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Panama Cannal Essay, Research Paper

The Panama Canal;

A Shorter Trade Route.

Jo Bob

Running head :The Panama Canal; A Shorter Trade Route


For centurys man has used water as way to get from one place to another very quickly. The Panama Canal is no exception. From around the start of the 16th century people have been trying to find a way to cut a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Many misfortunes and deaths have been sacrificed to obtain this goal. Finally in 1914 the American had completed one of the greatest feats of all time the Panama Canal, cutting a many months journey to nine hours.

The Panama Canal;

The Shorter Trade Route.

Europeans had wanted of Central American canal as early as the 16thy century; President Ulysses S. Grant sent seven expeditions to study the feasibility of digging the cannel. As travel and trade in the Western Hemisphere increased the need for a canal grew increasingly more important. To sail from the Atlantic to the pacific, ships navigated around the Cape Horn. This was a long and very dangerous trip especially around the tip of South America. A New York to San Francisco journey measured more than 13000 miles and took months to complete. The canals construction was badly needed.

History Of Canals

A canal is an artificial waterway built for navigation, crop irrigation, water supply and drainage. Canals are usually connected with natural bodies of water or other canal. Canals have been used for thousands of years. They started out in early civilization in the middle east as a way to bring water to the city and to water their crops. In the 3rd century the Chinese began building canals, the longest of these early canals was more than 1000 miles long. Making it the longest artificial waterway in the world. (Britannica(no date))

Romans built huge canals mainly for military transport. By the twelfth century 85% of all Medieval European travel was by waterway.( Britannica(no date)) The greatest invention in canal construction came along 1373. The Dutch developed the pound lock system. The Lock system uses a series of chambers that can be flooded or drained so the ship can change elevation. This allowed canals to be built where elevation made it impossible. This brings us to the modern era of canal building and one of the greatest engineering feats of all time the Panama Canal.

The French

A French Developer Ferdinand de Lesseps believed that the Panama Canal could make lots of money for investors. The French cut a broad path through the jungle and on January 20, 1882 they commenced digging. They brought with them tons of modern equipment. They had steam shovels and locomotive and dredges. Their work crews were mostly black and Indian labors.

In the first months, the digging proceeded slowly but steadily. Then the rain began and the French faced many dangers. The crew faced miles upon mile of impassable jungle, and very heavy rain. In the jungle they also faced insects, snakes, swamps, small pox, malaria, yellow fever, and flooding of the charges river.

The Charges sakes across the canal route a total of fourteen times. The French dammed the river so they could drudge the canal but every time it would rain the river would swell and break the dams. It would sweep away workers, destroy equipment, and fill in the canal with sediment. If that wasn’t enough the stagnate water that was formed, breaded large amount of deadly insects. Three out of four men hospitalized at the very modern Ancon hospital died. Finally in 1888 the project was abandoned and lots of French investors lost money. About $287,000,000 had been spent eleven miles of the canal had been dug and 20,000 men lost their lives.(Britannica(no date)) The canal remained unfinished but the dream had not yet died. Theodore Roosevelt would soon take up the cause.

The Americans

The strategic necessity and the desire of business men to have access to the Pacific market combined in the late 1890s to convince the president and Congress that a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean was vital to Americans. The British government gave up its right to joint construction with The United States in 1901. The French company, which had tried unsuccessfully to dig the canal across the Isthmus of Panama, was eager to sell their rights. In 1902 Roosevelt struck a deal with the French to buy the rights and equipment for the canal for $40 million dollars.(panama canal (1999)) The only stumble block to construction was the Colombia.

To counteract the Colombians President Roosevelt secretly supported a Panamanian revolution in 1903. The battle of Panama lasted only a few hours. Colombian soldiers in Colon were bribed $50 each to lay down their weapons. The U.S.S Nashville was sent down to lend support. A treaty was quickly signed between the United States and the new republic of Panama, Giving the U.S. complete right to the canal zone and control of the inlets an outlets.

Roosevelt ordered army engineers to start digging thousand of workers sweated in the extremely hot Panama sun. They tore down jungles and cut down mountains. Insects Thrived in muddy, stagnant pools. “Mosquitoes get so thick you get a mouthful with every breath,”(TR’s Legacy ) A worker complained. These mosquitoes also carried yellow fever, and many fell victim to the disease. They also had to face landslides, dynamite accidents, and accident with the giant steam shovels.

In 1904 the first year for the American in panama suffered the same fate as the French. John Findlay Wallace was terrible unorganized. The food was awful, the living conditions were horrible, and disease struck. Three out of four workers packed it up and went home and so did Wallace.

John Stevens took over the project. His previous project was the Great Northern Railroad across the Pacific Northwest. Stevens believed the only way the project could be completed is that he needed a well housed, fed, and disease free work force. Stevens didn’t begin digging he first began cleaning.

Stevens and his crew began draining swamps, sweeping drainage ditches, paved roads and installed plumbing. They sprayed pesticides by the ton. They built entire towns, complete with housing, schools, churches and meeting halls.

