One of the world’s greatest marvels, the Panama Canal stretches 80 kms from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colón on the Atlantic side. Its locks paved the course for the dimensions of ships built worldwide. This artificial Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific and serves as a conduit for maritime trade.
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As a tribute to the most important civil engineering works of the 20th century, the American Society of Civil Engineers prepared a ranking of the seven wonders of the modern world. Among them is the Panama Canal, the oldest construction on a list in which it rubs shoulders with the Empire State Building in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Eurotunnel linking France and the United Kingdom.
Opened on 15 August 1914, the construction of the canal became a titanic struggle against the elements: malaria, yellow fever, landslides, floods and a humid climate. More than a century later, the great transoceanic bridge that joins the Pacific and the Atlantic through the Isthmus of Panama is still operational and now accommodates larger vessels, thanks to its subsequent expansion.
From its opening until 1979, the Panama Canal was controlled exclusively by the United States In 1979, however, control of the canal passed to the Panama Canal Commission, a joint agency of the United States and the Republic of Panama, and complete control passed to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999. Although, administration of the canal is the responsibility of the Panama Canal Authority.
The canal has three sets of double locks. They are Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side and Gatún on the Atlantic. A 10-year expansion completed in 2016 added two three-chambered locks, allowing the passage of super-sized ‘neoPanamax’ ships. These were Cocoli on the Pacific and Agua Clara on the Atlantic. Between the locks, ships pass through a huge artificial lake, Lago Gatún, created by the Gatún Dam across the Río Chagres, and the Culebra Cut, a 12.7km trough through the mountains. With each ship’s passage, an astonishing 197 million liters of fresh water is released into the ocean.
A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. The locks at Panama Canal are operated by gravity flow of water from Gatún, Alajuela, and Miraflores lakes. The locks are of such uniform length, width, and depth that those dimensions are used to make ships even today. These locks were built in pairs to permit the simultaneous transit of vessels in either direction. Each lock gate has two leaves, 65 feet wide and 6.5 feet thick, set on hinges. The gates are powered by electric motors recessed in the lock walls.
One or more pilots, who board each ship before it leaves the terminus, take ships through the canal. With waiting time, it takes ships a good 25 hours to navigate. The average transit time, once a vessel has been authorized to proceed, is about 10 hours from one end of the canal to the other.
As early as the 16th century, the Spanish recognized the advantages of a canal across the Central American isthmus. Eventually two routes came to be considered, one through Panama and the other through Nicaragua.
The first attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama began in 1881 after the Colombian government granted a concession to the privately owned Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. The company, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, was financed by French capital from countless small investors.
Impetus for selecting the route through Panama increased with the construction (by the United States) of the Panama Railroad in the mid-19th century. The eventual route of the canal closely followed that of the railroad.The first attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama began in 1881 after the Colombian government granted a concession to the privately owned Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. The company, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, was financed by French capital from countless small investors. Because of Lesseps’s recent triumph building the Suez Canal, he was able to attract public support for building a sea-level canal across Panama.
Progress was costly and extremely slow. As a cost-saving measure, the plans for a sea-level canal were eventually dropped in favour of a high-level lock-type canal, but that change had little effect. With no foreseeable return on its investment, the French public lost faith in the project and its leader.
By the summer of 1904, work under American administration was under way all along the canal route. The French had abandoned the sea-level approach in favour of a high-level canal with locks, and indeed that was desirable as it would cost less and would eliminate potential problems arising from differences in sea levels at either end of the waterway. Yet engineers still disagreed on the type of canal that should be built, and they faced another problem of equal importance: how to manage the Chagres River, which rose in the northeast highland region of Panama and emptied into the Atlantic.
In 1906, Roosevelt resolved the matter when he sided with Chief Engineer John Frank Stevens, who argued for a lock-type canal. The plan ultimately approved by Congress was similar in all essential respects to the one proposed by Lépinay but rejected by Lesseps.
Included in the proposal was an enormous earthen dam across the Chagres River at Gatún.
The dam created what was then the largest artificial lake in the world (Gatún Lake), and at the same time, it brought a considerable part of the Chagres River under control. So massive was the lake that it was able to accommodate the greater part of the river even at flood stage. Perhaps more important, the man-made lake formed more than 20 miles (32 km) of the canal route.
Where tropical fevers—yellow fever and malaria in particular—had decimated the ranks of French workers with an estimated loss of over 20,000 lives, those in charge of the American effort were determined to prevent the same thing from happening again. American medical staff understood how the diseases were transmitted and how they could be controlled, and by 1906 the Canal Zone had become safer for work to resume in earnest. Even with such precautions, accidents and disease claimed the lives of 5,609 workers during the American effort. At times more than 40,000 people were employed on the project, mostly labourers from the West Indian islands of Barbados, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, though many engineers, administrators, and skilled tradesmen were from the United States.
Despite all of those challenges, the canal was opened to traffic on August 15, 1914, more than three decades after the first attempt to build the canal had begun. It remains the greatest engineering feat yet attempted.