After the French gave up, an American team began and ultimately had greater success. First, though, they had to deal with Colombia, the owner of Panama, which refused to give America a franchise to build. President Teddy Roosevelt, in a classic move of imperialism and practicality, helped Panama declare its independence from Colombia in 1903. Shortly thereafter, the new government authorized French businessman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, to negotiate a treaty with the United States. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty allowed the U.S. to build the Panama Canal and provided for perpetual control of a zone five-miles wide on either side of the canal, creating the political and institutional framework for a successful project. It was completed in 1914.
|Plaque in Plaza de Francia|
|Plaque on Ancon Hill|
(The first day cover below is of the last postage stamp issued by the Canal Zone, in 1978.)
|From the collection of Henry Fidanque|
Full Panamanian control occurred on December 31, 1999. Notably, still feeling the pressure of American mixed sentiment, President Clinton did not attend the turning-over ceremony a couple of weeks before, nor did he send any high-ranking American officials to share the podium with the leader of Panama. An assistant secretary of the Army represented the US in handing over billions of dollars in assets to Panama.
However, there remained an underlying design problem in the canal, the inability of the new generation of larger ships to fit through the locks, requiring containers to be unloaded at one end of the canal, transported by railroad (see below), and reloaded on the other coast.
Likewise, oil shipments are sent via pipeline from tankers in one ocean to those in the other. But that is about to change.
The New York Times recently ran this story about the construction project to widen the Panama Canal. Here's an excerpt:
COCOLÍ, Panama — For now, the future of global shipping is little more than a hole in the ground here, just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean. Ah, but what a hole it is.
About a mile long, several hundred feet wide and more than 100 feet deep, the excavation is an initial step in the building of a larger set of locks for the Panama Canal that should double the amount of goods that can pass through it each year.
The $5.25 billion project, scheduled for completion in 2014, is the first expansion in the history of the century-old shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific. By allowing much bigger container ships and other cargo vessels to easily reach the Eastern United States, it will alter patterns of trade and put pressure on East and Gulf Coast ports like Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans to deepen harbors and expand cargo-handling facilities.
I was given a tour of the construction site today, and it is indeed a spectacular project. Here's a short video:
If you can't see the video click here. You can read more about the project here and see some images from the tour here on Facebook.
|Future site of third set of locks, Pacific side|