5 Things You Didn't Know About The Panama Canal

On December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal was turned over to Panama after tensions and rioting by Panamanians about the Canal Zone. Here are 5 things you didn’t know about this artificial waterway that sped up travel between the two major oceans... 

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Approximately 14,000 Ships Use The Canal Every Year American ships use the canal the most, followed by those from China, Chile, Japan, Colombia and South Korea. Every vessel that transits the canal must pay a toll based on its size and cargo volume. Tolls for the largest ships can run about $450,000. The smallest toll ever paid was 36 cents, plunked down in 1928 by American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal. Today, some $1.8 billion in tolls are collected annually.

More Than 25,000 Workers Died During The Canal’s Construction Workers on the construction of the canal had to deal with the difficult tropical weather, tropical diseases and terrain that was challenging. The French, in their earlier attempt, had lost around 20,000 workers, while America lost about 5,600 between 1904 and 1913 because of accidents and devastating diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

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The Panama Canal Was Spain's Idea Though it was completed by the Americans and is now controlled by Panama, the canal was actually the brainchild of King Charles V of Spain in the early 1500's, and he even began a study of the feasibility of the project which would begin 350 or so years later. Today, a bust of King Charles V stands in Panama City's Casco Viejo ("Old Town") in commemoration of his vision.

America Wanted to Build the Canal Through Nicaragua Throughout the 1800s, the United States, which wanted a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific for economic and military reasons, considered Nicaragua a more feasible location than Panama. However, that view shifted thanks in part to the efforts of Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer. Bunau-Varilla began lobbying American lawmakers to buy the French canal assets in Panama, and eventually convinced a number of them that Nicaragua had dangerous volcanoes, making Panama the safer choice.

The United States Transferred Control of The Canal to Panama in 1999 The United States transferred control of the canal to Panama in 1999. In the years after the canal opened, tensions increased between America and Panama over control of the canal and the surrounding Canal Zone. In 1964, Panamanians rioted after being prevented from flying their nation’s flag next to a U.S. flag in the Canal Zone. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos of Panama signed treaties that transferred control of the canal to Panama in 1999 but gave the United States the right to use military force to defend the waterway against any threat to its neutrality.  Control of the canal was transferred peacefully to Panama in December 1999, and the Panamanians have been responsible for it ever since.