Before the Panama Canal was created, ships and merchants from Europe and Eastern America had to sail around the tip of South America to reach western Asian countries such as China, Japan and India.
In 1881, a French company led by Ferdinand de Lesseps began construction on the canal. Ferdinand was the builder of the Suez Canal and he was the appropriate choice to lead the construction project. Delays continued to mount and thousands of people lost their lives. Construction didn’t go as planned and the company went bankrupt in 1890 after spending $287,000,000 US dollars. A second French company called Compagnie Nouvelle du Canel de Panama resumed construction of the canal. During this time, Theodore Roosevelt and the United States were looking for a short cut through the Isthmus. Roosevelt’s experts presented him with multiple options one of which was purchasing the second struggling French company. Roosevelt decided to purchase the company and its assets for $40 million dollars and also paid Panama an additional $10 million. The United States completed the Panama Canal in 1914. Approximately 1,000 ships crossed the Panama Canal during its first year in operation. Panama and the United States agreed ownership would remain with the United States until 1999 and then ownership would be transferred to Panama. Since 1999, Panama has owned and managed the canal. Approximately 815,000 ships have crossed the Panama Canal since it was opened and over 14,000 ships crossed the canal in 2008.
The Approach, channels where ships maneuver through leading to the locks, is 1600 feet long. Each Channel Lock is 1000 feet long by 110 feet wide and averages 83 feet deep. The Panama Canal locks can handle maximum ship sizes of 965 feet long by 106 feet wide and 39.5 feet in height.
Located on the Atlantic Ocean near Colon City and Gatun Lake are the Gatun Locks. Traveling through the Panama Canal, ships sail under the Centennial Bridge and onto the Pedro Miguel Locks. Ships continue into Miraflores Lake through the Miraflores Locks and into the Pacific Ocean.
As a ship enters the locks, the doors to the first lock opens and the water levels even out. Then, the ship enters the first lock and the first set of doors close. The doors to the second lock open and the water from the second lock flows into the first lock until they are both even, and the ship enters the second lock. The process for the third lock is the same and the ship flows through the Panama Canal to the next set of locks or the ocean.
Today, the Panama Canal continues to provide a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. New canals are planned for the future to ease the flow of shipping traffic.
quick facts & figures
Annual Ships: 14,000
Length: 51 miles