Panama Canal

Classic engineering - Panama Canal

With deadly diseases, landslides and momentous engineering challenges dogging the project, it's a miracle the Panama Canal was ever completed.

Not since the Great Pyramid at Giza five millennia before had the world seen such a vast construction project. Only this time, rather than constructing a monument to royalty, engineers, encouraged by the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, set about cutting an entire continent in two in order to solve a navigation problem that had challenged mariners for centuries.

In terms of loss of life, the Panama Canal was the most expensive civil engineering project in history, and by the time the first ship – the SS Ancon – completed the passage on 15 August 1914, the bill to the US tax payer was getting on for '10bn in today's money.

Although it goes down as one of the landmark achievements of the 20th century, the idea of joining the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Panama Isthmus had been around for centuries. As early as 1514 Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa had built a 30-mile road in the region.

It wasn't, however, until the late 19th century that construction began. The first modern attempt was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps on behalf of the French who intended to build a sea-level canal. Disease, disaster, poor financial planning and lack of geological knowledge caused the French to abandon their efforts, leaving the way open for an American attempt based on a series of locks and dams.

Project briefing/specification

To shorten the sea journey from America's east to west coasts by forcing a navigable waterway through the Panama Isthmus where North and South America meet. Success rewarded by reducing trading route distances by over half, and doing away with the need for a permanent navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After the French 'sea level' attempt, the US project would include locks and dams, rail infrastructure, worker settlements and adequate healthcare.


The US took over the French operation, buying out its equipment in 1904 for $40m (roughly $1bn, or '620m in today's money), although there were further costs running into tens of millions associated with compensating Colombia for the creation of the state of Panama (Panama was a province of Colombia). The total cost of the canal for the American project is estimated to be $352m in 1914, or $7.9bn (roughly '5bn) today.


During the French attempt (1881-89) a total of 22,000 construction workers died, mostly as a result of malaria and yellow fever. The scale of the human catastrophe was hidden from the French public for fear that it would cause recruitment problems. The Americans had a better record, with only 5,600 deaths.


The French approach was fundamentally flawed due to the steepness of the cuts (causing landslides) and hydrological issues related to sea-level variations. The US chief engineer in the early phase of the project – John Frank Stevens – argued the case for dams and locks. Today the canal consists of artificial lakes, artificial channels, three sets of locks and a reservoir. There are several plans under consideration for its expansion.


If bringing men and equipment to the works was a logistical headache, the removal of the excavated material was a labour of Hercules. It was Stevens' earth-moving plan along his Panama railway network that was probably his greatest achievement. With strengthened tracks, 115 heavy-duty locomotives (complete with 2,300 cars) and 102 rail-mounted steam shovels, he was able to remove spoil at a rate of 160 trains per day.


A ship travelling from the east coast of America to the west (i.e. from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean) must travel from west to east. The actual route of the canal is from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Panama in a north-west to south-east direction. The 8-10 hour journey appears to go the wrong way as the Isthmus doubles back on itself, while the physical topography of the region combined with the orientation of natural features such as lakes lends itself to a diagonal crossing.

Facts and figures

The total length of the canal is 47.9 miles. In the early days some 1,000 vessels passed along the waterway per annum. This has now risen to nearly 15,000. Because the locks determine the maximum size of ship, vessels are often designed especially to fit the canal. These are called 'Panamax' ships and they are restricted to 52,500t. The highest toll paid by a vessel to pass through the canal was $331,200 ('205,000) by Disney Magic in 2008.

Delivery and legacy

The Panama Canal was finished two years ahead of time and formally opened in August 1914, coinciding with the outbreak of the Great War. Today, a ship sailing from New York to San Francisco need only sail 6,000 miles, rather than the 16,000 miles required before. The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the canal one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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