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Panama Canal Essay, Research Paper

Is it really worth building a canal in Nicaragua? With news of Nicaragua adopting the idea of a dry canal the first question that should come to mind is, is it really worth building a canal in Nicaragua? Many people look at Panama with its enviable economy and say that Nicaragua needs a canal but they don t realize the problems it brings. Many people know exactly the history of the Panama Canal but few know how many people died to build it, and how many troubles it has created for Panama.

Canal s can increase tourism and the economic growth of a country with out even mentioning the jobs it creates, but that s not all. Hard work and dedication are needed to build such a canal and few countries in the world possess the manpower needed and willing to do this exhausting work. Many companies went broke trying to create the Panama Canal and many famous architects and engineers were left jobless after the Big Ditch ruined their reputation. Building a Canal is not as easy as many people imagine. Is Nicaragua actually ready to begin such a grueling construction? Do they have what it takes? Will Nicaragua ever see a canal in its soil which was the dream of many French and American people?

History of the Panama Canal:

A great water tollway, often called the “Big Ditch,” links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It weaves across a strip of tropical land where the Isthmus of Panama narrows in the shape of a long flattened letter S . The fame of the Panama Canal is not in its size, since it is only about 51 miles long. The Big Ditch is an engineering triumph over nature. It has also been a major influence on world trade. It is probably the most important construction ever created in the 20th century.

A sea-level canal is not a new idea. It was considered when interest in a canal developed in the 16th century. In 1534 King Charles I of Spain ordered a survey to determine the possibility of a canal in the Panama region. He abandoned his plans when the Spanish governor there made an unfavorable report.

Balboa had discovered the Pacific in 1513. He sighted the vast ocean from a peak some miles southeast of the eventual Panama Canal location. The Pacific port of the canal, Balboa, was named in his honor.

For years the Spaniards searched in vain for a natural waterway joining the two oceans. Eventually they brought their gold and silver from Peru and other South American colonies to Panama City on the Pacific side. Mule trains carried the treasure through narrow trails to Portobello or Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean. Ships there loaded the cargo for shipment to Spain. Pirates frequently raided Panama.

More than 20 routes for such a crossing were proposed. Locations were surveyed in areas ranging from one end of the isthmus to the other. A number placed the proposed canal close to the routes mentioned for a new sea-level canal today. Rocky ridges were an obstacle. Some plans called for tunnels through them to accommodate stretches of the canal. One proposal was for a railway to carry fully laden ships across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec on a mammoth platform drawn by steam engines. This plan, developed by Capt. James Buchanan Eads, a prominent American engineer, was given serious consideration.

Another possibility was to build the canal through Nicaragua. This country offered unique conditions, since the Nicaraguan Lake was already connected by Rio San Juan to the Atlantic Ocean. In the Pacific side, a 10-mile land strip was the only obstacle to get to the ocean. On the Atlantic side, the San Juan River could be easily dug and couple of esclusas (huge mechanical shovels) would do the job. On the pacific side, the job would be much easier and faster than what the engineers had to do in the case of Panama.

By 1850 Nicaragua was the best alternative for travelers from the East Coast trying to reach California during the Gold Rush. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt set up a shipping company called Compa a del Transito. This shipping line transported passenger and cargo from New York to San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua. Then, navigated the Rio San Juan and Lake Nicaragua reaching port San Jorge. From San Jorge they were transported by wagons (diligencias) to the port of San Juan del Sur in the Pacific Ocean. From San Juan del Sur, they traveled in big vessels to California.

The Nicaraguan option did not worked out for three main reasons:

 Political instability propelled by the troops of invader General William Walker, that not only created problems for Nicaraguans, but also for Vanderbilt s company.

 The colonialist interests that the British had those days in Nicaragua. They controlled the Mosquitia Coast where San Juan del Norte was located.

 The possibility of strong earthquakes in the volcano rich area.

In 1850 the United States Senate ratified the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain. This agreement provided for the neutrality of the canal whenever it was built. The Spanish-American War focused attention on the need for a way to move warships quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

A French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps began an actual construction of a sea-level canal in 1882. He had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. By comparison, however, building the Suez Canal had been simple. Mismanagement, dishonesty, and terrible epidemics of disease in Panama forced the French company into bankruptcy in 1889. During seven years of digging, 22,000 men had died of tropical diseases. This was equivalent to wiping out the entire construction crew twice, for the total number of men employed at any one time did not average more than 10,000.

