How did we, humans, accomplish these great tasks? Such deeds are the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt. But one of these magnificent accomplishments is more significant than others: the Panama Canal.
Encouraged by the French, the US built a vital link for the entire world. Despite previous failures by preceding organizations, the US was able to survive. This structure remains today as one of the greatest engineering marvels of the modern world.
The Canal goes as far back as the 16th century after Europeans realizing the riches of South America and Asia. Charles I of Spain ordered the first survey of a proposed canal route through the Isthmus of Panama. The survey was finished in 1529 but wars in Europe simply put the project on hold. Then, Emperor Napoleon III of France toyed with the idea of a canal in French land across the sea but never thought much more of it.
Various maps were drawn between 1850 and 1875 and proved that only 2 routes were possible: one across Panama and the other across Nicaragua. In 1876, an international company was mustered but failed. Three years later, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal across Egypt, organized a French company. Lesseps’ succession at Suez gave him confidence that a canal at Panama would be no different.
A lease on building the canal was sold to France by Colombia from 1878 to 1903. In the beginning, Lesseps had hoped to muster 400 billion francs but received 30 million francs, only 8% of what he had wished for. Work for the French company started in 1882. From that point on, the company and the canal were plagued by troubles, from money to diseases. France gave up on the canal project and began a search for a buyer. Eventually, France found a friend in the US.
America sent Lieutenant Menocal to survey Nicaragua for a canal site. But, the government lost funding, the first and last of America’s mistakes on the canal project. President McKinley would have probably secured funds for a Nicaraguan canal, had not a bullet taken his life. Theodore Roosevelt decided to begin anew and a friendship with the Republic of Panama.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an American ambassador, wrote the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, which was ratified by the new Panamanian Government in 1903 and by the American Senate in early 1904. This treaty granted exclusive canal rights to the US across the Isthmus of Panama in exchange for financial reimbursement and guarantees of protection to the newly established republic. Work began on May 4, 1904.
Disease kept the Americans back, but not back for long. William Gorgas, an American doctor, examined the area. The pests were mosquitoes, which carried malaria and yellow fever. Although Gorgas found out this, Dr. Ronald Reed had already brought his information he learned at Havana to Panama. It took personal recommendation of John Stevens (head engineer of the canal) to persuade President Roosevelt to help Gorgas to rid the mosquitoes. Work was long and finally accomplished.
Immediately, work began on repairing the ruins of the French buildings, left there since the 1880’s. Also, a new railroad track had to be laid because the French tracks were much too narrow for American vehicles. Fed up with the sluggishness in even the most simple of tasks, chief engineer John F. Wallace quit. Unfortunately, this was not the last trouble the canal had with chief engineers. The second Panama Canal Chief Engineer was John Stevens. Like the French, Stevens decided to use locks. President Roosevelt visited the Canal just as diseases ran rampant through the Canal Zone and Stevens resigned. President Roosevelt was the first president to die while in office outside of the United States.
The third engineer was Army Lieutenant George Washington Goethals. When Goethals got to the site, he told his workers, “I am no longer a commander in the United States Army. I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama, and that the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the Canal.” Most of the workers came to respect him because he set up a complaint board every Sunday where workers could come and state their problems directly to him.
The Culebra Cut was the most difficult area of excavation, near the Culebra Mountain. The canal had to be dug out of the largest mountain in the path. Dynamite was the choice for loosening the rocky ground. Over 19 million pounds of explosives were fired in the Culebra Cut alone and only 8 fatalities occurred. In 1908, changes in design of the canal had to be made because of some problems. The width of the canal was increased from 200 feet to 300 feet and the size of the locks had to be increased from 95 feet to 110 feet. The Pacific locks were moved inland, for military strategy.
The canal was completed in August 1914 with the budget of approximately 23 million dollars. Unfortunately, the opening came just as WWI started in Europe so the Canal was again put on hold. Once the war was over, traffic began with 2,000 ships annually. And unfortunately again, the problem over the Culebra Cut still stands, unconquered by man. Yet we learn that even to this day, man cannot control nature; we are not masters, nor ever shall be.
It is quite obvious that the Panama Canal was, is, and shall remain the engineering marvel of the 20th century. Deadly diseases, high costs, and the terrain made the whole operation seem impossible, and yet we managed to pull through, dominating one by one. Now as we look back in time, we realize that this operation had a dramatic impact on history. The Panama Canal invites people around the world to come and cruise through her waters, creating a new pathway for the ever-changing human race.