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The Panama Canal is a ship canal that extends across the Isthmus of Panama, joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  It runs generally southeastward from what was known as Cristobal on the Caribbean Sea (an arm of the Atlantic) to Balboa on the Pacific Ocean.  The canal cuts across the lowest point in the continental divide and through one of the narrowest points between the two oceans.

An impressive engineering feat, it was built 1904 - 1914 at an initial cost of $366,650,000.  Although it is only half the length of the Suez Canal, it took the same amount of time and more than three times the cost to build.  Unlike the Suez, which is at sea level for its entire length, the Panama Canal has locks to raise and lower ships.  Dams hold back two artificial lakes, Gatun and Madden, that supply water for the locks.

The canal was built by the Isthmian Canal Company, after attempts by the French failed, under the provisions of the Spooner Act and was opened in 1914.  It is 50 miles long from deep water in the Caribbean to deep water in the Pacific.  Although there are 12 sets of locks total, there are only six massive pairs of locks that ships use for transit, each 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide.  Each may be filled or emptied in less than 10 minutes, and each pair of lock gates takes two minutes to open.  A 30,000-pound  fender chain at the end of each lock prevents ships from ramming the gates before they open.  Water is not pumped into and out of the locks, but flows from the artificial lakes through culverts 18 feet in diameter.  Electric towing locomotives, called "mules", pull ships by cable through the locks.  Most ships require six of these mules, three on each sides.  (New Standard Encyclopedia, 1976)

Live Miraflores Locks Web Cam

Click here for a great java applet demonstration on how the locks work.
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(permission given courtesy of Ared Networks)

Click on cutout of the Canal

(Legend below thumbnail photos -- click on image for larger photo)

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 No.   1 - Gatun Upper Locks, the first bucket of concrete handled in construction of Panama Canal--August (illegible), 1908
 No.   2 - Gatun Dam, construction of south toe looking west from lock site--August (illegible), 1908
 No.   3 - South Toe of Gatun Dam, and part of Anchorage Basin.  View from water tower--December 1, 1908
 No.   4 - Gatun Lock Site, looking north from east bank--December 1, 1909
 No.   5 - Excavating Forebay, Gatun Locks, looking south from west wall--December 15, 1909
 No.   6 - Concrete work in upper lock site looking east from west bank Gatun--December 15, 1909
 No.   7 - Looking north from west wall, Gatun Locks--January 15, 1910
 No.   8 - Looking east from north wall, Gatun Locks--January 15, 1910
 No.   9 - Lift Sill and Forebay, looking south from east wall, Gatun Locks--February 1, 1910
 No. 10 - Looking north from west wall, Gatun Locks--February 1, 1910
 No. 11 - Gatun Lock Site, looking south from west wall--March 1, 1910
 No. 12 - Gatun Upper Locks, looking south from west bank--April 30, 1910
 No. 13 - The Middle Locks, Gatun, looking south from west bank--October 3, 1910
 No. 14 - Gatun Middle Locks, looking south from west bank--April 1, 1911
 No. 15 - Gatun Upper Locks, view looking north from light house--July 2, 1912
 No. 16 - Gatun Lower Locks, north end, view showing piledrivers caught in the slide--January 25, 1913
 No. 17 - Gatun Lower Locks, north end showing construction of wing walls and center wall, looking east--February 5, 1913
 No. 18 - Gatun Locks, view looking west from water tower showing approach to locks.  Gatun Dam and Spillway in the distance--March 9, 1913
 No. 19 - Gatun Upper Locks, looking south from light house and west wall--March 16, 1913
 No. 20 - Gatun Dam and Lake approach to locks.  View from water tower, looking west--Julu 13, 1913
 No. 21 - Operation of Gatun Locks.  "C" class submarines entering middle east chamber--March 9, 1914
 No. 22 - Operation of Gatun Locks.  Class "C" submarines and "Severn" (tender) in lower east chamber ready to be lowered--April 15, 1914
 No. 23 - Opening of the Panama Canal.  S.S. Ancon approaching Gatun locks--August 15, 1914
 No. 24 - Opening of the Panama Canal.  S.S. Ancon in Gatun lower locks, looking north--August 15, 1914
 No. 25 - Opening of the Panama Canal.  S.S. Ancon passing Chagres River Bridge, looking south--August 15, 1914
No. 26 - S.S. Ancon in west chamber of Miraflores upper locks--August 15, 1914
No. 27 - Constructing sidewall monoliths, upper lock Gatun--Februarly 15, 1910
No. 28 - Lift sill and forebay looking south from east wall, Gatun Locks--February 15, 19010
No. 29 - U.S. destroyers, Pacific Fleet, in middle chambers, Gatun Locks, water at low level--July 24, 1919
No. 30 - S.S. Cristobal in Culebra Cut, near Empire. on return trip through canal looking north--August 4, 1914



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