Panama Canal is one of the most important waterways of the world. Connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, this engineering marvel provides passage to vessels through Central America, allowing them to avoid traveling several thousand extra miles around the dangerous southern tip of South America’s Cape Horn. The construction of the canal began in 1881 by the French, but the search for such a route of passage began long before. Early explorers to Central America believed the possibility of finding a passageway was high and, with both truly helpful information and misleading reports disguised as helpful from natives of the area, they searched for a way across.
After the successful construction of the Suez Canal, the French and in particular, the man behind the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, believed construction of a sea-level Panama Canal would be swift and inexpensive. But due to challenging terrain that cut through the mountainous spine of Central America, dense forest, and across two large rivers, and the propensity for workers to die of malaria and yellow fever, the French project plagued with financial struggles and was sold to the United States in the early 1900s.
Then-president Theodore Roosevelt was a forceful advocate for the building of the canal. His belief in its importance was so strong that the US went so far as to support a rebel uprising that gave Panamanians their independence from Columbia.
Construction began again in earnest in 1905 after John Frank Stevens, the engineering mastermind behind the Great Northern Railway, was hired as Chief Engineer. Building better housing and sanitation for workers and hiring a massive labor force, he got the ball rolling and convinced Roosevelt and Congress that the canal should be a lock system, not sea level.
Major George Geothals, who succeeded Stevens, saw the project to completion. During the course of construction, over 268 million cubic yards of earth was dug and moved; two artificial lakes—Lake Gatun and Miraflores Lake—were constructed along with four dams; and the continental divide, which originally rose 360 feet above sea level was brought down to just 40 feet above sea level at the Culebra Cut. The canal has three sets of locks—the Miraflores, the Pedro Miguel, and the Gatun Locks—that raise vessels 85 feet above sea level during passage through. Over 56,000 people were employed and nearly 5,600 died during the US-phase of construction. The canal remained under US administration until 1999 when control was returned to Panama and the Panama Canal Authority took over.
The Panama Canal was opened on October 10, 1913 when the dike that separated Lake Gatun from the Calebra Cut was demolished. The first vessel to pass through was a French crane boat, Alexandre de Valley. The canal officially opened to traffic in the summer of 1914 and since its opening, over 1 million vessels have passed through.