Location: Central Panama Map
Length: 48 mi (77 km)
The Panama Canal is an interoceanic waterway between the Caribbean
Sea and the Pacific Ocean that crosses the Isthmus of Panama at its
narrowest point, whose length is 82 km, it works through locks at
each end that raise the boats to Lake Gatún, an artificial lake
created to reduce the amount of work required for the excavation of
the canal, 26 meters above sea level, and then descend to the
Pacific or Atlantic level.
Since its inauguration on August 15, 1914, Panama Canal has managed to reduce maritime communication in time and distance, boosting commercial and economic exchange by providing a short and relatively cheap transit route between the two oceans, decisively influencing the patterns of trade. world, boosting the economic growth of developed and developing countries, in addition to providing the basic impetus for the economic expansion of many remote regions of the world. In 2012, the United States, China, Chile, Japan and Korea South were the five main users of Panama Canal, which takes eight to ten hours to cross.
Before its opening, the natural passages used between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn, located at the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. The Panama Canal and its construction are considered one of the great works of world engineering of the twentieth century.
The Isthmus of Panama was already used by Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century for the displacement between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The first European explorers knew by the aborigines the old ways used by the pre-Columbian civilizations to cross the isthmus.
The history of the Panama Canal goes back to the first Spanish explorers arrived in America. Because of its orography, the Isthmus of Panama is the ideal place to create a passage for maritime transport between the Pacific and the Atlantic. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Columbus on his fourth voyage came to navigate through Central America looking for a way of passage. It also attracted the attention of Hernán Cortés.
In 1514 the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first European explorer to contemplate the Pacific Ocean, and built a route that would serve to transport his ships from Santa María la Antigua del Darién (Atlantic coast of Panama) to the bay of San Miguel in the Pacific, although this route of 50 to 65 km, was quickly abandoned.
In November 1515, Captain Antonio Tello de Guzmán discovered a track that crossed the isthmus from the Gulf of Panama to Panama, near the abandoned city of Nombre de Dios. Having been used by the natives for centuries, it was improved and paved by the Spaniards, becoming Camino Real. The road was used to transport the gold to Portobelo and, from there, to send it to Spain, thus becoming the first great route of the isthmus.
In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan, Portuguese navigator under the flag of the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles I, found a different passage between the two oceans: the Strait of Magellan. His odyssey showed that the road was too dangerous, so the need arose to find an easier way to reach the South Seas without having to navigate to the southern tip of the American continent.
In 1524 King Charles I suggested digging a canal that would shorten trips to Peru and allow ships to avoid the dangerous Cape Horn, especially for the transport of gold. A first project was made in 1529 but the political situation in Europe and the technological level of the time made it unfeasible. After the problems that arose on the road from Portobelo to the Pacific, in 1533 the richest and most influential settler in Panama and later a great businessman in Peru, Gaspar de Espinosa, suggested to the Council of the Indies the creation of an alternative way excavating a canal. His plan was to build a road from the city of Panama, Pacific terminal station on the Camino Real, and the city of Cruces, on the banks of the Chagres River, near the line of the canal that Fernando de Lesseps finished building in the 20th century (30 km from Panama). Once in the Chagres River, the cargo would be transported by boats to the Caribbean Sea. Although Espinosa died before making this project come true, the road was executed and was called the Camino de Cruces and the Las Cruces path. From Chagres, the cargoes were transported to the king's warehouse in Portobelo. It is here where for more than two centuries the famous Fair of Portobello took place, which consisted of great exchanges between the southern part of the continent (Viceroyalty of Peru) and the great Spanish crown. This route was used for several centuries, even in 1840 during the California gold rush.
The Scottish expedition
The Darién project was another attempt to establish a route between the oceans. In July 1698, five ships departed from Leith (Scotland) in order to establish a colony belonging to the Kingdom of Scotland in Darien and build a route for trade with China and Japan. The settlers arrived in Darién in November and called it Caledonia. But the expedition was not prepared to face the adverse conditions they encountered there, suffering from local diseases and poor organization. The settlers left New Edinburgh for good, leaving four hundred graves behind. Unfortunately for them, another aid expedition had already left Scotland and arrived in the colony in November 1699. It encountered the same problems, in addition to being attacked and blocked by the Spaniards. On April 12, 1700, Caledonia was definitively abandoned.
19th and 20th Centuries
In the nineteenth century, the dominant project was the construction of a canal at sea level - technologically, much easier - through Nicaragua. For political reasons this project was abandoned, although in the 21st century it has been revived (Canal de Nicaragua). The idea of the Panamanian canal remained suspended for a time, so as not to reappear until the beginning of the 19th century, after the trip of the Prussian naturalist, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, who prepared a project to excavate the isthmus between the Chagres and Panama. The engineer Fernando de Lesseps presented, ten years later, his project to excavate the Panama Canal.
