Panama Canal History & Facts

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.

Current Locks

Size- 1000’ x 110’ x 42’

Gatun Locks – 3 steps and 6 chambers

Pedro Miguel – 1 step and 2 chambers

Miraflores – 2 steps, 4 chambers

Water Flow-  Using gravity, down and across chambers

Panamax Ship-  965’ x 106’ x 39 ½’

Maximum Cargo-  4400 TEUs/container ship

Gates-  4 or more miter gates swing per chamber

Water-  52 million gallons lost to sea per transit

New Locks

Size-  1400’ x 180’ x 60’


Gatun East-  3 steps, 3 chambers, 9 basins

Miraflores West-  3 steps, 3 chambers, 9 basins

Water Flow-  Using gravity, down and across holding basins

Post Panamax Ship-  1200’ x 160’ x 50’

Max Cargo-  12600 TEUs/ container ship

Gates-  2 each 200’ wide (one piece rolling gates on tracks)

Water-  60% recycled

Interesting Facts 

  • Ships traveling between New York and San Francisco save 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn.
  • The Atlantic entrance to the Canal is 22-1/2 miles west of the Pacific entrance.
  • More than four and half million cubic yards of concrete went in to the construction of the locks and dams.
  • Material originally excavated to build the Canal were put on to a train of flat cars, it would encircle the world four times.
  • The locks of the Panama Canal are seven feet thick.
  • On February 29, 1968 was the most transits on a single day with an amount of 65 ships crossing the isthmus.
  • More than 60,000,000 pounds of dynamite was used to excavate and construct the Panama Canal.
  • In 1963 the Panama Canal for the first time starts operating 24 hours, thanks to the introduction high mass fluorescent lighting.
  • In 1520, King Charles of Spain was the first to suggest the construction of a canal.
  • More than 5,000 more people died from yellow fever before the Canal was opened in 1904.
  • 68% of the traffic that passes through the Panama Canal comes from or is headed toward the U.S.

Quick Reference

  • First ground broken by French January 1, 1880
  • Amount of money spent by the French: $260,000,000
  • Amount United States paid French for their rights and property $40,000,000
  • Canal Zone acquired by U.S. from Panama by treaty February 23, 1904
  • Amount United States paid Panama for Canal Zone: $10,000,000
  • Rental paid by U.S. to Panama beginning in 1913 per annum: $250,000
  • Work began by the United States May 4, 1904
  • First ship through the Canal September 26, 1913
  • Date of official opening August 15, 1914
  • Name of first official ship to transit canal: S.S. Ancon
  • Canal Zone in square miles: 436
  • Length of Canal from Atlantic to Pacific: 51 miles
  • Width of the Canal Zone: 10 miles
  • Time to transit Canal: 8-10 hours
  • Number of ships crossing daily: 40
  • Number of ships crossing each year: 12-15,000
  • Time of passage through locks: 3 hours
  • Amount of water filling each lock: 52 million gallons
  • Gatun Lake level is controlled at the Gatun Dam both through a hydropower generating plant and over spillways at the dam.
  • Total concrete for canal in cubic yards: 5,000,000

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