The Story of the Panama Canal

The Story of the Panama Canal

I just finished The Darkest Jungle by Todd Balf which is a true account of the Darien Expedition and America’s role in trying to find a route for the Panama Canal in the 1850’s. An area known as the Darien Gap was thought to be the best route for construction and in 1854 the U.S. sent an Panama_canal expedition with maps of earlier explorations. The 27 member crew landed on the Atlantic side to start their exploration. Led by 33 year old Navy Lieutenant Issac Strain, their attempt to survey and cross the 40 mile wide area was a disaster. The maps turned out to be totally erroneous and the expedition was caught in a living hell of brutal heat, mosquito’s and a hostile native population. For ninety seven days they struggled with exhaustion, disease and death. The outcome was failure and only a handful of survivors. The attempt was clouded with later controversy generated by those who had a role in the planning and relied upon maps. Later investigation concluded the expedition was doomed before it started. It was not until 1914 the canal would actually be constructed.

Before the Canal was constructed, there had been a railroad. President Bolivar of Columbia had ordered a study of the possibility of a railroad connecting the two great oceans in 1827. The United States obtained the rights to construct the railroad, but the panic of 1837 ended that idea. In 1848 a private partnership, The Panama Railroad Company, raised capital of one million dollars and began work in 1850. It rapidly became a story of Yellow fever, malaria, disease and death. The railroad was completed, but it ended up taking five years to construct and cost $8 million. It’s estimated that more then 12,000 workers died during construction. It is 48 miles long and was an engineering marvel of that time. The railroad ends at Colon on the Pacific side in Panama City. The company was purchased by a French company in 1881 and was purchased back by the United States government in 1904.

While the idea of a canal had been around for many years, digging did not actually start until 1882 under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps on behalf of a French owned company. De Lesseps had played an important role in the digging of Egypt’s Suez Canal. The route was along the same route as the railroad. But the project cost more then anticipated and had construction problems. The idea had been to dig a flat channel sea to sea. But by 1885 the problems were so great the plans were changed to include locks. Work suffered from the same death and disease railroad construction had faced. By 1889 the De Lesseps led company was bankrupt and in 1894 a new French company formed to continue the work.

The U.S. developed a strong interest in the project and negotiated with the French company to buy it out. In 1902 Congress authorized $40 million dollars to purchase the second French company and assume the project. But, when the U.S. attempted to negotiate with Columbia for the right to continue digging, Columbia proved impossible to deal with. However, Panama itself supported the U.S. assumption. Panama declared itself independent from Columbia and President Teddy Roosevelt sent an American battleship "to protect American lives in Panama." Columbia conceded and Panama signed a treaty with the U.S. for construction of the canal. American engineers took over the project. By 1908 the original plans had to be changed again to increase the width of the canal. A dam, 1.5 miles in length, was built at Gatun which created the largest artificial lake in the world at the time. A series of three locks were constructed which raise and lower ships some 85′ feet. These locks had been made in the U.S. and transported to the site. They were some 1000′ feet long.

The canal was finished in 1914 just was World War I was starting. The canal has a total length of about 51 miles. It took ten years to build. The cost was substantial. The U.S. paid $10 Million to Panama another $40 million to the French and ended up spending a total of $352 million dollars on the project. But if the funds invested by the French is added, the total cost for construction is some $639 Million dollars. The French had spent ten years of work and had 20,000 deaths before giving up. Americans had 70,000 workers working on the project and suffered 5,600 deaths. One important factor in the reduction of deaths during U.S. construction was the earlier work of Dr., Walter Reed who had been commissioned to study ways to control yellow fever. Dr. Reed’s research in Cuba, involving the Spanish American war, discovered the cause was mosquito’s and way to prevent it was eradication plus protection against bite.

Over time relations between the U.S. and Panama regarding American control of the canal deteriorated until 1964 when a three day riot broke out over the refusal of an American school in the Canal Zone to fly a Panamanian flag alongside the American flag. Four Marines were killed and Panama cut diplomatic ties with the U.S. After continued turmoil over American ownership of the canal, President Jimmy Carter on September 7, 1977 signed a treaty with President Torrijos of Panama which abolished the Canal Zone and provided for the transfer of operations to Panama by 1999, but guaranteeing the canal’s neutrality at all times. It remains one of the engineering marvels of the world.

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