Home » By Region » South American History » Constructing the Panama Canal: 11 Intriguing Facts

Constructing the Panama Canal: 11 Intriguing Facts

Image of a French stock certificate use to fund the construction of the canal for a blog post covering construction of the Panama Canal.

Today, we’re going to explore 11 mind-blowing facts about the gargantuan effort involved in constructing the Panama Canal.

This incredible feat of human ingenuity has captured the imagination of people around the world for over a century.

From the challenges faced by the workers to the groundbreaking technologies employed, the story of the Panama Canal is one of perseverance, innovation, and triumph.

So, put on your hard hats and let’s embark on a journey through history as we uncover the secrets behind one of the world’s most impressive construction projects!

The Details: 11 Facts Behind Constructing the Panama Canal

Kicking off our list of 11 fascinating facts about the construction of the Panama Canal, we’ll explore the diverse and determined international workforce.

This global team of workers was the driving force behind the canal’s construction, overcoming incredible obstacles to make the dream a reality.

Image of recently arrived international workers at an early phase of the Panama Canal project.
Newly arrived workers ready to get to work on the Panama Canal

1. International Workforce

The construction of the Panama Canal was a global effort, with workers from all corners of the world coming together to make this engineering marvel a reality.

At its peak, the workforce consisted of over 75,000 individuals from more than 50 countries, including the United States, Caribbean islands, and several European nations.

These workers faced numerous challenges while constructing the Panama Canal, such as tropical diseases, extreme weather conditions, and dangerous working environments.

Despite these obstacles, they persevered, driven by the promise of steady employment and the chance to be part of history.

The diverse workforce included skilled engineers, as well as laborers who worked tirelessly to excavate the land, build the locks, and create the infrastructure necessary for the canal’s success.

Their contributions were invaluable, and without their dedication and hard work, the Panama Canal may have never been completed.

Image of U.S. Army physician William Gorgas for a blog post on constructing the Panama Canal.
U.S. Army physician William Gorgas, an expert on sanitation, put processes in place
to drastically reduce the spread of disease during the construction of the Panama Canal

2. Medical Advances:

The construction of the Panama Canal not only revolutionized global trade but also led to significant advancements in medicine.

During the early stages of constructing the Panama Canal, workers faced a deadly enemy: tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

These illnesses claimed thousands of lives and threatened to derail the entire project.

However, the U.S. Army physician William Gorgas implemented groundbreaking sanitation measures, such as draining stagnant water, fumigating buildings, and using mosquito netting.

These efforts helped control the spread of disease and laid the foundation for modern public health practices.

Furthermore, the study of these diseases during the canal’s construction led to the discovery that mosquitoes were the primary carriers of malaria and yellow fever.

This knowledge paved the way for the development of more effective treatments and prevention methods, benefiting not only the workers on the canal but also countless others worldwide.

Image of workers digging the Culebra Cut.
The Culebra Cut section of the Panama Canal under construction

3. Massive Earth Movement:

One of the most astonishing aspects of constructing the Panama Canal was the sheer volume of earth and rock that had to be moved.

The project required the excavation of over 240 million cubic yards of material, which is enough to build a wall around the Earth’s equator at sea level that’s 2 feet wide and 4 feet high!

The most challenging section was the Culebra Cut, a 9-mile stretch through the Continental Divide.

Workers had to blast through solid rock using dynamite and remove the debris using steam shovels and railcars.

At its peak, the construction site resembled a bustling ant colony, with workers and machines toiling day and night to clear the path for the canal.

The scale of the earthmoving operation was unprecedented for its time and remains a testament to the ingenuity and determination of those involved in the canal’s construction.

Image of the French engineering team that led the initial effort to build the Panama Canal.
The French Panama Canal design and construction leadership in 1884

4. The French Attempt:

Before the United States took on the challenge of constructing the Panama Canal, the French had already made an attempt.

In 1881, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully built the Suez Canal, the French began their efforts in Panama.

However, they were unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead.

