The Panama Canal, a marvel of engineering and a pivotal pathway for global maritime trade, holds a history as fascinating as its construction is monumental. From its controversial beginnings to its influence far beyond the shores of Panama, the canal’s story weaves through international politics, remarkable feats, and curious anecdotes. Here are five captivating facts about this world-famous waterway.
1. U.S. Control and Controversy: The United States once managed a 10-mile-wide zone around the Panama Canal, stirring significant controversy. Many Americans were divided over this issue in the 1970s, seeing the U.S. presence as a violation of Panamanian sovereignty. This tension led to riots in 1964 and eventually, under President Carter, to the signing of two treaties in 1977. These treaties outlined the gradual transfer of the canal’s control to Panama by the end of 1999. Despite resistance from some U.S. circles, the agreement included a provision allowing the U.S. the perpetual right to defend the canal and prioritizing U.S. military vessels in its usage.
2. Nuclear Plans Abandoned: In a rather audacious chapter of history, the United States once considered using nuclear explosions to aid in construction projects, including widening the Panama Canal. This idea, part of a broader project known as “Operation Plowshare,” was eventually abandoned due to the severe radioactive contamination and fallout resulting from testing. The realization of the environmental and health impacts of such activities led to the scrapping of these plans.
3. A Swim for the Record Books: In 1928, adventurer Richard Halliburton paid the lowest toll ever recorded for crossing the Panama Canal – just 36 cents. He achieved this by swimming the canal’s approximately 80-kilometer length from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
4. A Deadly Construction Project: The construction of the Panama Canal, initially started by France and completed by the United States, was marked by extreme peril and loss of life. Between 1881 and 1914, it’s estimated that around 25,000 workers lost their lives, primarily due to diseases and hazardous working conditions. The mortality rate was staggering, with about 408 deaths per 1,000 workers, making it one of the deadliest construction projects in history.
5. Panama City, Florida’s Name Game: The Florida city originally known as Harrison changed its name to Panama City, attempting to capitalize on the fame of the newly built Panama Canal. Intriguingly, if one were to draw a straight line from Chicago to the Panama Canal, it would intersect with Panama City, Florida, highlighting the city’s strategic rebranding efforts to boost tourism.