October 10, 1913: The Gamboa Dike is blown up when President Woodrow Wilson presses a button in Washington, DC. The Dike was the last obstruction along the manmade channel connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The dream of a shortcut began in the early 1500s. Vasco Balboa, the first European to see the East Pacific, built a road on which to haul ships 34 miles. By 1534 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, hoped to build a canal using plans drawn up in 1529. The technology of the time was inadequate to the task. Roads were built instead and goods were moved over land between fleets on either side.
The Scots made an attempt to colonize the area and they failed as well. Railroads for transport of goods were proposed, but funding was unavailable. Finally in 1819, Spain again planned to build a canal and surveys of the area were made. The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 and again interest was revived in the Atlantic – Pacific link. In 1876, a French-led international company was founded. The canals were vastly different. Suez had no mountains, no rainy season, no yellow fever, and no malaria. Regardless, funding for the proposed canal began at $214 million and over a month’s time dropped to $120 million for no apparent reason. It was thought the canal would be finished within six years.
Officially beginning construction on January 1, 1882, it was only a short time before the proposed canal was seen as impossible to build. By 1889 22,000 had died from diseases while working in the jungles. A new lock canal was finally planned. After 8 years of work and nearly $235 million spent, the canal was less than half done. A new company took control and foundered. Finally, on May 4, 1904 the US took over construction efforts. Waterways were rerouted, dammed, and locks built to move ships from one ocean to another. The first ship to navigate the waterway was an old French crane vessel. On January 7, 1914 the Alexandre La Valley became the first ship to make a complete transit of the Panama Canal.
The Canal is about 50 miles long and uses a system of locks to transport ships through. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Between 13,000 and 14,000 vessels use the canal each year, accounting for about 5% of the world trade. Tolls are based on tonnage and ship volume or for passenger ships, capacity. Normal use tolls average $54,000 per ship. The number of ships able to be processed through is limited by the space available. Larger ships are being built and the locks are limited by size. These combined issues are leading to the Panama Canal Expansion Project. Work began on a new set of locks in 2007 and is expected to be completed by 2014.
“My impression about the Panama Canal is that the great revolution it is going to introduce in the trade of the world is in the trade between the east and the west coast of the United States.” – William Howard Taft
“Regarding the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, they will find us standing up or dead, but never on our knees; NEVER!” – Omar Torrijos Herrera
“As usual, what we call ‘Progress’ is the exchange of one Nuisance for another Nuisance.” – Havelock Ellis
“The technocratic imperative: ‘What can be done must be done.'” – Theodore Roszak
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: The Panama Canal Expansion Project, also called the Third Set of Locks Project, is scheduled for completion in 2015 and will double the capacity of the Panama Canal. The expansion will build two new locks, one at each end of the canal. They will each have three chambers with water saving basins. New channels to the locks will be excavated and the existing channels will be widened and deepened. Gatun Lake’s maximum operating level will also be increased. With this expansion, larger ships will be able to more freely move. This has caused cascading effects and many port cities are also upgrading their ports to accommodate the new, larger ships. Some US Eastern Seaboard ports (Baltimore, Norfolk, and Miami) will be ready as will the British Port of Southampton. Other cities, such as Liverpool, are considering expanding their ports.
Also on this day: Don’t Be Snookered – In 1865, a new type of billiard ball was patented.
TNT – In 1933, the first airline sabotage blows a plane out of the sky.
Mystery – In 19 AD, Germanicus Julius Caesar died mysteriously.