The Panama Canal: Its History & Its Legacy

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  • Topic: Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps
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The Panama Canal: Its History & Its Legacy
Throughout world history, numerous modes of transportation were utilized in order for people to get from one place to another. For water transportation, people had different options to get from one place to another. For short distances, they could use boats or canoes. In contrast, if someone had to travel a long ways to get to their destination, the definitive choice would be to utilize ships. Ever since ships were invented, explorers from all over the world have sailed the open seas in the hopes of discovering new places and possibly bringing something valuable back to their home land. For the most part, there weren’t any major issues that hindered the water exploration process. There were some difficulties, however, when it came to crossing from one body of water to the next in certain parts of the world. It is because of this dilemma that canals were built at key intersections of water highways. Some notable canals that have been constructed throughout history include the Suez Canal (connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea at Egypt) in 1869 and the Kiel Canal (linking the Baltic Sea and the North Sea at Germany) in 1895. However, there is one canal that bears the most significance of them all and has saved more time, money, and effort for ocean-going vessels than the other individual canals. This canal is the Panama Canal and based on the description in the previous sentence, it has rightfully earned the nickname of being the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”[6]

The origins of the Panama Canal date back to the 16th century when Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and observed that the only thing blocking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was a thin strip of land. He returned to Spain and alerted King Charles I, who issued a decree in 1534 to construct some sort of channel across the isthmus which would lead from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The king of Spain subsequently commanded the regional governor of Panama to inspect the land along the Chagres River to judge whether or not a canal could be manufactured. His prognosis was not good as he viewed that “it would be impossible for anyone to accomplish such a feat.”[3] Nonetheless, people attempted to cross Panama on foot but this was an arduous task as they had to deal with a wide range of diseases (e.g. malaria and yellow fever) as well as countless tropical species of animals. All in all, few people survived this trek as the majority had fallen victim to one of the diseases mentioned in the previous sentence as a result of being stung by mosquitoes that carried these illnesses. Due to this, the issue of having better transportation through Panama was brought up in the United States. This came after President Andrew Jackson had demanded a survey on the practicability of making a canal and the formation of “American policy toward an inter-oceanic canal.”[4]

After some time, it was decided that a railroad would be the most practical solution to get across Panama’s isthmus. Thus, the Panama Railroad Company was established in 1845 by three New York businessmen (Henry Chauncy, John L. Stephens, and William Henry Aspinwall) who acquired the rights from the government of Colombia to assemble a railroad across the isthmus (for Panama was under Colombian rule since 1821). They officially broke ground in 1850 on the mainland near Monkey Hill and finished their work five years later in 1855. The resulting line was comprised of a single track but was eventually expanded to become a double track in order to accommodate a higher volume of traffic passing on it. It was a bittersweet achievement to say the least as between 5000 & 10,000 workers perished during the assembly of the railroad due to cholera, yellow fever, and malaria. But on the bright side, this was considered an engineering marvel for that particular era which reduced the travel time across Panama as compared to how...