The True Story Behind Panama Canal’s 100 Years

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, the country has announced a series of events to commemorate the construction of one of the modern era’s most extraordinary engineering feats.

Panama Canal
UNSPLASH Sean Thoman

Celebrations are planned throughout the country, including a partnership between Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge) and Fundación Arte y Cultura Panamá, which hosted “The Panama Canal and its Architectural Legacy (1905-1920),” a book exhibition illustrating the connection between the public and the countless many whose ideas helped inspire and shape the architecture of the Canal zone.

The department responsible for the management of the Panama Canal, formerly known as the “Autoridad de Canal de Panamá” (ACP), has changed its name to the “Canal De Panamá” (CDP). Along with the name change, a new logo, “La maravilla eres tú” (You are the wonder), was revealed to coincide with the centennial celebrations.

3 Cinta Costera
Photo: credit via 100 Years Panama Canal

Renewed investments in infrastructure have revitalized Panama’s economy and general appeal as a popular travel destination. Revitalization projects such as the Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway)—an expansive 64-acre land reclamation area complete with walkways, biking lanes, outdoor exercise machines, and much more—was completed in 2009 and shows Panama’s commitment to reinvest revenue from the canal back to public works.

To further bolster national pride, Panama commissioned world-renowned Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry to design the 4,000 square meter Biodiversity Museum (Biomuseo) in Balboa, Panama—his first such work in Latin America. The “Bridge of Life”, as Gehry himself refers to the building, celebrates the Isthmus of Panama as one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems (in fact, there are more bird, mammal and reptile species in the isthmus than in the United States and Canada combined).

Lastly, Panama approved a $5B expansion of the Canal which will include new locks, wider shipping lanes, and larger ports. Annually, almost 14,000 vessels use the Canal (or 5 percent of all maritime trade), connecting more than 144 routes, 1,700 ports and 160 countries. With billions of dollars generated in revenue and more than 10,000 local jobs produced, the Canal has been an especial boon to Panama.

4 Biomuseo
Photo: F Delventhal via Flickr

How it works

Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (by way of the Caribbean Sea), the Panama Canal (Canal de Panamá) is a 48-mile (77.1 km) stretch of manmade lakes, locks and gates, built across the Isthmus of Panama, making it a vital component for global maritime trade. The Canal allows greater access to the west coast of the United States by offering a shorter, quicker, and overall safer route than the longer more dangerous route of circumnavigating around South American (via the Magellan Strait). Shipping from Europe to the US west coast has been cut by almost half (42%) as well as a 14% drop in travel time for shipments between Asia and the US east coast.

The Canal works by utilizing a systems of locks—compartments with gates for entering and exiting vessels—where water is pumped into a compartment, raising the ship above sea level to the Gatun Lake level (26 meters above sea level), where it can then sail towards the Continental Divide. To successfully navigate the almost 80 km length of the Canal it takes approximately 6-8 hours to complete.

5 The World's Greatest Engineering Feat
Photo: credit via 100 Years Panama Canal

Water from the manmade Gatun Lake feeds into the compartment lock chambers by a system of culverts (using gravity), which extends underneath the lock chambers from the sidewalls and center wall.

Each lock chamber bears the name of the town’s namesake from where it was built: Gatun (on the Atlantic Ocean side) and San Miguel and Miraflores (on the Pacific Ocean side). Each lock chamber measures 33.53 meters (110 feet) wide by 304.8 meters (1,000 feet) long. Ships no larger than 32.3 meters in beam, 12 meters in depth reach, and 294.1 meters in length are allowed through the Canal.

With a workforce of about 10,000 employees, the Canal is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, providing transit access and service to all nations.

History of the canal

The first mention of a canal dates back to 1534 when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey to find a new route through the Americas for ships traveling between Spain and Peru. A failed attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland followed in 1698 as inhospitable conditions made construction of a canal difficult to maintain.

The discovery of gold in California in 1849 once again renewed interest in a canal, with the construction of the Panama Railway in 1855 becoming a key component to the future Canal trade.

In 1881, Ferdinand de Lesseps, developer of the Suez Canal, convinced the French government to finance the construction of the Panama Canal. By 1890, however, with an estimated 22,000 lives lost (mostly due to malaria and yellow fever) and more than $287M spent, the project was eventually abandoned.

With the passage of the Hay-Herran Treaty on January 22, 1903, the United States was granted a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia on the rights to the land for the proposed Canal. The next year, under US President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States purchased the French equipment and excavations for $40M and paid Panama $10M, plus an annual sum each year.

The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 14, 1914. The first ship to traverse the Panama Canal was the American cargo vessel SS Ancon.

Martyr’s Day, January 9, 1964, would serve as a watershed moment for the country, as students rioted in the streets demanding the full and complete sovereignty of the canal be transferred to Panama. Ownership of the Canal was eventually signed over to the Panamanian government in 1977, when US President Jimmy Carter signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (on the condition of guaranteeing permanent neutrality of the canal for all nations). On December 31, 1999, Panama assumed full command of the Canal for the first time in its history.

9 Martyr's Day, January 9, 1964
Photo: credit via 100 Years Panama Canal

Jerry Alonzo Leon


Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

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