Until the Panama Canal was completed, a ship's captain who wanted to travel from New York to San Francisco had to go all the way around the continent of South America. Passing the southern tip was very dangerous because of its proximity to Antarctica and the South Pole. The Panama Canal shortens the trip from 13,000 miles to 5,200 miles.
The Spanish explorer Balboa weighed the benefit of a canal going through the narrowest section of Central America as early as 1515. Some of the millions of tons of rocks and earth excavated from the canal itself was used to form a new area of 500 acres along the Pacific coast of Panama. The name of the town on this land is Balboa, a tribute to his idea centuries later. Other excavated material turned an island into a peninsula, and more was dumped in the Panamanian jungle.
The French started the project of building the Panama Canal in 1880, but the United States completed the work. While the French were in charge, up to 2,200 people may have died from accidents and the malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases so prevalent. Another 5,609 people died when the U.S. was in charge. In all, 56,307 people were employed between 1904-1913 to help build the canal, according to the Panama Canal Authority.
The Panama Canal cuts the isthmus of Panama into a channel for ships that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It is 50.72 miles long and contains three sets of locks that allow water to rise and fall so that the ships can move through the narrow gap. They are pulled through by special locomotives called mules.
Daily, 34 ships pay a toll to pass through the Panama Canal, but very large military carriers are too big to fit. Seventy percent of the cargo that the United States imports and exports goes through this canal. It cost more than $380 million to build and took more than nine years to complete.
One of the unexpected benefits of building the Panama Canal was the discovery that mosquitoes carry yellow fever and malaria. Col. William C. Gorgas was put in charge of improving the sanitary conditions at the canal site in 1904. He is credited with eradicating yellow fever from the area. He also eliminated the rats that carried bubonic plague. By the time the canal was finished, there was a lot less malaria because of Gorgas' work.
The United States controlled the Panama Canal under a 1903 treaty. This was renewed in 1977 but, in 1999, the control of the canal passed to the government of Panama. The U.S. Southern Command headquarters still remains near the Panama Canal.