The Panama Canal: 10 Strange and Surprising Facts You Never Knew

The Panama Canal is one of the most famous and important waterways in the world, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the narrow Isthmus of Panama in Central America. Since it first opened in 1914, the Panama Canal has fascinated people from around the globe. But beyond being an essential shipping route, the Panama Canal has a long and storied history full of intriguing events, innovations, challenges and little-known facts. Here are some of the strangest unknown facts and stories about the creation and operation of the Panama Canal over the past century:

The Idea of a Canal Across Panama Dates Back Centuries

The basic idea of creating an artificial waterway across Panama dates back hundreds of years. As early as the 16th century, King Charles V of Spain purportedly suggested a route across Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific. The earliest real attempts were made by the French in the late 1800s, but progress stalled and the project ultimately failed due to a combination of engineering problems, disease and financial issues. It wasn’t until the United States took over the French project in 1904 that the canal was finally completed a decade later, over 400 years after it was first proposed.

Construction Required Moving a Mountain of Earth

The geography of Panama was one of the biggest challenges for early canal builders. The 50-mile proposed canal route required cutting through uneven mountainous terrain, rocky soil and swampland. During U.S. construction between 1904 and 1914, over 240 million cubic yards of earth were excavated and moved via railroads built alongside the canal. To put this in perspective, this amount was three times more than the amount moved during construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Entire hillsides and mountain peaks were reduced and removed to make way for the canal locks and water channel.

Over 5,600 Lives Were Lost During Construction

Building the Panama Canal was one of the largest and most ambitious engineering projects of its time. But it came at a huge human cost. Due to the challenges of working in the dense Panamanian jungle, infectious tropical diseases ran rampant among the canal workforce, killing thousands. Malaria, yellow fever, intestinal infections and other illnesses claimed the lives of over 5,600 workers during U.S. construction from 1904 to 1913. Many men arrived healthy only to die weeks later from disease. Safety measures were very poor during the early construction years, leading to hundreds of accidental deaths from explosions, landslides and train wrecks. By the time the canal was completed, it was often referred to as “the graveyard of the New World.”

The Canal Was Designed to Have No Locks Initially

When it was first conceived in the 19th century, the French canal plan called for a sea level design with no locks, which meant excavating a massive trench through the mountains deep enough to enable ships to simply sail across the isthmus unimpeded. But due to the engineering limitations of the time, this plan was scrapped in favor of a lock canal concept with artificial lakes raised 85 feet above sea level. This allowed the canal channel to be more manageable, but required an elaborate lock system to raise and lower ships as they crossed between the oceans.

An Artificial Lake Was Created as Part of the Canal

As part of the canal system, an enormous artificial lake known as Gatun Lake provides water to operate the locks and flow through the channel. At the time of its creation between 1907 and 1913, Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world, covering over 164 square miles. It is an essential part of the canal system even today, functioning as an enormous water reservoir. Gatun Lake was formed by damming the original Chagres River and flooding the area, which involved clearing entire towns and vegetation. Many unknown species were lost in the process.

Nuclear Devices Were Once Considered to Widen It

After WWII and into the 1960s, some U.S. planners and scientists actually suggested using nuclear devices to help expand the canal! Atomic bombs were still a novel technology at the time. The idea was that small, controlled nuclear explosions could instantaneously vaporize areas of the canal zone to create wider and deeper channels for larger ships to pass through. In 1958, a secret U.S. program called Operation Plowshare was established to investigate peacetime applications for nuclear explosions. Expanding the Panama Canal was one of the first projects considered, though it was ultimately dismissed as being too risky and unsafe.

Over 15,000 Ships Pass Through Annually

Today, the Panama Canal is still one of the most strategically and economically important waterways in the world. Despite competition from other routes, it remains the quickest and most efficient shipping passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Over 15,000 vessels from every major maritime nation transit the canal each year, amounting to over 330 million tons of cargo. From enormous cargo ships to smaller tourist boats and yachts, a highly diverse array of seagoing craft make the 48-mile journey across Panama daily via the locks and canal.

It Was Briefly Owned by Another Country: Panama

After being controlled solely by the U.S. for 85 years, ownership of the canal and the 553-square mile canal zone around it was finally handed over to Panama on December 31, 1999. This was made possible by the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which set the last day of 1999 as the official transfer date after decades of tensions between the U.S. and Panama over canal control. For the first time since 1914, Panama was sovereign over the canal and its operations. However, Panama quickly sold management and operational control of the canal to a private multinational conglomerate based in Hong Kong.

