Panama facts & history in brief
Map of Panama
Panama Canal is a waterway that cuts across
Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
It is one of the greatest engineering
achievements in the world.
On its completion, the canal shortened a ships
voyage dramatically, by avoiding ships making
this trip travelling around South America, a
distance of more than 20,900 kilometres.
People of many lands dreamed of building a canal
across Central America for hundreds of years.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to reach
the Pacific, saw the possibility of a canal
connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans
in the early 16th Century.
Throughout the 19th Century the U.S. and Great Britain
considered a canal across Nicaragua, the two nations
almost went to war because of disputes over which
one would control the proposed canal.
In 1846 Colombia signed a treaty with the U. S.
to guard all trade routes across Panama and to
preserve Panama's neutrality.
In 1850, in the
Clayton-Bulwer treaty, the U.S. and Great Britain
agreed to protect the neutrality of a canal to be
built somewhere across the Central American isthmus.
During the California gold rush in the mid 1800s many
prospectors sailed from Atlantic Coast ports to Panama,
crossed the isthmus by boat, on mules, and on foot, and
then took another ship for California.
In 1850, Colombia let a U.S. company to build a railway
across Panama, and it was completed in 1855 linking
Colon on the Atlantic side
and Panama City on the Pacific side.
In 1878, Colombia granted a French adventurer named
Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse the right to build a
canal across Panama.
He sold the right to a French company headed by
Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who had directed
the construction of the Suez Canal.
The French also bought control of
the Panama Railroad.
The digging began in 1882, they planned a canal
that would run at sea level, without locks.
In 1886, the French to decided to build the
canal similar to the present one.
De Lesseps and his assistants planned most
of the project carefully, and efficiently,
but they wasted great
quantities of material and effort.
A group of dishonest politicians who
supported De Lesseps stole large amounts
of money from the company.
They also lacked the proper tools to
complete such a huge digging job and
fight the epidemics of tropical diseases
that hit the workers.
De Lesseps' company went bankrupt in 1889.
A second French firm, the New Panama Canal
Company, took over the property and franchise
in 1894, waiting until a buyer
could be found for the franchise.
An U S. company started work on a canal
across Nicaragua in 1889.
But their money ran out of soon
after beginning the project.
Both the American and French groups
tried to get the U.S. Government
interested to buy their rights and
The Panama Railway Company's
American owners opposed any Central
American canal construction because
it would be competing with their
During the Spanish-American War,
in the late 1890's the U.S. Government
and Congress realised the benefits
and the necessity of a canal for
Some Panamanians fearing that Panama
would lose the commercial benefits
of a canal and the French company
worrying about losing the sale of
its property to the U.S.
with the help of the French and
some encouragement from the U.S.,
revolted against Colombia, and declared
The U.S. sent ships to Panama
to protect the Panama Railroad and
preventing the Colombian troops
from reaching Panama City, the centre
of the revolution.
The French company managed to convince
the U.S. that their offer of Panama
rights and property and the Panama
Railroad, would be safer, though
more difficult terrain than Nicaragua,
because of volcanic instability.
In the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty
of 1903, Theodore Roosevelt gained
for the USA the concession from
Panama for a 16-km (10-mile) wide
Canal Zone under perpetual control
of the US government.
The United States gave Panama an initial payment
of 10 million U.S. dollars and guaranteed
Panama's independence and a regular,
The U.S. Congress decided to build
a canal with locks, rather than
the sea-level canal that the French
had originally planned.
U.S. Engineers believed that a canal
with locks would be cheaper and
faster to build and would control
the floodwaters of the Chagres River
better than a sea-level canal would.
The canal was built in about 10
years at a cost of about 400 million
Thousands of workers using steam
shovels and dredges to cut through
jungles, hills, and swamps, and
fighting tropical diseases like
malaria and yellow fever.
After World War II and years of
negotiations, President, Jimmy Carter
succeeded in 1977 obtaining congressional
approval of the Panama Canal treaties
which provide for relinquishing
total control of the Panama Canal
and the Canal Zone to Panama by
2000, while assuring the Canal's
International law requires that
the U.S. allow commercial and military
vessels of all nations to pass through
the canal in peacetime.
A treaty signed by the U.S. and
Panama in 1977 guarantees that the
canal will remain open to all nations
even in time of war.
The agreement gives the U.S. the
right to use military force if necessary
to protect the canal's neutrality.
The Canal is nearly 82 kilometres
long from Limon Bay on the Atlantic
Ocean in a northwest to southeast
direction to the Bay of Panama on
the Pacific Ocean.
The canal has three sets of locks,
(waterfilled chambers) which raise
and lower ships from one level to
The locks were built in pairs to
allow ships to pass through in both
directions at the same time.
Each lock has a usable length of
300 metres, a width of 34 metres,
and a depth of about 20 metres.
The dimensions of the locks limit
the size of ships that can use the
canal, supertankers and large Aircraftcarriers
cannot pass through it.
A ship sailing from the Atlantic
Ocean enters the canal by way of
Limon Bay, near the city of Colon.
A canal pilot comes on board from
a small boat.
The pilot has complete charge of
the ship during its trip through
The Gatun Locks are like giant steps.
Three pairs of concrete chambers
that lift ship about 26 metres from
sea level to Gatun Lake.
Small electric locomotives called
mules run on rails along both sides
of the locks.
They help to position, stabilise,
pull and guide the ship in the locks.
