Panama Canal History

The Panama Canal only took ten years, $382 million and a near miracle to complete. From conception to construction, the project changed hands several times over the course of 400 years, resulting in a magnificent final product that over 13,000 ships conveniently pass through each year. Experience a Panama Canal cruise with Princess and you, too, will become a part of history.

Did you know....?

  • Prior to the Canal, people crossed the Isthmus of Panama by sailing boats along the Chagres River, then riding mules the rest of the way.
  • Up to 50,000 workers at a time helped carve through 51 miles of earth and hard granite to form the Panama Canal.
  • Each canal lock measures 110 feet across and 1,050 feet in length, with solid steel gates six feet thick!
  • Ships are raised and lowered through the locks using water pulled from Gatun Lake by gravity alone.
  • About 52 million gallons of water fill each lock of the Canal.
  • A continuous journey through the Panama Canal takes between eight to 10 hours.
  • The distance saved by ships sailing from New York to San Francisco through the Panama Canal versus around Cape Horn is almost 8,000 miles.
  • Approximately 9,000 people currently depend on the Panama Canal for employment.
  • The lowest toll paid was $0.36 US by Richard Halliburton who crossed the Canal swimming in 1928.
  • The first Princess cruise ship to pass through the Panama Canal was Princess Italia in 1967.
Map of Panama – Princess Cruises

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Take a journey through history and experience the Panama Canal with Princess.

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Historic view of the Panama Canal

A Burgeoning Necessity

Prior to Spanish conquistador Balboa's discovery of the narrow Isthmus of Panama, the only known international trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was the treacherous journey around Cape Horn. Balboa's findings sparked an idea to create a safe shortcut across the strip of land.

Panama Canal contruction of locks

The Canal Concept

In 1880, the French, led by Suez Canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, dug 11 of 50 miles needed for a sea level canal, but disease, money and engineering problems forced them to abandon the project. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. gained control and began working on a lock-based canal in 1904.

Construction work on Panama Canal

A Decade of Construction

The U.S. hired thousands to work on the canal when industrialization offered advanced machinery for digging and constructing the giant sets of locks. It took 10 years and over $350 million to complete, with approximately 26,000 lives being lost to malaria and yellow fever during its construction.

Sailing through the Panama Canal

The Land Divided…The World United

On August 15, 1914, John A. Constantine sailed the SS Ancon from Cristobal, briefly navigated into Caribbean waters, and turned into Panama's jungle, bound for the Pacific. Thus, under a banner that read “The Land Divided; The World United”, the first official crossing of the Panama Canal was made.

Panama Canal construction

Mechanics of the Canal

Through the force of gravity, water in the canal gradually raises ships through each set of locks up to 85 feet above sea level. Here ships reach the surface of Gatun Lake, where they float across the Continental Divide and are gradually lowered back through the locks into the opposite ocean.

Princess ship sailing through canal

The Canal’s Future

The Panama Canal is currently undergoing further expansion. A new set of locks will allow transit of larger “post-Panamax” vessels and the Gatun Lake water supply will also be increased. Slated for completion by 2014, the project will undoubtedly enhance one of the world's most vital trade routes.

Panama Canal Cruise Vacations