The French canal builders did not know that the deadly malaria and yellow fever were caused by bites of certain mosquitoes. Serious errors were made in sanitation. French physicians were said to have ordered the legs of hospital beds placed in water to keep ants and other crawling bugs from the patients. The water became an additional breeding place for mosquitoes, which already were swarming in from marshes, streams, and pools in the hot, rainy region.

On the Isthmus, the Compagnie Universelle established medical services presided over to the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. The first 200-bed hospital was established in Colon in March 1882. On the Pacific side, construction for L’H pital Central de Panama, the forerunner of Ancon Hospital, was begun on Ancon Hill. It was dedicated six months later, on September 17, 1882.

With the information on the mosquito connection in the transmission of yellow fever and malaria not yet discovered, the French and the good sisters unwittingly committed a number of errors that were to cost dearly in human life and suffering. The hospital grounds were set out with many varieties of vegetables and flowers. To protect them from leaf-eating ants, waterways were constructed around flowerbeds. Inside the hospital itself, water pans were placed under bedposts to keep of insects. Both insect-fighting methods provided excellent and convenient breeding sites for the Stegomyia fasciata and Anopheles mosquitoes, carriers of yellow fever and malaria.

Many patients who came to the hospital for other reasons often fell ill with these diseases after their arrival. It got to the point where people avoided the hospital whenever possible.

Finally, with all excavating arrangements made, Couvreux and Hersent decided to withdraw from the project and wrote to de Lesseps requesting cancellation of their contract on December 31, 1882.

In June 1902 the United States agreed to buy the concession of the French company for 40 million dollars if Colombia would cede a strip of land across the isthmus. A treaty was signed in 1903, but the Colombian government was reluctant to ratify it. Angered company agents and Panamanian businessmen plotted secession from Colombia. With covert support from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Panamanians launched a successful revolution and declared Panama a Republic. Two weeks later the United States signed a treaty with Panama. The United States agreed to pay the country 10 million dollars plus 250,000 dollars a year for the use, occupation, and administration of a 10-mile-wide strip along the canal, 5 miles on each side.

Credit goes to two United States Army colonels for succeeding where the French had failed. Colonel George Washington Goethals, as engineer in chief after 1907, directed construction. Colonel William Crawford Gorgas of the Medical Corps, as chief sanitary officer, led the battle against disease. Later both men became major generals.

The United States took possession of the canal property on May 4, 1904. The first two and a half years were devoted to the careful preparation that brought health and efficiency when actual construction started.

Construction preparations were carried on under the supervision of the Isthmian Canal Commission, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. John F. Stevens was chief engineer. To recruit the large work force required, the commission set up agencies in the United States, Europe, and the West Indies. Meanwhile, buildings were started and equipment assembled to house, feed, and safeguard the employees. Unskilled or semiskilled workers were paid in silver coin, while the skilled craftsmen and those occupying executive, professional, and higher clerical positions were paid in gold. This classification of workers into “silver” and “gold” employees persisted long after the canal opened. Much later they were all paid in paper money.

The construction equipment that had to be assembled included mammoth steam shovels, locomotives, trackshifters, pile drivers, dredges, steamboats, and tugs. The railway was reorganized. A civil government for the Canal Zone was established, with courts, police force, fire companies, and customs and revenue service. A postal system was organized.

When Stevens resigned in 1907, President Roosevelt appointed Colonel Goethals chief engineer and chairman of the Canal Commission. He had complete control of construction. From then on the government under Army supervision did the work, instead of by private contractors.

The construction of the canal was a 40-mile-long panorama of industry. Toiling under the tropical sun in the mighty cuts were legions of sweating laborers, some in shirt sleeves, some almost naked. Some worked with pick, shovel, and crowbar. Others with drill and dynamite in the stone cuts. Series of cableways and a network of railway tracks ran everywhere. Mighty derricks and cranes swung huge buckets of concrete through the air and lowered them into the forms to build locks and embankments. Powerful drills bored holes into solid rock at the rate of seven feet an hour. The arms of monster dipper dredges rose and fell from barges afloat in swamps and bays.

More than 100 steam shovels doing the work of 10,000 men dug up earth in ten-ton scoopfuls and dumped it into waiting railroad cars. One hundred fifteen locomotives hauled trains of these cars to the dumps. Here a great plow traveled from one end of the train to the other unloading 20 cars, each carrying 60 tons, in less than ten minutes. The earth, which was excavated, totaled more than 239 million cubic yards:

 Enough to make a line of 70 pyramids, each the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

 If dumped in the Managua Lake, the lake level would increase about 25 feet.

