Last month I had the opportunity to go to Panama with the company I work for, Outward Bound Costa Rica, and take a scuba certification course. The course ended about two days before I was expecting, giving me the opportunity to make a spontaneous trip via night bus with one of my coworkers to Panama City and visit one of the sights that has long been on my travel bucket list – the Panama Canal.
Seeing the Panama Canal made all ten hours on that night bus – and the 15 it took to get back to San Jose – well worth it for me.
In a word, the Panama Canal can be summed up as fascinating, and a visit reveals just what an extraordinary testament to human innovation and progress the canal is.
Alright, so the Panama Canal doesn’t exactly have the most altruistic of beginnings. It was, after all, built for the purpose of saving money while transporting goods around the globe. But it is still inspiring to see what technological feats humankind can reach when we put our minds together to solve a problem other than war.
There are so many mind-blowing facts that make the canal a true man-made wonder of the world. Here are 10 of the most fascinating facts about the Panama Canal that I learned during my visit to the Miraflores Visitor Center.
10 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal
1. The Panama Canal is more than 100 years old.
The Panama Canal is more than 100 years old, built by the United States and officially opened in 1914. The canal is 48 miles long and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During its first year of operation, 1,000 ships passed through the canal. Today the annual number is around 14,000. Three sets of locks are used to lift ships up to a lake and then lower them back down to the ocean.
2. Panama Canal construction was started by the French.
The idea for a canal through narrow Central America circulated since the early days of European exploration in the New World. It was actually the French who were the first to work on bringing the idea to life in 1881, following their successful completion of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869. The French efforts were plagued by engineering challenges and tropical diseases including malaria and yellow fever, however, and they eventually abandoned the project in 1889.
3. Panama was not a country before the canal was built.
When the French began work on a canal, Panama was a province of Colombia. In 1903, after Colombia refused to sign a treaty granting the United States control of a canal zone, Teddy Roosevelt’s administration backed Panamanian rebels in a revolt. Panama became a republic this year and the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty created the Panama Canal Zone. The US government began building the canal through the Isthmus of Panama in May 1904.
4. Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever research saved thousands of canal workers.
One of the main reasons the French had to abandon their work on a canal was because too many men were dying from yellow fever. US Army doctor Walter Reed conducted research in Cuba in the late 1800’s that determined mosquitoes, not infected people or bodily fluids, transmitted Yellow Fever. With this knowledge, the US was able to get rid of mosquito breeding grounds in standing water around the canal and reduce yellow fever rates greatly, allowing workers to finish construction on the canal.
5. The Panama Canal was one of the first projects to use concrete.
Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, concrete had not been widely used in building projects. The relatively new combination of sand, gravel and cement was used massively in the Panama Canal, whereas before it was only used in floors and walls for small buildings. Today the concrete is in near perfect condition, which is one of the greatest engineering marvels of the canal.
6. The Panama Canal still uses all original gates.
The Panama Canal operates with 40 pairs of gates that open and close to control water flow. The gates were built in Pennsylvania. Each gate is 2-meters thick and 19-meters wide and 14 to 22 meters tall. Each pair of gates weighs around 730 tons, which is comparable to 300 elephants. Thanks to the high quality of their construction and maintenance work, all 40 pairs of gates are still functioning after more than 100 years of use. This is another engineering marvel indeed!
7. A trip through the Panama Canal takes 8-10 hours.
It takes an average of eight to ten hours for ships to pass through the three sets of locks that make up the Panama canal. The alternative, sailing around the continent of South America via Cape Horn, takes considerably longer. The cost, around $450,000 per ships passage, is also considerably cheaper than the cost of sailing around South America.
8. Panama regained control of the canal in 1999.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty, which handed control of the canal over to the people of Panama in 1999. Since gaining control, the Panamanian government has raised the prices of passage for ships in order to help the local economy. In 2006, the people of Panama voted to expand the canal. A third set of locks will allow for even more – and bigger – ships to pass through. The expansion project will be completed in 2016.
9. The biggest users of the canal are the United States and China.
Half the cargo that passes through the Panama Canal is either originating from or destined to the United States, making this country the number one user of the canal. China comes in second and Japan third.
10. The Panama Canal is continuing to expand.
Though the expansion project began in 2006 will come to completion next year, Panama isn’t done with expansion. Jorge Quijano, leader of the Panama Canal Authority recently announced plans for a $17 billion project that would allow the Panama Canal to accommodate the world’s largest ships.