Of course we had to go see the magnificent Panama Canal while we were in Panama. Maybe I expected too much or maybe I didn’t really understand its purpose or maybe, dare I say it – it’s something more appreciated by men, but for me it was quite plain and uninteresting.
The Panama Canal is Not Pretty
What I saw was not something pretty. The so-called “amazing” Panama Canal was all huge gray cement canals with murky water running through it. So what’s so great about this, I wondered.
What others saw, was a wondrous man-made passage, an engineering marvel. Everyone was oohing and awing – except me. I was ready to move on.
After returning home, I read that the Panama Canal was making it possible for ships to take a shortcut across Panama. Instead of going all the way down and around the tip of South America, or by shipping cargo by train across the U.S., the canal would dramatically reduce the time and cost of transporting goods.
American and British leaders and businessmen wanted to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
If you take a look at the maps below, you will see that the Panama Canal made a huge difference in time and cost for the cargo ships.
I was beginning to appreciate the significance of the canal – why didn’t someone just say it was a shortcut for ships!
The Panama Canal literally changed the dynamics of international trade. Distances were tremendously shortened; cargo that had to move either by train from the East to the West coasts of the U.S. or the long way all around South America, could now cut directly through Central America via ships through the Panama Canal.
Costs of transporting goods fell, and more than 5,000 trips were made annually through the canal’s ports by 1918. Now countries of Central America and the Northern countries of South America were connected to the global market where ships transported goods on to Europe.
Failed Attempts at the “Big Shortcut”
What you might not know is that the first attempts to build the canal failed miserably. Several countries were competing to build the proposed canal. Great Britain and the US signed a treaty in 1850 to build the canal but it never got beyond the planning stages. Here is a photo of President Roosevelt on a digging machine during construction of the Panama Canal, circa 1908.
(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
30 years later, in 1880, after successfully building the Suez Canal through Egypt, the French attempted to build the Panama Canal. But after Malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases resulted in a loss of about 20,000 lives, the French project went bankrupt.
Yet another failure occurred in 1902 when the US negotiated a treaty with Columbia, then in control of Panama, to build the Panama Canal, however Columbia did not accept the financial terms and rejected the proposal.
War for Panama Independence
The US responded by sending warships to both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of Panama to assist the country in gaining independence. In 1903 Panama declared Independence, and gave the US a 10-mile wide strip of land to build the Panama Canal if it guaranteed Panama Independence plus a one-time $10 million payment to Panama, and an annual payment of $250,000.
Construction of Panama Canal
Construction of the Panama Canal began in 1904.
Completion of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal was finally completed in 1914 and was considered a major foreign political achievement as well as a milestone in shipping and international trade.
The Panama Canal Today
Photo courtesy Panama Canal Authority
The only thing that did amaze me were the Locks on the canal. What did they do? Did they actually block tons of water from passing through? What was the purpose of these big cement gates? When I asked, people said something about the mechanics and incredible design and amazing engineering feat, but it was a whole lot of nothing. No one could explain the actual purpose of the Locks, simply and succinctly. Finally, I found this video that clearly explains why the Locks are needed and how they work.
The Big Expansion of the Panama Canal
In order to accommodate bigger ships with more cargo, up to 25% longer and carrying three times the amount of cargo, the U. S. plan is to build two new navigation channels and 2 new sets of Locks. At a cost of 5.2 billion dollars, it started in 2007 and was supposed to be completed by 2014.
You can read more about it here: Official Website of the Panama Canal Expansion
First Ship Through Panama Canal Expansion, June, 2016
So of course The Panama Canal is worth seeing! Just be smarter than I was and educate yourself before you go to appreciate this phenomenal engineering structure. In fact, it has taught us (OK, me) a good lesson. Do your research before you travel. You will appreciate things like the Panama Canal at a much higher level.