locks are a series of three locks that raise the ship 85 feet (26 metres) up to the man-made Gatun Lake. A vessel would then travel 23 miles (37 kilometres) across Gatun Lake to the entrance of the Giallard (Culebra) cut at Gamboa. The Giallard cut is 8 miles (13 kilometres) long and 500 feet (150 metres) wide. This cut meanders across the continental divide to the lock at Pedro Miguel. The Pedro Miguel lock is a single lock that lowers the ship 31 feet (9.4 metres) to a small lake that is one mile (1.625 kilometres) wide, which takes the vessel to the locks at Miraflores. At Miraflores there is a two-step lock that lowers the vessel 54 feet (16 metres) to sea level. The vessel has to travel along a 7 mile (11 kilometre) dredged channel that is the Pacific Terminus in the Bay of Panama. It is only now that the vessel is regarded as being in the Pacific Ocean.

The Panama Canal was managed, in its entirety by the United States, until 1979 when control passed to a joint US-Panamanian Agency. As the years rolled by the responsibility of Panama increased until on 31st December 1999 when Panama had full control of the canal.

No vessel can pass through the locks of the Panama Canal (except for small craft) under its own power. Electric locomotives operate, using a rack and pinion drive, on the lock walls to tow vessels. It is usual to use six of these locomotives for each vessel, and there are 57 of these locomotives in use along the many locks of the canal. The locks are duplicated to allow vessels to pass in opposite directions simultaneously. The average time to use the canal to cross from one ocean to the other is between 15 to 20 hours.

Pan-American Highway

Because the canal crossed, and effectively severed, the Pan-American Highway a method of continuing this important route had to be found. The initial remedy was to transport the vehicles across the canal by means of a ferry service. This ferry was operational for approximately thirty years until it was decided to build a bridge over the canal. A bridge was built at the Miraflores locks and was named the 'Thatcher Ferry Bridge'. The bridge has an elevation of 354 feet (118 metres) and a length of 5,007 feet (1,669 metres), cost US$20 million dollars, and is now known as the 'Bridge of the Americas'. Construction of this bridge began on 12th October 1959, and took nearly two and a half years to complete. The bridge was inaugurated on 12th October 1962, and Maurice H. Thatcher, after whom the bridge was originally named, cut the tape.

Interesting facts

The first ship to navigate through the canal was SS Cristibal on 3rd August 1914, whereas the records show that the first ship to officially use the canal was the SS Ancon on 15th August 1914, which took a total of 9 hours and 40 minutes.

The 'Bronskeppel' did the fastest traverse in 1968 when it took 3 hours and 53 minutes.

The largest ship to pass through the canal was the RMS QE2 (Queen Elizabeth 2) owned by the Cunard Line (now part of the Carnival group). The QE2 also had the highest charge of US$68,500 for using the canal.

The lowest charge, of 36 cents, was levied on Richard Halliburton who swam through the canal in 1928.

It was a tight squeeze when USS Iowa, 32.98 metres wide, passed through the 33½ metres wide Miraflores Lock. The Iowa class battleships are the widest ships able to use the canal, and were specifically designed for this purpose.

Every time a ship traverses the canal a total of 52 million gallons of fresh water is emptied into the ocean.

A total of 230 million cubic yards of earth was removed in the construction of this canal.

The usual cargoes that are transported through the canal are Crude oil and petroleum products, grains, and coal and coke.

Acknowledgements and bibliography

Thanks must be given to Raymond W. Ireson for his unstinting help in putting this history together with further research using the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hutchinson Encyclopedia, and The Mercury dated 30th March 2001.


Ken Lewis