Fun Facts About Panama Canal

March 27, 2023

Paul Kay


Have you traveled to South America? What about Central America? Are you looking for vacation ideas? We have fun facts about the Panama Canal in this post. Since you are a traveler, you are probably looking for destinations or vacations. Panama is somewhere you should explore. It has so much to offer. The Panama Canal is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Is it already on your bucket list? As a traveler, here are some fun facts to consider about the Panama Canal.

Vasco Nunez de Balboait

The idea of the Panama Canal dates back to 1513, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the isthmus of Panama. He thought there may have been a way to cross it.  The explorer knew that the narrow land bridge between North and South America might prove to be a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He crossed the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean to prove the journey was possible. As you might guess, there was not any mechanized ditch digging equipment at that time and the Spaniards lost interest in any canal for the moment. They had plenty of other places to discover and conquer.

In 1534, Spain considered the possibility of building a canal. In 1850 the Colombian government (Panama was part of Gran Colombia until 1903) gave the French, who were interested in a passageway to the Pacific Ocean, permission to create a canal. See our post on Panama history for more information about Gran Columbia and Panama.

Ferdinand De Lesseps welcome in Dutch consulate of Alexandria, Egypt

Ferdinand de Lesseps was the builder of the Suez Canal. In 1854 Said Pasha of Egypt gave de Lesseps permission to build the Suez Canal. De Lesseps's scheme was backed by an international commission of engineers with financial support from the French emperor Napoleon III and others. The Suez Canal opened in November 1869.

De Lesseps thought he could do the same thing in Panama with engineers and financial support. He formed a company called Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique and capitalized it with his own money, his friend’s money and well over 100,000 small French investors who emptied their bank account for what appeared to be a sure thing. His plan called for a sea-level canal to be dug along the path of the Panama Railroad. Some 50 miles in length, the canal would be less than half as long as the Suez. De Lesseps estimated that the job would cost about $132 million and take 12 years to complete.

The job was far from easy. Lesseps had severely underestimated the difficulties of excavation. What was largely sand in Egypt was volcanic rock in Panama. His plan used no locks to raise or lower a ship. To run a level canal deep enough for ocean going ships through the isthmus would have required digging a canal depth of well over 100 feet. The canal would have had to be a quarter mile wide or so at the top which meant an incredible amount of excavation over the 50 miles route. The French had not really solved other issues, such as how to control the differential tides from rushing though since the two oceans were at considerable different heights at times due to tides.

Striped mosquitoes are eating blood on human skin. Mosquitoes are carriers of dengue fever and malaria.

If this wasn’t enough of a problem, De Lesseps was not prepared for yellow fever or malaria. The French originally believed that the workers were getting sick from ant bites. They would put buckets of water at the foot of their tent or other living quarters which would allow ants to climb in and drown. Mosquitos found this to be an appetizing meal. Nobody knew that two types of mosquitoes were the original carrier of these diseases.

Over the span of more than three decades of French work, at least 25,000 workers died in the construction of the Panama Canal. The French attempt at the canal was doomed. When the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique failed in December,1888, thousands of French investors lost their money. In France, the word Panama became synonymous with scandal and fraud. About $287 million had been spent and there was no hope of recovering any of it. Fifty million cubic meters of earth and rock had been moved. Eleven miles of canal had been dug with another 39 miles to go. 

America had not been sitting idle during the French construction effort. However, the USA was looking to make a canal in a different location. In 1887, a United States Army Corps of Engineers regiment surveyed canal possibilities in Nicaragua. Two years later, the Maritime Canal Company was asked to begin a canal in the area and chose Nicaragua. The company lost money and its work in Nicaragua ceased. In 1897 and 1899, the United States Congress created a canal commission to research possible construction sites and Nicaragua was chosen as the location both times.

Phillippe Jean Bunau Varilla

Prominent French investors were desperate to claw back some of the money spent on their failed efforts to build the canal. They lobbied the USA to pick up the canal project in Panama. Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer who had been involved in both the Suez and Panama canal efforts. In the late 1890s Bunau-Varilla began lobbying American lawmakers to buy the French canal assets in Panama, and eventually convinced a number of them that Nicaragua had dangerous volcanoes, making Panama the safer choice.

William McKinley

The USA sent engineers and the US Navy to assess what the canal would require. Teddy Roosevelt became president following the assassination of McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York; Czolgosz shot McKinley on September 6, 1901, and McKinley died on September 14. 

Teddy Roosevelt

Shortly after ascending to the presidency, Roosevelt spoke of the Panama Canal in a speech to Congress. "No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent," Roosevelt said, "is as of such consequence to the American people."

Roosevelt moved with dispatch. In 1902, the United States reached an agreement to buy rights to the French canal property and equipment for a sum not to exceed $40 million. The U.S. then began negotiating a Panama treaty with Colombia. The U.S Department of War would direct excavation. Many, both in the press and in the public, sensed a scandal, or, worse yet, good money thrown after bad.

