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The Building of the Panama Canal

The Building of the Panama Canal


Panama Canal is a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the Isthmus of Panama. This Canal was finally constructed in the early twentieth century but, the idea was conceived way back in the early 16th century. It was in 1524 when the advisers of Charles V suggested the idea of cutting out a piece of land through the isthmus in order to speed up trade and transport. At that point in history, Spanish traders bringing gold from Peru, Ecuador, and Asia had to take long and tortuous routes through the oceans. The idea of building a canal was very exciting for them. However, this was also a time when Europe was embroiled in wars, hence the idea never materialized and the project was kept aside.

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It was in the nineteenth century that the Spanish government once more became interested in the project. “In 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it”. (The Panama Canal)

Surveys showed that either a route through Nicaragua or through Panama could be successful. Initially, an international company and later Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, took over the project. It was after the discovery of gold in California that America became interested in the project.

The American government pursued the project with great determination. “In 1899 the US Congress created an Isthmian Canal Commission to examine the possibilities of a Central American canal and to recommend a route.” (The Panama Canal)

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty was signed between Panama and the United States of America. Under the terms of this treaty, “United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and secured a perpetual lease on a 10-mile strip for the canal. Panama was to be compensated by an initial payment of $10 million and an annuity of $250,000, beginning in 1913. This strip is now known as the Canal Zone.” (The Panama Canal)


In the introduction, I have mainly discussed the historical background regarding the building of the Panama Canal. In the rest of the paper, I have talked about the challenges faced in its construction and how those were overcome to make the dream of the Panama Canal come true. I believe that the construction of this canal is a great achievement for mankind. It has been a source of tremendous revenue and has been hugely beneficial as regards oceanic travel.


The Map above shows the Panama Canal as it connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is approximately 51 miles long and goes through important landmarks like Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut and the Bridge of the Americas. The idea of cutting land to build a passageway was elegantly simple and apt. While theoretically, it seemed straightforward, the construction of the canal was fraught with challenges. “The building of the Panama Canal involved three main problems — engineering, sanitation, and organization. Its successful completion was due principally to the engineering and administrative skills of such men as John F. Stevens and Col. George W. Goethals, and to the solution of extensive health problems by Col. William C. Gorgas.” (Panama Canal)

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“The engineering problems involved digging through the Continental Divide; constructing the largest earth dam ever built up to that time; designing and building the most massive canal locks ever envisioned; constructing the largest gates ever swung; and solving environmental problems of enormous proportions”. (Panama Canal)

The French were the first ones to formally commence the building of the canal. They first started work in 1881 headed by de Lesson. This was the same person who had been instrumental in the building of the Suez Canal. However, the process of constructing the Panama Canal was fraught with a whole new set of problems. They encountered multiple challenges: the excavation was started but there were no tracks available to remove the debris; later landslides became a problem. The tidal range between the Atlantic and Pacific end of the canal was significant “20 feet at the Pacific, whereas, the Atlantic range was only about 1 foot” (The Panama Canal). This had the potential to become very dangerous for navigators, a solution in the form of tidal locks (see Map) was built to overcome this danger. Hence the construction process was laborious and solutions had to become up with as more and more problems were encountered. Soon the French company started running short on funds. Many workers began to die due to rampant disease, mosquitoes, and the inadequacy of health facilities. Criticism of the French escalated- they were largely seen to have failed at the project. “However, they had excavated a total of 59.75 million cubic meters which included 14.255 million cubic meters from the Culebra Cut. This lowered the peak by 102 meters. The value of work completed by the French was about $ 25 million.” (The Panama Canal)

By 1899 the French left. There were multiple reasons for their departure. According to most historians, it was the rampant disease in the region and especially because these diseases were new for the French and poorly tolerated by them. “As many as 20,000 died before de Lesseps gave up in 1889” (The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective) Also, the French had begun to run out of funds to continue financing the project, hence they were running into debts and could ill-afford new machinery.

Meanwhile, America’s interest in the project was growing and in 1904, the project was restarted, and this time by Americans. The Americans took care not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. They decided on the standard of living in the area and made provision of health care facilities their top priority.