The dense jungle, tropical diseases, and lack of proper equipment and infrastructure proved to be formidable obstacles.

Despite their best efforts, the French struggled to make significant progress, and the project became mired in financial difficulties.

By 1894, after losing an estimated 22,000 lives and spending nearly $287 million, the French were forced to abandon their attempt.

The remnants of their work, including excavations and machinery, were later taken over by the United States when they began constructing the Panama Canal in 1904, providing a foundation for the eventual success of the American effort.

Image of an architectect's drawing of the canal's locks for comparison to an average apartment building at the time.
Architectural drawing of a Panama Canal lock (L) for size comparison to a typical apartment building

5. Innovative Locks Design:

One of the most ingenious features of the Panama Canal is its lock system, which allows ships to traverse the 85-foot elevation difference between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

When constructing the Panama Canal, engineers had to find a way to raise and lower ships as they passed through the waterway.

The solution was a series of locks, which are essentially giant concrete chambers with gates at each end.

As a ship enters a lock, the gates close behind it, and water is either pumped in or drained out to raise or lower the vessel to the next level.

The locks on the Panama Canal are a marvel of engineering, with each chamber measuring 110 feet wide, 1,000 feet long, and 42 feet deep.

The innovative design of the locks, which uses gravity and water pressure to move ships through the canal, has proven to be both efficient and reliable, enabling the passage of over 1 million vessels since the canal’s opening in 1914.

Image of the leader of American Panama Canal engineering team, John Frank Stevens and George Washington Goethals.
The American Panama Canal engineering team,
John Frank Stevens and George Washington Goethals (L-R)

6. American Engineering:

The American engineering effort behind constructing the Panama Canal was nothing short of remarkable.

In 1904, the United States took over the project from the French and appointed renowned engineers John Frank Stevens and George Washington Goethals to lead the construction.

Stevens and Goethals brought a new level of organization and innovation to the project, implementing modern engineering techniques and equipment.

They built a railway system to efficiently transport workers, supplies, and excavated materials across the construction site.

Additionally, they designed and constructed the canal’s lock system, which was a groundbreaking engineering feat at the time.

The American engineers also tackled the problem of disease by implementing strict sanitation measures and improving living conditions for the workers.

Their efforts paid off, and despite facing numerous challenges, including landslides, equipment failures, and political obstacles, the American engineering team successfully completed the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, forever changing the face of global maritime trade.

Image of the flooded Culebra Cut.
A flooded Culebra Cut during an early phase of the canal’s construction

7. The Culebra Cut:

The Culebra Cut, also known as the Gaillard Cut, was one of the most challenging and crucial aspects of constructing the Panama Canal.

This 9-mile stretch of the canal route cut through the Continental Divide, requiring the excavation of millions of cubic yards of rock and soil.

The work was grueling and dangerous, with workers facing constant threats from landslides, equipment failures, and tropical diseases.

The excavation of the Culebra Cut involved the use of steam shovels, dynamite, and hundreds of railcars to remove the earth and transport it away from the site.

At times, the work seemed never-ending, as landslides would undo months of progress overnight.

Despite these setbacks, the workers persevered, and after nearly a decade of continuous effort, the Culebra Cut was finally completed in 1913.

This monumental achievement was a testament to the skill, determination, and sacrifice of the workers involved in the construction of the Panama Canal, and it remains one of the most impressive engineering feats of the early 20th century.

Image of the Gatun Dam on Gatun Lake.
The Gatun Dam in present-day Panama

8. Gatun Dam and Lake

The creation of the Gatun Dam and Gatun Lake was a critical component in the successful construction of the Panama Canal.

Engineers recognized the need for a reliable water source to operate the canal’s lock system and maintain water levels during the dry season.

To achieve this, they built the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, creating the artificial Gatun Lake.

The dam, which stands 105 feet tall and stretches 1.5 miles across, was the largest earth dam in the world at the time of its construction.

