Tuesday, October 13, 2015


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Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, The Panama Canal deserves another article, relaying the events leading to its construction. The creation of a water filled passageway between two large continents (Northern and Southern Americas) has been on the radar of humans, as far back as 1532. The more I researched and read, the more fascinated I became with this Herculian achievement of engineering, determination and strength of spirit.

The earliest evidence I could find, was King Charles the 5th of Spain, The Holy Roman Emperor who found himself with a serious problem: The Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, defeated and captured the Inca Empire in Peru, a major source of mines which produced a seemingly endless supply of silver and gold. Wealth beyond belief, all of which would be filling the treasure troves of the Spanish Empire, but only if transported back successfully to Spain.

In my previous article I described the geological formation of the two connected Americas, a slow natural process taking about 30 million years.

By the time of the Spanish conquistadors, the average trip to Peru and back to Spain The trip would require ships to travel thousands of miles all around South America, undertake the treacherous waters around the tip of the continent, and veer west for many thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, to reach Europe. A great many ships went down, drowning in the unpredictable ocean currents. The long journey often made sailors lose their mind, die from lack of proper nutrition and often just create murder and claustrophobia induced mayhem, being stuck together on a smallish ship for very long periods of time.

Just a decade previous to these voyages, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, discovered that in the area connecting the two huge landmasses, there was a longish yet narrow strip of land, which at the southernmost point was about 50 miles in width. The area, now Panama, at the end of the Isthmus, which became known as Central America the landmass connecting the continents south and north of it, and separating between the pacific and Atlantic oceans. King Charles the V decided to try and cut through the strip, create a canal thus shortening the treasure hauling trips by thousands of miles and gaining military control over the rising rival, Portugal. Panama's governor was ordered to thoroughly survey the area for finding an area suitable for a canal, but regardless of his efforts, the findings proved IMPOSSIBLE. What they found was the most difficult landscapes to work with, rugged terrain covered by dense impenetrable jungles. It was more than the technology of the time could even attempt.

Then, in 1852 Ulysses S. Grant led a group of soldiers across the Isthmus, on their way from then Columbia toward California. The project aroused his interest and when he became President (18th, for those interested), He sent several delegations to look at the area with the intention of building a canal.

Nevertheless, the first serious and active attempt wasn't made by Americans but by the French. The year was 1888.

A competent and previously successful man, Ferdinand de Lessep, who some years before completed building the Suez canal, led the new project. The Suez canal  revolutionized shipping by letting them pass  through Egypt by connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas and avoiding the long haul around Africa and the far East to Europe.  The Suez was twice as long as the intended Panama Canal, but the terrain there was flatter, making for much easier construction. Lassep failed to thoroughly review the geology of the region: in the Suez, a dig to the level of the oceans to allow free flow of water between the two bodies.  The path the Sueez canal covers is only a slight bit higher than sea level. In Panama however, millions of tons of soil and rock needed to be moved out of the way: The cuts he made through the mountains were too steep, frequent rains, land and mudslides would fill the excavations, often as soon as they were dug out.  Workers kept dying, some from work related accidents others from the spread Jungle diseases like yellow fever and Malaria.

The French gave up the project in 1899 and the Americans purchased the rights for 40,000,000 dollars. Panama declared its independence from Columbia, aided by the Americans, and thru their new ambassador a treaty to control the zone around the canal had been negotiated.

Before they began work, an immunologist, dr. Carlos Finlay of Cuba, identified the mosquito as the carrier of the yellow fever infections, a fact which allowed the new overseers to keep disease at bay, by investing in sanitation extensively, and mosquito abatement, housing with screens to protect the workers. The design of the canal became far more sophisticated: instead of sea level design, they used the method of locks, which allowed ships to move from one water level to the next. At each end of the lock, large doors can be opened and closed to keep water at even level. To raise a ship the doors are opened from the lower body and the ship sails in. The doors are then closed and water from the upper body is allowed to flow into the lock, lifting the ship until it is at the same height as the upper body. The doors to the upper body of water are then opened so the ship can sail out. To take a ship from the higher body to the lower body procedure is reversed.

The plan called for the Chagres River to be dammed to create an artificial lake called Lake Gatun. (the destination of the Kosherica voyage and subject of my previous article). Ships from the Atlantic entering the canal would go through a three stage lock that would raise them 85 feet up to the level of the lake. They would then sail 28 miles across the lake, up the river, through a mountain section and then drop them safely down to the level of Lake Miroflores.This is the final phase, where the ships are lowered to the level of the Pacific ocean and are at open sea. 

This was the most expensive project by the USA, at $375 million, plus the payment to the French and Paname. Yet it still came short by $23 million from the initial cost projection. The Canal was completed two years ahead of schedule and opened on August 15 1914.

The Panama Canal remains one of the most amazing feats of engineering, determination and spirit in the 20th century.

Sarity Gervais

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