One of the world's greatest human-made marvels, the Panama Canal stretches 51 miles from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Atlantic side, cutting right through the continental divide. A very large number of vessels pass through each year. Each one paying up to $3 to $4 hundred thousand dollars a trip.
The canal has three sets of double locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side and Gatun on the Atlantic. Between the locks, ships pass through a huge artificial lake, Lake Gatun, created by the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, and the Culebra Cut, a 9 mile cut through the rock and shale of the isthmian mountains.
The canal locks are at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake (about 85 feet) then to lower the ships at the other end. The complete trip takes 8 to 10 hours.
With the passage of each ship, a staggering 197 million liters of fresh water is released into the ocean. The new canal, paralleling the old one, utilizes a very clever system of recycling the water needed to operate the locks. Larger ships can pass through those locks and pay one million dollars for the journey.
France initially worked on the canal but failed due to engineering problems and the high mortality rate. Malaria was rampant and only when mosquitoes were eliminated did the disease ceased to exist and the work continue.
The United States took over from the French in 1904 and completed the canal in 1914.
Under a 1903 treaty, the United States controlled both the waterway and a large section of the surrounding land, known as the Panama Canal Zone, as if they were U.S. territories. Panamanians resented this arrangement and argued that their country was unfairly denied benefits from the canal. Eventually, riots and international pressure led the United States to negotiate two new treaties, which were signed in 1977 and took effect in 1979. The treaties recognized Panama's ultimate ownership of the canal and all the surrounding lands. More than half of the former Canal Zone came under Panamanian control shortly after the treaties were ratified. Complete control of the canal was turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999. The only proviso that the US insisted on was that the Canal remain forever neutral.