100 Years of the Panama Canal
Friday, August 15, 2014
One of the supreme engineering feats of the early 20th century, the canal has been an immense boon to shipping and of major geopolitical benefit to the United States.
On August 15, 1914, the world was fixated on the dramatic first month of World War I, as the German army raced towards Paris and the fate of Europe hung in the balance. But on that day, half a world away, a ship named the SS Ancon became the first vessel to officially transit the Panama Canal — and the canal was opened for business.
It had been 401 years since Balboa had first crossed the Isthmus in 1513 and “stared at the Pacific ... Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” For most of that time, a water route across Panama had been a dream. Thanks to one of the supreme engineering feats of the early 20th century, that dream had now been realized.
Until the advent of the railroad in the 1830s, bulk cargo moved by water or it did not move. To shorten these water routes, canals had been constructed since ancient times. In the 17th century, France built the Canal du Midi, fully 150 miles long. It connected the Garonne River, which flowed into the Atlantic, with the Mediterranean Sea, eliminating the need for cargo to sail around the Iberian Peninsula.
After eight years of work, the project collapsed in bankruptcy and scandal in 1889.
The Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, opened in 1825, greatly shortening the distance between the burgeoning Middle West and the east coast. It quickly made New York City, “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent,” and the greatest boom town in world history.
In the mid-19th century, the Suez Canal, originally 102 miles long, shortened the sea route between Europe and India by thousands of miles.
The Panama Canal route was much shorter than these three great canals, a mere 48 miles. But Suez was built in a level, low-lying desert. Building Suez was, therefore, essentially a matter of shoveling sand, although, to be sure, there was a lot of sand to be shoveled.
Panama, in contrast, was another matter altogether. Rather than desert, Panama has one of the densest rain forests on earth. The rainfall for much of the year is torrential, with Colón, at the Atlantic end of the canal, receiving as much as 138 inches a year, mostly between May and December. Even Panama City, on the drier Pacific side, gets nearly 80 inches. In this climate, tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria were rampant.
And Panama has a range of low mountains running along its length. These would have to be breached before there could be a water route across the isthmus.
Still, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the hero of the Suez Canal, was sure he could duplicate his feat in Suez despite the very different conditions. He was wrong. After eight years of work, the project collapsed in bankruptcy and scandal in 1889. A second French attempt began in the mid-1890s, but it was a minimal effort.
President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged a revolt in Panama and used war ships to make sure Colombia was unable to put it down.
Enter the United States. The country had been expanding economically at a furious pace since the end of the Civil War. By 1900 it was the world’s largest economy and was beginning to play a larger role on the world stage. And while a Panama Canal would have great commercial benefits, it would have a major geopolitical benefit for the United States as well. The country had fleets in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. But they could not be mutually supporting, as the trip around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America was just too long.
The country negotiated with Colombia, which then owned Panama, to take over the project, but the Colombian Senate refused to ratify the treaty. So President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged a revolt in Panama and used war ships to make sure Colombia was unable to put it down. Roosevelt then signed a treaty with the newly independent Panama.
The first task was to improve the conditions at the building site. The railroads were rebuilt, as was the housing. Facilities for entertainment were created, run by the YMCA, to cut down on drunkenness. But the most important task was improving the sanitary conditions to reduce the appalling disease rate.
Dr. William Gorgas was appointed chief sanitary officer for the Canal Zone. Relying on the latest research that had identified mosquitoes as the vector of both malaria and yellow fever, he drained ponds and swamps, installed modern water and sanitary systems, and provided mosquito netting for beds. This resulted in a drastic reduction in the infection rate among the thousands of workers brought in to build the canal. It is not an exaggeration to say that Dr. Gorgas’s actions made the Panama Canal possible.
Unlike the original French plan, the American canal called for locks, five at the Atlantic end and four at the Pacific end. And that meant a large and reliable water supply. Every ship passing through the Panama Canal needs 53 million gallons of water to operate the locks. The Chagres River could supply the water, but the river, low in the dry season, becomes a raging torrent during the rainy months.
The canal proved an immense boon to shipping by eliminating the need to round the Horn through some of the most treacherous waters in the world.
To solve the problem the Chagres was dammed near where it empties into the Caribbean by Gatun Dam, then the largest dam in the world. Gatun Lake, which formed behind it, was then the world’s largest artificial lake and became a major part of the canal.
The other major engineering challenge was the Culebra Cut, an artificial valley, through the continental divide. It involved the removal and disposal of 100 million cubic yards of spoil, 30 million of which was caused by the frequent landslides brought on by the rainy seasons. It took nine years, 6,000 workers, hundreds of trains a day, and 27,000 tons of dynamite, equivalent to about 4.5 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
But once done, the canal proved an immense boon to shipping by eliminating the need to round the Horn through some of the most treacherous waters in the world. Today, well over 14,000 ships a year pass through the canal, and many more will when new, larger locks are completed in 2015, allowing the passage of modern container ships.
It was also of the utmost strategic importance to the United States. As a sign of the canal’s importance to the Navy, American battleships never had a beam greater than 108 feet, allowing them to transit the locks with a foot to spare on either side.
John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.
FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “How the South Came to Rise Again: The Civil Rights Act of 1964,” “The Catastrophe of the 20th Century,” "Time for a New Contract with America," “Congratulations! You Have Arrived at the Greatest City on Earth,” and “The First Presidential Election and Other Firsts.” Edward Tenner considers “Dreams of a New Atlantic-Pacific Passage.”
Image by: Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group