Building the dam and creating the lake was no easy task, requiring the excavation of millions of cubic yards of earth and rock, as well as the relocation of entire communities.

However, the effort paid off, as Gatun Lake not only provided a steady supply of water for the canal’s locks but also served as a key part of the waterway itself, allowing ships to navigate a significant portion of the canal route.

The Gatun Dam and Lake stand as testaments to the ingenuity and determination of those involved in constructing the Panama Canal.

Image of early work underway on the Panama Canal.
Early-stage photo of the work being done on the Panama Canal

9. Environmental Impact:

The construction of the Panama Canal had a profound impact on the environment of the surrounding region.

While the canal has brought numerous economic benefits, it’s important to acknowledge the ecological consequences of such a massive undertaking.

When constructing the Panama Canal, vast areas of rainforest were cleared to make way for the waterway and its associated infrastructure.

This deforestation led to the loss of biodiversity, as countless plant and animal species lost their habitats.

The creation of Gatun Lake also submerged over 160 square miles of land, altering the landscape and displacing indigenous communities.

Furthermore, the introduction of invasive species through the canal has disrupted the delicate balance of the local ecosystem.

Ships passing through the canal have inadvertently transported non-native species, such as the venomous lionfish, which have thrived in the new environment at the expense of native species.

While the environmental impact of the Panama Canal’s construction was not fully understood at the time, it serves as a reminder of the importance of considering the ecological consequences of large-scale human projects.

Image of a ship transiting the Panama Canal in present day.
A freighter transits the Panama Canal in present day

10. Economic Transformations:

The construction of the Panama Canal revolutionized global trade and brought about significant economic transformations.

Before the canal, ships had to navigate the treacherous and time-consuming route around the southern tip of South America.

By constructing the Panama Canal, a shorter, faster, and safer passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was created.

This greatly reduced the time and cost of shipping goods, making international trade more efficient and profitable.

The canal’s opening in 1914 coincided with the rise of the United States as a global economic power, and it helped cement the country’s position as a major player in world trade.

The canal also brought economic benefits to Panama, generating jobs and revenue through tolls and related services.

Countries around the world, particularly those in the Americas, experienced growth in trade and economic development as a result of the canal’s existence.

Today, over 100 years after its completion, the Panama Canal remains a vital artery of global commerce, with thousands of ships passing through each year and contributing to the continued growth of the global economy.

Image of a long barge passing through the locks of the Panama Canal.
A barge passes through the recently modernized locks of the Panama Canal

11. Continuous Modernization:

Since its completion in 1914, the Panama Canal has undergone continuous modernization to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of global shipping.

While the original construction of the Panama Canal was a groundbreaking achievement, engineers and planners recognized the need for ongoing improvements and expansions.

One of the most significant modernization efforts took place between 2007 and 2016, with the “Third Set of Locks Project.”

This project involved constructing two new sets of locks, one on the Atlantic side and one on the Pacific side, which allow larger ships, known as “New Panamax” vessels, to pass through the canal.

These new locks feature state-of-the-art technology, including water-saving basins that recycle up to 60% of the water used in each transit.

Other modernization efforts have focused on improving the canal’s navigation systems, upgrading its electrical grid, and deepening and widening certain sections of the waterway.

By continuously investing in its infrastructure and adapting to the needs of modern shipping, the Panama Canal has maintained its position as one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes, over a century after its initial construction.

Image of newly constructed locks of the canal for a blog post about constructing the Panama Canal.
The original massive locks of the Panama Canal under construction

Wrap-up: Constructing the Panama Canal

And there you have it, folks! 11 fascinating facts about the incredible journey of constructing the Panama Canal.

From the visionary engineers who made it possible to the diverse workforce that brought it to life, the story of the Panama Canal is one of perseverance, innovation, and human ingenuity.

We’ve explored the challenges they faced, from battling tropical diseases to excavating vast amounts of earth and rock, and marveled at the groundbreaking solutions they developed, like the lock system and the Gatun Dam.

