Disney Cruise Line and Its Ports of Call LIVE! Guidebook

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Discovering the History of the Panama Canal

Discovering the History of the Panama Canal

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HISTORY

The notion of a canal across Panama was studied by the U.S. in the 1870s, but it was the French who moved it forward, fresh from their triumphal success building the Suez Canal and flush with the machinery and optimism of the Industrial Revolution. The same Ferdinand de Lesseps who led the construction of Suez leapt to the challenge of Panama, and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (yes, the fellow responsible for the structural supports for the Statue of Liberty and the tower that bears his name) was among the French engineers involved. Alas, de Lesseps was overconfident and under-equipped—he originally aimed to build a sea-level canal, similar to the one he built in Egypt, with no locks at all, just a deep trench all the way across the isthmus. French investors poured huge sums into the 20-year project, but Panama’s landslide-prone hillsides consumed all the money, while accidents and tropical diseases consumed the lives of more than 20,000 construction workers who had been recruited by the French from throughout the Caribbean basin. Confident from its military success in the Spanish American War and now a global power, the United States was more than eager to see the project finished for its military and commercial benefits. President Theodore Roosevelt led the charge. The government of Colombia, which then controlled the isthmus, wasn’t well-inclined to let the U.S. follow in France’s footsteps. So the U.S. lent its support to the local Panamanian independence movement and received the 50-mile-long, 10-mile-wide Panama Canal Zone as a thank you from the new nation. The U.S. paid the French $40 million to take ownership of the project, and placed the U.S. military in charge of construction. Learning from French mistakes, the Army engineers brought massive, innovative machinery to the task and chose to build a canal with locks and man-made lakes, rather than try to dig all the way down to sea level. At about the same time, Army surgeon Walter Reed (then stationed in Cuba), learned that mosquitoes were responsible for both Yellow Fever and Malaria. The canal project was among the first places this knowledge was applied, through a Herculean effort at controlling the insects’ habitat and propagation. Without the improved health conditions, the canal may never have been finished. Although it’s hard to believe, this huge government project actually came in under budget and six months ahead of schedule, opening with little fanfare (thanks to the start of World War I) on August 15, 1914, ten years after the U.S. started construction. Proving to be a masterwork of design and construction, the Panama Canal continued to operate under U.S. ownership until December 31, 1999, when the U.S. ceded the canal and the Canal Zone to the government of Panama. The project to expand the canal began in earnest in 2007, to make sure Panama remained relevant in a world where "Panamax" vessels (the maximum size that fits the old locks) were beginning to seem quaint.

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Top Photo Slice: Cruising along the canal in the Magic (℗ 8411) Photo contributed by © Earkid



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