At the time, Panama was part of Gran Columbia which roughly included today’s nations of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. As a result, the negotiation for the Panama Canal was with Columbia. The United States proposed the Hay-Herran Treaty to the Colombian government. The terms of this treaty included the United States giving the Colombian government $10 million initially plus $250,000 annually for the duration of a 100-year lease of a six-mile-wide strip of land on either side of the canal. The Colombian government refused the offer. 

Panama was already at war with Columbia. President Roosevelt suggested to the Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist in their fight for independence. Panama declared its independence on November 3, 1903, and the USS Nashville impeded Colombian interference by sea. The victorious Panamanians gave the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904, for $10 million in accordance with the November 18, 1903 Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty.

Volcano Momotombo towering over the large prairie

The Senate still had to vote to approve the canal and senators were torn between Nicaragua and Panama as the solution. Bunau-Varilla was still in the picture and desperate for the US to pay for the French solution. He lobbied senators and told them that the proposed canal in Nicaragua was dangerously close to active volcanoes. In the spring of 1902, Momotombo, a volcano in western Nicaragua, erupted. He told the senators that any Nicaraguan canal would be a real mistake.

Momotombo Volcano Nicaragua Stamp

On the day of the vote, he gave each senator a Nicaraguan stamp which clearly showed the volcano image. That was enough to sway the vote. In 1904 the Senate approved a treaty which gave the U.S. authority to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and control a 10-mile-wide canal zone.

The USA was very aware of the 25,000 deaths attributed to the French effort to build the Panama Canal. They had their own experience during the Spanish-American war. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers died in battle, but more than 5,000 died of disease in Cuba, and most of those deaths were due to yellow fever.

The US Military created the Yellow Fever Commission in response to the war-time deaths. Its mission was to study the cause and spread of yellow fever. Led by Major Walter Reed, working in Cuba, the commission confirmed in 1900 that Yellow fever was transmitted by mosquito bites. 

William Cleveland Gorgas Panama

Dr. William Gorgas, who had worked on mosquito eradication in Cuba, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to grant funding on an eradication effort in Panama. In the summer of 1905, Gorgas created a “mosquito brigade” of over 4,000 workers. They spent a year working to stop mosquitoes from laying their eggs. They sprayed all the areas where the workers needed to excavate. They looked for any signs of stagnant water where mosquitos could breed. They fumigated everything including private homes with insecticides and sprayed the areas of standing water with oil to interrupt mosquito breeding. The efforts cut the number of yellow fever cases in half by September, and in October there were only seven new cases. Finally, on November 11 1906, the last victim of yellow fever on the Panama Canal died. The yellow fever epidemic was over. Now, the real work could begin.

Panama Canal Profile. Structure Of Locks.

The US solution to the canal was a combination of locks and the creation of two lakes. The Chagres river was a major obstacle, so the ingenious solutions was to create two dams and create two lakes. By creating the lakes, it significantly reduced the amount of excavation required because the ships would simply cross the lakes. However, the sea levels needed to be equalized. This required a series of locks which raised the ships to go across the lakes. The above illustration shows the elevation and placement of the locks with the addition of the manmade lakes.

The US created Gatun Lake and Lake Madden, digging the Gaillard Cut between the two lakes and over the Continental Divide. They built locks between the Atlantic Ocean and Gatun Lake to lift boats to the lake and another set of locks at the end of the Gaillard Cut to lower ships and digging a channel to the Pacific Ocean.

Culebra Cut or Gaillard Cut Panama

The Gaillard Cut, now called Culebra Cut is an excavated gorge, more than eight miles long which needed to be excavated to connect Gatun Lake and Lake Madden. It was originally named for David du Bose Gaillard, the American engineer who supervised much of its construction. The Culebra Cut is Spanish for Snake Cut which refers to the winding nature of this portion of the canal. The soil and rock were very unstable making it one of the most difficult and challenging sections of the entire canal project. Workers used drills, dynamite, and steam shovels to remove as many as ninety-six million cubic yards of earth and rock as they lowered the floor of the excavation to within 40 feet of sea level. Today, dredging remains a necessary part of canal maintenance in order to ensure an open channel between the two lakes.

Passage across the region and through Gaillard Cut was made possible by damming the Chagres River at Gatun which created the artificial Gatun Lake. Water from the lake not only generated electricity but fed the locks at Gatun to the north and flowed through Gaillard Cut to fill Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks to the south. The locks make it possible for ships to reach the level of the lake, and the cut enables them to pass over the Continental Divide as they transited between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

On October 10, 1913, the dike at Gamboa which had kept the Culebra Cut isolated from Gatun Lake was demolished; the detonation was made telegraphically by President Woodrow Wilson in Washington. On January 7, 1914, the Alexandre La Valley, an old French crane boat, became the first ship to make a complete transit of the Panama Canal under its own steam after working its way across during the final stages of construction.

