Skip to Content

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Disclaimer: Some posts on Tourism Teacher may contain affiliate links. If you appreciate this content, you can show your support by making a purchase through these links or by buying me a coffee. Thank you for your support!

There are many fascinating facts about the Panama Canal that you should know. From important political and economic facts to its history, this is one fascinating canal! Read on to learn all about it…

Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal 

The Panama Canal has been an important topic of discussion in all our geography textbooks! After all, this canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and makes maritime trade faster and less resource-consuming. 

However, there’s a lot of controversial history in the construction of the Panama Canal, and how it left people bankrupt too! 

So, in these facts about the Panama Canal, I’ll be discussing all the fascinating things that you need to know about this canal.

1. The French Tried To Build the Panama Canal First

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Before the US built and completed the Panama Canal, the French had already attempted to do that. Let’s talk about some of the historical facts about the Panama Canal to understand the whole story. 

In 1881, a company led by a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, started the project to build the Panama Canal. This same company was involved in building the Suez Canal too. However, the company might have underestimated the problems in building the Panama Canal. 

During the construction, there were many issues, such as health problems of the workers (due to Malaria and Yellow Fever) and difficulty in digging through the mountainous areas. There was also a lot of corruption and financial mismanagement involved that caused the company to grow entirely bankrupt in 1889

Then, the US started the construction of the Panama Canal again in 1904. It was completed in 1914 and started functioning on August 15, 1914.

2. Thousands of People Died Building the Panama Canal

These are some extremely sad facts about the Panama Canal. 

Even though the Panama Canal is an important route for maritime trade today, we cannot forget about the thousands of people who died building it, similarly to other significant ma-made structures such as the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza.

According to the resources, there were over 25,000 people who lost their lives while constructing the Panama Canal. Although there are many causes for it, the primary cause is the spread of deadly diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever. 

When the French were constructing the Panama Canal, they didn’t have adequate medical facilities to deal with the outbreak of these diseases. Thus, leading to the death of thousands. Also, note that this is just the official number. Many people suspect that there might’ve been more deaths too!

The deaths didn’t stop when the Americans started the construction. Again, due to the diseases and the hot weather, 5,600 people died – out of which, 650 were Americans.

3. Panama Canal Is One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World

You may have heard about the Seven Wonders of the World. Now, the Panama Canal isn’t a part of them, but instead, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. 

In a list published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1994, the Panama Canal was considered as a modern world wonder. It was also given the title of “Monument of the Millennium”. 

You’ll also find other excellent sites like the CN Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Channel Tunnel, and many more, in the list. 

All of these share one thing in common – exceptional architecture. However, note that this list isn’t officially recognised. 

4. A Destructed US Boat Inspired the Idea of the Panama Canal

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

You might wonder where they got the idea of the Panama Canal from. Well, these facts about the Panama Canal will answer your questions. 

In 1898, a U.S. Navy battleship, the USS Maine, sank in Havana Harbor after an explosion. The US government believed that somebody was involved in the accident. This incident even caused tensions between the United States and Spain, and became a trigger for the Spanish-American war.   

Now, during the war, another US Navy battleship, USS Oregon, had to reach the Cabo de Hornos, in the Caribbean. It took the battleship 67 days to reach the location, as it had to sail through Cape Horn, located at the tip of South America

The US government realised that it would’ve taken the ship only three weeks, instead of 67 days, if the Panama Canal was there.

5. The Original Idea of the Panama Canal Is More Than 500 Years Old

Here are some other historical facts about the Panama Canal. Before the French and the Americans got the idea of the Panama Canal, there were a few people who got it more than 500 years back!

In 1513, a Spanish explorer and conqueror, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, sailed past the Central American Isthmus. He realised that there was only a little amount of dividing the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean. However, he gave up on that idea. 

Then, in 1533, another Spanish explorer, Gaspar de Espinosa, also suggested excavating the land. Sadly, he died before the project even began. 

6. Panama Canal Had a Huge Impact on the Environment

Where there is construction, there is going to be the removal of natural terrains too. Hence, these facts about the Panama Canal will talk about how its construction impacted the environment. 

During the construction of the Panama Canal, there was massive deforestation. The whole area consisted of rainforests, which were cleared off to pave the way for the canal. 

Along with the rainforests, many wetlands and marshes were destroyed, which affected the wetland ecosystem. 

One of the biggest changes due to the construction of the Panama Canal was the diversion of the Chagres River. A dam was built over this river, and it was diverted to build the artificial Gatun Lake. 

7. Panama Canal Was Going To Be the Nicaragua Canal

After reading the facts about the Panama Canal, I can say things could have been very different. 

Instead of the Panama Canal, the US was first interested in building the Nicaragua Canal. It is because they thought connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the natural Nicaragua Lake would’ve been an easier task. After all, there was no need to build an artificial lake and the terrain was slightly better too.

However, the US decided to not go ahead with the Nicaragua Lake, as they already had plans to expand the construction of the Panama Canal. 

