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The Panama Canal: The World's Greatest Engineering Project [Slide Show]

A century of easier travel
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Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of canals, and his family:

Digging the Panama Canal would be a huge job. The man picked to lead the job was Count Ferdinand de Lesseps of France. He had finished building the Suez Canal in November 1869 and it was a great success, so people saw him as the best person to lead the effort in Panama.....[ More ]

A surveyor’s camp in the forests of Panama:

By the time the first shovel full of mud was moved, several teams of surveyors had been at work for two years, making maps. The maps helped to figure out the best and easiest route for the canal.....[ More ]

Bird’s-eye view of the de Lesseps plan, 1881:

De Lesseps wanted to dig a canal that was at the same level as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Digging a canal at that level would have meant digging down all the way through it and more, enough to leave room for a deep enough canal for big ships.....[ More ]

The “Hercules” dredger:

Big jobs needed big machines. This machine is a dredge. It floats on the river and digs up mud from the bottom of the river and dumps it on the side of the river. The dredges travelled along the shallow rivers and made them deep enough for big cargo ships.....[ More ]

An excavator working on the Panama Canal, 1884:

This huge steam-powered excavator floated on a barge in the river. It would drag up mud from the bottom of the river and throw it off to the side. Its job was to make the shallow river deeper for bigger ships.....[ More ]

An idea to move ships by trains, 1884:

By 1884 the work on the Panama canal was more difficult and costing more money than anyone had thought. Some engineers thought it would be cheaper and easier to put ships on really big trains. Then you could use giant engines to pull them across the land on railways.....[ More ]

Big digging machines working on the Panama Canal, 1884:

These large machines worked on digging dirt and rocks from the ground in Panama, making a space for the canal. They were operated by steam engines and moved a lot of dirt. They travelled on railway tracks that were put down just for them.....[ More ]

The San Pablo section of the Panama Canal, 1888:

Work went on over different parts of the canal at the same time. Here, small rail lines were laid and carts were pushed right up to where dirt was being dug. Workers with shovels would fill the carts and they would be taken away.....[ More ]

Digging through the Culebra Mountain, 1888:

The biggest challenge to building the Panama Canal was digging through the Culebra hill. It was only 333 feet high, which isn’t so high to walk up, but it was very difficult to cut a big valley through it.....[ More ]

Lock gate designed by Gustav Eiffel:

By 1894 the French realized the canal would be easier to build if they used “locks” on the canal. That way the waterway could go over the hills instead of through them. Locks are a smaller part of the canal that has gates at both ends.....[ More ]

Amount of work done on the Panama Canal, 1912:

By the time the canal was finished, 268 million cubic yards of dirt and rock had been taken out of the ground or dredged from lakes. This amount of material was so huge that it could have made 63 pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.....[ More ]

Spraying to kill mosquitoes, Panama Canal, 1912:

Many people died from malaria and yellow fever in the early years of the canal construction. When the Americans took over the work on the canal in 1904, one of the main efforts had nothing to do with digging and everything to do with keeping the workers healthy.....[ More ]

Panama Canal, housing for the workers, 1912:

At one point, almost 40,000 people were working on building the canal. The big challenge was keeping these workers healthy. In the early years of work on the canal, thousands of workers had died of various diseases, so much thought was given to making sure the towns built for the workers were clean, had proper sewage, and screens over the windows to keep mosquitoes away.....[ More ]

The Pedro Miguel locks being built, 1912:

The Panama Canal locks at Pedro Miguel are almost finished here. At the left are the giant lock gates--some gates on the canal locks are 82 feet high. The tunnel at the right in the bottom of the wall is a “culvert.” Water flows into and out of the culvert to raise or lower the level of water in the lock.....[ More ]

The Gatun Locks, looking south to lake Gatun, 1920:

The Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal raise or lower ships 85 feet in three stages. In theory, two sets were built to allow simultaneous traffic in two directions, but in reality some sections of the canal are too narrow for ships to pass in opposite directions, so traffic tends to be one way in two lanes.....[ More ]

A view of how the Gatun Locks should look, 1912:

The Panama Canal has six sets of locks. The three locks at Gatun, when finished, lifted ships a total of 85 feet up or down while they were sitting in the canal water--that’s about the height of an 8-story building.....[ More ]

The walls of the Gatun Locks being built, 1912:

As the Panama Canal was being dug, the gigantic locks were being poured out of concrete.....[ More ]

Landslides in the Panama Canal, 1912:

The Culebra Cut, the part of the canal that went through the hills of Panama, was the toughest part of digging the canal. The biggest problem was that the sides of the hills kept sliding down (they’re still sliding today, only a lot more slowly).....[ More ]

A map of the Panama Canal Zone, 1912:

The map shows the three sets of locks at each end of the canal.....[ More ]

“The two shovels,” 1912:

The United States government bought the French company in 1904 and took over the work of digging the Panama Canal. “Make the dirt fly” said Teddy Roosevelt, the president of the U.S. at the time.....[ More ]

USS Ohio in the Panama Canal, 1915:

A year after the canal opened in 1914, this battleship steamed through from the Atlantic to the Pacific on its way to San Francisco. The ship was about 400 feet long, so it was fairly small compared with most battleships.....[ More ]

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