Construction of the Panama Canal

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The Panama Canal: An Engineering Marvel

The Panama Canal is considered as one of the most spectacular achievements in engineering in the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1914, the American government had invested a total of $352 million (McCullough 51). Moreover, the combined expenditure of the Americans and the French was estimated at $639 million. During the construction period, approximately 80, 000 individuals took part. Unfortunately, close to 25, 000 people died both from American and French sides. The construction of the Panama Canal is a manifestation of human courage and ingenuity. Furthermore, the process was characterized by numerous defeats, years of sacrifice, and final victory.

The Construction process

The idea of constructing the Panama Canal began in the 16th century upon the realization that there were significant resources from Asia, Ecuador, and Peru. Moreover, it took a long time to bring the raw materials to the ports in Spain. Consequently, King Charles of Spain was beseeched to cut out a piece of land in Panama to make the trips shorter. As a resulted of the negotiation, the survey of Isthmus was permitted to commence the development of a working plan. However, conflicts and wars in Europe interfered with the implementation of the project. However, in the 19th century, there was a renewed interest for a waterway.

The French Contribution and the U.S Takeover

In 1880, the construction plans commenced and a company from France arranged by Ferdinand Lesseps, who constructed the Suez Canal. Ferdinand was appointed to chair the construction of Panama Canal and decided to design a sea-level canal on the basis of the earlier success of Suez Canal. In 1899, the United States’ Congress gave authority to an Isthmus Canal Commission to assess the possibility of constructing a canal in Central America. In this regard, the commission initially chose a route through Nicaragua but this later changed to Panama. Lesseps’ company made an offer its assets worth $40 million to the U.S (McCullough 49). The new state of Panama and the United States signed the Hay-Bunau-Virilla treaty where the former sought to guarantee the independence of Panama. Additionally, the U.S secured a permanent lease of a 10 mile-wide strip.

Leadership and Challenges

Initially, Panama was provided with $10 million as payment and a subsequent annuity of $250, 000 that began in 1913 (Bennett 63). Later in the project, President Roosevelt appointed George Goethals who was an army Lieutenant as he considered the canal to be under the control of the military. Under his leadership, Goethals introduced a way of tracking the costs of various materials and jobs, consequently, Goethals was able to effectively raise or lower spending accordingly. Moreover, projects were organized to ensure that all the canal workers were kept busy. Goethals created a complaint board every Sunday where workers could express their grievances to him. The leadership made the canal workers respect Goethals and his contributions.

Challenges and Achievements

In the first design of the canal, the engineers overlooked the challenges presented by landslides. Consequently, the slides of rocks and earth considerably increased the amount of excavation work hence a constant concern for the workers. In 1907, at Cucaracha, the first landslide occurred under the American effort when an estimated 500, 000 cubic yards of material were taken into the cut as a result of heavy downpour that takes place for several days (Bennett 27). Evidence shows that at least for ten days, the landslide moved an average of 14 feet for every 24 hours. In fact, Cucaracha is considered as a slide surveillance area today.

The Engineering Marvel and Economic Benefits

The construction of the Panama Canal which is 51-mile-long was an enormous undertaking. In 1914, more than 268 million cubic yards of rock and dirt had been excavated by the Americans and the French. Each of the three locks of the canal measure 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long and are able to lower or raise ships by about 85 feet. Upon completion, the cost of construction of the Panama Canal was $23 million lower than the initial estimates (McCullough 78). The engineering work produced a self-sufficient structure with a dam that can produce electricity to operate it. In addition, no artificial force is needed to adjust the level of water except gravity.

The Malaria Epidemic in Panama

The control of malaria was paramount in the construction of the canal. Major Ross Ronald discovered that malaria was a mosquito-borne disease hence leading to a significant impact on the development programs. In 1904, considerable achievements were made by the Isthmian Canal Commission by carrying out sanitation inspection of the potential construction site and then prepared comprehensive reports on Colon and Panama (Le Prince and Ross 559). Later the same year, the Sanitary Department was created and Colonel Gorgas became the chairman. Suffice to mention is the fact that the Isthmus of Panama provided a perfect condition of mosquito breeding owing to high temperatures that varied a little during the year.

