On August 15, 1914, Captain John A. Constantine made the first official transit of the Panama Canal. This 48-mile water route across the Continental Divide was finished on time and within budget.
Without United States ingenuity and funding, however, this project might never have seen completion. The French had tried; they lost 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, spent $287 million, and gave up after nine years.
Previously considering a passage through Nicaragua, the United States Congress authorized purchase of the assets of the failed French project in 1902. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, a U.S. engineering panel was formed. Their plan was to create a lock system that could raise and lower ships 85 feet using water from the Chagres River.
The country of Colombia had different ideas. With the Panama region still part of Colombia, they refused to ratify the agreement which would allow the United States to proceed with its plan. The Panamanians revolted, declared their independence, and negotiated a treaty giving America the rights to over 500 square miles to build the canal and control the zone in perpetuity.
Forty-two thousand workers built, dredged and excavated the route from Colon to Balboa.
The dam they built on the Chagres River created Gatun Lake. This allowed navigation through the mountains on the Pacific side and reduced by about half the distance requiring excavation.
They built a new, heavy-duty Panama Railway to carry workers, supplies, equipment, and debris into and out of the area. It also handled the commercial freight crossing the isthmus.
To combat disease, a rigorous approach to sanitation and mosquito abatement was implemented. This systematic, organized approach was a medical breakthrough. It essentially eliminated yellow fever in Panama and removed a significant barrier to worker recruitment.
Construction of the Panama Canal also pushed the window on technology. American companies improved their rock crushers, dredgers, even refrigeration systems to speed the project along. And new electric-powered “mule engines” were designed to help stabilize and guide ships through the locks.
By the time of its completion, the building of the Panama Canal moved enough earth and rubble to cover Manhattan Island 12-feet high.
Today, it takes eight-to-10 hours to go through the locks, lake and passageways of the canal, and 13,000-14,000 vessels use the waterway each year. Specially-trained canal pilots assume navigational control of the ship while in the canal. Tolls for a ship’s transit can be as high as $450,000.
The Panama Canal is no longer under U.S. authority, with control transferred to Panama in 1999. It currently is undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion project to allow passage of vessels carrying nearly three times their current loads. The new locks and deeper navigational channels are scheduled to open in 2015.
In last month’s Reflections, I lamented that not enough “Can Do” and too much “Can’t Do” are restricting America’s success. America was built on a “Can Do” attitude and the Panama Canal is a shining example.
Something to reflect upon.