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The American Building of the Panama Canal, completing Panama's largest tourist attraction

The more you know about the colorful history of the Panama Canal before you start your Panama tours, the more fascinating the spectacle will be as you stand before it. In any undertaking of great magnitude, it is invaluable to have the benefit of prior mistakes to help you succeed where others have failed. The American government had the French to thank when, in 1903, it took over the building of the Panama Canal, the largest most audacious and expensive engineering project the world had ever seen. Half a century before, American surveys had concluded that cutting a canal through a mountain wasn't feasible, but with so much work already completed, starting over elsewhere seemed the less desirable of the two alternatives.

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Linked by a seies of locks from Gatun to the Pacific

When John F. Stevens took over as chief engineer in 1905, he zeroed in on the two problems that had defied the French and ended their venture in bankruptcy—how to excavate through the mountainous terrain of Culebra Pass and how to dam the raging Chagres River. Heavy rains that shortened the work schedule and ever-present mud slides had turned the French method into a two-steps-forward-one-step-back proposition. Helped by advances in technology, the Americans were able to stay ahead of nature and devise an integrated solution to both problems.
Excavation was expedited simply by being able to use the much larger steam shovels that had been developed in the years since the French effort. Working from both sides towards the middle, twenty-three of the new machines were assigned to work on the Culebra cut, measuring 300 feet wide at the bottom and 1,800 feet at the top. Each shovel had the capacity to fill a rail car in just eight minutes, operated by crews of ten who lived on-site. Of the 300 million cubic yards of material excavated to complete the canal, a third came from the Culebra cut.
The canal design consisted of a series of locks, three at Gatun on the Caribbean, north of Culebra, and two on the Pacific side, south of the cut, separated by a 163 square-mile lake. The building of the five sets of 1,000-ft long 110-ft wide locks was the final ambitious undertaking of the canal's construction. Work on the Gatun locks began in 1909 and the Pacific set a year later. The locks were designed as pairs, so vessels could travel in both directions at once, separated by a sixty-ft thick wall. The inland Pedro Miguel locks were finished first, in 1911, then the Miraflores locks at the Pacific entrance in May of 1913, the same month the Culebra cut was completed, and the Gatun locks the following September.
To prevent the waters of Gatun Lake from escaping into the Culebra cut, a temporary earthen dam, called the Gamboa Dike had been put in place. The dike was gradually eliminated using dynamite charges, with the final charge symbolically ignited by the push of a button by President Woodrow Wilson on October 10, 1913. As the grand opening neared, workers scrambled to clear one last mud slide from the Culebra cut that threatened the upcoming media event.
By the time the big day finally arrived, the world's attention was focused elsewhere. As the water gradually filled the canal during the final three weeks in preparation for the August 15, 1914 opening ceremonies, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain all entered World War I. The impressive cavalcade of a hundred U.S. Navy warships passing through the canal was scrapped. The opening of the canal, though noted in the press, did not make the front page.
All five of the Southern Explorations Panama tours visit the Panama Canal. Two include Panama tours of Gatun Lake, the eight-day Panama Adventure and Panama Family Adventure trips.


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General Panama Articles
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
The Birds of Panama
The Red Frogs of Panama
The Magnificent Coral of Panama
Surfing in Panama
Surfing the Caribbean Coast of Panama
Surfing the Pacific Coast of Panama
Snorkeling & Diving in Panama
Snorkeling & Diving in Pacific Panama
Snorkeling in the San Blas Islands
Snorkeling & Diving in Bocas del Toro
Panama's Marine Turtles
Saving The Marine Turtles of Panama
The Leatherback Turtles of Panama
The Hawksbill Turtles of Panama
The Olive Ridley Turtles of Panama
The Green Turtles of Panama
Whale Watching Around Panama
Whales on Tour in Panama
Indigenous Peoples of Panama
Indigenous Panama
The Kuna People of Panama
The Kuna Yala
The Embera-Wounaan People of Panama
The Ngobe-Bugle People of Panama
The Naso People of Panama
Panama's Islands
The Caribbean Islands of Western Panama
The Caribbean Islands of Central and Eastern Panama
The Pacific Islands of Eastern Panama
The Pacific Islands of Central and Western Panama
About the Panama Canal
French Dreams of a Panama Canal
The French Building of the Panama Canal
Working and Dying on the French Panama Canal Construction Project
The American Building of the Panama Canal
Working on the American Panama Canal Project
Diplomacy and the Start of America's Control of the Panama Canal
Diplomacy and the End of US Control of the Panama Canal