The History of the Panama Canal

The History of the Panama Canal

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The History of the Panama Canal


The Panama Canal has been called the big ditch, the bridge between two continents, and the greatest shortcut in the world. When it was finally finished in 1914, the 51-mile waterway cut off over 7,900 miles of the distance between New York and San Francisco, and changed the face of the industrialized world ("Panama Canal"). This Canal is not the longest, the widest, the deepest, or the oldest canal in the world, but it is the only canal to connect two oceans, and still today is the greatest man-made waterway in the world ("Panama Canal Connects).

Ferdinand de Lesseps, who played a large role in building the Suez Canal in 1869 (Jones), was the director of the Compagnie Universelle Du Canal Interoceanique de Panama ("Historical Overview"). At first De Lesseps seemed to be "the perfect choice for the Panama task." Though as time went on De Lesseps was found to be "anything but the ideal" (Dolan). As soon as de Lesseps' company took over the canal it was doomed (Jones). De Lesseps was a 74-year-old man who was stubborn, vain, and very opinionated (Considine). Because of his experience with the Suez waterway, De Lesseps thought he was smarter than all the engineers beneath his command (Dolan). De Lesseps overrode all opposition of his sea-level canal due to his very popular reputation. He was sold on the idea of a sea-level canal and would not listen to the ideas of others such as French engineer, Adolphe Godin de Lepinary. De Lepinary's idea was to create two large lakes on either side of the mountains. In order to do this they would have to dam the Chagres River on the Atlantic side and the Rio Grande River on the pacific side (Considine).

Although as time went on more than just a poor director held back the finalization of the canal.

Disease, death, and rough terrain slowed down the completion of the canal. "The Terrain at the Isthmus was something they had never experienced and had not put a serious study of it, a very grave error" ("Panama Canal Connects"). Mosquitoes were responsible for many deaths. Illnesses such as yellow fever and malaria made "many of the work forces go to the hospitals or in some cases die" ("Panama Canal"). Mosquitoes carried the diseases and when a person got bit he would give a disease to the mosquito and the mosquito would pass it on to the next victim ("Historical Overview").

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"The rocky ground of the formerly volcanic area proved to be too much for the French steam shovels and dredges" (Jones), and only when Philippe Bunau-Varilla suggested a plan for dynamiting the rocks underwater and digging up the pieces was there any room for headway (Jones).

Besides poor leadership by De Lesseps and poor working conditions the French company faced other problems. From the start almost everyone thought of the Panama Canal as "the impossible task." The French did not have the correct equipment and tools. In many ways the French were not ready to take on such a large task.

The French had to improvise in Panama and they had to do it under pressure. Everything had to be learned by trial and error, and many errors were committed. The experience of Suez was no use here and the only advantage now was the distance. Everything else was immensely difficult. The task at Panama was a nightmare compared to what they had to do in Suez. ("Actual digging")

Therefore, financial support was limited. "In 1889, de Lesseps' company was liquidated in order to pay back investors and banks" (Jones) from which the company had borrowed, De Lesseps' company went bankrupt after suffering losses totaling $325 million and stock prices falling ("Panama Canal"). The appraisal of the company's belongings included: equipment, maps, and the value of the land already excavated ("Historical Overview"). After his company went bankrupt, Lesseps left the Panama Canal to finish his last few years of his already aged life elsewhere ("Actual digging"). Still, much of the credit of the canal belongs to de Lesseps who convinced a skeptical world to attempt this impossible feat ("Panama Canal").

The U.S. government started to show interest in the Panama Canal in 1887 when "the United States sent a regiment under Lieutenant Menocal" (Jones) to survey for a canal site. "In 1907, an American construction crew headed by G.W. Goethals journeyed to Panama to try their luck where the French had failed" ("Panama Canal Connects").

Before any work could begin, the most deadly of the problems on the isthmus had to be overcome - disease. The US was afraid of having as many casualties as the French did. To help prevent this American doctor William Gorgas was asked to examine the area. Gorgas goal was now to eliminate the mosquito population from the canal. Gorgas and his troops started to cover all standing or slow-moving bodies of water with a combination of oil and insecticide. These chemicals were put in to help kill off any mosquitoes. Gorgas also kept all infected persons in a wire-screen tent. The wire-screen tents would stop all mosquitoes from spreading the diseases.

