Panama Canal History

Panama is a relatively new country. It is a thin strip of land, an isthmus connecting the large land masses of North and South America. Contrary to what most might think as land running north to south, Panama actually runs west to east.

Panama has a long and somewhat varied history dating back to the early 1500s - Spanish conquest, raiding pirates, and more recent history, the Canal.

The planning and building of the Canal was in itself a long and intriguing feat that began in 1870. That year, the US sent a survey party down to the area to determine if an excavated waterway could be built the join the 2 seas. At that time, there was no Panama. It was part of Columbia.

Over the following years, various routes were explored. The first area to be surveyed, because of its narrowness, was the Darien, to the east of Panama City, an inhospitable area with impenetrable jungle and swamps that has left that area to this day without a connecting road to South America.

Other considerations were Nicaragua with its existing river and large inland lake waterways, and at times during the analysis, the most popular option. Also the Tehuantepec gap in South Mexico was even considered.

But in the end, it was decided that the best place was from Panama City on the Pacific (south side) to Colon on the Caribbean Atlantic side (north). This was the original land route that not only the Spanish used during their plundering of South American natives’ gold, but also the route used during the 1848 California gold rush for those gold diggers traveling from the eastern US.

The latter would travel by ship to Colon, then trek across the Isthmus to Panama City. For those who did the trek in the rainy season, which is more than half the year, it was at the limit of human endurance. Old journals mention the broiling heat and sudden blinding rains. They speak of heavy green slime on the Chagres River, of nights spent in vermin-infested native huts, epidemics of dysentery, mules struggling up to their haunches in the impossible blue-black Panama muck. A man from Tryon, New York, counted 40 dead mules along the Cruces Trail, the twisting jungle path, barely 3 feet wide, over which they all came. Others wrote of human companions dropping in their tracks with cholera or the dreaded Chagres fever. But once in Panama City, the gold rushers would board another ship to California. The gain in time and distance was phenomenal. From New York to San Francisco around the Horn was a months-long voyage of 13,000 miles. From NY to SF by way of Panama was 5,000 miles, or a saving of 8,000 miles.

The nature of this land had and would continue to make invasion and development a formidable conquest. This was experienced when in 1850 a Panama City to Colon railroad was started. It was projected to be a 2-year project but took 5 and at a cost of $8,000,000 for the 47 miles, 5 times the original estimate. But in spite of it, the venture was highly profitable. The sea-to-sea route now much faster and easier showed a high volume of traffic.  With the fare being $25 in gold and with the US mail subsidizing it, shares in the railroad soared.

The importance of a sea-to-sea route in this area was now becoming recognized around the world and the prospect of excavating a shipping lane, a canal, was now a foregone conclusion.

What many today don’t realize, the first to act was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman who had just finished the success of building the Suez Canal, an impressive feat that made him an icon with a status next to nobility at least in the Europe arena.

Coming off the success of the Suez, with an infallible air, de Lesseps rallied the financial support to build a Panama canal. With Columbian terms to be met and the purchase of the Panama Railroad company a vital ingredient to the canal construction, it was de Lesseps’ French company that began the daunting canal project. Official start date, January 20/1882. Workers came many different countries, in the thousands

Contractors, workers, equipment, and resources came from all over the world. It was the largest human undertaking at the time. Thousands converged on the Isthmus seeking a part of the Great Trench - La Grande Tranchee.

De Lesseps was plagued from the start. Possibly the biggest unrelenting hindrance was his underestimation of the enormity of the project. It would turn out to be at least 3 times the magnitude of Suez. He also made the mistake of insisting it be an ocean level canal (opposed to a locked and raised interior waterway). Perhaps the most tragic condition and obstacle was the tropical diseases that pervaded the French effort. Yellow fever and malaria caused the most fatalities costing thousands of lives. Other impediments were the severe struggles of working in the jungle, the debilitating heat, and humidity and heavy rains.

It was taking a heavy toll on his estimates and consequently it required refinancing many times with the stakes and payback becoming much higher. The moneys were primarily raised by public offerings, and French government approvals and favourable press were essential. With each refinancing, de Lesseps became more desperate and it became a gauntlet of payoffs and bribes. Eventually through investigations, scandals surfaced that reached the highest levels of French government offices.  

