The Panama Canal stretches 48 miles and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There are three sets of locks which lift and lower ships, and to “feed” the locks, engineers dammed up the Chagres River to create massive Gatun Lake. Water flows out of Gatun Lake each time a ship moves through a lock; water is replaced by rainfall plus the water released gradually by the adjoining rainforests.
Spain began thinking about a way to connect the two oceans way back in 1534, when Charles V ordered a survey for a route between the oceans as a way of shortening the voyage between Spain and Peru. The Spaniards immediately ran into problems with both the indigenous population, who resisted the efforts of missionaries to convert them, and pirates, who attacked more or less with impunity since the area was so lightly defended.
Other schemes came and went, but when gold was discovered in California in 1849, Europeans got serious. In 1855 the Panama Railway was completed from Panama City on the Pacific, to Colón on the Caribbean, greatly easing the former treacherous journey and largely determining the route the canal would eventually follow.
In 1881, the first attempt to construct a sea-to-sea canal began under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, with substantial funding and support from the French government and permission from Columbia, which then owned Panama. The French were in a hurry to get things started, and didn’t bother to scope things out first, thinking that building a canal across Panama would be similar to building a canal in Egypt.
They found that building a canal in the tropics was far different. First were the dual threats of malaria and yellow fever, and second were the torrential rains, which were so heavy that, at times, rain-triggered landslides dumped material back into the canal almost as fast as it was being excavated. By 1890, after spending some $287 million and losing an estimated 22,000 lives, the project was abandoned.
During the Spanish-American War, the United States began thinking seriously about a canal cutting through Central America when it took the battleship Oregon 68 days to travel to the Caribbean from San Francisco. By 1899 a bill authorizing the building of such a canal was creaking its way through Congress, with Nicaragua as the chosen site.
Since the French Panama Canal Company had failed, its engineer, Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla, spent most of his time trying to sell the French rights to the project to the United States. The Nicaraguan Canal bill threw him into a panic.
But the Gods were kind to Bunau-Varilla. Mt. Pelée, the fog-shrouded volcano on Martinique had been dormant for centuries, however on December 8th, in one titanic explosion, the entire peak disappeared. An incandescent mass of poisonous gas descended on the population of St. Pierre, capital city of Martinique, and within seconds, the entire population of more than 30,000 had suffocated. About a month later, with that tragedy still in people’s minds, Nicaragua’s Momotombo also erupted. The dual catastrophes proved a gold mine for Bunau-Varilla.
In 1900, Nicaragua had issued a blue five-centavo stamp showing the smoking likeness of Momotombo. Bunau-Varilla sent 600 of these stamps to Congress; the unspoken statement being “Why take a chance building a canal in a country with an active volcano when you could build in, for example, Panama.”
In June, Congress voted to allow the President to acquire the French concession for $40 million if the Columbian government would cede a suitable strip of land across the Isthmus of Panama. The Columbian chargè d’affaires in Washington agreed, and signed a treaty to that effect, giving the United States a 100-year lease for a lump sum payment of $10 million plus an annual rental of $250,000.
Unfortunately, he neglected to tell his government about it, and in August of 1903 they rejected the treaty. For one thing, the French company had no right to negotiate away a concession that wasn’t theirs. This could, of course, all be fixed with a suitable remuneration to the Columbian government. Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay considered this demand a blatant holdup and refused.
In August, Columbia officially rejected the treaty worked out between its chargè d’affaires and John Hay, and with things at an impasse, a consortium made up of Panama businessmen, agents of the French company, and American army officers began to plan Panama’s secession from Columbia. Roosevelt and Hay were officially neutral, but secretly delighted.
About the middle of October, Roosevelt sent three American warships to the area “to protect American lives in the event of an insurrection,” and ordered them to prevent the Columbians from landing any forces within fifty miles of the Isthmus.
The “revolution” took place on schedule, on the evening of November 3rd. It cost exactly one casualty, a Chinese in Panama City who had the Celestial bad fortune to be sleeping in the spot where the lone Columbian gunboat decided to lob a shell. Discretion being the better part of valor, after firing the single shell the gunboat headed back to Columbia, leaving the Isthmus at the mercy of the “insurrectionists.”
Two days later, Secretary Hay recognized the new Republic of Panama, which, in turn, appointed the lobbyist of the former French company as its representative in Washington. With him on the 18th, Hay negotiated the treaty in which the Canal Zone was leased to the United States “in perpetuity’ and “to the entire exclusion of the exercise by Panama of any…sovereign rights, power or authority,” for the same $10 million down and $250,000 per year they’d offered Columbia in 1902.
Teddy Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal in 1906, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit a foreign territory, and causing the New York Times to take high umbrage: “There is an unbroken usage that the President shall not leave the territory of the United States during his term of office.”
While in Panama he decided the issue of which side to go with in the war against the dreaded fever known as yellowjack. On the one side stood Colonel William Gorgas, head of the Sanitation Department, who argued that the eradication of the mosquito was the answer. On the other was the Canal Commission, who stated that cleanliness and fresh paint was all that was needed. Roosevelt agreed with Gorgas, and the war of man vs. mosquito began.
Actual construction had been delayed, largely because of Congressional insistence that the enterprise be managed by a commission, something which inevitably led to back-biting and nest-feathering. Roosevelt put an end to the situation by appointing Lt. Col. George Goethals, an experienced canal builder, as chairman. For the other members of the commission he had these words: “If at any time you do not agree with Colonel Goethals’ policies do not bother to tell me about it. Your disagreement with him will constitute your resignation.”
Construction began in earnest in 1906, and with pickaxes, dynamite, and steam shovels, was completed in 1914. It cut an average of two weeks of travel time from the trip around the horn..
To date, the highest toll ever charged for passage was $375,600, paid by the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl on April 4, 2010. The honor for lowest toll ever paid goes to a 28-year-old American adventurer named Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928 and paid 36 cents for the privilege.
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