 If dumped in some Nicaraguan lagoons enough material to cover Asososca, Tispaca, Xiloa, Apoyeque, Masaya, Apoyo and still lots of material would have to be dumped elsewhere.

This earth was used to build Gatun Dam, fill low places, and build breakwaters for the new port of Balboa.

Dynamite charges of as much as 40,000 pounds at a time blasted away at mountains of the Continental Divide. Cuts 300 feet deep were made here. A spirit of competition grew among the three construction divisions the Central, Atlantic, and Pacific. The work progressed in the face of constant difficulties. Once there was an earthquake. Heavy rains, which brought terrific landslides in the Culebra Cut, often undid the work of months. The Chagres River, flowing down the Atlantic side, was particularly troublesome because of its floods. This problem was solved when Gatun Dam was constructed from earth and rock. The finished dam is one and a half miles long, a half-mile wide at the base, and 100 feet wide at the top.

On Oct. 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, 4,000 miles away in the White House in Washington, D.C., pressed an electric button. The impulse sent a flash over cables to set off a charge of dynamite. This blew out a temporary dike. A flood of water rushed through a rock-walled rift in the mountains, and the Panama Canal was a dream realized.

United States engineers at a cost of 380 million dollars had achieved the greatest engineering wonder of the world. The Canal Zone marked the historic day by placing a new motto on its official seal: “A Land Divided, the World United.” On August 15, 1914, the canal was opened to world commerce. The first ship through was the vessel Ancon, carrying guests of honor. After 400 years, the first explorers’ dream of a westward passage had come true.

The French company had planned a canal 74 feet wide. The United States set a minimum of 300 feet. During the years, dredging has further enlarged some portions of the canal. Many stretches have been widened to at least 500 feet. Gaillard Cut, twisting through deep passes, has continued to be a problem. In 1955 cracks appeared in Contractor’s Hill and threatened to slide a mountain of earth and rock into the canal. Three million cubic yards were excavated to reduce the hazard. The regular uprooting of water hyacinths is also necessary. The plants grow so rapidly they could choke off canal traffic.


Due to the fact that thousandths of people died during the construction of the Panama Canal it is important to realize what was so hard about building the canal. We have already seen that the diseases were one deadly factor but also the environment. Probably the hardest part about the building of the Canal was the Culebra Cut.

The Culebra Cut was the special wonder of the canal. Here, men and machines labored to conquer the 8.75-mile stretch extending through the Continental Divide from Gamboa on the Chagres River at the north to Pedro Miguel on the south. The lowest point in the saddle between Gold Hill on the east and Contractors Hill on the west was at elevation 333.5 feet above sea level.

Holes were drilled, filled with explosives and detonated to loosen the rock and rock-hard clay. Steam shovels then excavated the spoil, placing it on railroad cars to be hauled to dump sites. Excavation equipment, in addition to the railroad itself, included steam shovels, unloaders, spreaders and track-shifters. Of this equipment, only the steam shovel had been known to the French, and then in a much less powerful form. That was one reason why French constructors had such a hard time.

A very big improvement in the construction area was the Lidgerwood Unloader. The Lidgerwood Unloader was manufactured by the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company of New York City. It consisted of wooden flatcars with a rated canal capacity of 19 cubic yards hauling most of the spoil, pulled in long trains by full-sized American locomotives. Built with only one side, they had steel aprons bridging the spaces between cars. Dirt was piled high against one side. At the dump site, the unloader, a three-ton plow, was hitched to the last car by a long cable to a huge winch-like device mounted on a flatcar at the head of the train.

Taking its power from the locomotive, the winch pulled the plow rapidly forward, unloading the whole twenty-car train in a single, 10-minute sweep. One of these machines once set an 8-hour record by unloading 18 trains, about 3 + miles of cars containing about 7,560 cubic yards of material. Engineers estimated that 20 of these unloaders operated by 120 laborers did the work of 5,666 men unloading by hand.

The dirt-spreader was another American innovation. A car operated by compressed air, it had steel wings on each side that could be raised and lowered. When lowered, they sloped 11.5 feet backward from the rails. Moving forward, the dirt-spreader spread and leveled the material left along the track by the unloader. Like the unloader, the spreader did the work of some 5,000 to 6,000 men working by hand

American William G. Bierd, general manager of the Panama Railroad from September 1905 to October 1907, invented another machine, the track-shifter. The huge crane-like machine would hoist a whole section of track rails and ties and swing it in either direction, to relocate it as much as 9 feet at a time. With the tracks at the dumps needing constant shifting to keep pace with the arriving loads of spoil, the track-shifter was extremely useful. It took less than a dozen men operating on the shifter one day to move a mile of track, a task requiring not less than 600 men if done manually.

