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Digging out of Disaster

April 4, 2013

Digging out of Disaster

Today we will look at the completion of the Panama Canal as it stands today.

Early American construction of the Panama Canal

Early American construction of the Panama Canal

Before the American government could even commence digging the canal they first had to secure the site. Initially this involved the signing of the Hay-Herran treaty with the Gran Colombian government. The Colombian government failed to ratify this agreement so the Americans then backed separatist movements within Panama and oversaw the inauguration of the new Panamanian Government, which declared independence from Gran Columbia on the 3rd of November 1903. American Gunships blocked passage from Colombia and the local Colombian troops were reportedly given hefty bribes to lay down their arms and allow the coup to occur.  Three days later a new agreement was signed giving the U.S.A. the rights to build and monitor the canal. It was not until May of 1904 that actual work recommenced on the site. The U.S.A bought the Canal and remaining equipment from the French for 40,000,000 dollars and paid the new Panamanian government 10,000,000 dollars per year to allow the U.S.A continued sovereignty and administrate the canal once completed. One of the first things the Isthmian Canal Committee (ICC) had to do was ensure the safety of their workers and spent millions upgrading and sanitising the hospitals and building support infrastructure to attract workers.  Much of the dilapidated equipment left by the French was scrapped and new steam shovels were brought into to accelerate the digging. At the time these were the largest excavators in the world.

Panama Canal Today

Panama Canal Today

Excavation proceeded apace despite the snarl of bureaucracy and the mortality rate. During the ten years of construction 5600 men died from accident and disease meaning that nearly 11 men died every week. During digging over 150,000,000 cu metres of soil were excavated to create the three-lock canal and the supporting Gatun dam during this time. Those that managed to survive longer than two years on the dig site were granted a medal made of scrapped brass fittings from the original French equipment. The Panama Canal was opened in August 1914 costing the grand sum of 365,000,000 dollars and was by far the most ambitious feat of engineering of its time. Today the Panama Canal is still one of the most important waterways in the world with traffic of around 14,000 ships passing through its locks every year. America relinquished its hold on the Isthmus in a staggered agreement that expired in 1999 and the Panamanian government has held full control since then. The Panamanian Government has settled on plans to expand the Canal catering for modern times as the demands on it have far outstripped projections the original engineers made regarding the volume of traffic. These expansions would allow the transit of ships larger then the current Pana-max class and secure the future viability of the Canal.

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Written by Jamie Grant for

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