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Cruising the Panama Canal: The History of the Path Between the Seas

Written by: John Maguire

In December 1999, and after 85 years of control, the United States relinquished ownership of the Panama Canal to the Central American country of Panama. Before the development of the atomic bomb, the Panama Canal was probably the United States' most towering achievement, creating a link between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is fifty-one miles long and entails infrastructure and bases amounting to approximately $3.5 billion.

The U.S. realized that the narrow canal was no longer beneficial to them in any way; aircraft carriers and oil tankers could not easily pass through the locks of the canal. This was unlike before, in the early 1900s, when the canal was an essence to the United States' economy and was referred to as an important national interest. The U.S. had even stationed about 65,000 troops to protect the gem during World War II from hostile powers.

The construction of the Panama Canal was an extraordinary activity. It included U.S. interests in Panama building a railroad meant for the transportation of 49ers to California. That willingness to invest in order to protect and ensure the functionality of the canal was indicative of how critical the canal was to the U.S. The French started building the canal in 1879, right after finishing the construction of the Suez Canal. An estimated 16,000-22,000 workers died within the next 20 years. Deaths were regularly attributed to snake bites, yellow fever, Malaria, typhoid, and accidents in the workplace. Even worse, most of the work was washed away by rains. William Gorgas, an army doctor, tried to reduce these deaths by overseeing the draining of swamps to eliminate mosquitoes thus minimizing the spread of malaria and yellow fever.

It was during the Spanish-American War that the U.S. realized how essential this canal was to help victory. It was the only easy pathway for their battleships sailing from Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, something that would have taken them over 8,000 miles if they followed the Cape Horn route.

Regardless of the endless obstacles during construction, the canal was completed and opened in 1914. The Isthmus of Panama was situated in Colombia, a state that had turned down the U.S. proposal to construct a canal. That is when Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French adventure, and Nelson Cromwell, an American Lawyer came up with the idea of introducing the Republic of Panama instead. They convinced Roosevelt to agree to the idea.

The U.S. did whatever it could to protect the newly developed Republic of Panama from Colombia. The U.S. paid an indemnity to Colombia to compensate for its role in the Panamanian revolution, and Bunau-Varilla repaid the U.S. by signing a treaty giving the U.S. control over an area stretching about five miles from each end of the canal, which was to be governed by the police, courts and U.S laws.

When building, the French had tried to keep the canal at sea level, but their efforts were in vain. The U.S., however, needed to come up with a way to facilitate the sailing of Panama Canal cruises between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and that is why the American's engineers came up with a system of locks which could either raise or lower the shops 64 feet using gravitational force. The locks used a massive amount of concrete to keep them firmly held in place.

In 1913, the workforce was made up of 44,000 workers and every day; they had to haul away 200 trainloads of dirt. Over 25,000 employees were canal diggers. Most of the employees that died from accidents were from Barbados. In an attempt to treat Malaria, quinine was used which, unfortunately, left most of the workers deaf. There was a massive explosion of dynamite in 1908, which left 23 workers dead.

The Panama Canal was built in 10 years and cost $387 million. With the canal, it is possible to take Caribbean cruise ships, which give you a chance to explore a range of destinations with ease.

  • Early History - What necessitated the building of the Panama Canal.
  • Geography - Where the Panama Canal is located and its dimensions.
  • Importance to the US - A look at business, political and military importance of the Panama Canal to the U.S.
  • Importance to Panama Republic - Political, economic and social significance of the canal to the
  • The Panamanian Resistance - The tussle of ownership of the canal between U.S. and Panama.
  • Treaties to the Canal - Treaties that govern the operation of the Panama Canal.
  • Statistics-A breakdown of costs, workforce, and materials used in the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Today in History-September 7 -This part details the contents of the Treaty between President Jimmy Carter, U.S. and Omar Torrijos, Panamanian Chief of Government.
  • Theodore Roosevelt -This segment gives details of how President Roosevelt took advantage of political instability in Panama to build the canal.
  • The Opening of the Canal - This section details the number of water vessels that ply the Panama Canal route at present.
  • Leadership present during construction - Political leaders who oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • The End of Construction -This part gives a detailed account of significant events that happened at the end of Panama Canal's construction.
  • Phases of the Project - A look into how the Panama Canal has evolved over time.
  • Gallery of the Panama Canal - A pictorial view of the Panama Canal over the years.
  • Diseases Encountered - A look into diseases faced by workers during the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Jobs by Races - A look into roles played by different races during the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Africa Experience - This section details the views of Africans who took part in the construction of the canal.
  • Team leaders - A pictorial of the engineers who took part in the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Panama Canal at 100 - A look into Panama Canal 100 years down the line.
  • The expansion - This segment highlights the importance of enhancing the capacity of the Panama Canal relative to the increasing global trade.
  • History of Vaccines - Measures put in place to eradicate diseases that threatened the construction of the canal.
  • Signing of the Treaty - This segment details the frosty relationships that existed between Panama and the US leading to the latter handing over the management of the canal to the former in 1999.
  • How it Works - A look at how the Panama Canal Works.
  • Excellence of American Medicine - This section details the role played by American Medicine in ending the diseases facing the construction workers to the Panama Canal.
  • Postage Stamp - A section showing how a postage stamp influenced the construction of the canal across Panama instead of Nicaragua.
  • Panama Canal Proposal - This part gives information about how the idea about the Panama Canal was presented to the US Parliament and subsequently approved.
  • Labor force - A look at the number of laborers who took part in the construction of the canal.
  • The Panama Canal Convention - Factors that precipitated the signing of the Panama Treaty.