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In 1534 the King of Spain first studied feasibility for a canal in what would eventually become the center of Panama. While the Spanish never constructed this canal, they paved a road with stones to transport gold and other riches on mules. A New York-based company completed a Panamanian rail line in 1855. It carried tens of thousands of gold seekers until a U.S. transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. In 1880, French companies began construction of a Panamanian canal, but the project was halted in 1887 due to hardship and disease.
In 1903 the province of Panama declared independence from Colombia. An agreement was quickly signed with the United States to begin construction of a trans-isthmus canal. This shipping canal opened in 1914 to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. An advanced engineering accomplishment, the United States spent $352 million on construction. Fifty thousand unskilled workers, from as many as 50 different countries, and 6,000 engineers and skilled workers, largely from the United States, were employed during construction. Workers routinely worked 10-hour workdays, six days a week. There were dual tiers of pay for gold workers (skilled) and silver workers (unskilled). Although medical records are incomplete, it is believed that 20,000 workers died during the U.S. and French canal-building initiatives combined. In addition to mosquito-borne illness, injuries from dynamite blasts, railroad accidents, and drowning claimed lives.
The canal required significant ecological change, including flooding to form reservoirs that store water for operation during the dry season. An average ship takes between eight and 10 hours to cross the canal, which is approximately 50 miles (81 kilometers) in length. The canal’s complex geography includes two artificial lakes. Lake Gatun is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. Most of the 52 million gallons (197 million liters) of freshwater needed in the canal’s three locks originates from Lake Gatun, which is located at 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level. The water moves by gravity, but electricity is needed to open the gates of each lock.
The Canal Zone is 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide. It slices Panama in the middle, separating the east of the country from the west. The Panama Canal, and the entire Canal Zone, was under U.S. administration until December 1999. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty with President Omar Torrijos that began a highly structured and regulated governance transfer process. Although troop numbers have been reduced, the United States maintains a military presence in the Canal Zone, although now in coordination with other countries of the Americas.
Under Panamanian administration there have been technological improvements to the canal and the introduction of a new fee system based on the size and weight of vessels. It is likely that Panama will expand the waterway before it reaches its maximum capacity in upcoming years. Since 1999 more than 100 different studies have been undertaken to improve canal administration, as Panamanian officials restructure operations. It is possible that a third shipping canal will be added next to the two already existing. There have been other upgrades to canal equipment and investment in complementary transportation infrastructure to better link Panama with rest of Central America, such as the recent Centennial Bridge passing over the canal.
Other shipping locations have been considered for “post-Panamax” vessels, modern ships that surpass the size limits of the Panama Canal locks. Each lock chamber is about 110 feet (34 meters) wide and can accommodate boats less than 1,000 feet (305 meters) long. Other Central American locations have been evaluated for either dry or wet canals, including Mexico and Nicaragua, but construction plans have not been solidified. The Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas, is considered to be Panama’s major competitor. Although it can accommodate larger boats, the Suez Canal does not serve as many routes. With increases in global trade, many smaller world ports are overburdened. Transportation routes utilizing railroads or roads are not as viable as the Suez and Panama Canals, at least in the short term, due to bottlenecks.
Conservation is important in the Panama Canal watershed to maintain water levels needed to transport ships. A central aspect of assuring the necessary water is forest protection in the Chagres National Park, which has received significant funding from international aid agencies. Deforestation in this area would lead to the quick flow of water down slopes and into the ocean. Forests serve to absorb the heavy rains and release water more slowly throughout the year. Deforestation also increases siltation, which could lead to build up in Lake Gatun, reducing its water storage capacity.
- Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, Naturalists on the Isthmus of Panama: A Hundred Years of Natural History on the Biological Bridge of the Americas (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 2004);
- David Howarth, Panama: 400 Years of Dreams and Cruelty (McGraw-Hill, 1966);
- David McCullough, The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (Simon and Schuster, 1978).