Travel blog

How the Panama Canal was Built

Posted by YMT Vacations on Dec 12, 2019 8:30:00 AM


The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important, not to mention impressive, engineering marvels. Once considered nothing more than an impossible dream by kings and explorers alike, this on-land shortcut across 50 miles of Central American jungle connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, saving ships multiple days in transit around South America.

Early Interest in the Canal de Panama

The Spanish first imagined connecting the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean through Central America’s narrowest point back in 1524. King Charles I had his regional governor survey the area to see how feasible a Canal de Panama might be, but the dense jungle and steep terrain made the cross-land shortcut impossible. For the next several centuries numerous wars, political events, and engineering limitations put plans to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama on hold.

Initial Attempts at Building the Panama Canal

The idea was taken up again in the early 19th century. Spain's government authorized the construction of a canal in 1819, and increased the project’s urgency in the late 1840s after gold was discovered in California and millions of dollars in gold needed to be transported across the world. An international company was established in 1876, but the Spanish-led team was never able to complete their plan.

Next, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal in Egypt, spent 8 years from 1880-1888 trying to build the 50-mile canal. His team ultimately failed, as well, due to poor design, landslides, and diseases.

Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal

In 1902, the American government under Teddy Roosevelt helped push the government of Panama toward independence, and when Panama gained it, they signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The US was then given exclusive possession of the Panama Canal Zone.

American engineers designed a 50-mile long sea-level canal that they started to build on May 4, 1904. The decade-long construction was marred by faulty equipment, turnover in leadership, sanitation issues, and extremely rugged terrain. But in spite of all this, the Panama Canal was finally opened by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. It cost the United States a total of $375 million to build.

Panama Canal Facts

In the more than a century since the Panama Canal was completed, it has grown into a vital tool for global commerce that operates on an incredibly massive scale. The more you know about how the Canal functions, the more impressive it is.

  • The Canal saves boats 7,900 miles that they would otherwise have to travel around Cape Horn on the tip of South America
  • It takes an average of 10 hours to cross the Panama Canal, savings ships weeks in transit
  • Canal authority was returned to Panama from the United States on December 31, 1999, and has remained with Panama ever since
  • The Canal earns over $2 billion in tolls every year
  • In 1928, American Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Canal, paying a toll of 36 cents—the lowest price ever for the smallest “vessel” to traverse the Canal

Panama Canal Locks


Whether starting on the Pacific or Atlantic side, ships first enter a series of three locks. The locks—which act like elevators that are raised and lowered by filling or emptying fixed chambers with water—raise the ships from sea level to 85 feet above sea level, the same altitude as Gatun Lake and the various other artificial canals and waterways that make up the canal. They then travel across these connected bodies of water to the other side of the Canal. At the end, boats are lowered by another set of three locks to sea level and returned to open waters.

Until 2016, there were only two lanes on either side of the Canal. This slowed down transit times due to traffic, and limited the maximum size of vessels to a standard known as Panamax. A ten-year expansion project concluded in Spring of 2016, which opened a third lane that enabled passage of larger New Panamax ships.

Take a Panama Canal Cruise with YMT Vacations

A daylight cruise through the Panama Canal allows you to truly appreciate all that went into making the project possible. To join us on one of our itineraries down to the Panama Canal, call your travel consultant or YMT Vacations today at 1-888-756-9072.

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Topics: Asia, International Travel