History of the Panama Canal
The first written mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route to sail to Peru and avoid the long, dangerous sail around the southern tip of South America.
The Canal became an obsession of the French as they began construction in 1880. Briming with confidence after conquering the Suez Canal, the French encountered unsurmountable obstacles in the jungles of Panama ending in financial ruin and the death of over 20,000 workers due to disease – they had to abandon the project by 1890.
The Americans negotiated to buy out the French interests and rights to create the canal and on March 14, 1903 the US Senate voted to persue the Panama option (vs. Nicaragua) if the rights could be obtained.
At the turn of the century, Panama was not yet an independent country, it was part of Colombia. The Colombian congress did not give rights to the Americans to as negotiated with the French. French shareholders and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt supported Panamanian rebels and on November 2, 1903, U.S. warships blocked sea lanes for possible Colombian troops movements en route to put down the revolution. Panama declared their independence the next day, November 3, 1903. A few days later, a Frenchman, acting as the embassador of Panama, signed the treaty granting rights to the United States to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses.
The Building of the Panama Canal
The French plan to create a sea-level canal was quickly replaced by the American’s plan of a large dam and lake system with three double sets of locks to raise ships to the level of the reservoir and then lower them in locks at the other ocean. This decision greatly reduced the cost and timeline of the canal’s completion. The construction of a Panama Canal with locks still required the excavation of more than an additional 130 million cubic meters of material on top of the 23 million cubic meters excavated by the French. If the excavated material was placed in railroad cars end-to-end, they would reach around the globe ten times. Excavation required cutting through the continental divide in such wet conditions that entire months of work would be lost in an instant to mud slides that plunged tons of mud back into the canal. Construction took from 1904 to 1914.
The United States controlled the Panama Canal and surrounding territory until US President Jimmy Carter negotiated a change-over effective 1999. Several historical intrusions, like the overthrow of Dictator Manuel Noriega throughout the time of American occupation in this area are contributed to the strong American influence in the canal.
Today, the Panama Canal is run completely by Panamanians and is a great source of support to the economy. As many as 14,000 ships cross the 80 km (50 mi) -long canal every year, paying US $82 for each full container.
Visiting the Panama Canal
Most visitors view the canal at the Miraflores Locks, just outside of Panama City. Complete with grandstands, exhibits and a running loudspeaker explanation, stay for an hour or two. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead and ask when a boat will be coming through; otherwise, you’ll find yourself staring at a lock filled with brown water.
In addition to Miraflores, the locks at Balboa, Paraíso or Kobbe can be visited further away from the city.
Many cruise ships pass through the canal, and small boat tours are also available from local Panama tour operators.
To learn more about the canal and its history, visit the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.
Most visit the Canal on a package tour. By bus, the orange buses leave from Panama City regularly from the massive intersection in front of the Legislative Palace near the Plaza 5 de Mayo.