The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, is a 50.7-mile (81.6-kilometer) passageway through the Isthmus of Panama, connecting Cristobal on the Atlantic coast and Balboa on the Pacific at the narrowest point of the landmass of the Americas. By navigating its three locks, each of which raises or lowers them 85 feet (26 meters), ships can move from ocean to ocean in about twenty-four hours that saves the several days needed to sail the many thousands of miles around South America. The Panama Canal has been acknowledged as one of the twentieth centurys greatest engineering triumphs, which displays the combined skills of an international team of structural, hydraulic, geological, and sanitary engineers.
A canal joining the oceans had been suggested as early as the sixteenth century. The conquistador Hernando Cortes proposed a route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, while others favored Nicaragua or Darien. King Charles V of Spain ordered a survey of the Isthmus of Panama in 1523, but although plans were made by 1529, the project lapsed. Several alternative schemes followed, including one of 1534 close to the present canal, but the Spanish then lost interest in the project until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1819 the government approved the construction of a canal but the revolt of Spains American colonies meant that control of potential sites was wrested from her. The new Central American republics took up the idea, but they had to find European or U.S. investment to realize it. The California gold rush in the mid nineteenth century aroused U.S. interest, and a number of feasibility studies undertaken between 1850 and 1875 suggested two routes: across Panama or across Nicaragua. But the Americans were not the only ones interested.
In 1875 the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, flushed with the success of his Suez project, first announced his interest in a Central American canal. On 1 January 1880, the Panama Canal was symbolically inaugurated, and a year later French engineers employed by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique arrived at Colon on the Atlantic coast. Construction of a sea-level canal (as opposed to a lock canal) began in 1882 along the route of the 1855 Panama Railroad. But financial mismanagement, the tropical climate, and disease took their toll. The company was liquidated in February 1889 and by the following May all work had ceased. Following a scandal involving charges of bribery, de Lesseps died in France in 1894. In October of that year the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panam