History of the Panama Canal
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Panama Canal is a 51 mile route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama via the Caribbean Sea. This route made it no longer necessary for ships to navigate dangerous waters around the southernmost tip of South America in half the time allowing for a more integrated world economy. The shorter, faster, safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and along the Pacific Ocean was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
Construction began in 1881 was completed in 1914, but not without a long history of financial mismanagement, political corruption and geological challenges. The French first attempted construction, but were met with the cost and difficulty of building a canal in the rain-soaked tropics through unstable mountains that exceeded expectations, brought human health risks and accidents due to a poorly trained and inexperienced workforce.
In 1890 the U.S. commissioned an engineering panel to study the potential of building the canal and recommended a sea-level canal to President Theodore Roosevelt. The extensive engineering study resulted in recommending a canal using a lock system to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir 85 ft (26 m) above sea level thus creating the world’s largest man-made lake. In the end, a canal that operated with an elevated reservoir and a system of three locks to raise ships above sea level to Gatun Lake, and then lower them on the opposite ocean with another set of three locks, was seen as much less expensive, faster to build, and more feasible in design than the original vision of a sea-level canal. In 1904, the United States bought the French equipment and excavations and began work on the Panama Canal on May 4. Most recently, it was given over to the Panamanian government in 1999.
Gatun Lake is used to reduce the amount of work required for a sea-level connection with locks at both ends to lift ships. The two current locks are 110 feet (33.5 m) wide with a third currently under construction, and will be accompanied by nine water reutilization basins. These gravity-fed basins will allow 60% of the water used in each transit to be reused; the new locks will consequently use 7% less water per transit than each of the existing lock lanes. The deepening of Gatun Lake and the raising of its maximum water level will also provide significant extra water storage capacity. These measures are intended to allow the expanded canal to operate without the construction of new reservoirs. These new locks will allow many larger vessels to travel the Panama Canal and are expected to open in 2015.