The Panama Canal

The Panama CanalThe Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. The canal connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic ocean to save time of merchant ships who had to sail around the tip of Cape Horn on the southern most tip of South America.

The Panama Canal cost Americans around $375,000,000, including the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 paid to the French company. It was the single most expensive construction project in United States history to that time.

This marvel of engineering was the result of the work done by several engineers – Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, John F. Stevens and finally Colonel George Washington Goethals. The reason why the Americans succeeded where the French had failed was because of the efforts of a pioneering Doctor – William C. Gorgas. It is arguable that the work of the engineers would have been for nothing if Gorgas hadn’t managed to conquer the tropical diseases.

David McCullough in his book The Path Between the Seas, wrote: “The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.”

The US Military operated the Panama Canal and occupied a large portion of land with military bases with engineers, technicians and business administrators. Because of the US presence, there were advantages to Panama City, such as the clean water systems.

You can drink the tap water in Panama City. The downside to Panamanians during this period of Panama Canal operation is that they were not allowed inside of the Canal Zone which would understandably cause a bit of resentment with some people. This Zone was enormous–five miles wide on either side of the Canal.

The current lock chambers are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. On October the 28th of 2006 a referendum was passed to allow the government to enlarge the canal locks to 1,400 feet long, 200 feet wide and with a draught of 50 feet.

Panama Canal
Today the canal handles about 35 to 40 transits per day. The average cost per ship is around $60,000. The highest cost was for a Maersk container ship and that was $249,000.

In 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of the century, with incremental transfer of responsibility for a few decades.

By the end of 1999, the entire Panama Canal and supporting canal zone and US military bases were transferred to Panama. Now the Ancon neighborhood (Former Canal Zone residences) is a favorite local and expat neighborhood, because of all of the trees and parks with playgrounds. Ancon Hill is a high point in the City, with spectacular vistas from the top.

Panama CanalAs each ship passes through some 56 million gallons of fresh water enter the sea. There is a spillway at the Miraflores locks, so when rain causes the lake levels to rise excess water is poured out through a set of sluice gates.

An ambitious plan to expand the canal to double its capacity and to accommodate the supertankers was approved in 2006. The project began in 2007 and is expected to be completed in 2014.

The canal expansion will cost 5.3 billion dollars and has contributed to job creation and economic growth.

Panama has enjoyed other industries associated with the Canal including the port industry, the Free Zone, Imports/Exports and International Banking. Other secondary businesses are engineering, insurance, and construction.

Panama is doing a good job of operating the Canal efficiently and investing a portion of the net proceeds back into the country’s infrastructure.

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