Millions of Gallons of Freshwater Are Used Every Time a Ship Passes Through

Because of the locks that raise ships 85 feet from sea level, every vessel that transits the canal requires millions of gallons of freshwater every time. When a ship passes through the canal system from end to end, over 52 million gallons of freshwater are discharged into the ocean after being used to fill lock chambers and allow ships to be raised or lowered. Multiplied by over 15,000 ships per year, this means the canal utilizes trillions of gallons of freshwater annually just for transiting ships back and forth across the isthmus.

The Canal Was Once Shut Down by Seaweed

In 1986, the Panama Canal unexpectedly ground to a halt after millions of tons of floating seaweed clogged the canal entrance on the Atlantic side. This strange event was caused by unusual water currents pushing vast floating mats of sargassum seaweed into the canal and blocking ship access. Over 100 vessels were forced to wait on both sides. The canal zone was quickly inundated with ashore drifts of the foul-smelling algae as workers struggled to clear the entrance using weed-cutting boats and barriers. The canal was shut down completely for over a week before finally reopening, resulting in millions lost.

A Sunken WWII Battleship Still Lies at the Bottom

Several shipwrecks still lie on the floor of the canal, but none so famous as the USS Oklahoma. This U.S. Navy battleship capsized during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. After being salvaged and towed to the West Coast, the ship was too heavily damaged and outdated to repair, so it was sold for scrap. While being towed through the Panama Canal to the scrapping destination in 1947, the USS Oklahoma unexpectedly rolled over and sank in the canal. Salvage efforts failed completely. So to this day, the rusting hull of the Oklahoma sits forgotten on the canal floor, only 45 feet down from passing ships overhead.

The Canal Was Once Shut Down by a School Bus

Most vessels that transit the Panama Canal are massive ocean-going ships hundreds of feet long. But in 1966, traffic in the canal was brought to a standstill after a humble American school bus broke down and stalled in the channel. The bus was being driven from Alaska to Peru on an educational road trip. Due to its small size compared to commercial ships, the bus had received special approval to cross the canal. But halfway through, the bus sputtered and died, blocking all traffic behind it for hours. Other waiting ships couldn’t bypass the bus in the narrow canal, resulting in huge delays until it was finally towed out of the way.

Native Wildlife Can Be Spotted in the Canal

Despite being an artificial travel route across an isthmus, the Panama Canal functions as a unique transitory ecosystem between North and South America. animals adapt to life around the canal zone. Observers can spot over 375 bird species native to Panama along the canal, including toucans, parrots and eagles soaring over passing ships. Crocodiles up to 20 feet long also dwell in the canal’s waters. Furthermore, the canal operates as an essential migration corridor. Mammals like ocelots, jaguars and tapirs have been observed swimming across the waterway where it transects their natural ranges. Even harpy eagles have been filmed flying across the canal while clutching prey in their talons.

The Canal Expansion Was One of the Largest Earthmoving Projects in History

To accommodate larger modern container ships, an ambitious multi-billion dollar project to expand the Panama Canal began in 2007, lasting until 2016. The expansion included a new third lane and lock system parallel to the original two lanes. Excavating this new channel required the removal of over 165 million cubic meters of soil and rock – enough to fill 65 pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza! It is believed to be one of the largest earthmoving endeavors on the planet since the original canal a century prior. Despite delays, controversies and worker deaths, the expanded locks and lane now enable massive new megaships to squeeze through that couldn’t fit previously.

A Unique Swing Bridge Crosses the Canal

At certain points, roads have to cross the canal via bridges. When ships transit the canal, most bridges are raised vertically to provide clearance. But at the small town of Gamboa, travelers on the Pan-American Highway cross the canal on a rare swing bridge instead. This unique bridge operates just like a giant gate, rotating horizontally on a vertical axis to open the roadway when ships pass through the canal below. Traffic is stopped briefly while the entire roadway swivels 90 degrees like a swinging gate. Rarely found outside canals and waterways, this clever design allows constant crossing of the canal when ships aren’t present.

These are just some of the strangest and most intriguing facts about one of the world’s most famous man-made waterways. The Panama Canal has a long, rich, and often surprising history beyond merely being a shortcuts between oceans. From its tumultuous construction, innovative engineering, colorful events and rarely seen wildlife, the canal continues to captivate the imaginations of people around the world even today.

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