When the cleaning was finished, Stevens began work on digging the trenches. Gigantic steam shovels scooped tons of dirt. Railroad cars ran continuously on double tracks. The used the dirt removed to form the charges Dam. By December of 1905, yellow fever had been officially eradicated in the canal region.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Goethals took over for Stevens who resigned. Goethals was know for being demanding and rigidly organized. The hardest part of the canal process was the Culebra Cut, where 100,000,000 cubic yard of dirt and rock had to be moved.(Britannica (no date) The labors were mostly English speaking west Indian blacks who made 10 cents an hour. They moved more then 200 trainloads a day. When mudslides filled the Cut repeatedly, they had to dig it out again. There was accidents of all kinds lost equipment, and deaths. Industries were also having to work overtime. More then 50 mills, and machine shops turned out supplies just for the canal construction

It took them nine years to complete the canal. The Canal opened officially on August 15, 1914. It took a back seat in the press because during this time World War I was going on. This was a massive engineering feet they built a railroad, three sets of concrete locks and a huge artificial lake. This had been one of the greatest engineering feet of our time.

Navigating the Canal

To pass from the Atlantic to the pacific ships enter the channel in Limon bay, which extends for a distance of about seven miles to the Gatun Locks. At Gatun a series of three locks lift ships 85 feet to Gatun lake. The lake is formed by Gatun Dam and fed by the Charges River. You travel for 23 miles till you reach Gamboa. This is where the cut through the continental divide begins. The channel has a depth of about 45 feet and extends for eight miles. You then reach the Pedro Miguel locks. The locks lower ships 31 feet to Lake Miraflores. Lake Miraflores has a height of 54 feet above see level. When you reach the locks at Miraflores you are lowered to sea level. You then still have to travel seven more miles till you reach the Pacific Ocean. The whole journey is 51.5 miles has 23 direction changes and takes approximately 9 hours to complete.

The Canal Locks

The canal locks are engineering marvel themselves. The locks operate by gravity flow of water from Gatun, Madden and Miraflores lakes, which are fed by the Charges and other rivers. The locks are uniform in length, width and depth. They are built in tandem to permit traffic in both directions. Each lock has two doors that are 65 feet wide and seven feet thick set on large hinges. They are moved into position by motors set in the lock walls. The lock chambers are 1000 feet long, 110 feet wide and 41 feet deep. Only small craft are allowed to pass through the locks under their own power. Electric towing locomotives take through the larger ships.

Problems with the canal

When the canal was first designed the problem of landslides had been ignored. Slides increased more frequently as excavation increased in the Culebra Cut area. The problem was not with soil but with the underlying layer of Iron pyrite. When it comes in contact with air it starts to rapidly oxidize and rapidly decay causing the canal walls to collapse. Since the building of the panama cannel it estimated that 15.3 million cubic meters of soil has been removed, which is equal to 25% of the earth removed while building the canal.(The panama Canal(1999))

The canal must be constantly maintained, the tropical climate wreaks havoc on the electronic controls. They have to constantly keep dredging the bottom because of heavy rainfalls. Another problem is the deforestation along the sides of the canal by migrant farmers. The banks where full of trees in the 1950’s and almost completely deforested by 1970’s

The Canals Future

The Canal treaty of 1977 terminated all prior treaties between the United states and Panama concerning the canal. The treaty gave the Canal zone it sovereignty, but would allow the U.S. to continue the operation of the canal until the year 2000. The Panama government has had some initial problems but are said to be working them out.

The ships for witch the canal was built for are no longer here. Modern ships have increased dramatically in size. And increased in the amount of tonnage. The canal can only accommodate ships carrying 65,000 tons of cargo modern ships carry over 300,000 tons of cargo.(The Panama Canal) With the search for a new route for a canal the Panamanians may lose their major source of income. The possibility of modifying the canal and making it a sea level canal is also being studied.


The Panama Canal building was a great triumph of American engineering. We can thank the French because without their prior experience in the region construction would have taken a lot longer. We take for granted the necessity of the canal for our trade. The crowning achievement to the engineers is how self sufficient the canal is. The dams produce the power for the railroad and leafs of the locks. The locks are filled by gravity and the abundance of rain replenishes the 52 million gallons of water used in each crossing.(The Panama Canal(199)) Though we can’t ignore how many people died, and worked hard to complete the project. We can only thank them for increasing or economic prosperity that they gave us by shortening the trade route.


Britanica.com. (no date) Panama Canal[online]. Available:

www.britanica.com/bcom/eb/article/5 4/4/00.

Britanica.com. (no date) Canals[online]. Available:

www.britanica.com/bcom/eb/article/5 4/4/00.

Unknown. (1999) The panama Canal[Online]. Available:

www.eclipse.co.uk/ 4/4/00.

Unknown.(1998) U.S. Intervention in Latin America [Online].

Available: www.smplanet.com/imperialism/teddy.html 4/4/00.

Unknown. (no date) TR’s Legacy – The Panama Canal [Online]

Available: www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/tr/panama.html 4/4/00.

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