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The History of the Panama Canal

- a talk with slides by Richard Thomas

Saturday 9th October 2010

The excellent talk by Richard Thomas, the author of a book on the subject, gave a fascinating insight into the creation of transport links across the Panama isthmus. We heard an entertaining account of the history of the region from the visit of Christopher Columbus in 1502, the first canal survey in 1534, through the bloodthirsty battles of the next 300 years until the Californian gold rush forced the construction of a transport link despite the mountainous terrain. First was the Old Panama railroad, completed in 1855, followed by the French canal excavation which was abandoned for lack of money in 1889, and finally the American excavation which culminated in the opening of the canal in 1914.

The speaker brought to life the almost insurmountable technical challenges, the personalities, the huge financial problems, and not least, the influence of both commercial and political pressures. In total, over the three projects, more than 37,000 lives were lost and the total cost was over $650 million. Interestingly, the canal project continues today, with a $5.25 billion expansion project due to be completed in 2014. We were left with images of huge excavations by hand, mud slides, construction of gigantic locks with 19th century technology and felt very grateful we were not born West Indian labourers at that time!