Published: 12 Jan 2022

View of Panama Canal

Today, the Panama Canal stands as a testament to the engineering capabilities of the modern world. Cutting across the Isthmus of Panama, the canal allows ships to pass between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours. Learn more about this wonder of modern engineering with these 40 Panama Canal facts.

  1. The Panama Canal cuts across 82 km of the Isthmus of Panama to link the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean together.
  2. In its first year of operation alone, an estimated 1000 ships passed through the canal.
  3. Today, an estimated 15,000 ships pass through the canal every single year.
  4. Statistics estimate that over 333 million tons of shipping have passed through the canal since its opening.
  5. In terms of ships, that means over 800,000 ships have passed through the canal since it first opened.
  1. Charles V of Spain first considered digging a canal in Panama during the 16th century.
  2. Britain also began considering a canal in Panama in the 17th century.
  3. Then-US Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, encouraged Spain to start working on the canal in the late-18th century.
  4. Both Britain and the USA made plans to dig a canal in Central America during the early-19th century.
  5. The completion of the Panama Railroad in 1850 increased support for a canal in the region.
  6. France also expressed interest in a canal in 1877, encouraged by their completion of the Suez Canal in Egypt.
  7. In 1881, the French began work on the Panama Canal.
  8. The USA took over France’s efforts in the 1900s.
  9. Work on the canal stalled at the time as a result of war in the region.
  10. The USA would ultimately succeed in completing the Panama Canal in 1914.
  1. Today, the Panama Canal counts as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
  2. The USA once considered expanding the canal during WWII to allow warships to pass.
  3. It usually takes around 11 hours for ships to pass through the canal.
  4. Before the canal’s completion, ships had to go around Cape Horn, passing through either Drake Passage or the Straits of Magellan around the tip of South America.
  5. They could also go north, and risk passing through the ice-covered Arctic Archipelago and Bering Strait.
Table of Contents

The first attempts to dig the Panama Canal faced major difficulties.

Ironically, this became the case despite the French’s recent experience in digging the Suez Canal. Among these difficulties included the tropical climate, as well as the rainforests which dominated the landscape. Both caused diseases to break out among the workers, such as malaria and yellow fever. Together with hostile native wildlife, which included venomous snakes and spiders, on average, 200 workers died every month.

The French also failed to take into account the local geography, again in comparison to the previous Suez Canal project. While the Suez had a generally flat geography, Panama actually inclined upwards to the Pacific Ocean by a total of 26 meters. The nearby Chagres River also caused major flooding during the rainy season. All this meant that progress became nonexistent, draining money and manpower for nothing in return.

The Panama Affair damaged France’s efforts to dig the Panama Canal.

To keep the project going, Ferdinand de Lesseps downplayed the manpower costs in France. This allowed him to maintain a steady flow of recruits for workers, but a lack of progress meant that eventually, the money spent would need an accounting.

This took place in 1889, and the Panama Canal Company finally declared bankruptcy in 1892. An estimated 800,000 investors lost their money, which amounted to 1.8 billion Francs. This then led to accusations that certain government ministers had taken bribes from de Lesseps. The bribed ministers had then covered up the company’s financial problems and contributed to its bankruptcy. This led to a series of trials in 1893, which saw de Lesseps and several of his co-defendants imprisoned. Others either committed suicide or fled to exile in Britain to avoid their day in court.

The first American efforts to dig the Panama Canal caused a war in the region.

The Americans first began work on their project in 1902 but faced opposition from Colombia, which controlled Panama at the time. This led to the US supporting local rebels against the Colombian government. US President Theodore Roosevelt also sent troops to fight alongside the rebels and even sent the US Navy to blockade Colombia.

With Colombia still recovering from a recent civil war, they had no choice but to accept Panama’s independence, even if they didn’t officially recognize it until 1921. The new Panamanian government then signed an agreement with the US, allowing them to dig the canal through their country. More than that, they gave the US complete control of the canal, in exchange for regular lease payments.

The Americans repeatedly revised plans and designs for the canal.

The Americans bought the French assets in Panama in 1904 and immediately started making changes. First, they expanded the support infrastructure for the workforce, building not just residential areas, but also water plants, machine shops, and even cafeterias. They also expanded the nearby Panama Railway, which the Americans saw as important in moving needed supplies and men to the canal. A fumigation program also took place, along with other measures to prevent tropical diseases.

The Americans also recognized the geographical challenges of the region and abandoned French plans for a sea-level canal. Instead, they designed the modern canal’s lock system, raising and lowering ships along a series of artificial lakes, to compensate for the local geography.

Work on the canal led to the development of the biggest floating cranes at the time.

