The above title is a palindrome and also sums up a collective ambition to construct one of the world’s great engineering marvels that immediately became an indispensible asset to the global economy.
Today, the Panama Canal is a thriving and efficient method to move ships, cargo, and people between the two largest oceans on the planet. Yet, for hundreds of years a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was a pipe dream. But before the first ship steamed through in 1914, the massive project would claim more than 30,000 lives, advance the fields of engineering and manufacturing, cause a mighty nation to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, reshape the geopolitical map of the world and fulfill the grand ambitions of an American president.
Early European explorers were first taken with the notion of a canal, both in what is now Panama and also in Nicaragua. The Panama route was shorter, at only 48 miles or so, with much of the way being large freshwater bodies. A canal across Nicaragua would also traverse land and water, would be more than 160 miles long, and surprising to some is an idea that still has backing.
The first serious effort to construct a canal across Panama began in the 1870s, though considerable maneuvering and negotiations had been underway decades before that.
French interests were the early players and the notable driver in that effort was Ferdinand de Lesseps. Among his many impressive achievements, he was the force behind the creation of the Suez Canal (later taken over by Great Britain). At Panama, Lesseps was convinced the way to go was dredge the land and waterways and create a sea level canal, like he did at Suez (which opened in 1869), that had a distance just over 100 miles.
Lesseps, a respected diplomat, and honest man with indefatigable optimism rallied strong support from French investors who flocked to purchase investment bonds. They were convinced that Monsieur de Lesseps would repeat his great success and demonstrate France’s engineering and construction abilities to the world.
Lesseps was wrong on virtually every one of his assumptions when he thought Panama would be a repeat of his experience in Egypt at Suez. His stubborn refusal to alter his plans would prove tragic, costly, and greatly embarrassing to him and France.
As examples, Suez was a trench dug from desert sand. Panama is a rain forest with ground made of rock, massive hillsides of unstable dirt, and a major river to contend with. Suez was relatively close to France, while Panama was half a world away. The Suez desert is hot but given water and shade, workers can toil on. Panama’s jungle climate included soul-sapping heat and humidity, and torrential rains that wreaked unrelenting havoc on men, equipment and terrain. In Panama, mudslides of hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of rock and mud were a common occurrence. Suez was virtually free of insects. Panama was rife with deadly insects, primarily mosquitos, and they would prove to be a scourge that cost thousands of lives. At Suez, Lesseps was able to use “forced labor” but for Panama he would have to pay for labor, driving up costs.
The French effort, begun in the 1870s was doomed from the start. The project was simply too big, and the men and machinery of the day were continually outmatched by the rock, mudslides, near-ceaseless rains, insufferable heat and the constant threat of disease. And even though Gatun Lake was 85 feet above sea level, Lesseps clung to the notion that he should build a sea level, not a lock-configured canal.
Adding to their woes, the French were both ignorant of and highly susceptible to the ravages of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. For example, the French thought that small moats of water at the base of trees would be a good way to control the ants that roamed everywhere; the moats worked, but this created an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. And all too often French administrators believed wanton living from drinking and carousing made men susceptible to malaria and yellow fever, so the focus was on morals, not science and medicine. It is estimated that upwards of 25,000 people perished, the great majority from disease.
Sadly and predictably, the French attempt collapsed under the weight of its own shortcomings. The great effort might well have been squandered altogether. But waiting in the wings was another interested party headed up by a stocky man with a large moustache who held an unbounded belief that the canal would be realized. Theodore Roosevelt wanted America to have the canal and he was determined to see it through.
At the time the French, and later during America’s initial involvement, Panama was the northern region of Colombia. The government in Bogota had granted a concession to the French, but when their efforts failed, American interests stepped in and wrangled a deal from the Colombians. As is often said, timing is everything, and in this case that fact greatly worked out to the American, as well as Panama’s advantage.
Roosevelt made the canal a top priority and though he did not win a second term for the presidency, by the time he left office the project was well underway and firmly in the hearts of Americans. They now saw the canal as ‘theirs’ and were determined to see it finished. But Colombia became prickly and began making fresh demands for money and control, so the American government tacitly supported a Panamanian revolution. The new government in Panama was immediately recognized and they signed a highly favorable deal with the U.S. Everyone – except Colombia – was very happy with this new, tidier arrangement.
The passage of time from the initial French effort resulted in manufacturing advances and allowed America’s industrial infrastructure to mature. New, larger and sturdier equipment with greater heft were put to the task. Other important lessons were learned, such as abandoning a sea level canal and building one with locks. And the Americans focused on overcoming the ravages of malaria and yellow fever. That success virtually eliminated death by disease and greatly increased the morale of workers and their families.
Without a doubt the Panama Canal helped ensure America would cement its status as a world power. The canal remained under U.S. jurisdiction and control until President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in September 1977 that returned the canal to Panama in 2000, who has owned and operated it since.
Ultimately, the original canal, though still heavily used and responsible for helping move over $250 billion of cargo a year, cannot accommodate the ever-larger cargo and passenger ships that want to transit the oceans. So, to accommodate the bigger vessels, remain competitive as a strategic transportation corridor, and stave off the possibility of an even bigger canal being built in Nicaragua, a new, much wider canal is under construction. The project began in 2007 and is expected to be complete in 2016. Once complete, the expansion project is expected to help the Panama Canal remain competitive for many decades to come.
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