Wednesday, December 31, 2008

December 31:

1999 : Panama Canal turned over to Panama

On this day in 1999, the United States, in accordance with the
Torrijos-Carter Treaties, officially hands over control of the
Panama Canal, putting the strategic waterway into Panamanian
hands for the first time. Crowds of Panamanians celebrated the
transfer of the 50-mile canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific
oceans and officially opened when the SS Arcon sailed through
on August 15, 1914. Since then, over 922,000 ships have used
the canal.

Interest in finding a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific
originated with explorers in Central America in the early 1500s.
In 1523, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V commissioned a survey
of the Isthmus of Panama and several plans for a canal were
produced, but none ever implemented. U.S. interest in building a
canal was sparked with the expansion of the American West and
the California gold rush in 1848. (Today, a ship heading from
New York to San Francisco can save about 7,800 miles by taking
the Panama Canal rather than sailing around South America.)

In 1880 a French company run by the builder of the Suez Canal
started digging a canal across the Isthmus of Panama
(then a part of Colombia). More than 22,000 workers died from
tropical diseases such as yellow fever during this early phase of
construction and the company eventually went bankrupt, selling
its project rights to the United States in 1902 for $40 million.
President Theodore Roosevelt championed the canal, viewing
it as important to America's economic and military interests.
In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia in
a U.S.-backed revolution and the U.S. and Panama signed the
Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, in which the U.S. agreed to pay
Panama $10 million for a perpetual lease on land for the canal,
plus $250,000 annually in rent.

Over 56,000 people worked on the canal between 1904 and
1913 and over 5,600 lost their lives. When finished, the canal,
which cost the U.S. $375 million to build, was considered a
great engineering marvel and represented America's
emergence as a world power.

In 1977, responding to nearly 20 years of Panamanian protest,
U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama's General Omar Torrijos
signed two new treaties that replaced the original 1903 agreement
and called for a transfer of canal control in 1999. The treaty,
narrowly ratified by the U.S. Senate, gave America the ongoing
right to defend the canal against any threats to its neutrality.
In October 2006, Panamanian voters approved a $5.25 billion plan
to double the canal's size by 2015 to better accommodate modern

Ships pay tolls to use the canal, based on each vessel's size and
cargo volume. In May 2006, the Maersk Dellys paid a record toll of
$249,165. The smallest-ever toll--36 cents--was paid by Richard
Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928.


General Interest
1999 : Panama Canal turned over to Panama
1600 : Charter granted to the East India Company
1775 : Patriots defeated at Quebec
1879 : Edison demonstrates incandescent light
1968 : Soviets test supersonic airliner

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