10 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal
Are you ready to learn some interesting facts about the Panama canal? First, let’s check a few “average” facts about the Panama canal.
The United States government built the canal and opened it officially on April 1st, 1914, but due to WWI, there were no celebrations. Commercial traffic started on August 15th of the same year, after 10 years of working on the project. The Panama canal is 50 mi (82 km) long and it unites the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Here you’ll learn some fun facts, important and interesting facts about the Panama canal. If you’re ready to embark on this adventure and check out 10 Panama canal facts, join me till the end of this post.
1. The Original Idea Is 500 Years Old
In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Spanish conqueror, explorer, and governor crossed the Central American Isthmus and discovered that only a small portion of land divided the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. From Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Atlantic coast of Panama to San Miguel on the Pacific coast there were only 40 miles (65 km), but he abandoned the idea.
In 1533, Gaspar de Espinosa suggested excavating to build a canal, from Panama City in the Pacific Ocean to Cruces, next to el río Chagres (Chagres river), but he died before the project could be started.
Carlos I de España (Charles I of Spain), emitted a decree in 1534, long after de Balboa’s death, ordering the Panama governor to make a map following the Chagres river, but when he finished with his task, he saw that the task of building the Panama canal was impossible and therefore, the Spanish abandoned the dream, and opted for more simple solutions such as El camino real de las cruces (The royal path of the crosses.)
2. The French Started Building the Canal
Up until the 19th century, when the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Panama and prepared an excavation project between the Chagres River and Panama, the idea of a canal in Panama had no follow-up.
A French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal in 1869, presented a project to build the Panama canal. On May 18th, 1878 the Frenchmen signed the Salgar-Wyse contract. A year later, on May 28th, 1879, after rejecting the proposition of building an unleveled canal in Panama, he decided to build the canal uniting la bahía de Limón (Lemon Bay) and la bahía de Panamá (Panama Bay.)
On February 14th, 1880, de Lesseps had a final report that said that the building of the canal was going to take 8 years. This became a Mayhem, since the original engineer that Lesseps hired forfeited the project and 1882. In January 1888 the Frenchmen gave it a second thought to build an unleveled canal, but they ran out of money. On May 15th 1889 they finally stopped trying to build the Panama canal, after de Lesseps’ company had gone bankrupt three months earlier.
Thanks to this, de Lesseps and his son received 5 years of prison, which in the end, they did not have to suffer.
3. It Could Have Been the Nicaragua Canal
Back in the day, ships had to cross the Pacific from the Atlantic ocean in Cabo de Hornos (Ovens’ Cape)—close to La Patagonia—just to reach Chile, Peru, or California, which ignited people’s interest in building a canal.
The idea of building this canal in Nicaragua was an important one because even if it was going to be a longer canal than the Panama canal—172 mi (278 km) against the 50 mi (82 km)—it was going to be easier to build, because most of the course is natural, and fewer had to be artificial.
They were planning to connect the oceans through the Nicaragua lake—the second biggest lake in Latin America with El istmo de Rivas (the Rivas’ Isthmus). In the western part of the Nicaragua lake, they would take advantage of el Río San Juan (San Juan River) which leads to the Atlantic ocean. Finally, the U.S. who was in charge of building the canal (after the French couldn’t) lost interest in the idea and focused its efforts in Panama.
In 2014, a Hongkongese company tried to bring the idea to life but Nicaragua president, Daniel Ortega, did not want to.
4. It Could Have Been the Colombia Canal
Ever since its independence from the Spanish empire on November 28th 1821, Panama stayed annexed as a dependent territory to La Gran Colombia (Great Colombia) because they feared repercussions from the Spanish empire when they declared themselves independent.
On January 22nd 1903, John M. Hay, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, signed a treaty with Tomás Herrán y Mosquera, a Colombian diplomat. Less than 2 months later, on March 14th, 1903, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, but the Colombian Senate did not.
Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. president at the time, helped and supported Panamanians to organize a revolution to separate from La Gran Colombia and on November 3rd, 1903, Panama became an independent country and they allowed the U.S. government to build the canal on their territory.
5. The Destruction of a U.S. Boat Inspired the Construction of the Panama Canal
On February 15th, 1898, someone destroyed the USS Maine, a warship, off the coast of Cuba. The USS Oregon, which was on the coast of San Francisco, had to embark on a 67-day journey to arrive at Cabo de Hornos and make its way back up north all the way to Cuba.