We’ve also seen how the canal’s construction transformed global trade, brought about economic growth, and left a lasting impact on the environment.

The Panama Canal stands as a testament to what can be achieved when people from all walks of life come together to pursue a common goal.

So, the next time you hear about a ship passing through this remarkable waterway, remember the blood, sweat, and tears that went into constructing the Panama Canal, and the countless stories of determination and triumph that lie beneath its surface.

For more fascinating content on modern engineering breakthroughs check out my post 7 Wonders of the Modern World: Marvels in Engineering!

Image of the Panama Canal's Culebra Cut in present day.
The Panama Canal’s Culebra Cut in present day

FAQs: Constructing the Panama Canal

1. How much did it cost to build the Panama Canal?

The total cost of constructing the Panama Canal was approximately $375 million, which would be equivalent to about $8.6 billion in today’s dollars.




2. How many ships pass through the Panama Canal each year?

On average, around 13,000 to 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal annually, representing about 5% of world trade.




3. What was the role of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty in the construction of the Panama Canal?

 

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, signed in 1903, established the Panama Canal Zone and granted the United States control over the area for construction and operation of the canal.


In exchange, Panama received a lump sum of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.




References: Constructing the Panama Canal

“Chagres River | Panama, Central America, Atlantic | Britannica.” Www.britannica.com, www.britannica.com/place/Chagres-River#ref2961. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

“Culebra Cut.” Autoridad Del Canal de Panamá, pancanal.com/en/culebra-cut/.

Dasgupta, Soumyajit. “How the Water Locks of Panama Canal Work?” Marine Insight, 17 Apr. 2018, www.marineinsight.com/guidelines/how-the-water-locks-of-panama-canal-work/.

David Gaub Mccullough, and David Mccullough. <> Path between the Seas the Creation of Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York Simon And Schuster, 1977.

“Design of the Locks.” Autoridad Del Canal de Panamá, pancanal.com/en/design-of-the-locks/.

“Discover the Expanded Canal.” Autoridad Del Canal de Panamá, pancanal.com/en/discover-the-expanded-canal/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Lieffers, Caroline. “How the Panama Canal Took a Huge Toll on the Contract Workers Who Built It.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 18 Apr. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-panama-canal-took-huge-toll-on-contract-workers-who-built-it-180968822/.

Minna Stern, Alexandra. “The Public Health Service in the Panama Canal: A Forgotten Chapter of U.S. Public Health.” Public Health Reports, vol. 120, no. 6, 2005, pp. 675–679, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1497783/.

OAS, U. S. Mission. “Past, Present and Future of the Panama Canal.” U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States, 7 Sept. 2023, usoas.usmission.gov/past-present-and-future-of-the-panama-canal/.

Office of the Historian. “Building the Panama Canal, 1903–1914.” State.gov, 2018, history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/panama-canal.

orbitshub. “The Environmental Impacts of the Panama Canal: Balancing Conservation and Commerce.” Orbitshub, 8 Aug. 2023, orbitshub.com/the-environmental-impacts-of-the-panama-canal-balancing-conservation-and-commerce/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

“Panama Canal Centennial: The French Debacle | Institute Archives and Special Collections.” Archives.rpi.edu, archives.rpi.edu/blog/2014/09/23/panama-canal-centennial-the-french-debacle.

“Panama Canal: Superhighway for Invasive Species?” History, 25 Feb. 2015, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/150223-panama-canal-expansion-invasive-species-environment.

Rogers, J. David, and Manuel H. Barrelier. “Gatun Dam—Megastructure of the Panama Canal.” Environmental and Engineering Geoscience, vol. 24, no. 1, 14 Feb. 2018, pp. 1–22, https://doi.org/10.2113/gseegeosci.24.1.1.

“THE FRENCH CANAL CONSTRUCTION.” Autoridad Del Canal de Panamá, pancanal.com/en/the-french-canal-construction/.

Worthington, William E, and Aileen Cho. “Panama Canal | History & Facts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 22 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Panama-Canal.