The History of the Panama Canal

Leslie Eteson – 9th October 2007

Following on from the success of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. Ferdinand De Lessops, in 1881, formed a company to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. Shares sold like hot cakes and in 1882 a 100 year lease was signed with Colombia and work started on the new canal. However the conditions and terrain were very different to those where the Suez Canal was built. The area was subjected to torrential rain for much of the year and at the Caribbean Sea end there were deadly swamps and at the Pacific Ocean end there were high mountains. After 8 years there was no canal despite 287 million dollars having been spent and as the money had run out the company was bankrupt. During this time approximately 25.000 workers had died mainly of malaria and yellow fever

In 1904 the Americans, who were very keen on the prospect of the canal to enable the West Coast States to trade with Europe, bought up the lease, the partially completed railway and
canal and all the equipment for 40 million dollars. The equipment included a number of 95 ton steam shovels.

One of the first things the Americans did was to set up a base employing many doctors and scientists to control the endemic diseases. After trying to blast a canal through the mountains they decided to raise the canal level 90ft. above sea level and flood a valley through the mountains. This involved constructing locks at each end of the canal. Also rather than attempt to drain the huge swamp area as the French had done they built two dams on the rivers and flooded it to produce two large lakes, Lake Gatum, which is 164 sq. miles in area, and Madden Lake. This also enabled them to develop a hydroelectric power station and so provide electric lighting for the whole length of the canal to enable round the clock working during the construction. Later Panama City was also supplied with electricity including street lighting, which at the time was ahead of London. Two sets of three parallel locks use gravity of water without any pumps to raise or lower ships a total of 90 ft.

The canal, which had cost the Americans 352 million dollars to build, was completed in 1914 but the official opening was delayed until 1922 due to the 1914-18 war. The labour force, which had peaked at 50,000 workers in 1909-10, came from 97 different countries.

Under the terms of the extended lease the canal was handed over to Panama in 1999 but the Americans, who built a bridge across the canal near Panama City in1942 for access, still maintain a combined armed force near the canal to ensure its defense.

It takes approximately 8 hours for a ship to pass through the 50 mile long canal and costs a large cruise liner £60,000 in dues or roughly £40 per passenger.

K Lane