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Construction of the Panama Canal

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The Idea of Creating a Canal

The interest to establish a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific began with the explorers of Central America at the beginning of the century XVI Courteous, when Vasco Nú6nez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus in 1513. Balboa discovered that a tiny earth strip separated both oceans. The Emperor Carlos V of the Sacred Germanic Roman Empire, that also was Carlos I of Spain, initiated a movement to construct a passage through the Isthmus.

[image]By a decree emitted in 1534, Carlos ordered to the regional governor of Panama to make the surveys to construct a route towards the Pacific following the Chagres River. This was the first study made for the construction of a canal that will allowed ships to cross from one ocean to other thru Panama. when the map was finished, the governor communicated that nobody would will obtain such feat.

 

The French Canal Construction

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De Lesseps rejected all the plans because they contained the construction of tunnels and locks. A new survey was ordered and an International Technical Commission of well-known engineers went to Panama, accompanied by de Lesseps, to get a first-hand look at the Isthmus. Making good on his promise to dig the first spade of earth for the Panama Canal on January 1, 1880, de Lessfeps organized a special ceremony.

By October, equipment and materials were arriving and accumulating in Colon faster than a work force could be hired to use them.  By December 1881, the French had set up headquarters in Panama City at the Grand Hotel on Cathedral Plaza.

The official beginning of Culebra Cut excavation on January 20, 1882.

The American Canal Construction[image]

The beginning of the U.S. canal construction effort dates from May 4, 1904, when, in a brief ceremony, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer Lieutenant Mark Brooke received the keys to the storehouses and Ancon Hospital.  Chief Sanitary Officer Dr .William Crawford Gorgas and his staff were among the first to arrive and set up operations.

Panama was enveloped in its own “miasmal mist” of failure following the French Canal adventure.  The second Walker Commission, the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission of 1899-1902, ordered by President McKinley, favored a Nicaragua route, as did both popular and official U.S. support.

With the route decided, it was now time to begin negotiations with Colombia for a concession to build a canal through the Colombian province of Panama.  Impatient to build the canal, Roosevelt supported Panama’s independence movement.

 

Problems at the Culebra Cut

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When the canal was first designed, the problem of landslides had been ignored. Slides of earth and more importantly rock, increased the amount of excavation within Culebra. The slides caused the upper edge of the cut to be taken back beyond their original lines. The original design for the banks comprised a series of narrow benches which acted as rock catchers, alternating with short steep slopes. It was first decided by the International Board of Consulting Engineers that the rock would be stable at a slope of 1 in 1.5, it was also stated the rock had the strength to stand at a height of 73.5 meters at 1 in 1.5. In fact the rock began to collapse from that slope at a height of only 19.5 meters.

The first major slide occurred in 1907 at Cucaracha. The initial crack was first noted on October 4th, 1907, then without warning approximately 382,000 cubic meters of clay, moved more than 4 meters in 24 hours. This slide caused many people to suggest the construction of the Panama Canal would be impossible. The clay was too soft to be excavated by the steam shovels and was eventually removed by sluicing with water from a high level.

The Locks Designs[image]

The original lock canal plan called for one three-step set of locks at Gatun, one step at Pedro Miguel and a two-step set at Sosa Hill.  In late 1907, it was decided to move the Sosa Hill locks further inland to Miraflores, mostly because the new site provided a more stable construction foundation, but also because it afforded greater protection against sea bombardment.

The locks took their names from geographic names already in common use before the Canal was built.  All lock chambers have the same 110 by 1,000 feet dimensions, and they are built in pairs.  The locks have been called the structural triumph of the Panama Canal and are a unique aspect of the waterway.  At the time of their construction, their overall mass, dimensions and innovative design surpassed any similar existing structures, and they are still considered to be an engineering wonder of the world.

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty [image]

Panama declared independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903.  The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was negotiated by the new republic’s “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” Philippe Bunau-Varilla with John Hay.

The new treaty was sent to Panama for ratification. The treaty granted to the United States as if sovereign a canal concession in perpetuity to a canal zone 10 miles wide, 5 miles on either side of the Canal prism line. Whether they liked it or not, the founders of Panama had little choice but to accede, as to refuse would have withdrawn all U.S. support from the fledgling republic and further dealings with Colombia. It was this arrangement, however, that gave the United States the control it needed in this vastly underdeveloped country to get the monumental job of canal construction done.

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was ratified in Panama on December 2, 1903, and in the United States on February 23, 1904. Upon the treaty’s ratification in the United States on February 23, 1904, Panama received a payment of $10 million.

End of The Construction

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The first complete Panama Canal passage by a self-propelled, oceangoing vessel took place on January 7, 1914.  The Alexandre La Valley, an old French crane boat that had previously been brought from the Atlantic side now came through the Pacific locks.

With the end of construction nearing, the Canal team began to disassemble and go on to other things.  Thousands of workers were laid off, townsites were abandoned and moved with hundreds of buildings disassembled or demolished. Effective April 1, 1914, the Isthmian Canal Commission ceased to exist and a new administrative entity, the Canal Zone Governor, was officially established.  Colonel Goethals became the first Governor of the Panama Canal, unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Plans were made for a grand celebration to appropriately mark the official opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914.  [image]

The Panama Canal Length

The length of the Panama Canal is approximately 51 miles. A trip along the canal from its Atlantic entrance would take you through a 7 mile dredged canal in Limon Bay.

Along the route of the canal there is a series of 3 sets of locks, the Gatun, Pedro Miguel and the Miraflores locks. At Gatun there are 2 parallel sets of locks each consisting of 3 flights. This set of locks lift ships a total of 26 meters. All three sets of locks are paired; that is, there are two parallel flights of locks at each of the three lock sites.

The lock chambers are 33.53 meters (110 ft) wide by 320.0 meters (1050 ft) long, with a usable length of 304.8 meters (1000 ft). These dimensions determine the maximum size of ships which can use the canal; this size is known as Panamax. The total lift (the amount by which a ship is raised or lowered) in the three steps of the Gatun locks is 25.9 m (85 ft); the lift of the two-step Miraflores locks is 16.5 m (54 ft).

The Locks

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The project of building the locks began with the first concrete laid at Gatun, on August 24, 1909. The locks at Gatun are built into a cutting made in a hill bordering the lake, which required the excavation of 3,800,000 m³ of material, mostly rock. The locks themselves were made of 1, 564,400 m³ of concrete.

The quantity of material needed to construct the locks required extensive measures to be put in place to handle the stone and cement. Stone was brought from Portobelo to the Gatun locks; the work on the Pacific side used stone quarried from Ancon Hill.

The Pacific-side locks were finished first; the single flight at Pedro Miguel in 1911 and Miraflores in May, 1913. The seagoing tug Gatun, an Atlantic entrance working tug used for hauling barges, had the honor on September 26, 1913, of making the first trial lockage of Gatun Locks. The lockage went perfectly, although all valves were controlled manually since the central control board was still not ready.

The Gates

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The gates which separate the chambers in each flight of locks must hold back a considerable weight of water, and must be both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as the failure of a gate could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream.

The original gate machinery consisted of a huge drive wheel, powered by an electric motor, to which was attached a connecting rod, which in turn attached to the middle of the gate. These mechanisms were replaced with hydraulic struts beginning in January 1998, after 84 years of service. The gates are so well balanced that two 19 kilowatt (25 horsepower) motors are enough to move each gate leaf; if one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed.

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___________.WEBSCOLAR. Construction of the Panama Canal. http://www.webscolar.com/construction-of-the-panama-canal. Fecha de consulta: 21 de abril de 2019.

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