Towards the end of the 19th century, technological advances and commercial pressures were such that the construction of a canal became a viable proposition. A first attempt on the part of France failed, but it was possible to make a first excavation. After this failure, the Herrán-Hay Treaty was signed, between the Colombian and American governments, for the purpose of building a transoceanic canal in Panama, which at that time was part of Colombia. However, the treaty was rejected by the Colombian Senate, a situation that pushed a group of Panamanians, led by José Agustín Arango, to establish a separatist movement that would allow Panamanians to negotiate directly a treaty for the construction of the canal with the United States. . The separation of Panama from Colombia, took place on November 3, 1903, with support from the United States. The aspirations of President Theodore Roosevelt and the Panamanian elite to build a canal in Panama, were formalized with the signing of the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, which allowed to execute the engineering work, inaugurated and opened to maritime traffic on August 15, 1914
The canal is in operation in Panamanian hands, through the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, signed on September 7, 1977, in Washington, by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Panamanian General Omar Torrijos, with the support of the Colombian President Alfonso López Michelsen, since Colombia maintained special rights of passage through the Canal. The treaty ended with the term "perpetuity" of the old Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty and came into force on December 31, 1999, at 12:00 p.m.; date in which he was received by President Mireya Moscoso from former US President Jimmy Carter.
In the nineteenth century, it became clear that the road to Las Cruces was no longer sufficient; a faster and less expensive road was needed for transportation along the isthmus. Given the difficulty of building a canal, a railway seemed to be the ideal solution. The studies began in 1827. Several projects were proposed and money was sought. In the middle of that century other factors appeared that encouraged the project: the annexation of California by the United States in 1848, and the displacement of settlers to the west coast, increasingly in greater numbers, increased the demand for a fast route between the oceans . The California gold rush also further increased settler displacements to the west.
The Panama Railroad was built across the isthmus between 1850 and 1855, 75 km long, from Colon on the Atlantic to Panama on the Pacific. The project represented a masterpiece of engineering of its time, carried out in very difficult conditions: it is estimated that more than 12,000 people died in its construction, most of it cholera and malaria. Until the opening of the canal, the railway transported the largest volume of cargo (minerals, materials, etc.) per unit of length of all the railways in the world. The existence of the railroad was a key factor in the selection of Panama for the construction of the Panama canal.
The French project
The idea of building a canal through Central America was suggested again by a German scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, giving rise to a renewed interest at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1819, the Spanish government authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it.
The Republic of New Granada, current Colombia, gave in 1839 a concession for the first time to a French company, to establish a line of communication from the city of Panama to any point of the Atlantic coast. France conducted field studies and the results were positive enough for French Prime Minister Guizot to send an official, Napoleon Garella, to confirm that optimism. The officer found nothing on the ground that could confirm such optimism; rather on the contrary, he highlighted the difficulty of the company, which prompted the French government to lose interest, and the company holding the concession to renounce it.
The project was in the air for some time. Between 1850 and 1875 many studies were carried out, which led to the conclusion that the two most favorable roads were: through Panama (then part of Colombia) and through Nicaragua. A third option was to build a route through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico.
In May of 1879, the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had completed the excavation of the Suez Canal, presented his project of an interoceanic canal without locks at the Geography Society of Paris, which was to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean on the isthmus. from Panama. The Lesseps project was accepted, and rights for the concession were purchased for ten million francs. The cost of the works was estimated at 600 million francs, and a company was founded, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama, which raised the necessary funds to execute the project. On December 30, 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps arrived in Panama with his family and some time later went to New York, where he was received with courtesy, but the leaders of the United States did not hide from him that they would oppose, by all means, his company.
The works began in 1881, facing several challenges: the rugged terrain, malaria epidemics and yellow fever with high mortality among staff, etc. The work was delayed, and Lesseps appealed to small investors through businessmen like Baron de Reinach and Cornelio Herz, who did not hesitate to bribe the press, corrupt ministers and parliamentarians to obtain public funding. The case was discovered and led to the "scandal of Panama", while Gustave Eiffel, consulted on the project, questioned its design, and concluded that the canal should include locks to adapt to the relief of the region . This decision was made, above all, because the Culebra massif was the main obstacle in the canal route.
Ferdinand de Lesseps initially chose the option of a channel at a level as it did with the Suez channel, however, to make a project of this type in Panama meant having to go through the Culebra massif and therefore, being forced to dig a very deep trench in a field formed by different layers.
Another problem occurred in September 1882, when an earthquake shook the isthmus, so they had to interrupt the work and traffic of the railways for some time. This event led to a decline in the share price of the company on the Paris stock exchange.
Despite these setbacks, in 1886, during his inspection, Ferdinand de Lesseps was very satisfied with the progress of the work. The fact of changing the construction plans to a canal with locks, allowed the company to save a lot of money. However, since 1886, the opponents of Lesseps did not leave him in peace and, during this time, in Paris the intrigues against the company were increasingly open and came to public opinion, which was disastrous because the money was finished in 1888. Lesseps was forced to stop all work and abandon the project, which represented the end of the «French Channel».
After bankruptcy in February 4, 1889, company of Lesseps was taken over by the chief engineer of the construction work of the canal, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, who was carrying out new work according to the Eiffel project. Without financial support, Bunau-Varilla addresses the US government. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty validated US operation and it was signed on November 18, 1903, almost immediately after the revolution that led to the separation of Panama from Colombia.