Welcome to DU! The truly grassroots left-of-center political community where regular people, not algorithms, drive the discussions and set the standards. Join the community: Create a free account Support DU (and get rid of ads!): Become a Star Member Latest Breaking News General Discussion The DU Lounge All Forums Issue Forums Culture Forums Alliance Forums Region Forums Support Forums Help & Search


(975 posts)
Tue Oct 10, 2023, 08:22 AM Oct 2023

On This Day: Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are joined via Panama Canal, now threatened - Oct. 10, 1913

(edited from Wikipedia)
On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson sent a signal from the White House by telegraph which triggered the explosion that destroyed the Gamboa Dike. This flooded the Culebra Cut, thereby joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Panama Canal.

The construction of the canal was completed in 1914, 401 years after Panama was first crossed overland by the Europeans in Balboa's party of conquistadores. The United States spent almost $500 million (roughly equivalent to $14.6 billion in 2022) to finish the project. This was by far the largest American engineering project to date. The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship SS Ancon.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is an artificial 51 mi waterway in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, cutting across the Isthmus of Panama, and is a conduit for maritime trade. Canal locks at each end lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial freshwater lake 85 ft above sea level, created by damming up the Chagres River, and Lake Alajuela to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, and then lower the ships at the other end. An average of 52,000,000 US gal of fresh water are used in a single passing of a ship.

The Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduces the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan. It is one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.

Colombia, France, and later the United States controlled the territory surrounding the canal during construction. France began work on the canal in 1881, but stopped because of lack of investors' confidence due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate.

The United States took over the project in 1904, and opened the canal in 1914. The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until the Torrijos–Carter Treaties provided for its handover to Panama in 1977. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government in 1999. It is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority.

The original locks are 110 ft wide. A third, wider lane of locks was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016. The expanded waterway began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger, NeoPanamax ships.

Annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships in 1914, when the canal opened, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, for a total of 333.7 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons. By 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal. In 2017 it took ships an average of 11.38 hours to pass between the canal's two locks. The American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked the Panama Canal one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The canal is threatened by low water levels during drought and due to climate change.


The first attempt to construct a canal through what was then Colombia's province of Panama began on January 1, 1881. The project was inspired by the diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was able to raise considerable funds in France as a result of the huge profits generated by his successful construction of the Suez Canal. Although the Panama Canal needed to be only 40 percent as long as the Suez Canal, it was much more of an engineering challenge because of the combination of tropical rain forests, debilitating climate, the need for canal locks, and the lack of any ancient route to follow.

Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal (like the Suez), but he visited the site only a few times, during the dry season which lasts only four months of the year. His men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, during which the Chagres River, where the canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 33 ft. The dense jungle was alive with venomous snakes, insects, and spiders, but the worst challenges were yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases, which killed thousands of workers; by 1884, the death rate was over 200 per month. Public health measures were ineffective because the role of the mosquito as a disease vector was then unknown. Conditions were downplayed in France to avoid recruitment problems, but the high mortality rate made it difficult to maintain an experienced workforce.

In France, Lesseps kept the investment and supply of workers flowing long after it was obvious that the targets were not being met, but eventually the money ran out. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending US$287,000,000; an estimated 22,000 men died from disease and accidents, and the savings of 800,000 investors were lost. Work was suspended on May 15, and in the ensuing scandal, known as the Panama affair, some of those deemed responsible were prosecuted, including Gustave Eiffel. Lesseps and his son Charles were found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. This sentence was later overturned, and the father, at age 88, was never imprisoned.

In 1894, a second French company was created to take over the project. The French manager eventually managed to persuade Lesseps that a lock-and-lake canal was more realistic than a sea-level canal. A high level technical committee was formed to review the studies and work. The committee arrived on the Isthmus in February 1896 and went immediately, quietly and efficiently about their work of devising the best possible canal plan, which they presented on November 16, 1898. Many aspects of the plan were similar in principle to the canal that was finally built by the Americans in 1914. Artificial lakes would be formed by damming the Chagres River at Bohio and Alhajuela, providing both flood control and electric power.

