What is the Panama Canal?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Panama Canal is a ship passageway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the isthmus of Panama. Despite several earlier attempts, the modern Panama Canal began construction in 1904, funded by the United States. With the opening of the Canal in 1914, the future of maritime trade changed forever, making the Panama Canal one of the most important maritime routes on the planet.

The Panama Canal is comprised of a serious of connected locks.
The Panama Canal is comprised of a serious of connected locks.

The history of the Canal is a fascinating one, rife with political intrigue. In 1903, Panama was still a part of Columbia, and US officials attempted to get access to build the canal through treaties with the Colombian government. When the Colombian government refused to ratify the treaties, new and brash US President Theodore Roosevelt decided to support the Panama separatist movement, promising military aid in return for the future rights to develop the canal. Roosevelt's unconventional plan was a surprising success; thanks to US military aid, Panama split from Columbia and became a separate nation, and the United States began construction on the sea route a few months later. President Roosevelt's involvement in the situation was later immortalized in the palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.”

Despite this mutually beneficial beginning, the Panama Canal has long been a source of strife between the US and Panama. Panamanians argue that the area around the waterway is owned almost exclusively by foreign workers and therefore is not actively contributing to the country's economy. Additionally, many disapprove of the fact that the canal slices the country in half, causing transportation and infrastructure problems.

One of the most remarkable structures ever built, the Canal itself is a nearly 50 mile (80.46 km) waterway that consists of a series of locks that create, in effect, a staircase or pyramid of water. Ships enter an lock that can be isolated and raised or lowered to match the water level of the next section. The locks are currently 110 ft (33.53 m) wide, meaning that ships built any wider cannot use the Canal. The total passage time to cross the Canal is between 8-12 hours.

The importance of the Panama Canal can hardly be overstated. Prior to its creation, ships could only travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific by sailing past the southern tip of South America at the Cape of Good Hope. Not only nearly vastly longer than the Canal route, the Cape route was fraught with danger from unexpected winds and storms. With the creation of the Canal, transportation time between the two oceans was diminished enormously, leading to a massive increase in the trade and availability of goods.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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