What do you get when you combine 60 million pounds of dynamite, 5,000 cubic yards of concrete, over 5,600 worker fatalities, 375 million dollars, and a decade of earnest, heroic toil?
The second attempt at building a 50-mile passageway connecting two of the five great oceans on our planet.
If only that were all this unprecedented passageway took to come to fruition, however.
Let’s take a closer look at why the Panama Canal remains one of man’s signature engineering achievements to this day
1. Initial Attempts Failed
Colonists as far back as the early 1500s envisioned the potential for a passageway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but because ideas are vastly different than execution, it took another 368 years for the French to break ground.
Ferdinand de Lesseps — already with the successful Suez Canal (which bridged the Mediterranean and Red Sea) under his belt — took the first crack. Though his efforts did not last long, nor were they harmless.
De Lesseps’ planned to duplicate the sea-level design used for the Suez Canal. Unfortunately for De Lesseps’ and tens of thousands of workers, that plan wasn’t found to be inadequate until excavation efforts had long been underway. Turns out mountainous terrain and rock-filled dirt don’t dig quite like flat ole sand.
At the height of De Lesseps’ out-of-control project, 200 workers were dying each month. The combined onslaught of malaria, yellow fever and other tropical maladies made it difficult to retain a trained and experienced workforce, and it’s hard to imagine it did much in the way of morale for the workers lucky enough to still be standing.
So did De Lesseps throw up his hands and admit failure? Of course not!
Now mostly convinced that a sea-level design was rubbish and a locks system was needed, De Lesseps sought an actual engineer to design them. His name was Gustave Eiffel. You might be familiar with a project of his.
That dream limped on for another year before The Panama Canal Company went bankrupt. The next year De Lesseps, De Lesseps’ son, several members of management, and scapegoat engineer Eiffel were all charged in the bribery scandal.
The French spent roughly $287 million over 13 years on what was essentially some excavation, crumbling buildings and poorly maintained equipment. They also lost around 22,000 lives to diseases and work accidents (though the real number is likely much higher; only hospital deaths were recorded during the project), in addition to 800,00 French people losing their investments. Yikes.
2. Panama wouldn’t be a Sovereign Country without the Panama Canal
OK, maybe it would have happened at some point—that’s pretty impossible to say. But what we do know is that when the United States bought off French assets in 1902 so they could take on the project, Colombia—then in control of Panama—refused. But thankfully for Panama, ‘Big Stick’ President Theodore Roosevelt got involved, and let’s say, influenced the Panamanian rebels to revolt, suggesting that the U.S. Navy would have their back if they did.
And so they revolted, successfully. By late 1903, a sovereign Panama and the United States signed the Hay-Bunau Treaty. This gave the U.S. control of a 10-mile wide strip of the isthmus to construct the canal in exchange for a one-time $10 million payment.
3. Impressive and World-Changing
Unless we’re talking about the ancient pyramids or the Great Wall of China, few engineering projects can compete with the magnitude of the Panama Canal. And unlike these two other impressive feats, the Panama Canal changed world commerce, allowing ships to cut 8,000 nautical miles off their journey, not to mention a much more dangerous bypass around Cape Horn.
It’s one of the seven wonders of the modern world, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It cost $375 million (over $600 million when you factor in the French inefficiency) to complete.
No concrete project of that magnitude had been attempted until the Hoover Dam came along in the 1930s. Ships of epic proportions raised 85 feet in a matter of 8 minutes, requiring 26.7 million gallons of water, and then eventually lowered again to come out? Insane. A series of 12 locks and a relatively quick 8-10 hour process is all the original canal took for ships to get to a new ocean.
4. You Get What You Pay For
After a century of successfully passing more than a million ships through its locks, modern ships required bigger locks. In 2011 construction began to widen the canal to fit these new ship styles called “Neo Panamax” vessels. Construction wrapped up in 2016 (initially planned for 2014), costing a total of 5.25 billion (initial bid 3.1 billion), but many are speculative that the renovation won’t stand the test of time because Sacyr, the Spanish company that won the project, quickly showed they underestimated what the project would actually entail in their bid and naiveté about how much concrete they needed. Fears were momentarily confirmed when leaks were observed in concrete walls in different parts of the canal.
Those problems are now shored up, and on the morning of June 9th the first New Panamax Ship, the Baroque Valleta, entered the first of three locks. Though, it obviously remains to be seen if this new renovation stands the test of time.
Overall the initial Panama Canal project debacle and eventual achievement demonstrates the full scope of what can go wrong and right when it comes to engineering projects of absurd sizes.
Check out a time lapse of the renovation project, leaks or no leaks, it also isn’t for the faint of heart: