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Building The Panama Canal

Spanning 50 miles across the Isthmus of Panama, joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by way of the Caribbean, the Panama Canal has been hailed as one of the engineering milestones of the 20th century.

Its origins, though, can be traced back as far as the 16th century, when the first survey of a proposed canal was ordered by Charles I of Spain.

But it would be more than three centuries until the first canal construction was attempted in 1880 by the French, who labored for 20 years, before disease and costs derailed their plans.

Then, in 1903, the Theodore Roosevelt signed a treaty with Panama and the United States took over the massive construction project.

Among the daunting engineering challenges the project directors faced were digging through the Continental Divide; constructing the largest earth dam, the most massive canal locks and the largest gates ever envisioned; and solving enormous environmental problems.

American John F. Stevens is credited with overcoming those challenges by designing the unprecedented 50-mile-long system of locks, lakes and channels, and using a giant steam shovel and complex rail system to excavate the canal.

The building of the Panama Canal cost the U.S. $352 million four times the cost of the Suez Canal and took 10 years before completion in 1914. The human cost was much higher: A total of 5,609 workers died from disease or accident during construction.

On the eve of ceremonies marking the transition of canal control from the U.S. to Panama, the American Society of Civil Engineers officially named the Panama Canal a "Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium."

ASCE President Delon Hampton called it, "the greatest sea-to-sea lock canal of all time, and the epitome of engineering ingenuity and perseverance."

Hampton says, "the Panama Canal continues to serve as a symbol of engineering at one of its finest moments in history, inspiring generations of engineers to continually challenge those who say, `It can't be done.'"

ASCE also named the canal one of the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World," along with:

  • the Channel Tunnel (England & France)
  • CN Tower (Toronto, Canada)
  • Empire State Building (New York, N.Y.)
  • Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, Calif.)
  • Itaipu Dam (Brazil/Paraguay)
  • and Netherlands North Sea Protection Works.

By Joel Roberts, CBS.com producer