Most people think of the Panama Canal as a modern endeavor. Although, the history goes all of the ways back to the 16th century. After unbelievable riches discovered in Asia, Peru, and Ecuador by the Spanish. It was suggested to Charles V of Spain in approximately 1524 that a shorter route back to Europe was a necessity.
Plans were drawn up in 1529 that suggested cutting out a piece of land out of Panama. This was to lessen the travel time back to Europe. History shows that these plans were put on the shelf by wars throughout Europe. At that time they carved crude roads through the treacherous terrain. Even settlements on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to speed the journeys of travelers headed back to Europe. Most notable of these settlements is the Scottish New Edinburgh and Caledonia. Both abandoned for good by 1700. Wiped out by disease and fighting with the Spanish.
In the early 1800’s European interest revived in a canal project. In 1819 the Spanish government officially authorized the construction of the canal. Then the establishment of the company that would oversee the construction. The California Gold Rush in 1848 also increased the interest of all the parties involved. As well as stimulated the Americans to join the canal effort. Two sites were determined to be the most practical- one in what is now Panama and the other in Nicaragua.
Several international organizational companies were formed to headline the construction. Most failed within a few years. It became imperative that a shorter method of travel was found immediately. From 1850 to 1855 the Panama Railroad was built. Now crossing the isthmus in approximately the same location as the Canal would someday. The Railroad was an engineering miracle in its time. Built under horrendous conditions in difficult terrain; claiming somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 workers. Mostly from cholera or malaria. Until the Canal opened, the Panama Railroad boasted the highest volume of freight of any railroad in the world. The existence of the railroad solidified Panama as the natural choice once Canal plans began again.
In 1880 a French company formed and headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. The builder of the Suez Canal. He suggested that a sea-level canal, built thru Panama. Not unlike the Suez Canal, completed nearly a decade earlier. But Panama was much different from the terrain that de Lesseps was familiar with in the Middle East. His lack of engineering skills, coupled with his inexperience at delegating the work to qualified personnel, made the French efforts wildly unsuccessful. Nearly 22,000 workers lost their lives in the effort, and the canal was once again on the back burner.
Although the French effort failed - they made significant achievement in the initial efforts to remove large quantities of earth and rock. In 1899 the United States formed a congressional committee to examine all of the proposed canal routes. Initially, the decision of the committee was to go through Nicaragua. Later changed to the route we know now. Panama Canal Construction The Lesseps Company offered to sell its remaining assets to the Americans. The United States and the newly formed government of Panama entered into a treaty that provided a perpetual lease of a ten-mile strip of land, now known as the Canal Zone. This treaty guaranteed independence to Panama and a well-needed influx of cash.
The building of the 48 mile Panama Canal became one of the primary focuses of Teddy Roosevelt. He saw the Canal as imperative to national security. The sinking of the USS Maine off the shores of Cuba in 1898 only brought home his point. A replacement ship took nearly 67 days to travel from San Francisco. As compared to the three weeks it would have taken had there been a canal. The purchase of the Lesseps Company and active participation in the formation of the new country of Panama sealed the deal for the United States. Construction once again began in earnest in 1904 and completed in 1914.
The construction was fraught with problems including serious disease epidemics. For example, small pox, malaria, and yellow fever- and labor and engineering disasters of every type. Estimated that by the time the canal completion, nearly 30,000 people died in the American and French efforts. In November 1906, Roosevelt visited Panama to inspect the canal’s progress. The first trip outside the United States by a sitting President. A grand opening celebration planned in 1914 when the canal finally completed but never occurred because World War 1 had started and any celebration seen as inappropriate. A local event held with a first official trip thru the canal on August 15th, 1914.
Since the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it has been enormously successful. The canal can handle everything from private yachts to large commercial ships. Typically it takes nine hours for a ship to make it through the complicated series of locks. So much more acceptable than the alternative. An average of over 40 ships a day traveled through the canal in 2005 with a total of nearly 280 million tons aboard.
The canal has continued to be of enormous strategic and economic importance to the United States. The military significance of the canal proved well during World War 2 when the United States fought in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The canal made this much easier and safer than ever before. The running of the Panama Canal handed over to the Panamanian Government on January 1st of 2000. This transition made many very apprehensive but has been seamless, and the canal continues to operate as well as ever. The Panama Canal's an engineering marvel that truly appreciated by anyone that travels thru Panama.
Something that might interest you is a Panama Canal Cruise. Go up the famous canal and see some amazing sites. The majority of the canal is full of rainforest and wildlife. It is much different than your average cruise but with the same amenities. Experience an all inclusive style trip while feeling a little safer closer to land. See the sites and sounds of Panama but at the same time being able to relax.
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