The History Of The Panama Canal

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The History of the Panama Canal


The Panama Canal has been called the big ditch, the bridge between two continents, and the greatest shortcut in the world. When it was finally finished in 1914, the 51-mile waterway cut off over 7,900 miles of the distance between New York and San Francisco, and changed the face of the industrialized world ("Panama Canal"). This Canal is not the longest, the widest, the deepest, or the oldest canal in the world, but it is the only canal to connect two oceans, and still today is the greatest man-made waterway in the world ("Panama Canal Connects).

Ferdinand de Lesseps, who played a large role in building the Suez Canal in 1869 (Jones), was the director of the Compagnie Universelle Du Canal Interoceanique de Panama ("Historical Overview"). At first De Lesseps seemed to be "the perfect choice for the Panama task." Though as time went on De Lesseps was found to be "anything but the ideal" (Dolan). As soon as de Lesseps' company took over the canal it was doomed (Jones). De Lesseps was a 74-year-old man who was stubborn, vain, and very opinionated (Considine). Because of his experience with the Suez waterway, De Lesseps thought he was smarter than all the engineers beneath his command (Dolan). De Lesseps overrode all opposition of his sea-level canal due to his very popular reputation. He was sold on the idea of a sea-level canal and would not listen to the ideas of others such as French engineer, Adolphe Godin de Lepinary. De Lepinary's idea was to create two large lakes on either side of the mountains. In order to do this they would have to dam the Chagres River on the Atlantic side and the Rio Grande River on the pacific side (Considine).

Although as time went on more than just a poor director held back the finalization of the canal.

Disease, death, and rough terrain slowed down the completion of the canal. "The Terrain at the Isthmus was something they had never experienced and had not put a serious study of it, a very grave error" ("Panama Canal Connects"). Mosquitoes were responsible for many deaths. Illnesses such as yellow fever and malaria made "many of the work forces go to the hospitals or in some cases die" ("Panama Canal"). Mosquitoes carried the diseases and when a person got bit he would give a disease to the mosquito and the mosquito would pass it on to the next victim ("Historical Overview"). "The rocky ground of the formerly volcanic area proved to be too much for the French steam shovels and dredges" (Jones), and only when Philippe Bunau-Varilla suggested a plan for dynamiting the rocks underwater and digging up the pieces was there any room for headway (Jones).

Besides poor leadership by De Lesseps and poor working conditions the French company faced other problems. From the start almost everyone thought of the Panama Canal as "the impossible task." The French did not have the correct equipment and tools. In many ways the French were not ready to take on such a large task.

The French had to improvise in Panama and they had to do it under pressure. Everything had to be learned by trial and error, and many errors were committed. The experience of Suez was no use here and the only advantage now was the distance. Everything else was immensely difficult. The task at Panama was a nightmare compared to what they had to do in Suez. ("Actual digging")

Therefore, financial support was limited. "In 1889, de Lesseps' company was liquidated in order to pay back investors and banks" (Jones) from which the company had borrowed, De Lesseps' company went bankrupt after suffering losses totaling $325 million and stock prices falling ("Panama Canal"). The appraisal of the company's belongings included: equipment, maps, and the value of the land already excavated ("Historical Overview"). After his company went bankrupt, Lesseps left the Panama Canal to finish his last few years of his already aged life elsewhere ("Actual digging"). Still, much of the credit of the canal belongs to de Lesseps who convinced a skeptical world to attempt this impossible feat ("Panama Canal").

The U.S. government started to show interest in the Panama Canal in 1887 when "the United States sent a regiment under Lieutenant Menocal" (Jones) to survey for a canal site. "In 1907, an American construction crew headed by G.W. Goethals journeyed to Panama to try their luck where the French had failed" ("Panama Canal Connects").

Before any work could begin, the most deadly of the problems on the isthmus had to be overcome - disease. The US was afraid of having as many casualties as the French did. To help prevent this American doctor William Gorgas was asked to examine the area. Gorgas goal was now to eliminate the mosquito population from the canal. Gorgas and his troops started to cover all standing or slow-moving bodies of water with a combination of oil and insecticide. These chemicals were put in to help kill off any mosquitoes. Gorgas also kept all infected persons in a wire-screen tent. The wire-screen tents would stop all mosquitoes from spreading the diseases.

The "massive" ("Panama Canal") project to wip

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