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Panama Canal History

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Born on November 19, 1805 in Versailles, France. His Family was long distinguished in the French diplomatic service. At age 19, having studied law, he was appointed eleve-counsel to his uncle, then the French ambassador to Lisbon. He served in Tunis later with his father, until 1832 the year of his fathers death. Then came 7 years in Egypt, later Rotterdam, Malaga, Barcelona and Madrid.

With the new Viceroy Mohammed Said in Egypt, whom de Lesseps had befriended years ago, he rushed to Cairo and soon the construction of the Suez Canal under his command began. November 17, 1869 the Gran Opening with luxuries ceremonies, a Cairo opera house had been built for the occasion and Verdi had been commissioned to write Aida. De Lesseps became a hero presented with many decorations.



1875 de Lesseps made his first public declaration of interest in an interoceanic canal. On the first day of the new year of 1880, on board a steam launch standing of the mouth of the Rio Grande, de Lesseps young daughter Fernanda dug the first shovel of sand into a champagebox and the Panama Canal was symbolically begun. By the end of January 1881, the first group of French engineers of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique arrived at Colon and the great task of construction commenced.

In the years to follow men and machinery poured into Panama to confront the geographical obstacles of the Isthmus: the backbone of the continental divide at the Culebra Cut and the mighty Chagres river.At this time the French stood at the pinnacle of 19th century engineering. Their finest engineers and machinery were sent to work. For 8 years a valiant and determined effort was made on the isthmus. The climate, with its torrential rains, incessant heat and fatal disease, took its toll. Financial mismanagement, stock failure and bad publicity eventually forced the failure of the company. The official end came on February 4th 1889 and the companies assets went into the hands of the liquidator. By may all work was halted on the isthmus. De Lesseps died in France in 1894.

On October 20, 1894, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panamá was formerly incorporated and work was continued. Machinery was kept in a state of preservation, more surveys and mapping were done and excavation proceeded at Culebra and other points on the locks canal plan. On the morning of may 4,1904 at the Canal company headquarters in Panamá City Lieutenant Brooke formally received the French company’s assets for the United States and American control began.

It is undoubtable that the Americans benefited from the French experience, whereby many of the original problems were avoided and surmounted. Under the direction of the Isthmian Canal Commission, work progressed at a furious pace and after ten years of construction on a monumental scale , the canal was completed. It is fitting that the first vessel to pass through the Canal was the old French Craneboat La Valley still in service for the Americans.

By August 15, 1914 the Canal was officially opened by the passing of the SS Ancon. At the time, no single effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life. The American expenditures from 1904 to 1914 totaled $352,000,000, far more than the cost of anything built by the United States Government up to that time.Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American.

The opening of the waterway to world commerce on August 15, 1914, represented the realization of a heroic dream of over 400 years. The 50 miles across the isthmus were among the hardest ever won by human ingenuity. Some interesting facts:

  • A ship traveling from New York to San Francisco can save 7'872 miles using the Panama Canal instead of going around South America.
  • In the fiscal year 1994 there where 14'029 transits, which carried 170.8 million long tons of cargo and paid US $ 419.2 million in tolls.
  • The highest Canal toll was US $ 141,344.91 paid by the Crown Princess and the lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton for swimming the Canal in 1928.
  • The average time spent in transit from port to port is approx. 8 - 10 hours.
  • Until Lake Mead was formed by the building of the Hoover Dam, Gatun Lake was the largest artificial body of water in the world.

 

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