The Panama Canal opens to traffic (August 15, 1914) - History Key

The Panama Canal opens to traffic (August 15, 1914)

Since 1914, the Panama Canal has been an important point for international shipping. It is estimated that about 5% of the international commercial transports are made through the Panama Canal.

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was officially inaugurated which linked the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean through the Caribbean Sea. Every year, more than 14,000 vessels pass the canal carrying about 20 million tons of cargo.

Map of the Panama Canal
Map of the Panama Canal © Thomas Römer/ CC BY-SA 2.0/Image Source: Wikipedia

Trust me, I’m an engineer

The Panama Canal has been one of the most difficult engineering projects ever made, but it had a great impact between the two great oceans. Until the canal was open, the transportation was made through Drake Strait. Thus, after the construction of the canal, a ship wishing to arrive from New York to San Francisco had to travel only 9,500 km instead of 22,500 km.

The idea of a canal dates back to the 16th century when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V suggested that a navigable road built through Panama would considerably ease and shorten the voyage of Spanish ships from Ecuador and Peru by uniting the two oceans.

In 1698 the King of Scotland launched the Darien Scheme which involved a trading route on land, but the idea was dropped quickly. Anyway, around 1880 a railroad united the shores of the two oceans through Panama. The project belonged to the French.

The Culebra Cut, or Gaillard Cut, in 1896
The Culebra Cut, or Gaillard Cut, in 1896 © archive.org Panama/ Image Source: Wikipedia

Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat that developed the Suez Canal, was designated to build the Panama Canal. After 13 years of overwhelming efforts, the failure was total. Disease, difficult terrain, endless rains and more than 20,000 life losses was enough to stop the project. Even more, the French press, accused Lesseps of embezzling the funds.

Excavator at work, in Bas Obispo, 1886
Excavator at work, in Bas Obispo, 1886 © Image Source: Wikipedia

At the beginning of the 20th century a new attempt was made by the US and Panama. The Americans took advantage of Panama’s help to “get away” from Columbia and to become an independent country. Basically Panama forced the local authorities to grant the channel, which later become an US controlled area. Although by introducing increased hygiene measures, the illnesses didn’t make the same victims like before.

The first ship to transit the canal, the SS Ancon, passes through on 15 August 1914
The first ship to transit the canal, the SS Ancon, passes through on 15 August 1914 © Image Source: Wikipedia

However, this time also the death took its tribute: no more than 5609 workers lost their lives until 1914 when the canal was officially opened.

Construction of locks on the Panama Canal, 1913
Construction of locks on the Panama Canal, 1913 © Marine, Thos. /Image Source: Wikipedia

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