Sunday, August 3, 2014

Panama Centennial

Ships moving through locks in the Panama Canal

One hundred years ago today, the first seagoing ship went through the Panama Canal.  While the official opening of the canal would come a couple weeks later,  today marks the anniversary of the day the canal proved it could work -- passed its beta test,  if you will.

Dreams of such a canal began not long after Europeans landed in the Americas.  Before it was built, ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans rounded Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, in a journey that took months.

The French team that had succeeded in building the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, was the first to try to build a Panama canal in 1882.  It is possible that the planners looked at a map, noticed that the Panama route, at 50 miles, was half the distance of the Suez one and assumed it would be quickly accomplished.

The project was a disaster.  The French were unprepared for the jungle, the landslides, the capricious flooding of the Chagres River that ran through the canal zone and, possibly worst, the yellow fever and malaria in the region.  After 20,000 deaths, investors' money ran out and the French abandoned Panama in 1889, leaving the canal 80 percent unbuilt.

Meanwhile, the American west was opening up, and U.S. presidents starting with Ulysses S. Grant became convinced that a canal was in American interests.

But getting the thing built involved challenges of all kinds.

-- Congress battled for three years over whether to take over the French project or start anew in Nicaragua, settling on Panama by a narrow vote.

-- Colombia (whose land then included Panama) rejected a treaty for canal construction, and so the U.S. facilitated a revolution that created the country of Panama, which agreed to the  canal plan.

-- Congress and engineers also fought over whether to excavate a sea-level channel connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea or to build massive locks at both ends, deciding finally that the system of locks would be faster to build and less vulnerable to Chagres River flooding.

--An entire town was built in the Canal Zone to house workers (almost 45,000 at the peak)on the canal.

-- An enormous malaria control campaign was undertaken, no small feat in Panama's tropical location.

--Trains were brought in and a system of spurs were built to move excavated land, particularly at the Culebra Cut, to allow passage of deep-drafted ships.

Dredges at Work on the Culebra Cut

In fact, American engineering succeeded, and the Panama Canal opened on time in 1914.

Panama Now

Today the Panama Canal is owned and operated by the country of Panama, following the handing off of control by the United States over a period of 20 years, ending in 1999.

As world trade has increased, the canal has shown its limits.  Cargo ships that meet canal specifications (known as Panamax size) are mid-sized by current standards.

Now a third lane of locks is being built in the Panama channel.  This will allow the passage of longer, wider, deeper ships carrying twice as much cargo.  Still, the canal will be too small for the largest ships now plying the oceans.

Unfortunately, the expansion is running late and over budget.  The most recent estimate on its date of completion is at the end of 2015.  

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