The Panama Canal
In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt had a dream of a dominant America in both major oceans, connected by an American canal. With his inspiration, construction began on what has been called the largest project of any kind ever undertaken. Now that it is complete, the Panama Canal makes the world a much smaller place for ocean-going vessels of all sizes.
Ideas for a canal across Panama have been in the works ever since the time the isthmus was discovered. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the 50-mile wide land bridge and claimed the water on the other side in the name of Spain. Shortly after, in 1534, a team was sent to survey possible canal routes that would follow the Chagres River, but it was deemed to be impossible to build at the time.
There were no other notable instances of interest in a canal until 1848, when the California Gold Rush swept the United States. The Panama railroad was completed in 1851, and transported millions of dollars worth of gold and other riches from one sea to the next. In 1952, future president Ulysses S. Grant led the American Fourth Infantry across the isthmus and 150 of his men died of cholera in the jungle, inspiring him to commission surveys in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama during his presidency in 1969. The survey teams, which were supervised by the Secretary of the Navy, decided that a route through Nicaragua would be the best for a transcontinental canal (www.pancanal.com). Three decades later, President McKinley’s U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission would also favor the Nicaraguan route, but for reasons which will be discussed later, the Panamanian route was ultimately chosen.
The only physical attribute of Panama that makes it conducive to canal-digging is the fact that it is a narrow stretch of land. Almost every other characteristic of the isthmus hinders construction. The low, green mountains in the area look tame and easy to dig through, but looks can be deceiving. Instead of being formed by the lateral pressure of two plates colliding with one another, these mountains were formed by individual volcanic activity, causing very inconsistent rock formations beneath the surface. Adding to this confusion is the fact that over the course of its geologic history, the isthmus has gone through periods of submersion, which adds some marine formations to the mix.
The environment in Panama is also deceptively attractive looking. Extremely close to the equator, the isthmus is covered in tropical rainforest similar to the Amazon. This kind of environment incubates diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, and malaria, not to mention the poisonous snakes and insects that it breeds. Two seasons exist there: wet and dry. During the wet season, heavy rains combine with the topography of the land to cause flash flooding on the Chagres River, causing it to rise up to 40 feet in a 24 hour period (www.pancanal.com).