The "massive" ("Panama Canal") project to wipe out the malaria-carrying mosquito was successful, and work proceeded without the hazard of disease that doomed the French venture. Work on the canal was finally continued from where De Lesseps crew stopped (76 million cubic yards of dirt had already been dug). With out the threat of disease the workers were able to work with out having the fear of death in the back of their minds. US portion of the canal "construction began at both ends of the projected canal" ("Actual digging").

Now that the U.S. started construction, Americans wanted to make sure that the canal would be finished. One fear was the canal attempt fail due to overspending and no funding. So the US congress set up a Commission where the chief engineer's requests would be confirmed through the Commission (Jones).
During the US construction there was three chief engineers who made a major impact on the canal.

The first was John F. Wallace, an American civilian engineer (Jones). He was elected and arrived at the isthmus by June 1904 (Considine). Before much of the work could be done Wallace began on fixing the problems of the French. New railroad tracks needed to be laid due to the old ones being so narrow. The tracks were just too narrow for American railroad cars. This type of work called "The Red tape" was a major set back. Almost a year passed before American machinery being used due to the time it took the ordered equipment to arrive. Wallace went back to the US to complain to Roosevelt about the timelines and the way the simplest "necessities" (Jones) would take forever to arrive. Wallace, who was temporary, satisfied, traveled back to the canal only to be caught up in a major yellow-fever epidemic. After a few months Wallace gave vice President William Taft his resignation.

Second Panama Canal Chief Engineer was hired in less then a day of Wallace's resignation. John Stevens was selected to replace Wallace by the Commission in July of 1905. Stevens, another American civilian engineer, wanted a lock canal. He informed all men to start working on the machinery left by the French while American machinery was on the way. While working on the canal Stevens wrote to President Roosevelt stating that he was no longer fond of working on the canal. In the letter he stated he was not "anxious to continue in service" (Jones). So with that said Roosevelt accepted Stevens' "resignation" (Jones), and appointed Army Lieutenant George Washington Goethals.

George Goethals, the most organized of the three chief engineers, was in the army. He was unable to resign from the canal and also the canal was now under a "military-discipline control" (Jones). He was used to working within the governments rules and he knew how to get exactly what he needed (Jones). Part of Goethals success was the fact that he took time out of his schedule to listen to the needs of the workers (Jones).

The canal was completed in August of 1914 under the budget by over twenty-three million dollars. Though the idea of having a waterway through the Isthmus of Panama was older then the respective name the completion could not have come at a worse time. When the canal was finished, World War I was just beginning. During the war the canal was used only by two thousand ships a year, but after the war the total jumped to five thousand ships annually. The toll was originally only $0.90 per ton but due to increasing costs of operation the fee was raised to $1.08 per ton in 1974. The Panama Canal was, is, and shall remain the terran-engineering marvel of the 20th century. Never before nor since has any project accomplished the feats of the canal, of engineering and construction, or of future planning as has been done at Panama. After 85 years of continuous service, it continues to be as useful today as the day it became operational. Something that was so impossible only 30 years earlier, the United States rallied behind the energetic laborers that were going to bend the isthmus between North and South America until it broke and a new path between the seas was created. Killer diseases, high costs, and seemingly impossible excavations all faced the engineers at the Canal Zone. But one by one they overcame until the Panama Canal alone stood out from among the trash and dirt and invited people of the world to come and cruise her waters - a new pathway for the ever-expanding, ever-changing human race.

Works Cited

"Actual digging" Online. Internet. Available: http://www.panamavisual.com/start1.html. 22 Feb. 1999.
Considine, Bob. The Panama Canal. New York: Random House, 1951.Dolan, Edward. Panama and the United States Their Canal, Their Stormy Years. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.
"Historical Overview" Online. Internet. Available. 22 Feb. 1999.
Jones, Tyler. "The Panama Canal: A Brief History." Online. Internet. Available: http://www.june29.com/Tyler/nonfiction/pan2.html. 12 Jan. 1999.
"Panama Canal." Online. Internet. Available: http://frontpage.%20ncl.aa.psiweb.com/html/destinations%20/de_PANA_intro.htm. 21 Feb. 1999.
"Panama Canal Connects." Online. Internet. Available: http://www.ycaol.com/feature2.htm. 2 Feb. 1999.
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