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Building the Panama Canal - between history and engineering and a bit about disease eradication

The idea of ​​connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans has been brewing in people's minds for a long time (as far back as the 16th century), but the appropriate technologies only started to mature at the end of the nineteenth century.

(All images are taken from Wikipedia unless otherwise stated)

Author: Alex Shapira

Map of Panama with the canal in the center. From Wikipedia

The French experience

The idea of ​​connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans has been brewing in people's minds for a long time (as far back as the 16th century), but the appropriate technologies only started to mature at the end of the nineteenth century.

The USA was very interested in a canal that would shorten the sea route from 22000 kilometers to only about 8000 kilometers. Although the transatlantic railway was built in the 60s [19], still in those years the sea route, even the long one, was cheaper for transferring goods between two coasts.

The Panama Canal Shortcut. Carlos Boya REASERCH GATE website
The Panama Canal Shortcut. Marin, Zhu, Andrade, Atencio, Boya, and Mendizabal, Supply chain and hybrid modeling: The Panama Canal operations and its salinity diffusion

At the same time, the first to approach the matter were the French, who in 1869 opened the Suez Canal. As they say, there is no arguing with success. The financing for the project was obtained by launching a public company and in 1880 the construction of the Panama Canal began. The company was headed by Ferdinand de Lespas, a diplomat who managed the construction of the Suez Canal and was later joined by world-renowned personalities, such as the architect Gustave Eiffel. 

An excellent rate of progress was reported by the press every so often and the public (800 thousand people invested their savings in the project) waited patiently to receive dividends.

In 1889, a bomb fell - the canal was less than a third built, the money ran out, 22000 people died of diseases (for comparison, at least 2022 workers, mostly Indians and Nepalese, were killed in the construction of stadiums in Qatar for the 6500 World Cup [2]). From here very quickly the company went bankrupt and all the small investors were left with nothing.

There was an investigation and it turned out that everyone lied and accepted bribes in order to embellish the actual state of affairs - the company managers, politicians and finally the journalists who "covered" the progress of the project. The scale of the scandal was huge, there were trials and many politicians paid a heavy price.

A man near a destroyed French facility in the Panama Canal, 1906

A few words about anti-Semitism

We learned in history lessons that the Panama affair significantly raised the level of anti-Semitism in France which finally exploded in the Dreyfus trial in 1984. At first glance, this matter is quite surprising. The managers of the company were French, the politicians who received bribes from the managers were French, even the corrupt journalists were French, so where are the Jews here? Glad you asked. Two Jewish politicians were involved in the affair: Baron Jacques de Reinach and Cornelius Hertz (no relation to the scientist Heinrich Hertz after whom the frequency unit is named). Although there were dozens of politicians involved and although these two did not even receive a bribe, by exaggerating their role the impression was created that all the brokers in the bribe transactions were the Jews [3]. From here to the determination that the whole scam was organized by the Jews, the road was short. 

The construction of the canal goes to the Americans

Despite the great failure, it was clear that the construction of the canal was necessary. The United States entered the picture. After carrying out some "interesting" preparatory actions such as actively helping Panama to gain independence from Colombia and guaranteeing American control around the canal for good, work on the ground began in 1904.

The researchers who study the construction of the Panama Canal agree that the French failed because of two things: the death of many workers due to infectious diseases such as yellow fever and malaria and engineering errors.

The Americans took the problem of disease seriously: they drained swamps, cut and trimmed all vegetation in the area where the workers lived and introduced maximum pesticides, in short everything to eliminate the mosquitoes that infected the workers with malaria. It is important to note here that at the time the theory that mosquitoes are the cause of the transmission of diseases such as malaria was relatively new, so new that movements opposing the...whatever did not even manage to arise.

These actions significantly reduced morbidity during construction, although still during the 10 years of construction 5855 workers died [4].

Mosquito control in the Panama Canal construction area, 1910.


Okay, here we come to the real fun. The French admitted that their experience in building the Suez Canal did not help at all and even "it would be better if it did not exist" [5]. While in Egypt, a deep and flat trench had to be "simply" dug, in Panama, the story was completely different.

Let's look at this map published in 1878 [6]. See the river Chagra crossing the canal line?

French workers and engineers suffered badly from it, mainly because of many mudslides that made construction very difficult. American engineers came up with an original idea - why fight the river, let's use it! (Well, to be fair, the idea was not that original, there were also French engineers who proposed it, their opinion was simply not accepted) Americans built a dam and thus created Lake Gatun, at that time the largest artificial lake in the world (the area of ​​the lake is 425 square kilometers , for comparison it is about 3 times the area of ​​our Kinneret) [7]

Panama Canal Map. From Wikipedia
Panama Canal Map. From Wikipedia

As you can see, the creation of the lake flooded a large part of the land with water, but there are still tens of kilometers left that must be excavated somehow. For a while, Americans toyed with the idea, why not actually build more dams and thus flood the entire land area between the two oceans. This idea was ruled out after it became clear to them that this way they would flood almost the entire area of, well... Panama and it's not fair.