After 7 years labour, the canal, by some estimates, one third excavated, at a cost of 1,435,000,000 francs ($287,000,000), after over 20,000 deaths by accepted estimates, the dominoes starting to fall and for the French and de Lesseps it was over. The official end came on February 4/1889. Some 800,000 Frenchmen and women had been directly affected; the savings of entire families had utterly vanished. It should be noted that by all indications de Lesseps undertook the project not for financial gain, but for the great challenge. He was a victim of his own over-optimism, peripheral opportunists, and drastic underestimations of the conditions and the enormity of the project. The defeat of the Pioneer was total. He drifted off into ignominy. It was also a massive and cruel defeat for the country of France.

But in spite of the failure, the amount of excavation and work done was monumental. 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock removed, an amount equal to two thirds that excavated at Suez.

September 6/1901. President McKinley was assassinated. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in at age 42, the youngest in history. He soon made it known that he viewed a canal as an essential undertaking, crucial to the interests of the American people and a first step to supremacy at sea.

The Americans efforts to build a canal began not at first from where the French left off. The original issue of “Where” was back on the table. New surveys began on the other plausible routes. New negotiations were undertaken with the 2 viable countries, Nicaragua and Columbia. If it was to be the Panama route, the receivers for the defunct French effort owned assets of value that would have to be bought, the least of which was the valuable Panama Railway.  For a time, Nicaragua was the chosen route but things reversed when new favourable terms were presented from the Columbians and the receivers.  Within Washington, there were split camps with split interests. And so it went, back and forth as a result of various mostly political interests and pressures. But in the end it was, for technical reasons, Panama as the preferred choice.

The final negotiations needed with Columbia were excruciating.  They got bogged down in the details, primarily sovereignty issues in the proposed Canal Zone and the insistence by Bogota for increased fees for property and concessions.

About this time, a local civilian faction in the state of Panama (being at that time a state of Columbia) made it known to Washington that it was prepared to lead an effort to secede from Columbia and then immediately enter into a canal treaty with the US. This, the US embraced, but refused to get involved with a revolt. The US unofficially let the Panama faction know that it would go only as far as stopping a Columbian military from retaking the land as they loosely interpreted it to be their right. That would be easy as the only practical way the Columbians could respond was by sea.

As the Columbians had only a meagre martial presence in Panama City, it was an easy and virtually bloodless takeover, albeit there were some nail biting moments. The Columbians had gotten some hints of the plan and sent a navy ship with a few hundred fine soldiers to check it out.  They out-manoeuvred the US military in the Colon harbour and came ashore. However the troops got separated from their commander who was taken by train to Panama City to check out the situation leaving the troops assembled in Colon. The US refused to come ashore. When the train arrived in the City with the commander, he was surrounded and let known of the movement. Now, as the railroad managers were in with the Panama movement, they refused to let the train return to Colon and made sure that no train was available on the other end to allow troops to follow their commander. The troops left alone and after debating a trek over, finally decided to go back on board and head back to Columbia to consult with their superiors. It was a remarkable revolution with only one fatality, a Chinese asleep in his shop was killed by some shells that a Columbian gunboat on the Pacific side lobbed into the City before fleeing to an outlaying island.

The US wired its recognition of the Republic of Panama on November 6/1903.

It was over. Although Columbia tried later to send contingents through from the Darien, it was a futile passage and the troops there also turned back, beaten by the insects, swamps, and jungle. Note: to this day, no road goes through to South America. The Darien Gap remains impassable.

The US wasted no time in entering into a canal treaty with the new country, the Republic of Panama, where it was granted the right to buy the assets from the French receivers including the railroad and pay Panama what it had offered Columbia, that being $10,000,000 cash and $250,000 a year that would commence in 9 years. Also the US was to have sovereign rights, power and authority in the Canal Zone. On December 2, less than month after the revolution, the US and Panama had a treaty signed.