However for the Americans too, it was a tough project to handle. Landslides became an increasingly important issue that had to be grappled with. “The first major slide occurred in 1907 at Cucaracha.” “This slide caused many people to suggest the construction of the Panama Canal would be impossible.” (The Panama Canal)

On the fifteenth of August, 1914, the United States of America announced the official opening of the Panama Canal. This day marked one of the biggest accomplishments in American history. It was the completion of a project that had exacted a huge price from the Americans in terms of money and human life. “The American expenditures from 1904 to 1914 totaled $352,000,000, far more than the cost of anything built by the United States Government up to that time. Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American efforts.” (Panama Canal History Museum)

The building of the Panama Canal has been one of the hugest and most expensive projects known to man. The returns from this project have been tremendous in terms of saving money, mileage and time as opposed to if the alternative route around South America was taken instead. To quote a few statistics: “A ship traveling from New York to San Francisco can save 7’872 miles using the Panama Canal instead of going around South America. In the fiscal year 1994 there where 14’029 transits, which carried 170.8 million long tons of cargo and paid US $ 419.2 million in tolls. The highest Canal toll was US $ 141,344.91 paid by the Crown Princess and the lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton for swimming the Canal in 1928. The average time spent in transit from port to port is approx. 8 – 10 hours.” (How the Panama Canal works plus canal history)

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Recently new problems have cropped up regarding the canal. The newer ships are much larger than the ones the canal was initially designed for. “The canal can only accommodate ships carrying up to 65,000 tons of cargo, but recently ships which are able to carry 300,000 tons have been introduced.” Multiple solutions have been considered for the above problem, including the construction of new canals. However, replacement canals would have a significant economic impact on the people of the Republic of Panama.

It is possible to increase the size of the canal and multiple schemes, including the use of nuclear power, have been considered to achieve that purpose. The government of Panama is dedicated to preserving its highly profitable waterway as evidenced by a government statement to that effect.

“Panama has announced an ambitious US $5.3bn plan to widen its famous canal to handle a new generation of giant container ships. President Martin Torrijos described the project as a “formidable challenge” but necessary if the canal is to retain its place as a key route for global cargo.” (Panama Canal History Museum)


The construction of the Panama Canal is a great accomplishment not only for the Americans but for all of mankind. Huge obstacles came in the way, but we persevered and completed the project. The Panama Canal is a reminder that it is very hard for man to conquer nature and it requires ingenuity and team effort to bend nature and be able to use it to help meet our needs. It is also a reminder of the fact that at times of difficulty the worst and the best of human nature can be seen. After de Lesseps gave up the project, French courts found him guilty of fraud and bribery in raising funds for the canal and he spent the rest of his years in prison. Some people may feel that the French gave up the project, were unable to complete it and that it is an accomplishment for Americans alone. However, I feel that the French did much of the groundwork for us. Before starting the project we were aware of what challenges to expect and hence were able to meet them more successfully and were gradually able to complete the project.

Huge amounts of money, time, human effort and life were put in the completion of this project. However, the benefits reaped since its opening have been significant and have more than compensated for the tremendous efforts invested.

In recent years there has been increasing criticism that the Canal is not designed to meet the modern marine requirements. It is argued that at the time of construction more effort should have been put in the future planning of this Canal. Although this Canal was a product of many years of engineering ingenuity, it should also have taken into account the progressive development of the marine industry.


The Panama Canal project was and still is fraught with problems. It is an example of how we as a human race can overcome major challenges posed by nature and are then successfully able to use nature to meet our needs. The landslides I mentioned in “The Challenges” section of my paper are still a realty that needs to be dealt with and dredges are employed on a regular basis to clear the Waterway.

The Panama Canal still stands out as one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It has been functioning for the past 87 years and has continued to provide huge benefits to us.

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Works cited

How the Panama Canal works plus canal history. Web.

Panama Canal History Museum

Panama Canal History Museum. 

Panama Canal. 

The Panama Canal. Web.

The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. 

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