A large number of 17-cubic-yard capacity, 4-sided Western and Oliver dump cars (27 cars comprising a train) were also used. As it was hard to unload the dirt from these cars because the heavy clay would stick to the steel sides, they were used almost exclusively for hauling rock from the Cut to Gatun Dam. Their 4-sided design made them impossible for use with the unloader. More than a hundred million cubic yards of spoil had to be hauled away from the excavation site and dumped. Part of this spoil was used to join a series of four small islands in Panama Bay (Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco) to create a breakwater. This breakwater is topped by a roadway, making it a causeway that extends three and a quarter miles out into the Pacific. The stretch between the mainland and Naos Island was a very troublesome dumping area because of a soft bottom, into which tons of rock would settle and virtually disappear. Track and trestle used to haul the spoil to the dumping area would disappear overnight into the ocean and have to be replaced. In the end, to reach Naos Island took ten times the estimated spoil.

Spoil was also used to claim nearly 500 acres of Pacific Ocean to create the Balboa townsite and the Fort Amador military reservation. Millions of cubic yards of material also had to be hauled out to big waste dumps in the jungle. In the largest of these, Tabernilla, 17,000,000 cubic yards of material were deposited. Balboa was the biggest dumpsite. Other big dumps were Gatun Dam, and Miraflores.

Gatun Dam, on the Atlantic, was, at the time of its construction, the largest earthen dam in the world and Gatun Lake the largest manmade body of water in the world. Today, Gatun Lake doesn t even make the top thirty list of such lakes. Two other dams were built on the Pacific side the Miraflores Spillway and, in the 1930s, Madden Dam farther up the Chagres River. With the building of Gatun Dam, the Chagres River valley between Gamboa and Gatun became Gatun Lake, with the Chagres flowing into it at Gamboa. The building of Gaillard Cut then extended the lake across the Continental Divide to Pedro Miguel Locks.

Earth slides in Culebra Cut were a constant concern for construction engineers. The first under the American effort occurred at Cucaracha on October 4, 1907 when some 500,000 cubic yards of material moved into the Cut following several days of unusually heavy rain. For ten days the slide moved an average of 14 feet every 24 hours. Cucaracha remains today a slide surveillance area.

A normal or gravity slide like Cucaracha, the largest of its kind at the Canal, occurs where a layer of porous material rests upon a sloping surface of harder material such as rock. Rainwater saturating the overlying porous material forms a slippery zone against the harder material below, causing the entire top layer, which can vary in thickness from 10 and 40 feet, to slide.

Geologists classify another type of slide as structural break or deformation slides. In these, factors such as unstable geological rock formations, slope steepness and height and the effects of blasting combine to form a slide. At the Canal, excavation removed lateral support from the high banks created in the deepest portions of Culebra Cut. Unable to sustain the weight above it, the slopes sheared and settled forcing the underlying layer of poor-quality rock and soft material to be crushed and forced laterally into the prism of the Canal, heaving up the Canal bottom.

The most formidable slides of this character occur during the dry season, and are in no way due to ground saturation by rainfall.

The two most serious structural break slides during the American construction period occurred on the east bank north of Gold Hill and on the west bank in front of Culebra village. The west bank slide covered a 75-acre area requiring the removal of some 10,000,000 cubic yards of material, and a number of village buildings had to be removed or demolished. The 50-acre Gold Hill slide on the east bank required removal of some 7,000,000 cubic yards of material.

Canal engineers were completely unprepared for and confounded by this unexpected slide activity. In 1906, the minority report of the International Board of Consulting Engineers placed total Culebra Cut excavation for a lock canal at 53,800,000 cubic yards; the minority report estimated the amount necessary for a 40-foot-deep sea level canal at 110,000,000 cubic yards. In 1908 the canal commission revised the Cut excavation estimate to about 78,000,000 cubic yards; in 1910 to 84,000,000; in 1911 to 89,000,000; in 1912 to nearly 94,000,000; and in 1913 to about 100,000,000. The increased Cut excavation required was due partially to an increased bottom width from 200 to 300 feet, an increase of about 13,000 cubic yards, but the slides were the main reason.

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