Six months after the revolution, everything seemed set to go. The French receivers had been paid. A Canal Commissioner was appointed and administration was being set up in the zone. Even a sanitary officer was employed to address the always prevalent tropical diseases. It should be noted that at about the turn of the century there were leading physicians of the day who were beginning to figure out that malaria and yellow fever were not toxic swamp fumes or the like, but linked to mosquitoes. It was not a readily accepted conjecture. However persistence by those enlightened further advanced the knowledge to learn that mosquitoes didn’t cause the disease, in the sense that it originated with them, but they were only carriers. In other words, one could only contract the disease from a mosquito that had previously bit an infected person at the right incubation time of the disease. Once that was accepted, drastic efforts were made in the areas of building the canal and the 2 cities to clean up any stagnant water. Ditches were regularly sprayed, standing water was treated with a thin oil surface to prevent mosquitoes from breeding, and the previous open sewers and foul waters in the inner cities were cleaned up. Death rated from these pervasive killers was drastically reduced in the years to follow of the building of the canal and in fact for the rest of the world.

The Americans started excavating and building the canal in 1904. It was soon realized by the engineers that the best sea-to-sea connection would be to build dams near each ocean to create a huge inland lake, then build locks to raise ships to lake level where they could then travel the majority of the approximately 50 miles before being lower in locks back down to the other ocean. Much of the French trench was used, but so much more was needed. The biggest cut was 9 miles through the hills closer to the Pacific called the Culebra Cut, displacing 120,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock, much of which went to earth-fill the dams and build a causeway out into the Pacific to stop tidal erosion of the dredged entry to the canal.

A series of 4 locks were built near the Pacific that would raise ships about a total of 75 feet to the height of the manmade Gaton Lake, the inland waterway. From the Pacific locks, the ships pass through the Culebra Cut out into and across the lake to a series of 3 locks on the Colon side. There, the locks lower the ships to the Atlantic. The locks quietly operate by allowing water to drop into and out of each lock controlled by valves. No pumps are needed. It is all gravity. Huge 2 sets of double doors swing to open and closed at each end of each lock. The water supply comes from Gaton Lake. Yearly rainfall is measured in feet, not inches so there is an oversupply. The locks are over about 100 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Ships when designed, if expected to travel between the 2 oceans are made to fit these locks. They are called PanaMax ships. The large freighters that go through have only a few feet to spare on each side and occupy most of the length of a lock. Each raising or lowering of a ship in a lock takes about 15 minutes.

Everything about the construction of the Panama Canal and the locks is on a gigantic proportion. Not only were there miles of excavations, but miles of dredging of the shallows from the locks on each side out into the Pacific and Atlantic. And the costs were enormous not only for the actual construction, but for the infrastructure to accommodate the thousands of construction workers, administration staff, and families. Hospitals, schools, roads, sewer systems, housing, etc. etc. most still existing and used today.

Some statistics. The US construction took 10 years and completion was ahead of schedule and under budget. The US cost was $352,000,000. Lives lost during the US effort: over 5,000. (Well reduced from the over 20,000 French lives as a result of dealing effectively with the mosquitoes). Total excavation since 1904: 232,000,000 cubic yards, nearly 4 times the volume estimated by de Lesseps and nearly 3 times the volume excavated at Suez. As per the treaty, no US ships go for anything less than the going rate.  In 1970, the average toll was $10,000. I don’t have today’s rates but I have heard numbers of around $50,000 and up to over $100,000. Apparently, it is one tenth the cost of going the long way around though. Years after the official completion, the Culebra Cut was plagued by relentless slides that took almost constant dredging.

Underway today is the construction of new locks alongside the old ones. They are much larger to accommodate a larger class freighter. The old locks will continue to operate.

Over the years, the Panamanians had grievances with the US treaty and long wanted independence from outside authority. The treaty was revised more than once, but finally by Jimmy Carter’s efforts, an agreement was signed that eventually handed ownership and control to Panama. That took effect in 1999. Thus ended almost a century of US involvement.

For millions of people since 1914, the 12-hour crossing at Panama has been one of life’s most memorable experiences.

For us cruisers too, it is an event with no lack of volunteers for the required 4 line handlers. Currently (2011), the average net cost for the average cruising boat is about $700 (much cheaper than going around).

© Jordan, SV Sea Turtle IV