The journey of the Panama Canal construction

As early as in the 16th century, people were already considering the idea of building a canal that could link the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. Before the canal, vessels coming from the Pacific needed to go around Latin America and pass Cape Horn in Chile to reach the Atlantic. This not only represented months of traveling, but also increased expenses and higher risks due to the hazardous weather conditions around Cape Horn.

All of these constraints motivated the French government to start building the Panama Canal and La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique began its construction the 1st of January, 1881. Ferdinand de Lesseps, responsible for the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, was in charge of it. Unfortunately, after 8 years the project went bankrupt and stopped due to lack of expertise in the tough terrain, France’s civil wars at the time and constant epidemies of tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria. In 1904, the canal was sold to the U.S. for only 40 million dollars, even though France had originally invested over 230 million dollars on it.

The Panama Canal project was very interesting for the U.S., as it would reduce the travel time from the U.S. west coast to Europe in as much as 42%. The project was taken by President Theodore Roosevelt however, when the contract was presented to Colombian officials, as Panama was part of Colombia at the time, they did not accept the financial terms of it and refused to allow the U.S. permission to continue the construction. In response to this, President Roosevelt decided to support Panama’s independence and sent warships in order to help them. Panama became independent on November 3rd 1903 and negotiations restarted immediately. Construction began the next year and the U.S. took sovereignty over the zone of the canal.

After 10 years in construction, the canal was finalized. It was one of the most challenging projects ever built at the time and it costed the U.S. over 350 million dollars. The canal is 77 km long and initially had 2 lanes with each one a full set of locks that are intended to lift ships, weighing around 50 thousand tons, over 8 stories high, as the canal’s highest point is well above sea level. The lock system consists on powerful valves on the bottom of the chambers inside the locks that shoot water up, thus lifting the ships. It is so effective that it can lift these vessels over 3 stories high in only 8 minutes. The canal opened and welcomed its first ship, S.S. Ancon, in August 15th 1914 with a cargo of cement. The canal allowed over 200 million tons of goods to be transported each year, meaning that around fourteen thousand vessels transited this canal annually.

While the success of the canal was immense, Panamanians started to feel uneasy because the U.S. had complete control over its main economic income and water source, as Gatún Lake in between the two lanes is the principal water source for the country. Tension started to build up between the two countries until a new treaty was made, giving the control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. Unfortunately, the problems did not stop here, demand of goods raised and the traffic in the canal became unbearable. Ships sometimes took weeks to pass the canal due to the heavy traffic, trip that was intended to last 10 hours. Adding to this, the new Post-Panamax vessels could not fit into the canal and many would go to the competition, the Suez Canal in Egypt. This situation represented millions of dollars of losses in tolls for the canal and therefore, a new expansion plan was created and then approved by Panamanians.

The construction of the expansion began on 2007 and also lasted 10 years to finish. It finally opened in June 26th 2016. The project consisted on creating a new bigger lane with a new third set of locks to grant access to Post-Panamax vessels, able to carry around ten thousand containers. The expansion also included enhancements to old lanes that required dredging to improve the navigation through the canals. In order to attain the goals of transporting huge amounts of soil and rocks they had to use the mechanical dredger Rialto M. Christensen, an incredible machine built by Japanese engineers in 1977 specially for the construction of the canal, this machine is also often use for maintenance of the canal. Other improvements to the water supply were also made, as the canal uses water from the Gatún Lake.

Overall, the expansion represented around 375 million dollars’ worth of investments but it hopes to attract over 4000 extra vessels per year and to be able to greatly facilitate transportation of Post-Panamax ships. We are yet to see if it can obtain its objectives but no matter what, it will ease nautical transportation and tremendously improve traffic between the two oceans.

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