What’s the Panama Canal?

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The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Isthmus of Panama. Construction began in 1904 and was funded by the United States. The Canal opened in 1914, changing the future of maritime trade. The Canal has been a source of conflict between the US and Panama, with Panamanians arguing that the area around the waterway is owned almost exclusively by foreign workers. The Canal is a nearly 50-mile waterway consisting of a series of locks. Prior to its creation, ships had to travel around the southern tip of South America, which was longer and more dangerous.

The Panama Canal is a naval passage that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Isthmus of Panama. Despite several previous 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 shipping lanes on the planet.

The history of the Canal is a fascinating one, full of political intrigue. In 1903, Panama was still part of Colombia and US officials attempted to gain access to build the canal through treaties with the Colombian government. When the Colombian government refused to ratify the treaties, brash new US President Theodore Roosevelt decided to back Panama’s separatist movement, promising military aid in exchange for future development rights to the canal. Roosevelt’s unconventional plan was a surprising success; with US military aid, Panama separated from Colombia and became a separate nation, and the US began construction of the sea route a few months later. President Roosevelt’s involvement in the situation was later immortalized in the palindrome “One Man, One Plan, One Canal: Panama.”

Despite this mutually beneficial start, the Panama Canal has long been a source of conflict between the United States and Panama. Panamanians argue that the area around the waterway is owned almost exclusively by foreign workers and therefore does not actively contribute to the country’s economy. Also, many frown on the fact that the canal cuts 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 stairway or pyramid of water. Vessels enter a lock which can be isolated and raised or lowered to match the water level of the next section. The locks are currently 110 feet (33.53 m) wide, meaning that vessels built wider cannot use the Canal. The total transit time to cross the Channel is 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 crossing the southern tip of South America at the Cape of Good Hope. Not only much longer than the Channel route, the Cape route was fraught with danger from unexpected winds and storms. With the creation of the Canal, transport times between the two oceans were greatly reduced, leading to a massive increase in trade and the availability of goods.

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