Sign in / Join

Facts and History of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a 77 km long passageway that runs through Panama in South America and joins the Pacific and Atlantic ocean.The Canal runs in south and Southeast direction from Limón Bay at Colón on the Atlantic to the Bay of Panama at Balboa.

The Panama Canal has a very long history beginning on January 1, 1880, when the first ground was broken by the French Government. From there, they started actively working on constructing the canal on January 20, 1882, but The French Government had some issues with the conditions in Latin America. Record numbers of worker deaths because of Malaria and Yellow Fever running rampant during the construction due to the mosquitos, killing a total of 30,609 French and Panamanian workers.

On February 23, 1904, The United States government purchased the rights for the Panama Canal from the French government for a total of $50 million (adj. 2016: $1.2 billion), with $40 million going to the French government for the rights, and the remaining $10 million for the Panamanian government. The United States resumed the construction on the canal on May 4, 1904 and completed the canal, opening on August 15, 1914. The construction of the Panama Canal cost the United States government almost $400 million. To grasp the concept of how expensive the Panama Canal was, with today's adjusted inflation rate it would cost over $14.3 billion, making it one of the most expensive endeavors the United States government has ever attempted at the time. When the Panama Canal had been completed, the United States and French government combined had excavated over 240 million cubic yards of earth.

For more information about the history of the Panama Canal, visit our History of the Panama Canal page.


USS Missouri crossing the Canal

A trip along the canal from its Atlantic entrance would take you through a 7 mile dredged channel in Limón Bay. The canal then proceeds for a distance of 11.5 miles to the Gatun Locks. This series of three locks raise ships 26 metres to Gatun Lake. It continues south through a channel in Gatun Lake for 32 miles to Gamboa, where the Culebra Cut begins. This channel through the cut is 8 miles long and 150 meters wide. At the end of this cut are the locks at Pedro Miguel. The Pedro Miguel locks lower ships 9.4 to a lake which then takes you to the Miraflores Locks which lower ships 16 meters to sea level at the canals Pacific terminus in the bay of Panama.

The utility of the Panama Canal continues to be proven, here are some facts about the Canal currently:

  • A boat traveling from New York to San Francisco can save approximately 7,900 miles by going through the Panama Canal, instead of having to go around Cape Horn.
  • Approximately 40 ships will cross the Panama Canal every day, taking 3-5 hours to do so.
  • 12,000-15,000 ships will cross the Panama Canal every single year.

The Gatun Lake which runs through a majority of the Panamanian country, is very important for the operation of the Canal. Gatun Lake has an area of 164 square miles, and has a required minimum depth of 85 feet deep and a maximum depth of 87 feet necessary for the operation of the Canal and to ensure the safety of the ships. The depth of the lake is controlled by a hydroelectric generator plant that also controls the depth with the dam. During periods of sparse rainfall when the Gatun Lake cannot maintain an 85 foot requirement,

Here are some other fun facts about the Panama Canal:

  • Every time the Canal has to fill a lock, it fills 52 million gallons in approximately 15 minutes.
  • The area of the Canal Zone is approximately 436 sq. mi.
  • The length of the Canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is 51 miles, and is 10 miles wide.
  • The Norwegian Pearl paid the most expensive toll, $375,600 in order to bypass a 7-day wait.
  • The lowest toll paid was US $0.36 and was paid by Richard Halliburton who crossed the Canal swimming in 1928.
  • The San Juan Prospector was the longest ship to transit the Canal; it was 751 ft. (229 m.) in length with a 107 ft. (32.6 m.) beam.
  • The Hydrofoil Pegasus of the United States Navy did the fastest transit of the Canal by completing it in 2 hours and 41 minutes.
  • Each door of the locks weighs 750 tons (1,500,000 lbs.)
  • The maximum bottom width of the channel is 1000 feet
  • The minimum bottom width of the channel at Culebra Cut is 300 feet
  • There are 12 locks (in pairs) in the Panama Canal