The workers called them Ajax and Hercules, named after two of the strongest heroes in Greek mythology. The Americans commissioned them from the German company Deutsche Maschinenbau AG in 1913, for an estimated $800,000 each. Work on the cranes finished in 1914, and they arrived in Panama during the same year. Each of the cranes weighed an estimated 4000 tons and towered 46 meters high. Both also depended on charcoal-fired boilers to operate their machinery.

Ajax and Hercules moved and installed the locks of the Panama Canal, and later on, provided ship repair and canal maintenance duties. Ajax later got sold to Venezuela in 1955, while Hercules received a modernization program in 1966. Hercules finally found itself placed on reserve in 1996, while a new crane, Herman the German, took over its duties.

Panama Canal Facts, Herman the German
Photo by Dave Walker from Wikipedia

Completion of the canal caused side effects in various South American economies.

The canal’s completion meant that ships could pass straight through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice-versa. This also meant that they no longer needed to pass south to go around South America either way.

This had the direct effect of reducing the volume of traffic passing through Argentinian and Chilean ports. Chile, in particular, suffered from a loss of revenue, made worse by the outbreak of WWI. It would take the expansion of copper mining and American investment in the 1920s for Chile to recover. Argentina similarly suffered a recession caused by the Panama Canal’s altering of global trade routes and forcing a diversification of their economy to recover.

Water supplies for the canal faced a crisis in the 1930s.

This led the US to build the Madden Dam along the Chagres River upstream from Gatun Lake. The dam stopped the annual flooding of the Chagres River, while also building a massive reservoir that ensured a stable water supply for the Panama Canal. The reservoir also secured a stable water supply for Panama City, as well as cheap and clean electrical power.

Named after US Congressman Martin Madden of Illinois, the dam shared its name with its reservoir. After Panama gained control of the canal and the dam, they renamed the reservoir Laka Alajuela. However, the dam continues to go by its name of the Madden Dam.

Panama demanded control of the canal after WWII.

Panamanian nationalists had always considered US control of the Panama Canal as trespassing on their country’s sovereignty. However, they never managed to gain enough support to challenge it, at least until after WWII. The war’s end caused a surge of nationalist and anti-colonial movements worldwide, which enjoyed strong public support in the US. At the same time, though, the US government proved unwilling to just abandon the advantages they had from controlling the Panama Canal.

Tension built with American support for the Egyptian takeover of the Suez Canal from Britain and France in 1956. This eventually led to riots in 1964, which saw 20 Panamanian civilians and 5 US soldiers killed. Finally, in 1974, US President James Carter signed an agreement with Panamanian revolutionary leader Omar Torrijos. In exchange for Panamanian control of the canal, they guaranteed continued freedom of passage for all nations through the canal.

Work on the Panama Canal included the forming of Gatun Lake.

The lake formed after the construction of the Gatun Dam along the Chagres River, about 10 km from its mouth on the Caribbean Sea. Measuring an area of 425 km² and containing 5.2 km³ of water, it makes up 33 km of the Panama Canal’s entire length.

The lake also acts as the main water source for the canal and keeps it passable for ships. The lake also provides additional water for Panama City and has also become a tourist destination. Fishing and boating make for popular pastimes on the lake, along with hiking and wildlife viewing in the surrounding tropical rainforest.

gatun lake
Image from Adobe Stock

Barro Colorado Island makes up the biggest island in Gatun Lake.

Like other islands in the lake, Barro Colorado once stood as a hill in the Chagres River Valley. With the forming of Gatun Lake, most of the hill became submerged underwater, leaving its upper levels an island. The US government declared the island as a nature reserve in 1923, under the management of the Smithsonian Institution. The institution eventually founded a research station on the island, aimed at studying tropical ecology.

Today, the research station, operating as part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), has stood for over 80 years. Tourists may visit the island, but need a scheduled appointment before doing so.

Miraflores Lake also lies across the length of the Panama Canal.

It’s much smaller than Gatun Lake, though, measuring only 1.8 km long. The lake formed as a result of the Miraflores Locks, which carry ships down to Balboa, and the Pacific Ocean. A visitor’s center overlooks the locks, allowing tourists to witness their operations with their own eyes. Non-Panamanian tourists must pay 15 US Dollars to access the center, however, Panamanian tourists pay a discounted rate of only 3 US Dollars.

The Gatun Locks decide which ships can pass through the canal.

This comes from the fact that ships may prove too big for the locks to carry up and down. Even if they can pass through the canal itself, that becomes meaningless if the locks cannot carry them. This led to the category of container ships called Panamax Ships, referring to ships pushing the size limit for maximum cargo capacity. These usually average between 60,000 and 80,000 tons, and an additional maximum of 52,500 tons of cargo.

