Oceans Connected – The Panama Canal

The history of the Panama Canal is a story of human ingenuity and bravery.  Many lives were lost and attempts were failed in the process of bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with this 48-mile long international waterway, which eventually came to be one of the most successful feats in the world:  two continents separated by man.

Since the discovery of the pacific coast of Panama by Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513, visionaries from around the world dreamed of a shorter route from the Atlantic to the Pacific without having to make the 8,000-mile journey around the tip of South America.

The first real attempt began in 1880 under the French. The project was later abandoned as tens of thousands of workers died because of disease and landslides, which occurred due to poor planning and lack of understanding the landscape.

The United States saw the French’s downfall as an opportunity to gain power for its own country, but was denied ownership of the canal by the Columbian-owned Panama.  So the United States supported the revolution that led to the independence of Panama in 1903 and ultimately gained control of the canal region and the contract to finish building it.  Beginning in 1904, under the grand leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. succeeded in completing the canal in 1914, and controlled the surrounding area called the “Canal Zone.”

However, the canal now divided the country and it provided no direct economic benefit to the Panamanian economy under US law.  Riots ensued in the 1960s until the two governments came together to settle this territorial issue.  In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Torrijos–Carter Treaty that involved a gradual return of power to Panama by December 31, 1999.  The treaty also established the canal as a neutral international waterway with safe passage guaranteed even in times of war.

Today, an average of 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal each year with 200 million tons of cargo without having to circumnavigate the entire South American continent.  Since 2007, the canal is undergoing a seven-year, $5.2 billion expansion project to increase the size of the ships allowed to pass and therefore boost the amount of goods that will be transported.

One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever completed, the Panama Canal claims the title as one of the seven modern wonders of the world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and remains a site to be seen as the massive ships line up in the Amador causeway to pass through the canal.

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