The Panama Canal was a marvel of engineering, built by the United States under the guidance of Theodore Roosevelt. The United States helped Panama gain its independence from Colombia and in exchange they were given rights to the canal zone. Roosevelt's persistence that a canal was necessary helped push the canal to completion and changed the face of world trade.
The French first attempted to build a canal across Panama in 1882 but were thwarted by the effects of malaria and yellow fever, which killed more than 20,000 workers. U.S. President Thoedore Roosevelt pushed for a canal to be built, and the Americans took over the French project in 1904. Poor planning by Chief Engineer John Findlay Wallace seemed to doom the canal, but the plan was saved by his successor, John Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railroad in the Pacific Northwest. Dr. William Gorgas was put in charge of the sanitation effort that helped to control the diseases by eradicating the mosquitoes that caused it. Stevens abruptly resigned from the project in 1907 and was replaced by Thomas Goethels, who saw it through to its completion in 1914.
The canal had an enormous impact on commerce and trade. It allowed ships to avoid having to sail around the tip of South America to make it from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and vice versa. Ships were able to carry more tonnage and the effect on the economy of the United States was drastic. The Panama Canal was hailed as the "eighth wonder of the world" and was regarded as the greatest engineering project ever completed by man.
The Panama Canal allowed ships that had previously taken 60 days to make the trip from New York to San Francisco to do it in 30. The canal opened on August 15th, 1914, but the onset of World War I overshadowed the remarkable achievement.
The total length of the Panama Canal is 47.9 miles. What used to be a 13,000-mile trip for ships from New York to the West Coast was whittled down to 5,000 miles. The cost in lives was enormous, with an estimated 27,500 French and American workers succumbing to either disease or accidents, mostly landslides.
The monetary cost of the Panama Canal was well over $350 million, which at the time was the most spent by a government on any one project. Although the engineers in charge were responsible for overseeing the canal being constructed, it was the sheer force of will of Teddy Roosevelt that built the Panama Canal.
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