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The Panama Canal took nearly 400 years to build.

The Panama Canal took nearly 400 years to build.

Having discovered the treasures of South America and conquered the richest gold producing countries there to provide backing for wars in the Mediterranean and Europe, the Spanish discovered it was a long way home.

The substantial quantities of gold found and stolen from the native Indians in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia had a dangerous, time consuming and very long journey before it could be lodged in the Spanish Treasury. Journeys of around 17,000 miles took years rather than weeks, with the storms of Cape Horn, pirates and sickness decimating many ships that tried it.

In about 1524 advisors to Charles V suggested a shorter and safer route through the isthmus of Panama if a suitable cutting could be found to justify the enormous work necessary. The treasures of South America were so colossal that a survey of the isthmus was ordered and in 1529 plans in some detail for a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans were forwarded to Spain.

Spain at the time was too busy with wars in Europe, and the plans were quietly forgotten. However in 1534 another keen Spanish official put forward a different route for a Panama canal which was amazingly close to the route in use today. Various other plans were made but the Spanish Kings ignored them all.

It was not until 1819, probably as a result of the work of the scientist Humboldt in South America, that the Spanish Government finally showed an interest and authorised the construction of a Canal in Panama. It also allowed the creation of a company to carry out the project. Once again the project never really got going.

The 1848 Californian gold-rush led to various surveys being carried out as to the feasibility of the canal between 1850 and 1875. These showed only two possible routes, one across Panama, and the other in Nicaragua. The Colombian government allowed an international company to dig a canal in 1876 across their part of the isthmus, but the company failed.

The builder of the Suez canal was then called upon and de Lesseps formed a French company to construct a sea-level canal in Panama. The work was dogged by many serious problems, one of the most fundamental being the tidal range in the Pacific of 20 feet whilst that of the Atlantic side only 1 foot. Other flaws in route and design, as well as the tropical weather problems eventually led to the abandonment of the project causing great financial loss to many in 1899.

However the US stepped in and signed a treaty giving independence to Panama and a guarantee that the ten mile ‘Canal Zone’ be protected. Work resumed in 1904 with a drastically revised system of locks and in Panama history was made when the Canal was eventually opened in 1914 after many difficult years, and some 390 years after it was first considered.

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