Few journeys through the engineering history books are as impressive or beautiful as a trip down the “eighth wonder of the engineering world – the Panama Canal.

Linking the mighty Atlantic and Pacific oceans took over three centuries of work by two nations. The Panama Canal is beauty and function on a scale beyond compare, with nature, machine and man working in total harmony.

Although the idea for a mighty canal dates as far back as 1513 to Spanish conquistador Balboa, the actual construction by the French Canal Company did not begin until 1880. But engineering problems, financial burdens and diseases such as malaria took their toll and the French sold the canal’s rights and properties to the United States for $40 million.

The US began construction in 1904. As staggering as the concept of digging through the continental divide was, the project also involved constructing the largest earth dam ever built up to that time, designing and building the most massive canal locks ever envisioned, constructing the largest gates ever swung and solving environmental problems of enormous proportions.

Through the efforts of over 80,000 workers and the loss of over 30,000 lives, the greatest single construction project ever undertaken was completed. It took 10 years and cost roughly $387 million: more money than the United States had ever spent on anything in its history.

With the transiting of the SS Ancon on 15 August 1914, the Panama Canal celebrated its official opening and instantly shortened vessel voyage times and fuel consumption, while dramatically improving the delivery time for the world’s goods. The waterway also provided a major boost to international trade. Today, the canal is as crucial to global shipping and commerce today as it was over 90 years ago.

How it works

Through a process involving locomotives or “mules”, the massive Gatun Lake and three sets of locks, ships are lifted and lowered a total of 170 feet as they pass from the Caribbean to the Pacific, crossing the Isthmus of Panama and straight through the continental divide.

The mules run on tracks along both sides of the locks, pulling a ship through the entire length of the Gatun Locks. As a ship approaches the first chamber, its engines are shut off and the mules are attached. The ship is pulled in as the huge steel gates close silently behind. Canal workers open valves that allow water from Gatun Lake to flow into the chamber through openings in the bottom of the lock.

Cruising the canal

A Panama Canal cruise offers more than a passage through the historic canal – it also includes the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Mexico.