Panama Canal - An image by Roger4336

Panama Canal - An image by Roger4336


And here; the Lovely Planet brings 10 important facts about the Panama Canal for its readers:

1- The story of the Panama Canal starts right from the sixteenth century. The King Charles V of Spain was suggested that by amputating an appropriate piece of land in Panama, the navigation route might become even shorter and the transportation will be easier. Another motive was probably to get the Spanish domination over the Portuguese military transits. The idea was certainly to utilize the Isthmus of Panama, that are the narrow strip lands lying between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.The Isthmus was formed some three million years ago during the Pliocene epoch. This major geological event separated the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and caused the creation of the Gulf stream. A survey of the isthmus was ordered and subsequently a working plan for a canal was drawn up in 1529. But that was the era of the European wars, so no major development was taken place regarding the implementation over the said plan.

Panama Canal Location Map - An image by David - flickr
Panama Canal Location Map – An image by David – flickr

2- The considerable breakthrough for the construction of this maga project occured in the mid-nineteenth century, after the discovery of Gold reserviors in California. The Panama Railway project was also the leading factor that raised the importance of this in-sea trade route.In 1855, William Kennish of the US also published a book in which, he enlightened the practical importance of such a Ship Canal. In 1877, two Feench Engineers who had just played a significant role in the construction of the Suez Canal by the French government, surveyed the route and published a French proposal for the canal. The consrtuction of the Panama Canal could seriously reduce the extra time and milage while travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean or vice versa.

Construction of the Panama Canal - The Field Museum Library Image - Classic
Construction of the Panama Canal – The Field Museum Library Image – Classic

3-  Ferdinand de Lesseps was appointed chairman for the construction of the Panama Canal at the initial stage who was the actual builder of the Suez Canal. But this French effort went bankrupt after losing an estimated 22,000 lives and reportedly spending US $287,000,000 that was largely abandoned by 1890. Probably the hurdles during the construction of such canal over the unpredictable and variable mountainous geography and in the rain-soaked tropics of Panama were ignored by the French in zeal. The healths of the hundreds of thousands of the employees and labour were badly infected and the mosquito-infected jungle caused the casualities of more than 22,000 workers. Eventually, in 1899 the French attempt of constructing the Panama Canal was seen to be a failure.

Ferdinand de Lesseps (19 November 1805 – 7 December 1894) The French developer of the Suez Canal
Ferdinand de Lesseps (19 November 1805 – 7 December 1894) The French developer of the Suez Canal

4- The US government was assisting the Panama government at the start of the twenteith century to get freed from Columbia. The United States was also interested in establishing a canal across the isthmus, and a canal design was recommended to Roosevelt by a Chief Engineer namely John Frank Stevens that was agreed later. The US Government established the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) in 1904 which was originally set up to oversee the construction of the Panama Canal in the early years of American involvement. The United States formally took control of the French property relating to the canal on May 4, 1904. The Americans were inherited not only a small workforce, but also a great jumble of buildings, infrastructure and equipment, much of which had been the victim of fifteen years of neglect in the harsh, humid jungle environment.

John Frank Stevens: John Frank Stevens: An American engineer who built the Great Northern Railway in the United States and was chief engineer on the Panama Canal between 1905 and 1907
John Frank Stevens: John Frank Stevens: An American engineer who built the Great Northern Railway in the United States and was chief engineer on the Panama Canal between 1905 and 1907

5- Obviously, the first priority was to improve the standard of living and ensure the life safety of the workers. The first American steam shovel started work on the Culebra cut on 11th November 1904. Thousands of large wagons capable of bringing treemendous amount of  the excavated material were used. The rocks and hills were destroyed by applying massive dynamite and it also resulted into substantial landslidings. During the maga construction of the Panama Canal, two artificial dams were also constructed, commonly known as the Lake Gatun and Miraflores Lake. Furthermore, four dams were also built to create these lakes. Gatun Lake was designed to be the repository of  the rainwater, as the lake might be able to accumulate the excess water during wet months. Finally the construction of the Panama Canal was successfully completed in 1914.

