Panama Canal

Why is The Panama Canal a marker in the history of construction worldwide?

The Panama Canal is a landmark piece of construction that was built between 1903 and 1914. The idea behind it goes back to 1513 when Vasco Núñez de Balboa first crossed the isthmus, however, it wasn’t until the 1900s when technology caught up with vision in order to make those ideas a reality. The canal required construction innovation on many levels, from the locks to the equipment devised. It paved the way for many similar projects that followed and marked a pivotal moment in the history of construction worldwide.

Background to The Panama Canal

France was the first country to try to bridge the isthmus of Panama with the intention of linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The French began by attempting a sea-level canal but were thwarted on many levels, from the yellow fever that spread among the construction workers to the rains that caused almost constant landslides in the area. So, the French gave up and in 1902 the Americans bought the French assets in the canal zone for $40 million. Before construction could begin, a treaty over the right to build had to be agreed. The government at the time refused the US approach but a new Panamanian government agreed to give the US rights to the canal zone in perpetuity in 1903.

Beginning construction on The Panama Canal

The first American engineer to tackle the project also tried a sea-level design but ended up resigning, finding it too difficult to achieve. John Stevens, a railroad specialist, became the Chief Engineer in 1905. He turned the project around by ordering new construction equipment specifically designed for the challenges of the terrain and switching to a lock canal system. His work also included improving the speed and efficiency of the project, for example by using a swinging boom to lift chunks of railroad track so that the route for removing material from the site could be easily adjusted. And he employed chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas who was instrumental in reducing the impact of malaria and yellow fever on the workforce that built the canal.

The construction road to success

The size and scale of the project, as well as the intense challenges that The Panama Canal faced are some of the reasons why it is such a landmark project in global construction. For example, a 9-mile mountain range between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel had to be excavated to make way for the canal but dynamite explosions caused constant fear of landslides. The giant locks that were to be used also had to be carefully and specifically constructed. Each chamber measured 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long and had to lift ships to 85 metres above sea level to the man-made Gatún Lake. The locks alone required 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete and the excavation moved some 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt. The reported cost of the project was $375,000,000, including the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 paid to the French company for its assets.

The Panama Canal will always be one of the most iconic construction projects in history, despite its difficulties and challenges. The achievements of those who designed and built it continue to inspire us today – get in touch with The RG Group to discuss your project.

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