On December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal was turned over to Panama after tensions and rioting by Panamanians about the Canal Zone. Here are 6 things you didn’t know about this artificial waterway that sped up travel between the two major oceans...
Interest in Building a Canal Was Sparked in the 16th Century Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Spanish explorer, discovered the small land bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in 1513. In 1520, following a search for a waterway that might link the two oceans and failing to do so, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered that a survey be performed to see if one could be built in Panama. However, the surveyors decided that it wasn’t possible.
France Attempted to Build a Canal In the late 1800s, France decided to hire Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal in Egypt, to build the canal. Gustave Eiffel, who had designed the Eiffel Tower, was brought in to construct the locks; however, because of a multitude of problems, the company led by De Lesseps declared bankruptcy in 1889. Because of mismanagement and charges of fraud, De Lesseps, his son, Charles, Eiffel and others were found guilty and fined but never served any time in prison.
America Wanted to Build the Canal Through Nicaragua The Americans saw the practicality of building a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but thought building it through Nicaragua was a better idea. After being convinced that this was a bad idea, in part, by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, an engineer who was experienced in canal construction, and because of Panama’s independence from Colombia, America gained an area of around 500 square miles to build the canal. It was estimated to cost about $375 million.
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.
An Adventurer Who Swam the Length of the Canal Had to Pay to Do So Vessels that travel through the canal have to pay a toll that is based on cargo volume and size, and for big ships, it can cost up to $450,000. Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928, had to pay also. The toll he paid for his historic swim was 36 cents.
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.