Ships passing through the canal must pay a toll.

Toll depends on the kind of ships trying to pass the canal. Container ships pay for every Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU), with 1 TEU equalling 1 intermodal shipping container. Originally, container ships paid $74 per TEU, but from 2016 onward, the toll changed to only $30 per TEU for underloaded ships and $90 per TEU for fully-loaded ships.

Passenger ships, though, pay per berth, or passenger bed. As of 2016, passenger ships pay $111 per unoccupied berth and $138 per occupied berth. Other categories with their own different toll rates include warships, as well as fuel tankers.

Richard Halliburton continues to hold the record for the lowest toll paid to pass through the canal.

This took place in 1934, with Halliburton paying only 36 cents, equivalent to $5.43 today, to pass the canal. This came from the fact that Halliburton did not take a boat to pass the canal, but instead swam his way through it.

The Bridge of the Americas stretches across the Pacific end of the canal.

The completion of the Panama Canal split the cities of Colon and Panama from each other. In the following decades, infrastructural improvements on both sides of the canal only increased the need for a bridge to link north and south with each other. A swing bridge built across the Miraflores Locks in 1942 provided only a partial solution. In particular, the bridge became unusable while ships transited through the locks.

This finally led to the Bridge of the Americas’ construction in 1962 and completing the Pan-American Highway. In its first year of operation, the bridge saw an estimated 9,500 vehicles pass over it per day. Today, that number has risen to 35,000 vehicles per day. Finally, with a clearance of 61.3 meters between the bridge and the water below, the bridge also adds another limit for ships trying to pass through the canal.

Panama Canal Facts, Bridge of the Americas
Image from Wikipedia

Two other bridges stretch across the canal at other points.

Specifically, the Atlantic Bridge and the Centennial Bridge. The Atlantic Bridge crossed the canal over the Gatun Locks, near the Atlantic end of the canal. Construction began in 2013, and finished in 2019, with the bridge becoming the only crossing on the eastern side of the canal.

In contrast, the Centennial Bridge opened in 2004 to reduce the load on the Bridge of the Americas. The bridge temporarily closed in 2010 after heavy rain caused landslides nearby, only to reopen in 2011.

The Panama Canal received several improvements from the late-20th century onward.

These include improvements in the scheduling system for ships passing through the canal. The Gaillard Cut also underwent a widening program, from originally 192 meters, to 218 meters today, and the addition of 2 tie-up stations.

Tugboats working the canal have also undergone modernization, and Gatun Lake deepened from originally 10.4 meters to 11.3 meters. Gatun Lake also saw the addition of a new spillway, for improved flood control. The canal’s entrances on both oceans have also undergone deepening.

The Panama Canal Expansion Project became the latest of those, in the early-21st century.

The project developed in response to increasing traffic from Asia to the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States in the 21st century. Work began in 2007, and finished in 2016, adding two new lifts for a total of four lifts at the Gatun Locks. The new locks feature massive basins that catch and reuse 60% of the water spent when lifting ships. This, in turn, caused a net drop of 7% less water wasted during the Gatun Locks’ operations. The original lifts also saw improvements made, specifically improved access for engineers for inspection and maintenance purposes.

Panama Canal facts
Image source: Pixabay

Nicaragua has plans to build a canal of its own to compete with the Panama Canal.

They first aired their plans in 2014, with support from the Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Group (HKND). The plan called for a canal following the San Juan River, much like how the Panama Canal followed the Chagres River. Once completed, the canal would link the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists immediately expressed concern about the project, particularly its impact on Lake Nicaragua, which feeds the San Juan River, and a major water source for Central America. Other concerns include the forced relocation of over 100,000 people, should the work on the planned canal proceed.

The project’s future grew doubtful in 2015, after market losses by HKND’s head, Wan Jing. Despite work supposedly meant to begin in 2016, by 2017 no work had actually begun, and in 2018, HKND collapsed. However, Nicaragua’s government continues to insist they have not abandoned the project.

Other plans have come forward to compete with the Panama Canal.

In 2011, the Colombian government began considering plans to build a railway linking their country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts together. However, as of 2015, the Colombian Chamber of Commerce stated that the plan had only minimal priority. Even before the Colombian plan came up, though, other alternatives to the Panama Canal had entered consideration.

In particular, shipping companies have begun considering taking advantage of global warming in the Arctic. As the polar ice cap melts and recedes, the dangers of passing through the Bering Strait and the Arctic Archipelago have lessened. In fact, ever since 2000, more ships pass through this Northwest Passage every year.