Although a large celebration was planned for the canal's opening, the outbreak of World War I forced the cancellation of the main festivities, and it became a modest local affair. The Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon, piloted by Captain John A. Constantine (the canal's first pilot), made the first official transit on August 15, 1914. 

The canal was a technological marvel and an important strategic and economic asset to the US. It changed world shipping patterns, removing the need for ships to navigate the Drake Passage and Cape Horn. The canal saves a total of about 7,800 miles on a sea trip from New York to San Francisco.

Trains (mules) side Panama Canal. These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the rather narrow locks on January 03 2014 in Panama City.

Ships navigate through the canal using their own power. However, tugs and “mules” are used as well. The tugs are primarily used to orient the ship through the locks. You can only imagine how difficult it would be for a large ship to properly orient itself so that only has a few feet to spare on either side of the ship before touching the canal edge.

Bulk Carrier KINGFISHER just passed through the Miraflores Locks and lifted with the help of two electric locomotives or mules, one on each side, ready to exit the locks into the Miraflores Lake of Panama Canal.

Mules is an interesting name, and it came from the animals that used to cross the isthmus of Panama before the canal. Mules are electric locomotives, and they are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks. A ship approaching the locks is guided to the entrance by tugs. Tow lines are thrown from the ship to any number of mules depending on the size of the ship. Before the ship enters the lock, the mules take the tow lines and wait for the pilot’s instructions. Each mule is numbered, and the pilot will tell a specific mule to tighten or release over radio. The mule answers by ringing a bell and flashing a light. The mule operators do not talk to the pilot directly.

With large ships, there are two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern—eight in total, allowing for precise control of the ship. Mules are not used on the new expansion locks.

Its anticipated military significance of the canal was proven during World War II, when the canal helped restore the devastated United States Pacific Fleet. Some of the largest ships the United States had to send through the canal were aircraft carriers, particularly Essex class; they were so large that although the locks could accommodate them, the lampposts along the canal had to be removed. Since the USA engineered the Panama Canal, they were acutely aware of the length and width requirements. The largest US warships were intentionally made small enough to transit the canal.

In the years after the canal opened, tensions increased between America and Panama over control of the canal and the surrounding Canal Zone. In 1964, Panamanians rioted because they were prevented from flying their nation’s flag next to a U.S. flag in the Canal Zone. In the aftermath of the violence, Panama temporarily broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. 

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos sign the Panama Treaty

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos of Panama signed treaties that transferred control of the canal to Panama in 1999 but gave the United States the right to use military force to defend the waterway against any threat to its neutrality. The U.S. Senate ratified the Torrijos-Carter Treaties by a narrow margin in 1978. Control of the canal transferred peacefully to Panama in December 1999, and the Panamanians have been responsible for it ever since.

Richard Halliburton swimming the Panama Canal 1928

American ships use the canal the most, followed by those from China, Chile, Japan, Colombia and South Korea. Every vessel that transits the canal must pay a toll based on its size and cargo volume. Tolls for the largest ships can run about $450,000 USD. The smallest toll ever paid was 36 cents, paid in 1928 by American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal. Today, Panama collects over $2 billion USD in tolls annually.

On average, it takes a ship 8 to 10 hours to pass through the canal. The locks allow the ships to be raised eighty-five feet above sea level to navigate the artificial lakes. Ship captains are not allowed to transit the canal on their own; instead, a specially trained canal pilot takes navigational control of each vessel to guide it through the waterway. 

In 2007, work began on a $5.25 billion expansion project that enabled the canal to super tankers and super large container ships. The existing canals had dimensions of 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

Panama Canal Profile. Structure Of Locks.

The expanded canal, which was completed in 2016, can manage cargo vessels carrying 14,000 20-foot containers, nearly three times the amount previously accommodated. The locks needed to be wider and deeper. The "Neopanamax" size for the new canal is approximately 1,200 feet long, 168 feet wide, and 47 feet deep. The lane has handled containerships that have capacities of more than 14,000 containers. There are still some ships that are too large, but the new (and improved) Panama Canal accommodate 96 percent of containerships currently in service.

The Panama Canal is frequently called the 8th wonder of the world. It is an amazing engineering feat not only because of its sheer size, but also because of its many ingenious solutions. The creation of the two man-made lakes and the locks allowed the canal to separate the salt water and flora and fauna of the 2 oceans. It also allowed the ships to be raised and lowered to accommodate the transit through the canal and to eliminate the tides as an obstacle. It has saved shipping costs and transit times for the world.

Madeline and I have been to the Panama Canal and watched the ships go into the locks. We also were on a ship that transited through the locks. If you get a chance to do either, you won’t be disappointed. Panama is a beautiful country with plenty to do and see. Check out our other posts on Panama or look at our Reading Panama post where you can take a deep dive. Enjoy.

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