The Integrated Malaria Program

In an effort to eradicate malaria and yellow fever, the Sanitary Department adopted an integrated program the addressed seven basic areas. First, was the drainage of pools that appeared within 200 yards of all individual houses and villages to curb mosquito breeding. Secondly, grass and bush cutting which ensured that they were maintained at below one foot high. The rationale for this approach was that mosquitoes would not be in a position to cross areas that are open over 100 yards. Thirdly, oiling was done on areas where the drainage was not practicable to kill mosquito larvae. Fourth, the larviciding was implemented in instances where oiling could not be undertaken. However, it is paramount to note that there were commercial insecticides during this time and Joseph Augustin developed a larvacide by mixing resin, carbolic acid, and caustic soda (Le Prince and Ross 559). Fifth, workers were provided with free prophylactic quinine at the construction site. Sixth, there was screening and lastly, the team partook in the killing of adult mosquitoes.

Malaria Control and Economic Impact

The outcome of malaria integrated program was a dramatic decrease in malaria deaths and eradication of yellow fever. The death rate as a result of malaria substantially reduced among the Panama Canal employees. For instance, it dropped from 11.6 per 1,000 people in 1906 to approximate 1.2 per 1, 000 in 1909. In addition, the malaria control program lowered the death rate due to malaria in the general population from an upward of 16.2 per 1, 000 individuals in 1906 to 2.6 per 1,000 in 1909. Among the employees, the percentage of those who were hospitalized as a result of malaria 10% in 1905, 6% in 1906, 2% in 1907, 3.1% in 1908, and 1.5% in 1909. The construction of the Panama Canal continued to be affected by malaria (Le Prince and Ross 559).

The Economic Benefits of the Panama Canal

Historically, the value of the Panama Canal has been realized to be twofold. In the first instance, the canal is considered as a valuable piece of engineering that has enabled foreign countries and the United States to transfer ships between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in a short period of time. Secondly, the Panama Canal presents an unquestioned economic value despite the various opinions regarding the extent of this assertion and the viable policy framework for enhancing the economic productivity of the canal. During the initial 11 months of the canal’s operation, despite the abnormal conditions, an estimated 1088 merchant vessels transporting nearly 5 million tons of freight went through the canal. The United State government collected a colossal sum of $4.4 million in tolls (Bennett 17).

Cost Reduction and Trade Advantages

The construction of the Panama Canal has significantly reduced the cost of operating the steamships as a result of reducing the length of the voyage and saving in sailing time. In addition, there is a considerable decrease in fuel costs when compared to Magellan, Suez, or other South African routes. The Panama route lowers the fuel bills due less energy is required to reach parts of the globe which serve as tributaries to the canal. As a result, the Panama Canal contributes to a lower cost of business operations and access to various products by other nations.

Stimulating Commerce and Local Economy

Furthermore, the Panama Canal stimulated both foreign and domestic commerce. The canal has reduced ocean freight rates at several points hence spurring trade between countries using it. Moreover, it is worth noting that ocean freight rates are dependent on the traffic instead of the operating costs or the distance covered. Furthermore, the Panama Canal has stimulated the economic progress for the local people. For instance, the income from fishing and agriculture in the neighboring areas has contributed to an estimated 8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In addition, over 130, 000 non-express and express jobs have been created in various sectors of the economy including agriculture, construction, tourism, and fishing among others (Bennett 36).


The construction of the Panama Canal was a major undertaking and a spectacular development. The failure by the French to carry on with the work due to increased death rate and insufficient resources led to the United States taking over. The construction was marred by a myriad of challenges including landslides and tropical diseases. The slides affected the pace of the work as tons of cubic of rocks and dirt were moved into the cut hence making excavation cumbersome. On the other hand, malaria and yellow fever led to the death of thousands of canal employees making the project costly. However, the integrated malaria program adopted by the Sanitary Department played a critical role in eradicating the disease. The canal has contributed to several economic gains to Panama, the United States, and the rest of the world. In other words, the construction of the Panama Canal was a significant boost to the economy of the world.

Works Cited

Bennett, Ira Elbert. History of the Panama Canal: Its construction and builders. Historical Publishing Company, 1915.

McCullough, David. The path between the seas: the creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Le Prince, J. A., and R. Ross. "Anti-malarial work on the Isthmus of Panama."The Prevention of Malaria by R. Ross. Sect 43.43 (1910): 353-368.

November 24, 2023


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