Canal workers fasten the ends of
the locomotives' towing cables to
The locomotives then help to pull
the ship, into the first chamber.
Huge steel gates close behind the
Valves open to allow water from
Gatun Lake to flow into the lock.
In the next 8 to 15 minutes, the
rising water slowly raises the ship.
When the water level is the same
in both chambers, the gates in front
of the ship swing outward and the
locomotives help to pull the vessel
into the second chamber.
This process is repeated until the
third chamber raises the ship to
the level of Gatun Lake.
Once in the lake the cables get
released and the ship sails on under
its own power.
On the south side of Gatun Lake,
is the huge Gatun Dam, this
earth dam is only second to the
Gatun Dam created the 422 square
kilometre Gatun Lake from the waters
of the Chagres River.
As ships reach the south-eastern
end of Gatun Lake they enter the
13 kilometres long and 150 metres
wide Gaillard Cut, with a minimum
depth of 13 metres.
It is an engineering term for an
artificially created passageway
or channel and runs between Gold
Hill on the east and Contractor's
Hill on the west.
In 1913, it was named in honour
of David DuBose Gaillard, the engineer
in charge of digging between the
Dredgers work constantly to keep
the channel clear of earth-slides.
The Gaillard Cut is only wide enough
for one-way traffic, but work began
to widen it to accommodate two-way
After the Gaillard Cut, electric
locomotives help to pull, the ships
into the Pedro Miguel Locks, which
lower the vessels 9 metres in one
step to the Miraflores Lake.
Than the ships sails about two and
half kilometres to the Miraflores
Locks, where two chambers lower
them to the level of the Pacific
The distances these chambers must
lower the ship depend on the height
of the tide in the Pacific, which
about 4 metres a day.
Tides on the Atlantic side change
only about 60 centimetres daily.
After the locks, the ships head
down a 13 kilometres long channel,
passing the towns of Balboa, and
La Boca and the Thatcher Ferry Bridge,
an important link in the Pan American
In the Bay of Panama the pilot leaves,
the vessels as they head toward
the open sea.
The ships have travelled about 80
kilometres from the Atlantic to
the Pacific in about eight hours.
More 12,000 ocean-going vessels
travel through it yearly, an average
of about 34 per day.
The Panama Canal Commission is responsible
for the operation and maintenance
of the waterway.
In addition, the commission operates
public utilities and provides community,
sanitation, security, and transportation
The Panama Canal Commission collects
tolls from ships that use the canal.
The amount of the toll paid by a
merchant ship is determined by the
ship's cargo space.
Military ships must pay a toll based
on their weight.
Some points of interest:
1. One the greatest obstacle to building
the Panama Canal was disease.
at the time was one of the most
disease-ridden areas in the world.
Colonel William C. Gorgas an American
doctor, famous for wiping out yellow
fever in Cuba, took charge of improving
sanitary conditions and to destroy
the types of mosquitoes that carried
malaria and yellow fever in the
He devoted considerable time and
effort clearing brush, draining
swamps, and cutting out large areas
of grass where the mosquitoes swarmed.
He managed to wipe out yellow fever
and eliminated the rats that carried
bubonic plague, he had also reduced
the rate of deaths caused by malaria
in the Canal Zone.
2. The construction involved three
major engineering projects.
The Gaillard Cut had to be excavated,
a dam across the Chagres River had
to be built to create Gatun Lake,
and the canal's locks had to be
The hardest task was digging the
Gaillard Cut through hills of soft
volcanic material. It was much like
digging into a pile of grain as
soon as workers dug a hole, more
rock and earth would slide into
the space, or push up from below.
Instead of the estimated 73 million
cubic metres of earth and rock the
builders had to move more than 160
million cubic metres.
3. At times more than 43,400 people
worked on the Panama Canal.
4. In 1914 the first ship to make
the first complete trip through
the canal was the Panama Railroad
Company's S.S. Ancon sailing from
the Atlantic to the Pacific and
made the canal slogan a reality
"The Land Divided, the World United."
The two great oceans were united.
5. In 1915 a giant landslide in
the Gaillard Cut closed the canal
for several months.
6. In 1920 U.S. President Woodrow
Wilson officially opened the Panama
7. Building the canal cost the U.S.
about 380 million U.S. dollars,
which included the 40 million dollars
to the French company, the 10 million
dollars paid to Panama, and 20 million
dollars for sanitation and 310 million
dollars was spent on the actual
8. In 1935 the Madden Dam was completed,
the first major improvement on the
canal. The Madden Lake stores water
for use in Gatun Lake. The dam also
holds back the floodwaters of the
Chagres River during the rainy season.
9. In 1936, the United States agreed
to raise its annual payments to
Panama to 430,000 U.S. dollars.
10. In 1955, the payments were increased
to about 2 million U.S. dollars
11. In the 1950's, engineers began
to widen the Gaillard Cut from about
90 to 150 metres.
12. A ship travelling from New York
to San Francisco can save more than
12,500 kilometres or 7872 miles
going through the Panama Canal instead
of going around South America.
13. The highest Canal toll was US
$ 141,344.91 paid by the Crown Princess,
14. The lowest toll ever paid was
36 cents by Richard Halliburton
for swimming the Canal in 1928.
15. The average time spent in crossing
from ocean to ocean is approx. 8
- 10 hours.
16. Until the finishing of the Hoover
Dam to form Lake Mead, Gatun Lake
was the largest artificial body
of water in the world.
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