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Triumph of 100-year-old Panama Canal came with dangerous costs

August 15, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
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HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a century ago today when the Panama Canal first opened, the completion of an enormous engineering feat that helped grow American commerce and transform global trade.

Since then, ships have transported eight billion tons of cargo from there, but the waterway’s history is a complicated one, filled with its share of tragedy and political tensions.

Gwen Ifill gets perspective on its impact in a conversation recorded earlier this week, but first her look back at what it took to get the Panama Canal built.

GWEN IFILL: From shipping vessels to cruise liners to luxury yachts, over a million ships have passed through the Isthmus of Panama since its canal opened on August 15, 1914. Spanning a strip of mountainous land between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the canal is a conduit for business and sea power, shortening the trip from New York to San Francisco by nearly 8,000 miles.

The triumph of engineering, man’s harnessing of water and moving of mountains, took over 30 years to complete.

KIM STEENTOFT, Ship captain: It’s a huge achievement they made when they produced 100 years back. If you think about the locks are nearly the same today, and it’s what they built 100 years back, it’s a huge achievement.

GWEN IFILL: The French broke ground on the project in 1881. But soaring costs, engineering problems, and a steep death toll from yellow fever estimated at 22,000 people ended French involvement.

But where the French saw failure, President Theodore Roosevelt saw opportunity, a chance to unlock America’s economic power. In 1903, Panama gained independence from Columbia, with U.S. support. In return for Washington’s backing and recognition, the new government surrendered sovereignty over a portion of the country that would become known as the Canal Zone.

The U.S. officially took over in 1904, but yellow fever, one of the major hurdles to the project’s success, remained. It wasn’t until Dr. Colonel William Gorgas targeted mosquitoes that health officials gained the upper hand.

The U.S. also came up with a new engineering approach, discarding plans for a sea level route, in favor of a series of locks that could lift ships as much as 85 feet through the complex mountain formations, before being lowered again to sea level.

But the massive excavation and construction process was still fraught with danger.

The PBS program “American Experience” recounted the campaign:

WILLIAM DANIEL DONADIO, Panama Canal worker descendent: They’d hear this tooting of the whistles blaring out, and they’d know that something went wrong, a slide. So they had to use pick and shovels to dig them out. They knew that a next slide could come down on them too and bury them too. The mountain didn’t want to be crushed the way they did it, and the mountain fought back.

GWEN IFILL: Ten months after President Woodrow Wilson used a telegraph to detonate the last dike in October 1913, the steamship S.S. Ancon became the first vessel to officially transit the Panama Canal. The U.S. then controlled the canal until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos agreed to turn it over to full Panamanian control by the end of the century.

Since then, the Panama Canal Authority has exclusively managed the nearly-50-mile-long transit route; 14,000 vessels now travel the canal each year. Next year, it is expected to double in size, with an expansion project designed to nearly triple the amount of shipping containers vessels can carry through the canal.