United States acquisition

At this time, the President and the Senate of the United States were interested in establishing a canal across the isthmus, with some favoring a canal across Nicaragua and others advocating the purchase of the French interests in Panama. On January 22, 1903, the Hay–Herrán Treaty was signed by [the U.S. and Colombia]. For $10 million and an annual payment, it would have granted the United States a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia on the land proposed for the canal.

The treaty was ratified by the US Senate, but Colombia did not ratify it. President Theodore Roosevelt [was told of] a possible revolt by Panamanian rebels who aimed to separate from Colombia, [who] hoped that the United States would support the rebels with US troops and money. Roosevelt changed tactics, and actively supported the separation of Panama from Colombia. Shortly after recognizing Panama, he signed a treaty with the new Panamanian government under terms similar to the Hay–Herrán Treaty.

On November 2, 1903, US warships blocked sea lanes against possible Colombian troop movements en route to put down the Panama rebellion. Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. The United States quickly recognized the new nation.

On November 6, 1903, Panama's ambassador to the United States, signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting rights to the United States to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses. This is sometimes misinterpreted as the "99-year lease" because of misleading wording included in article 22 of the agreement. Almost immediately, the treaty was condemned by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country's new national sovereignty. This would later become a contentious diplomatic issue among Colombia, Panama, and the United States.

United States construction of the Panama canal, 1904–1914

The US formally took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904, inheriting from the French a depleted workforce and a vast jumble of buildings, infrastructure, and equipment, much of it in poor condition. A US government commission, the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), was established to oversee construction; it was given control of the Panama Canal Zone, over which the United States exercised sovereignty. The commission reported directly to Secretary of War William Howard Taft and was directed to avoid the inefficiency and corruption that had plagued the French 15 years earlier.

On May 6, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed John Findley Wallace, formerly chief engineer and finally general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project. Overwhelmed by the disease-plagued country and forced to use often dilapidated French infrastructure and equipment, as well as being frustrated by the overly bureaucratic ICC, Wallace resigned abruptly in June 1905.

The ICC brought on a new chairman, Theodore P. Shonts, and a new chief engineer was appointed, John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad. Stevens was not a member of the ICC; he increasingly viewed its bureaucracy as a serious hindrance, bypassing the commission and sending requests and demands directly to the Roosevelt administration in Washington, DC.

One of Stevens' first achievements in Panama was in building and rebuilding the housing, cafeterias, hotels, water systems, repair shops, warehouses, and other infrastructure needed by the thousands of incoming workers. Stevens began the recruitment effort to entice thousands of workers from the United States and other areas to come to the Canal Zone to work. Workers from the Caribbean—called "Afro-Panamanians"—came in large numbers and many settled permanently. Stevens tried to provide accommodation in which the workers could work and live in reasonable safety and comfort. He also re-established and enlarged the railway, which was to prove crucial in transporting millions of tons of soil from the cut through the mountains to the dam across the Chagres River.

Colonel William C. Gorgas had been appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project in 1904. Gorgas implemented a range of measures to minimize the spread of deadly diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria, which had recently been shown to be mosquito-borne following the work of, Cuban epidemiologist, Dr. Carlos Finlay and, American pathologist, Dr. Walter Reed.

Investment was made in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. Despite opposition from the commission (one member said his ideas were barmy), Gorgas persisted, and when Stevens arrived, he threw his weight behind the project. After two years of extensive work, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. Even after all that effort, about 5,600 workers died of disease and accidents during the US construction phase of the canal.

In 1905, a US engineering panel was commissioned to review the canal design, which had not been finalized. In January 1906 the panel, in a majority of eight to five, recommended to President Roosevelt a sea-level canal, as had been attempted by the French and temporarily abandoned by them. But in 1906 Stevens declared a sea-level approach to be "an entirely untenable proposition". He argued in favor of a canal using a lock system to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir 85 ft above sea level. This would create both the largest dam (Gatun Dam) and the largest human-made lake (Gatun Lake) in the world at that time. The water to refill the locks would be taken from Gatun Lake by opening and closing enormous gates and valves and letting gravity propel the water from the lake. Stevens successfully convinced Roosevelt of the necessity and feasibility of this alternative scheme.

