finally, a blog post!
If you were playing word association and the first word was Panama, the next invariably would be Canal. The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel. Panama is probably the most famous isthmus in the world. It was discovered in 1513 by Balboa. That began the canal debate. As we’ve talked about in the Chile posts, ships had to make a long, expensive and dangerous tour down the Americas, past Cape Horn and back up the other side before the Panama Canal. Eliminating all that extra time by crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific through Central America was obviously a great commercial idea.
The challenge of course is that Panama is largely rainforest. The French started the project in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, started a sea-level canal. Panama was not Egypt. Rather than desert, it was largely rainforest and the rain caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria killed thousands of workers. In 1888, the French gave up.
That’s when Teddy Roosevelt got involved. Until you come to Panama, you will likely not appreciate that it is very close to Colombia and was a Colombian territory until 1903. The US had purchased the assets in the canal zone from the French in 1902 for $40 million. Thus began a bizarre colonial relationship and lots of American meddling in Central America. Colombia wasn’t happy to have the USA building things in its territory so the US decided to support a Panamanian independence movement and Panama became an independent country in 1903.
This gave the US tremendous control over Panama and the Panama Canal.
The initial start was not promising as the Americans had not learned from the French mistakes. In 1905 a railroad specialist named John Stevens was appointed as chief engineer and he incorporated new technology and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was better suited to the terrain. He was certainly instrumental to the success of the Panama Canal but his chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas also contributed tremendously. He thought mosquitoes were carrying the yellow fever and malaria that was plaguing the workers so he went on a mission to fumigate homes and clean up bodies of water. He wiped out yellow fever in 1905 and greatly reduced malaria. Stevens quit in 1906 and was replaced by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals. It took until 1914 to finish the canal and the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
There are three locks along the canal route, which lift ships from sea level to 85 feet above where they transit through man-made Gatun Lake. It officially opened on August 15, 1914 but the grand opening ceremony had to be downgraded due to the start of World War I. The Panama Canal and politics have always been bedfellows. The original deal the Americans cut was that they would control the canal forever but Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would transfer control of the canal to the local Panama Canal Authority by December 31, 1999.
Even more interestingly, Nicaragua was the Americans’ first choice for the canal but a very effective propaganda campaign about the danger of volcanoes in Nicaragua shifted the plan to Panama. Apparently there is now some Chinese billionaire looking to give Nicaragua its own canal.
So, you can thank Teddy for getting it built and Jimmy for allowing the new Panama to emerge. Not only did Panama take control of the canal, they expanded it to allow today’s modern supertankers to pass through the canal. The expanded Panama Canal was opened on June 26, 2016.
You can learn all of this – and more – when you visit. It can be tricky to actually see a ship passing through the canal on a random visit but it is impressive no matter when you arrive. There are great exhibits and video describing both the history and the function of the canal.
For me, it was a multifaceted experience. I probably should have been an engineer so certainly appreciated that aspect of the canal. Also love history and Panama’s history is fascinating. Finally, I spent several years working for a client in the shipping industry so seeing real ships in the Panama Canal had an extra resonance for me. The names on the shipping containers were like the names of family members.