Afterward, until April 1898, the Spanish-American war started. This is an interesting fact about the Panama canal because it inspired Theodore Roosevelt to insist further on the idea of the Panama Canal because the USS Oregon trip would have taken 3 weeks through the Panama canal, and not 67 days.
In 1902, the American government bought the Panama Canal from the French for 40,000,000 USD and held its rights, and the 10 mi (16 km) surrounding the area up until December 31st, 1999.
6. 25,000 People Died Building the Panama Canal
This is one of the saddest facts about the building of the Panama canal. Allegedly, almost 25,000 people died trying to build it.
Around 22,000 workers died during the French projects because of Panama’s hot weather, and heavy rainfalls. Malaria and la fiebre amarilla (yellow fever) were the protagonists taking the Antillian workers’ lives. Probably, though, there were many more, because the French only counted the deaths that occurred in the hospital.
In the 9 years (1903-1914) that it took the U.S. government to build the Panama canal, 5,600 people—650 of them, Americans—died because of diseases and accidents. The American government employed over 56,000 people, coming from the Antilles (mostly Barbados), Italy, China, Greece, and 8,000 from Spain, specifically from Galicia.
FUN FACT: The Antillian workers were responsible for introducing the rondon (run-down) into Panamanian cuisine, a dish that Panamanians still enjoy today.
7. The Panama Canal Affects 6% Of the World’s Commerce
Another interesting fact about the Panama canal is how it affects the world’s commerce. It affects 6% of the world’s commerce. 90% of the world’s commerce happens by sea, and out of this, 6% of it passes through the Panama canal.
8. The U.S. Invested 375,000,000 Dollars Building the Panama Canal
Another highly interesting fact about the Panama canal is that it was the most expensive construction project in the U.S. at the time.
The U.S. government spent its money by paying 40,000,000 USD to acquire the rights to build the canal from the French, who had previously excavated 30,000,000 cubic yards (22,936,600 cubic meters). 10,000,000 USD to the Panamanian government to use their land. 325,000,000 USD to build the canal itself, including paying the workers, transporting the materials, building an artificial lake, installing the 5 pairs of esclusas (locks) in the canal and excavating more than 268,000,000 cubic yards (204,901,000 cubic meters.).
Additionally, they spent around 12,000,000 USD to fortify the canal.
9. More Than 13,000 Ships Cross the Panama Canal Yearly
If 40% of Panama’s GDP is due to the canal, it is no surprise that many ships cross the Panama canal. Between 35 and 40 ships cross the Panama canal everyday, and it takes each ship between 8 to 10 hours to reach either ocean from the other end. During this time, the captain of the ship yields the cruise controls to a special canal pilot who sails the ship. The countries that use the Panama canal the most are: the U.S., China, Chile, Japan, Colombia and South Korea.
Panamanians charge a toll to each ship individually, and they collect around 2 billion USD every year. Depending on the size and cargo of the ship, it pays more or less of a toll, but larger ships have to pay around 450,000 USD to cross the canal.
FUN FACT: The smallest toll ever paid was in 1928, when Richard Halliburton, paid 36 cents to swim across the canal.
10. Panamanians Expanded the Panama Canal
Have you seen the size of a ship nowadays? They are huge! And they are not fit to cross the original Panama canal.
When it was first built, it was originally thought that Panamax ships could cross it. The size of the old lock system was:
- 1050 feet (320 m) long
- 110 feet (33.5 m) wide
- 42 feet (13 m) deep
These were the maximum measures of the antique locks in the Panama canal. In 2006, Martín Torrijos, Panama’s president presented a plan to expand the Panama canal and 77% of Panamanians were on board with the plan. On June 26th, 2016 Panamanians inaugurated the Expanded Panama Canal, giving the lock system new measurements to fit the Neo Panamax ships:
- 1,400 feet (427 m) long
- 180 feet (55 m) wide
- 59 feet (18 m) deep
Visit El Canal de Panamá
The Panama canal made everyone’s life easier, and it is a true marvel of engineering. Something you need to visit at least once in your life!
Before travelling to Panama, (and trying out all their delicious food) make sure you sign up for a free Spanish class! By learning Spanish your trip to the Central American country will be more pleasant and you’ll be able to communicate with every Panamanian, visit Costa Rica or any other Latin American country, opening your world to more than 572 million people who speak Spanish around the globe.
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