In 2014, a Hong Kong-based company planted the idea of the Nicaragua Canal again, but the president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega wasn’t interested. 

8. 13000 Ships Pass the Panama Canal Yearly

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Now, let’s discuss some facts about the Panama Canal, related to its significance in maritime trade. 

Did you know that every day there are more than 40 ships that sail through the Panama Canal? Hence, if you see annually, the number can easily be around 13,000 to 14,000 or more.

The Panama Canal makes maritime trade easy by providing a shorter route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. 

When the canal didn’t exist, ships would’ve to sail past the southernmost tip of South America, Cape Horn. This would definitely increase the time period by a lot of days!

9. Panama Canal Was Expanded Recently

When the Panama Canal was first built, the size of the ships used to be smaller than the present ships. 

The canal also had a lock system of these dimensions – 1050 feet (320 m) x 110 feet (33.5 m) x 42 feet (13 m). 

However, in 2006, the president of Panama, Martín Torrijos wanted to expand the canal, so that the big ships would be able to pass too. After gaining the support of almost 77% of Panamanians, they decided to go ahead with the expansion.  

The expansion of the Panama Canal was completed and inaugurated in June 2016. In the expansion process, they installed a new lock system, with new dimensions – 1,400 feet (427 m) x 180 feet (55 m) x 59 feet (18 m).

10. Panama Canal Controls 6% of Sea Trading

These facts about the Panama Canal simply prove that it is hugely important for maritime trade.

Almost 90% of trade in the world is by sea. Out of 90%, 6% of it is through the Panama Canal. 

11. The Panama Canal Earns Around $3 Billion in Tolls!

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

Every vessel has to pay a toll if they want to use the Panama Canal. Now, the toll depends on factors like the vessel’s type, size, and purpose. 

Generally, the toll for extremely large cargo ships can be as huge as $450,000. Initially, the toll for a cruise ship used to be calculated on a per-berth basis. However, the Panama Canal Authority changed it to a per-ton basis in 2022.

As of 2022, the cost per ton for a cruise ship is around $5.25. So, for 10,000 tonnes, they’d have to pay a toll of $52,500!

Therefore, these facts about the Panama Canal aren’t surprising, as the canal would definitely generate $3 Billion through just tolls. This amount contributes to 8% to 10% of Panama’s total GDP.

12. Panama Canal Was the Most Expensive US Project at the Time

Let’s discuss some economic facts about the Panama Canal. 

Back when the construction of the Panama Canal started, it was the most expensive US project. It was because there was a lot to be done to make the canal. The US had to conduct excavations, build an artificial lake, build locks, and many more. Plus, they had to pay for the raw materials and the workforce too! 

I came to know that the construction of the canal cost $375 million at that time. If you check it with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, you’ll find that the amount literally goes to billions! 

13. It Takes 8 – 10 Hours To Pass the Panama Canal

After reading these facts about the Panama Canal, you might be curious to know how much time it actually takes to pass it. 

On average, it only takes about 8 to 10 hours for a vessel to pass the Panama Canal. Now, there’s no definite number here, as the vessel’s speed depends on various factors, like its type, size, and the region’s weather. 

The biggest benefit, as I’ve already mentioned in the above facts about the Panama Canal, is that it significantly reduces the travel time between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. 

On average, the Panama Canal helps in reducing the sailing distance by approximately 8,000 nautical miles

14. Mr Richard Halliburton Paid the Lowest Toll To Cross the Canal 

Mr Richard Halliburton was an American travel writer and adventurer, who wanted to swim through the Panama Canal. 

In 1928, he decided to go ahead with his dream and swam through the entire Panama Canal. It took him around 10 days to complete his swimming expedition, as he started on February 26, 1928 (near the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side), and reached the Balboa docks on the Pacific side, on March 7, 1928.

Now, every vessel has to pay a toll to cross the canal. Similarly, Richard also had to pay a toll of just 36 cents! It was the lowest in history!

Later on, in 1939, Richard set sail with his three crew mates, on a Chinese Junk, from Hong Kong to San Francisco in the US. However, Richard never made it to the US and was presumed dead. 

15. SS Ancon Was the First Ship to Cross the Canal

15 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

The SS Ancon, an American cargo and passenger ship, was the first ship to officially cross the Panama Canal, on August 15, 1914!

However, before the inauguration of the Panama Canal too, there was a ship that passed the canal. It was the French steamship, SS Alexandre La Valley. This ship passed through the canal on January 7, 1914, when it was still under construction. 

Further Reading – Facts About the Panama Canal

The history of the Panama Canal, its importance in maritime trade, and its contribution to Panama’s economy – all these points sum up the facts about the Panama Canal. 

So, I hope you enjoyed reading these and got to know more about the Panama Canal, instead of just knowing about its existence!

If you want to know more about similar fascinating places, my other blog posts will help you out. 

Liked this article? Click to share!