The dream of building the Panama Canal goes back to the XI Century. Already in 1534, king Charles V of Spain had ordered an investigation to project the waterway that would go through the Isthmus and unite the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Later, in 1835, it would be the turn of American explorer Charles Biddle, who after remaining four days in the jungle plagued with mosquitoes, ruled that such enterprise was impossible.

Finally, that crazy idea began to transform into reality with the initiative of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, responsible for the construction of the Suez Channel.

The construction began January 1st. of 1880, under the charge of Universal Company of the Panama Canal.

In 1889 a scandal blew up because of the fraudulent maneuvers that took the enterprise to bankruptcy. As a consequence of this, excavations were interrupted when 33 kilometers had already been finished.

The human cost in the first part of the project was very high: more than 22.000 workers died as a consequence of the frequent landslides, accidental dynamite explosions and tropical diseases.

Three years later the New Panama Canal Company was build to complete the construction. In 1903, the United States bought the rights of the French enterprise, thinking once more about the benefits of controlling an inter oceanic water way.

Around this time politics and other interests where mixed. Panama, an almost forgotten province of Colombia's northern extreme, had it's independence with the help of Washington, and began a new life as a Republic and as a strategic platform for the United Sates in the region.

CONSTRUCTION OF THE CANAL: THE LAST STAGE

In exchange for US$10 million, the authorities of the new country gave full and perpetual authority to the United States over a 16 kilometer wide piece of land along the Canal.

The work began again immediately, although the bad working conditions of the French times prevailed.

In 1905, railway engineer John Stevens took charge of the project and suspended the excavation works.

Since then, he organized a public health campaign to control the tropical disease epidemics, like malaria and yellow fever.

Vast swamp zones were drained, potable water and collectors were installed, and new towns around the zone were built.

Likewise, Stevens redesigned the project, because it was not viable to build the channel at sea level. He observed the necessity of building a lock system and a great artificial lake in the opening of the Chagres River, which in turn would provide a hydroelectric source of energy for all installations.

With the backup of an efficient railway infrastructure, also designed by Stevens, he began once again in 1907 with a group of 24000 workers.

The work confirmed once again it's difficulty, and a total of 5000 people lost their lives during the American stage of construction, most of them immigrants form the Caribbean.

The most difficult part is known as Corte Culebra or Corte Gailard, which goes through the continent's spinal chord, and it's where 300000 tons of rock where removed

Towards the end of the project, the enormous locks started to take shape, each one of them sealed with giant steel doors perfectly balanced so that they only need a 40 horse power engine (half of what a modern car uses) to open and close up.

In the Atlantic extreme only the Gatun locks used concrete, and the used enough to build a one foot tall wall that could stretch across the USA.

On May 20th. 1913, a horrible accident occurred when two enormous shovels collided in Corte Culebra. In October that same year, the Gatún tow boat made it's first test crossing.

In spite of the grandness of the project, the construction of the Panama Canal was finished before schedule, and it cost less than expected: a total of US$ 400 million of that time.

Finally, on August 15th. 1914, the Ancon ship officially inaugurated a waterway that ever since then, separates the land and unites the world. An 82 kilometer long path, which takes around nine hours to cross, helps decrease the distance between London and Tokyo in 7000 kilometers.

 

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