In the end, it was necessary to dig 15 kilometers, through an area called the Culebra Cut (Culebra cut). On the face of it, the most logical thing was to simply dig straight, as the French tried, and here we encounter the second problem - an increase in height.

As you can see from the canal section in the photo below, Lake Gaton is about 26 meters above sea level! 

Panama Canal Cut

Cross-section of the Panama Canal with Lake Gato in the center at a height of 26 m above sea level
Cross-section of the Panama Canal with Gatton Lake in the center at a height of 26 m above sea level

The solution of the American engineers (I did not write until now, most of the years the project was managed by General George Washington Goethals, he is a sort of Robert Oppenheimer of the canal) was the construction of three sailing chambers on each side of the canal. By flooding the cells at the right moment, the ships will simply rise to the desired height. How simple and how genius. Well, this wasn't such an original idea either, the same French engineers who first suggested using the Chagra River instead of fighting it, also suggested raising the ships by buoyancy instead of digging straight up. It was probably quite frustrating to be the same French engineering team that proposed the right thing that was not accepted and to see after a few years implementing what you proposed (so to speak, for some of us this did not happen).

In the following video [9] you can see how a ship is schematically raised from sea level to the level of Lake Gaton and then lowered back.

So it remains to dig the Culebra section and build the sailing cabins. "Colebra Cut" is actually a 66 meter high ridge that had to be dug through. The excavation lasted 4 years [10] and was considered the most difficult part of the project. About 27 tons of dynamite were used to blow up the soil, which was then removed with the help of a specially built railway line.

For the purpose of excavating the Culebra cut, new engineering tools were developed such as tools for returning the railroad tracks (due to mudslides, railroad tracks were often moved from their track and had to be returned), bulldozers (tractors) that worked on steam (the power that can be produced with a steam engine will be stronger than an electric motor) and other machines for transporting and spreading the dirt [11] .

A steam bulldozer at work, 1905-1914.
A steam bulldozer at work, 1905-1914.

As mentioned, ships entering the canal are raised and lowered by three sailing cells, where the length of each cell hangs on the side of the canal and ranges from 305 to 427 meters and their width is about 33 meters. At the end of each cell is installed a gate whose function is to isolate the cell from the other cells [12].

Engineers against a gate on the Atlantic side of the canal. In the center you can see the railroad tracks on which they moved the soil.

Finally, the long-awaited moment has arrived. On October 13, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed the button installed in his office in the White House and thus gave an electrical command to blow up the last barrier between the two oceans. (You'll agree, it was a pretty stupid action, I just want to see the reaction of the tired engineer who, after 9 years of hard work, the manager tells him - listen, everything is fine, there's only one thing left, please plan a cable from Panama to Washington, the president doesn't want to come here to open the ditch, he doesn't like the humidity here)

The Last Blast, VOceans Connected. The canal was opened commercially during 1914.

To improve safety, it was decided that inside the floating cells the ships would not sail on their own, but would be connected by cables to trains or boats and towed by them. 

Towing a ship in a floating cabin

Towing a ship in a floating cabin

Upon completion of construction, the Panama Canal is considered an engineering marvel. Gradually it began to play a more and more significant role in international trade and not only. Over the years, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Panama Canal. Thanks to the canal, the US was able relatively quickly to restore its fleet in the Pacific Ocean after the attack on Pearl Harbor on the seventh of December 1941, the dimensions of the canal's buoyancy chambers set a construction standard for the ships to be able to pass through the canal - 291 meters long, 32.3 meters wide and 12 meters deep. This standard is called Panamax [13].

I hope you enjoyed.

Personal note.

At the end of June our daughter Michal died in her crib. She was one year and five months old. This article is in her memory.

Alex (Sasha) Shapira, 43 years old. Born in Ukraine, almost 30 years in Israel. Mechanical engineer and works for a large company in the north, lives in Haifa, married and father of two, one in heaven.


[2] Guardian - The conditions under which the builders of the World Cup pitches were employed in Qatar

[3] The scandals of the Panama Canal, Wikipedia


[5] "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914", David McCullough



[8] The meeting of the diggers from the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean at the end of the construction of the Panama Canal






More of the topic in Hayadan:

4 תגובות

  1. Yigal thanks for the response.
    True, the last few years have not been kind to the canal. I didn't want to expand, so as not to go beyond the scope of the article.

    First of all, the canal lost its strategic importance for the United States, due to the development of infrastructure within the country and the development of the Asian market. They no longer need this path. In 1999 the USA transferred control of the canal to the government of Panama (the agreement itself was signed in 1977, meaning that after 70 years Americans no longer saw the canal as such an asset that should not be given up)

    In addition, the canal is becoming too small for some ships, so in recent years voices have been raised from China and Russia regarding the construction of an alternative canal, in Nicaragua or Mexico. If for the Chinese, their motivation seems logical, they would probably like a wider canal, the Russians seem to be the ones who just want to annoy the US.

    Best regards Sasha.

  2. Share in your sorrow, Alex... Thank you very much for an amazing article that explains the canal in a great way

  3. I feel sorry for your loss.
    A small addition:
    Recently, due to a drought in the Royal Lakes area, there is a problem with the float cells.
    To the news.

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