Building the Panama Canal
In 1519 the Spanish Governor Pedrarias the Cruel, moved his capital away from the debilitating climate and unfriendly AmerIndians of the Darién to a fishing village on the Pacific coast called Panama, meaning “plenty of fish.” It was resettled and until the end of the sixteenth century served as the Caribbean port for trans-isthmian traffic. A trail known as the Camino Real, or royal road, linked Panama and Nombre de Dios. Along this trail, traces of which can still be followed, gold from Peru was carried by muleback to Spanish galleons waiting on the Atlantic coast.
The increasing importance of the isthmus for transporting treasure and the delay and difficulties posed by the Camino Real inspired surveys ordered by the Spanish crown in the 1520s and 1530s to ascertain the feasibility of constructing a canal. The idea was finally abandoned in mid-century by King Philip II (1556- 98), who concluded that if God had wanted a canal there, He would have built one.
Throughout the nineteenth century, governments and private investors in the United States, Britain, and France displayed interest in building a canal in Nicaragua or Panama. Colombia’s attempt to attract canal interest finally brought French attention to bear on Panama. After several surveys, a concession of exclusive rights was obtained from Colombia, and a company was formed in 1879 to construct a sea-level canal generally along the railroad route. Ferdinand de Lesseps, of Suez Canal fame, headed the company.
A ceremonious commencement of work was staged by de Lesseps on January 1, 1880, but serious earth moving did not start until the next year. As work progressed, engineers judged that a sea-level canal was impracticable. De Lesseps could not be convinced until work had gone on for six years. Actual labor on a lock canal did not start until late in 1888, by which time the company was in serious financial difficulty. Efforts to get the French government to guarantee his bonds were blocked by the United States, on the grounds that such action would lead to government control in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The end result in January 1889 was the appointment of a receiver to liquidate the company, whereupon all work stopped.
An estimated two-fifths of the excavation necessary for the eventual canal had been completed. Many headquarters and hospital buildings were finished, and the railroad had been maintained. However, a large labor force, mostly African Antilleans became unemployed. More than half were repatriated, but thousands remained, many of whom eventually worked on the United States canal.
When the United States canal builders arrived in 1904 to begin their task, Panama City and Colón were both small towns. A single railroad stretched between the towns, running alongside the muddy scars of the aborted French effort. The new builders were haunted by the ghosts of De Lesseps’s failure and of the workers, some 25,000 of whom had died on the project.
The new builders were able to learn from De Lesseps’s mistakes and to build on the foundations of the previous engineering. The most formidable task the North Americans faced was that of ridding the area of deadly mosquitoes.
After a couple of false starts under a civilian commission, President Roosevelt turned the project over to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, guided by Colonel George Washington Goethals. Colonel William Crawford Gorgas was placed in charge of sanitation. In addition to the major killers–malaria and yellow fever–smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, and intestinal parasites threatened the newcomers.
Because the mosquito carrying yellow fever was found in urban areas, Gorgas concentrated his main efforts on the terminal cities. “Gorgas gang” workers dug ditches to drain standing water and sprayed puddles with a film of oil. They screened and fumigated buildings, even invading churches to clean out the fonts of holy water. They installed a pure water supply and a modern system of sewage disposal. Goethals reportedly told Gorgas that every mosquito killed was costing the United States US$10.
Gorgas’s work is credited with saving at least 71,000 lives. The cleaner, safer conditions enabled the canal diggers to attract a labor force. By 1913 approximately 65,000 men were on the payroll. Most were Africans and African Americans from the West Indians, although some 12,000 workers were recruited from southern Europe. Five thousand United States citizens filled the administrative, professional, and supervisory jobs. To provide these men with the comforts and amenities to which they were accustomed, a paternalistic community was organized in the Canal Zone.
The most challenging tasks involved in the actual digging of the canal were cutting through the mountain ridge at Culebra, building a huge dam at Gatún to trap the Río Chagres and form an artificial lake, and building three double sets of locks–Gatun Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks, and Miraflores Locks–to raise the ships to the lake, almost twenty-six meters above sea level, and then lower them. On August 15, 1914, the first ship made a complete passage through the canal.
By the time the canal project was completed, its economic impact had created a new middle class. In addition, new forms of discrimination occurred. Panamanian society had become segregated not only by class but by race and national origin as well. Furthermore, United States commercial competition and political intervention had already begun to generate resentment among Panamanians.
Source: http://countrystudies. us/panama/