As quickly as possible, the Americans replaced or upgraded the old, unusable French equipment with new construction equipment that was designed for a much larger and faster scale of work. 102 large, railroad-mounted steam shovels were purchased, 77 from Bucyrus-Erie, and 25 from the Marion Power Shovel Company. These were joined by enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, concrete mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills, nearly all of which were manufactured by new, extensive machine-building technology developed and built in the United States.

The railroad also had to be comprehensively upgraded with heavy-duty, double-tracked rails over most of the line to accommodate new rolling stock. In many places, the new Gatun Lake flooded over the original rail line, and a new line had to be constructed above Gatun Lake's waterline.

Goethals replaces Stevens as chief engineer

In 1907, Stevens resigned as chief engineer. His replacement, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, was US Army Major George Washington Goethals of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Soon to be promoted to lieutenant colonel and later to general, he was a strong, West Point-trained leader and civil engineer with experience in canals. Goethals directed the work in Panama to a successful conclusion in 1914, two years ahead of the target date of June 10, 1916.

Goethals divided the engineering and excavation work into three divisions: Atlantic, Central, and Pacific. The Atlantic Division was responsible for construction of the massive breakwater at the entrance to Limon Bay, the Gatun locks, and their 3+1?2-mile approach channel, and the immense Gatun Dam. The Pacific Division was similarly responsible for the Pacific 3-mile breakwater in Panama Bay, the approach channel to the locks, and the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and their associated dams and reservoirs. The Central Division was assigned one of the most difficult parts: excavating the Culebra Cut through the continental divide to connect Gatun Lake to the Pacific Panama Canal locks.

Water issues

2015-16 was one of the driest periods on record, restricting ships passage; 2019 was the fifth driest year for 70 years. Temperature rise has caused an increase in evaporation. As of August 2023, ships were backing up because only 32 ships per day could pass due to low water levels.

Environmental and ecological consequences

As of 2000, deforestation through growth of human population, land degradation, erosion, and overhunting continued to be threats to the ecosystem of the Panama canal watershed. Deforestation causes erosion, raising the bottom of the Gatun and Alajuala lakes lowering their water holding capacity. Ship traffic routinely contaminates the water. Invasive species can travel faster, either on the hulls of ships or in ballast water. Lake water has become salty over time.

Routes competing with the canal

Northwest Passage

Climate change has thinned much of the ice that in the past made this route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans impassable. Satellite navigation can help monitor location of the ice which remains, further easing transit. A few ships have successfully crossed the previously impossible route since 2000.

Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

Since 2019, Mexico has been building a "canal" of its own, known as the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which will use primarily a railway to transport cargo and passengers from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. It is expected to start operating at full capacity on December 2023.

The current Corridor is expected to have certain advantages over the Panama Canal, such as its speed, being able to transport cargo from one ocean to the other in about six hours, and its location, being closer to the United States than Panama, in addition to the creation of ten industrial parks in the Isthmus with various tax benefits to encourage private investment.

However, despite being often described as a potential alternative/competitor to the Panama Canal, the ambassador of Panama in Mexico, Alfredo Oranges, and the former director of the CIIT, Rafael Marín Mollinedo, have stated that they do not see the CIIT in this way, and that they prefer to see it as a "complement" to the Panama Canal, which could relieve the intense traffic the Canal has to cope with. The ambassador even proposed collaborating with the Mexican government to make the Corridor more efficient.


On This Day: Accidental explosion triggers end of Chinese imperial dynasties - Oct. 9, 1911

On This Day: Simultaneous fires ravage Wisconsin, Chicago, and Michigan - Oct. 8, 1871

On This Day: First chartered railway in the U.S. begins operations - Oct. 7, 1826

On This Day: First planet discovered around a sun-like star - Oct. 6, 1995

On This Day: Women lead the Revolution - Oct. 5, 1789

1 replies = new reply since forum marked as read
Highlight: NoneDon't highlight anything 5 newestHighlight 5 most recent replies
On This Day: Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are joined via Panama Canal, now threatened - Oct. 10, 1913 (Original Post) jgo Oct 2023 OP
The Atlantic and Pacific are already "joined." malthaussen Oct 2023 #1
Latest Discussions»Editorials & Other Articles»On This Day: Atlantic and...