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Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a large canal that cuts through the isthmus of Panama and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The canal has two sets of locks on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic. The Pacific end, called Miraflores, is 24 cm higher than the Atlantic end, called Gatún, and has much greater tides. Between Miraflores Locks and Gatún Lake are Pedro Miguel Locks; each of these sets consists of one lock for Atlantic-bound ships and one for Pacific-bound. Lake Gatún, which is 26 meters above sea level, is fed by the Chagres River, which was dammed to make the lake. Gaillard Cut, between Miraflores and Pedro Miguel, is 9 meters above sea level. The Atlantic end is northwest of the Pacific end.

Several islands are located within the Lake Gatún portion of the Panama Canal, including Barro Colorado Island, a nature preserve.


The dream of a canal across the isthmus of Central America went back centuries, and there was serious discussion that such could be built from the 1820s on. The two routes appearing most favorable were across Panama and across Nicaragua, with a route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico a third option. There was serious discussion and surveys taken concerning the Nicaragua route; see: Nicaragua Canal.

The Panama Railway was built across the isthmus from 1850 to 1855. The existence of the infrastructure of this functioning railroad was a key consideration in plans to build the canal in Panama.

Prior to the Panama Canal's construction, the fastest way to travel by ship from New York to California would have been to round the tip of South America, a long and dangerous route. After the success of the Suez Canal in Egypt, the French believed that they could connect another two seas with as little difficulty. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the same person who was in charge of the construction of the Suez Canal, was first called upon to build the new canal at Panama. Construction on the canal began on January 1, 1880.

Unfortunately, the French did not realise the difference between digging quantities of sand in a dry flat area and removing vast quantities of rock from the middle of a jungle. Technical problems and high mortality rates from malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases eventually forced the French to give up.

President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States felt that the USA could complete the project and that US control of the passage from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans would be militarily and economically important to the United States. At the time Panama was part of Colombia so Roosevelt proceded to negotiate with the Colombians to obtain the rights needed to build the canal. In early 1903 the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed by both nations but the Colombian Senate failed to ratify the treaty. In what was then, and still is, a very controversial move, Roosevelt implied to Panamanian rebels that if they revolted that the US Navy would assist their cause for independence. Panama then proclaimed it independence on November 3, 1903.

Here, three locks of the canal can be seen ()

Then when fighting began Roosevelt ordered US battleships stationed off of Panama's coast for "training exercises." Many argue that fear of a war with the United States caused the Colombians to largely avoid serious opposition to the revolution. The victorious Panamanians returned the favor to Roosevelt by allowing the United States to gain control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904 for $10 million (as provided in the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, signed on November 18, 1903).

The first success of the North Americans was in eliminating the noxious yellow fever that had been killing so many workers. Walter Reed had determined in Cuba during the Spanish-American War that mosquitos spread the disease. 20,000 French workers had died from disease, but new sanitary procedures led by Dr. William Gorgas eliminated yellow fever in 1905.

John Findlay Wallace was the first chief engineer of the project. His work did not go well, hampered by disease. He resigned after one year. The second chief engineer, John Stevens, started by improving living conditions for the workers. He eventually abandoned the sea level canal plan and started work on a lock and dam system. He resigned in 1907. US Colonel George Washington Goethals was the last chief engineer and his engineering of the Canal earned much praise at the time. The work on the canal was still grueling, but great progress was made.

US President Woodrow Wilson triggered the explosion of the Gamboa Dike on October 10, 1913 thus ending construction on the canal.

Pedro Miguel Locks under construction, early 1910's, showing center wall and intakes, looking north

When the canal opened in 1914 it was a technological marvel. A complex series of locks let even large ships pass through. The canal was an important strategic and economic asset to the US, and revolutionized world shipping patterns.

The United States used the canal during World War II to help revitalize their devastated Pacific Fleet. Some of the largest ships the United States needed to pass through the canal were aircraft carriers, in particular the Essex class aircraft carrier. These ships were so large that, although the locks could hold the carriers, the lampposts which lined the canal needed to be removed to allow for the carrier's required space to pass through.

The canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it were administered by the United States until 1999 when control was relinquished to Panama. This was the result of the September 7, 1977 signing of the Torrijos - Carter Treaty in which US president Jimmy Carter conceded to Panamanian demands for control. The treaty called for a gradual changeover, placing the canal completely in Panamanian jurisdiction by December 31, 1999.

Panama has since managed the Canal in a very professional way, breaking all previous traffic, revenue and safety records year after year.

It has been declared one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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