In 2014 we have the opportunity to celebrate one of the greatest engineering achievements of the history of mankind as we get to the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal. This astounding and vital transport route is one of the most important feats of construction ever undertaken, halving the time required to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and allowing the west coast of the US along with other Pacific nations to trade easier and get a foothold in the world economy.
The canal works with a series of locks, three at each side, filling to bring ships up to the Gatun Lake, a man-made body of water that was part of the canal’s construction. Once a ship has crossed the lake, it will use the locks on the further side to be lowered to sea level again.
The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and it’s no surprise considering the huge amount of planning and development that was involved in the creation of the canal, along with the dangers that workers faced to carry out the necessary work.
It all dates back to 1855 when a report by an employee of the US Government, William Kennish, stressed how important and beneficial a canal would be. Following the success of the Suez Canal that linked the Middle East with Europe and northern Africa, it was a French group that first attempted to build a canal in Panama. The attempt was a failure, resulting in over 22,000 worker deaths, but it laid foundations that were advantageous for the US attempt that followed.
Five years after the end of the French build, an American group began their own work in 1904. Work building the canal took a decade, before it was opened in 1914 in the same month that the First World War broke out across the Atlantic. With further understanding of building techniques and disease, casualties were lower but still significant at around 5,000 workers.
The canal is now owned by Panama but this has only been the case since 1999. Originally the US kept ownership but in 1977 the Torrijos-Carter Treaty was drawn up. This came into effect in 1979, and began a 20-year handover period with the responsibility of Panama slowly increasing until the country took full ownership.
Nowadays the canal is used extensively, moreso than was ever intended with its original construction. It was envisaged that the canal could cope with up to 80 million tons of shipping every year, but now nearly 300 million tons passes through on an annual basis. It’s because of this, and further future plans, that work is underway to expand the canal.
This won’t be completed until 2015, but will include new locks along with maintenance of the current locks. One benefit will see larger ships able to use the locks and cross the canal, with the current ‘Panamax’ size around 250 feet shorter and nearly 60 feet thinner than the new limits.
A true engineering marvel, the Panama Canal will be the toast of 2014 in the world of cruising and the general shipping industry.
By Ian Lewis