Freighter obtaining fuel along the Culebra Cut -- Panama Canal - An Image by Corvair Owner
Freighter obtaining fuel along the Culebra Cut — Panama Canal – An Image by Corvair Owner

6- The Panama Canal locks is a lock system that lifts a ship up 85 feet (26 metres) to the main elevation of the Panama Lake and down again. It has a total of six steps (three up, three down for a ship’s passage). The total length of the lock structures, including the approach walls, is over 3 kilometres (nearly two miles). They are one of the greatest engineering works ever to be undertaken at the time, when they opened in 1914. No other concrete construction of comparable size was undertaken until the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. There are two independent lanes of transition (each lock is built double, so there is a two-lane traffic system). The locks physically limit the maximum size of ships which can transit the canal; this size became known as Panamax.

Panama Canal Locks - Miraflores - An image by DoctorWho - flickr
Panama Canal Locks – Miraflores – An image by DoctorWho – flickr

7- Each Panama Canal lock chamber requires 26,700,000 US gal (101,000 m3) to fill it from the lowered position to raised; the same amount of water must be drained from the chamber to lower it again. The gates which separate the chambers in each flight of locks must hold back a considerable weight of water, and must be both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as the failure of a gate could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream. These gates are of enormous size, ranging from 47 to 82 ft (14.3 to 25.0 m) high, depending on position, and are 7 ft (2.1 m) thick; the tallest gates are required at Miraflores, due to the large tidal range there. The heaviest leaves weigh 662 t (730 short tons; 652 long tons); the hinges themselves each weigh 16.7 t (36,800 lb). Each gate has two leaves, 65 ft (19.8 m) wide, which close to a V shape with the point upstream; this arrangement has the effect that the force of water from the higher side pushes the ends of the gates together firmly. The gates can only be opened when, in the operating cycle, water level on both sides is equal.

A Panamax Cargo Ship at the Panama Canal - An Image by Donna62
A Panamax Cargo Ship at the Panama Canal – An Image by Donna62

8- The Panama Canal is currently handling more vessel traffic than had ever been envisioned by its builders. In 1934 it was estimated that the maximum capacity of the canal would be around 80 million tons per year; as noted above, canal traffic in 2009 reached 299.1 million tons of shipping. To improve capacity, a number of improvements have been imposed on the current canal system.

Panama Canal - Entering Third Lock - An Image by Roger4336
Panama Canal – Entering Third Lock – An Image by Roger4336

9- The division of the country of Panama into two parts by the U.S. territory of the Canal Zone caused tension throughout the twentieth century. Additionally, the self-contained Canal Zone (the official name for the U.S. territory in Panama) contributed little to the Panamanian economy. The residents of the Canal Zone were primarily U.S. citizens and West Indians who worked in the Zone and on the canal. Anger flared in the 1960s and led to anti-American riots. The U.S. and Panamanian governments began to work together to solve the territorial issue. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty which agreed to return 60% of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979. The canal and remaining territory, known as the Canal Area, was returned to Panama at noon (local Panama time) on December 31, 1999.

Gatun Lake, Panama Canal
Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

10- It takes approximately fifteen hours to traverse the canal through its three sets of locks (about half the time is spent waiting due to traffic). Ships passing through the canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean actually move from the northwest to the southeast, due to the east-west orientation of the Isthmus of Panama. At present, the Panama Canal Authority predicts that cargo volume transiting the canal will grow an average of 3 percent per year, doubling the 2005 tonnage by 2025. Allowing larger vessels will move more cargo per transit and gallon of water used. The Panama Canal expansion project (also called the Third Set of Locks Project) will double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2015 by creating a new lane of traffic and allowing more and larger ships to transit. The Panama Canal expansion project will allow ships double the size of current Panamax to pass through the canal, dramatically increasing the amount of goods that can pass through the canal.


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