BY K.P. SANDER
The Centennial Anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal will occur on August 15. This engineering marvel, that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by way of the Caribbean Sea, revolutionized ship travel in 1914.
The Canal wasn’t a new concept when its construction began. Through the ages there have been ideas and attempts to connect the two great oceans for trade and travel. Prior to its completion, ships traveling around the globe had to take a very long and hazardous voyage nearly 8,000 miles around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
The territory was first under Colombian ownership, then French, and then American. France initially started work on the 48-mile project across the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s, but due to engineering problems and a high mortality rate from injured and diseased workers, they had to discontinue, leaving a reported 22,000 dead.
The United States took over the project in 1904, taking a decade to complete it. More than 60,000,000 pounds of dynamite was used to excavate the site, and more than 4.5 million cubic yards of concrete went into the construction of the locks and dams. At each end of the canal there are locks that lift passing ships up to the artificially created Gatun Lake. They cross and are lowered to the opposite side. The two lanes of the locks are each 110 feet across, with seven foot thick walls. A third lane to accommodate even larger ships and double capacity is currently under construction, with completion scheduled in 2015.
The smallest “vessel” crossed on August 23, 1928, when Richard Halliburton swam through the Canal. He paid a toll of 36 cents based on his weight of 150 pounds. The fastest recorded crossing was in 1979 when the U.S. Navy hydrofoil, Pegasus, made its way across in 2 hours, 41 minutes. The average ship crossing takes 20 to 30 hours, much of the time dedicated to the bottleneck of ships waiting. More than 30 ships pass through the canal every day.
In 1977, former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, helped orchestrate the return of the Canal to Panama at the end of the 20th century. The Panamanian government took over control of the project in 1999, and it is now managed by the Panama Canal Authority.
The Panama Canal is one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, and it has greatly contributed to the world’s economy. There is no doubt why the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.