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Panama Canal History

The Panama Canal was constructed in two stages. The first between 1880 and 1893, being the work carried out by the French company headed by de Lesseps and secondly the work by the Americans which eventually completed the canal construction between 1904 and 1914.

It is believed to consider that the first attempt to construct a canal began in 1880 under French management. Encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal, the French, under Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal (without locks) on January 1, 1880. It was overlooked in 1893 after a great deal of work. Diseases and the sheer difficulty of building a sea-level canal, as well as lack of French field experience were responsible for French failure.  The high death toll was one of the major factors in the breakdown. Although no detailed records were kept, as many as 22,000 workers are estimated to have died during the main period of French construction (1881–1889) causing the diseases malaria and yellow fever. Earthquakes were also one the cause of death. 5,600 deaths incurred when the United States launched a second effort in opening the canal in 1914. It was realized that the solution to all the problems encountered, was that the construction of a high-level lock canal would reduce an enormous volume of excavation and prevent the landslides.

Construction of a lock canal was decided on in 1906. The first three years were spent in the development of construction facilities, surveys, and disease control. The canal was informally opened on August 15, 1914 while the formal dedication took place on July 12, 1920.

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 in south direction 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 metres wide. At the end of this cut are the locks at Pedro Miguel. The Pedro Miguel locks lower ships 9.4 metres to a lake which then takes you to the Miraflores Locks which lower ships 16 metres to sea level at the canals Pacific terminus in the bay of Panama.

By the 1930s it was seen that water supply would be an issue for the canal. So the construction of the Madden Dam across the Chagres River above Gatún Lake was encouraged. The dam, completed in 1935, created Alajuela Lake, which acts as additional water storage for the canal. In 1939 construction began on a further major improvement: a new set of locks for the canal, large enough to carry the larger warships which the U.S. had under construction. The work proceeded for several years, and significant excavation was carried out on the new approach channels.

During 1882 the excavation of the Culebra Cut was started, but due to the lack of organization there were no tracks available to remove the spoil that the excavators were producing. After the problems had been overcome, the highest peaks of the cut were attacked.

In 1883 it was realized there was a tidal range of 20 feet at the Pacific, whereas, the Atlantic range was only about 1 foot. It was concluded that this difference in levels would be a danger to navigation. It was proposed that a tidal lock should be constructed at Panama to preserve the level from there to Colon.

Eventually, in 1899 the French attempt at constructing the Panama Canal was seen to be a failure. However, they had excavated a total of 59.75 million cubic metres which included 14.255 million cubic metres from the Culebra Cut. This lowered the peak by 102 metres. The value of work completed by the French was about $ 25 million. When the French left, they left behind a considerable amount of machinery housing and a hospital. The reasons behind the French failing to complete the project were due to disease carrying mosquitos and the inadequacy of their machinery.

The construction of the canal was recommended by the Americans in 1904. The first American steam shovel started work on the Culebra Cut on 11th November 1904. By December 1905 there were 2,600 men at work in the Culebra Cut. Peak excavation within the Culebra Cut exceeded 512,500 cubic metres of material in the first three months of 1907 and the total workforce exceeded 39,000. The rock was broken up by dynamite, of which up to 4,535,000 killogrammes were used every year.

The plant used in the Culebra Cut included in excess of 100 Bucyrus steam shovels each capable of excavating approximately 920 cubic metres in an eight-hour day. More than 4,000 wagons were used for the removal of the excavated material. Each wagon was capable of carrying 15 cubic metres of material. These wagons were hauled by 160 locomotives and unloaded by 30 Lidgerwood unloaders.