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The Panama Canal

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It is history that gears up one’s tired loins on being retold. History delineates vintages, appreciates landmarks, vies with judgments and recounts the past. One of such historical edifices that have contributed significantly to the financial, cultural and economic development of mankind is the Panama Canal that was built by America’s formidable workforce in the year 1914.

For the Panama Canal, history did not start here. It started way back in the year 1524 when King of Spain Charles V ordered for a survey of the Isthmus of Panama and drafted out a work plan for building a canal that would help the Spanish to pitch in for those covetable treasures of Peru, as also to gain the military supremacy over the Portuguese. The plan was abandoned for reasons unknown but it harbors the credit of being the first attempt of building a canal. It was this Isthmus that held an immense appeal of being the narrowest stretch in the middle of the world’s large oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic. In those days, ships had to navigate through the not traversable southern extremity of the Southern America called the Cape Horn in order sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In the early 19th century, books of German Scientist Humboldt revived Spanish interests to succeed in their bargains about the rampant gold rush in California, for which they found it necessary to formally authorize a company to construct a canal. Although, they managed to get concessions from Columbian authorities to provide a canal across the isthmus, further progress was not to be seen. 

It was the French in the year 1880, under the chairmanship of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal that took after the Spanish with a remarkable dynamism to carry out the construction of the Panama Canal. 

 It was in de Lesseps’ plan of things to construct a sea level canal through Panama. This man, who succeeded in building the 121 mile long Suez Canal, sadly failed to take into account the Panamanian jungle and was unaware of hostile conditions that Panama had to offer in the rainy season, which was severe enough to dampen working conditions. Neither was he aware of the merciless inundation that River Chagres could bring about while at the spate for, he had seen it only to be placid at low-ebb. Factors that took a toll on the French work force in such an uninhabitable terrain include the rich flora and fauna of that region that were optimal for outbreaks of malaria, yellow fever and other diseases.

All these ended in a fiasco, and ultimately, the French after having put in thousands of lives and commendable effort, had to give up the project (PBS.ORG 8). The Lesseps Company sold its assets to the US at the price of 40 million dollars. When America failed to strike a deal with Columbia in building the canal, it collaborated with the Panamanian businessmen to bring about a revolution (PBS.ORG 12). This took a favorable turn for America with the birth of the nation of Panama on November 3, 1903.

The first year of Americans in Panama was a disaster in itself. The chief engineer, John Findlay Wallace was not up to challenges posed by the enormity of the project and was substituted by more tenacious John Frank Stevens. Contrary to Lesseps’ plan of constructing the sea level canal, Stevens proposed a canal using a lock system to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir of 85 ft above the sea level, which was approved by the American president Theodore Roosevelt. This lock canal would enable the river Chagres to form a lake and was seen as a solution for the enormity of excavations that needed to be carried out and the widely prevalent landslides. 

Panama canal is about 51 miles long (  3). It was cut through the narrow mountainous strip of the Isthmus that joined the North and the South American Continents. Its main physical features are three sets of twin locks, the two terminal ports, Gatun Lake and the Gaillard or Culebra Cut. After a 7 mile course of the journey from the Atlantic entrance at the Limon Bay or Cristobal break water, it is another 11.5 miles to reach Gatun locks.

 At Gatun, there were two parallel sets of locks and each of them consisting of three flights. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide and 100 feet long. This set of locks raises ships to about 26 meters at the Gatun Lake. Created in 1913 by damming the Chagres river, the Gatun lake was the largest manmade lake, when it was formed, and has got a plethora of rare native American plants and animal species. 

Another 32 miles from the Gatun Lake will take one to the Gamboa, where the Culebra Cut begins. Culebra in Spanish refers to a snake. This Cut is 8 miles long and 150 meters wide and is carved through rock and shale for the most distance. Towards the end of this Cut there are the Pedro Miguel locks which are the smallest set of locks in the Panama Canal and have one flight that can rise or lower ships to 10 meters. This set of locks leads to a lake which, in turn, leads to the Miraflores locks which have two flights with a lift or descent of 16 meters to the sea level at the Pacific terminus of the Canal.

Miraflores locks are just over 1 mile long. The hollow gates of Miraflores locks are 7 feet thick and 82 feet high. Each gate is 64 feet wide and the interlocking pattern makes a perfect seal.  The weight of each gate is about 730 tons. The motor and the gate are connected by the 18 feet long hydraulic strut arm.  An average ship can cross the canal in 9 hours. 26 million US gallons of fresh water are lost to the ocean with each entry and exit of vessels. Each chamber takes 8 minutes to fill with these 26 million US gallons of water. Using the canal saves 7872 miles over going the tip of the South America. Ships are, thus, made to ascend to reach the Gatun reservoir through the Gatun locks and are then made to descend through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks in their journey onward, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914. By providing an impressively short and inexpensive passage between two entities of the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Panama Canal has been an impetus for large scale economic expansions and has overturned million fortunes.  It has facilitated at the impressive outset, the flourishing commerce between continents and its associated developments. 

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