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The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
The Isthmus of Panama, like many other isthmuses in the world, was the object of much study and research for a very long time. After all, it held the key to a straight passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This isthmus is what joins North America to South America. Lying in between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, a clear passage through this land meant a drastic reduction in the number of days required for travel

Earlier, sailors sailed the entire continent of South America to reach the other side of the Americas. With the completion of the Panama Canal, maritime trade and globalization witnessed an era nothing short of a revolution.

Today, the Panama Canal is a 48-mile-long waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It stands as a great example of brilliant engineering. Ships take roughly 8 to 10 hours to pass this canal, and save 7,872 miles in routes.

16 Interesting Facts about the Panama Canal


The first mention of the Panama Canal (then not named) was made by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V. After that, somewhere between 1788 to 1793, Alessandro Malaspina (a Spanish naval officer and explorer) outlined construction plans during his expedition.

The first sea-level construction began in 1881, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps; he had the experience of building the Suez Canal prior to this. However, by 1890, the project went bankrupt and was thus abandoned. By then, around USD 287,000,000 and 22,000 lives had already been lost.

Panama Canal Old Routes

During this time, there were a lot of talks in the United States about the building of a canal across the isthmus. After several extensive engineering studies, a canal using a lock system was favored. This lock system would raise and then lower ships from a large reservoir. This design was recommended to President Roosevelt and was agreed upon by him. Requirement of this reservoir resulted in the construction of the Gatun Dam and the Gatun Lake, which were respectively the largest dam and the largest man-made lake at that time.

On 22nd January, 1903, John M. Hay, the United States Secretary of State, and Dr. Tomás Herrán y Mosquera, a Colombian diplomat, signed the Hay-Herrán Treaty. This treaty granted the United States a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia in context of the land proposed for the canal.

The same year, on November 3, Panama declared independence from Colombia. Just after 15 days, on 18th November, John M. Hay and Phillipe Bunau-Varilla signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. This treaty granted the United States of America the right to build and administer the Panama Canal Zone indefinitely.

Ships Entering Locks at Panama Canal

In 1904, President Roosevelt paid USD 40 million for French equipment and excavations and USD 10 million to the new country of Panama. Finally, work began on the Panama Canal on May 4.

The total cost incurred by the United States for this project was USD 375,000,000 - the highest amount spent by any government at that time.

Even when the U.S. took control of the project, they couldn't fight local diseases entirely, and lost approximately 5,600 workers by the time the project was completed.

The Panama Canal opened on 15th August, 1914. In the same month, in another part of the world, the WWI began.

SS Ancon, a cargo ship, was the first ship to pass through the newly built canal on 15th August.

A Cargo Ship Entering the Panama Canal

During the 1930s, another dam (the Madden Dam) was built across the Chagres River to ensure ample water supply to the canal. Together, the canal system consists of artificial lakes, several artificial channels, and three sets of locks.

After the Second World War, relations between Panama and the United States of America started experiencing some strain. Citizens of Panama believed that the Canal Zone belonged solely to Panama.

After several protests, in 1974, negotiations started and eventually resulted in the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. 3 years later, on 7th September, 1977, this treaty was signed by Jimmy Carter (President, United States) and Omar Torrijos (de facto leader of Panama).

Ships Passing from Both Ends at Panama Canal

According to this treaty, Panama gained full control of the canal effective 31st December, 1999. The canal is now under the command of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP).

Tolls are charged depending on the vessel type and size, and also on the type of cargo carried. The most expensive toll, of a whopping USD 375,600, was paid by Norwegian Pearl on 14th April, 2010. The lowest toll of 36 cents was paid by Richard Halliburton, a traveler and adventurer, in 1928, when he swam across the length of this passage.

A third bridge is being built near the Atlantic side. The ACP awarded its contract to a French company called Vinci Construction Grands Projets for a price of USD 365,979,472.39.

A Cargo Ship Entering the Panama Canal

It took almost 400 years of effort from the Spanish, French, and Americans to build this engineering marvel. Its construction also drastically changed the living conditions in the canal area. Today, this canal has not only reduced distances between two areas on the map but also contributed to globalization.