In transit, one travels essentially south-north to make connection to oceans located east-west.  The canal is 50 miles distance from Panama City to Colon, and  52 million gallons of water are required to allow each ship to pass through the locks.
The Culebra Cut is shown here as the Gaillard Cut, renamed after Colonel David Gaillard who was responsible for maintaining passage in the middle section of the Canal. Mud slides continued to harrass traffic with a 1974 slide dumping One Million Cubic Yards of mud into the canal. 
The canal zone gets about 200 inches of rain a year.  About 32 inches of that amount is used each year to move ships through the canal.
The Queen Mary (1936) was the first ship built too large to go through the locks.
The Culebra Cut cost about $10 million a mile.  For seven years it was always being worked on, 24-7, either by trains hauling away earth or by dynamiters blowing away the sides of the cut.
Since transit is based upon weight, large ships and small ships are billed accordingly, in cash.......... (e-transfer), in advance.  The smallest fee paid was by Richard Halliburton, an Englishmen who was permitted to swim the transit through the locks in the 1920s.  He paid .36 cents.
Rain soaks soil; clay soil moves; the Culebra Cut has, over a century, been widened from 670 feet wide as envisioned by the French to 1800 feet wide, and still has no angle of repose.
Approximately 25,000 people died in the construction of the canal (including both French and American efforts).  White American deaths were 350.
Three of every five French engineers died of Yellow Fever/Malaria.
Building the Canal took 61 million pounds of dynamite, more explosive power than had been used in all of America's that time.
With fill taken from the Canal, one could build a Great Wall of China from New York to San Francisco.
We entered the Miraflores Locks and exited at Gatun.  The passage took about 8 hours, which is quite an improvement over the 6-8 week cruise around South America.  It is estimated that a ship pays 1/10 the cost of the longer voyage when it crosses through the canal.
Traveling west to east by going south to north is not something that one does everyday, or sometimes, even in a lifetime.  To see the sun rise in the Pacific and set in the Caribbean does seem to turn the world a bit askew.  Yet, when one transits the Panama Canal, these things occur.

Five hundred years ago when the Atlantic World discovered that there was a west coast for that ocean, it filled its discoveries with men, ships, disease, and  missionaries, extracting in turn gold, goods, and gods turning each into a new form of power: nations, wealthy nations, wealthy Christian nations. 

In that day, as in this one, to transport was key to success.  How many ships could ply the Atlantic (how wide was their broadband); how much gold could they find and return (how can they target and control pop-ups while providing credit card security?); how could they control the natives (how exclusive was their software?); how could power flow to a nation and still shed its largesse on its explorers, its men of fortune (how many millionaires did Microsoft create?); how quickly could they communicate, transport, inform, command and control a world that dwarfed that which attempted to order it. (480 mhrtz; 12 gig storage; 2 gig RAM;)

For the 16th century, and the 17th and the 18th and through the 19th,  perhaps the most conspicuous need was to find a way to shorten the journey from the Mediterranean to the east coast of the Pacific.  Europe needed a wormhole from San Diego to Rome.
How to compress time?  As early as 1524, Francis I of Spain proposed an ocean transit through Panama.  Good idea…, a short cut across some portion of central America.   It was still a good idea in 1879, when the French actually tried to dig it, and while there were seven possible sites for the transit, including a much talked about passage through Nicaragua, the French decided on Panama.
At the time, there were two basic ideas of how to proceed:

1) build a series of locks at each end of the canal, raising and lowering ships as they began and ended the transit.
2) build a flat canal, with no locks

THE LOCK CANAL: Baron Godin de Lepinay regarded the key difficulty as being the taming of the Chagras River and the need to make a reasonable, though historic, dig through the Culebra Mountains.  An engineer who had visited the site, he saw the challenges and the answers.  Don’t avoid the river, he counseled, use it, and use it with locks. 

A great dam could make an enormous lake (Gatun Lake), which in turn could flood the locks efficiently. Placed at each end of the passage the locks would raise ships up to 85 feet above sea level and return them to the same.  The 22 foot tide of the Pacific compared to the 6 inch tide on the Caribbean could thus be offset, and locks would seal the lake and the oceans.  The greatest task then, would be the Culebra Cut, the need to dig some distance through the continental divide.  That task remains even today one that requires regular maintenance.  “The more that one digs, the more that one digs”.

A FLAT CANAL: Ferdinand de Lesseps had driven construction of the Suez Canal, eliminating Africa from the transit between Spain and India. (completed in 1869).  He did it with a flat canal design, a ditch dug out of sand (mostly), in a dry desert environment, with local (Egyptian) workers, with health issues well understood and accepted, equipment adequate to the task and enormous expertise provided by his French engineers.  He offered the same design and construction approach for Panama.

Nicely enough, de Lepinay had the answer to building the canal, even though the technology to accomplish it did not exist in 1859.  But no one listened to him…the French listened to de Lesseps, and thus set out on a task that ultimately overwhelmed them.  It was a heroic effort really, and the accounts of the commitment, creations and trials of French engineers, Caribbean workers and French leadership were heart rendering.  What went wrong?
Ferdinand de Lesseps
Well, to start with, de Lesseps was a promoter, a man propelled by a vision of a project whose site he had never visited, a landscape he had never seen and a climate he had never experienced.  He never saw the canal site until after the venture failed; he never saw the Chagras River in full flow; he never took samples nor observed the Culebra Mountains; he was unaware of the differences in tides from the Pacific to the Caribbean; he had never worked in a tropical climate, nor had his staff; he was ignorant that a particular mosquito spread Yellow Fever, and he was an entrepreneur, driven to sell his vision, less well suited to measure it against alternatives.

He was the man who had “dug Suez” and he sold his ideas, his vision for the Panama Canal, to investors, builders, politicians and public. That may account for what followed: wrong design (a flat canal); wrong diagnosis of causes for yellow fever (not infected clothing…rather it was the  mosquito); wrong equipment for task (big dig required lots of big diggers, and they were not invented yet); wrong strategy for dealing with rivers (could not control its flooding); wrong approach to Culebra Cut across the continental divide (angle of repose badly miscalculated and nature of top clay unacknowledged…when it rained, clay slid.)

Indeed, given the required components for the management of locks with electricity, many of which had not been invented in the 1870s, he simply could not have succeeded.

Nonetheless, France followed de Lesseps.

What he created was not a canal but a bubble.  When it burst, so went his reputation, his meager profits (he was never in it for the money) and nearly, his freedom.
Yellow Fever: Americans learned to isolate victims from the mosquito, and then kill the insects.
Slides sank the rails, blocked the passages and required yet more digging.
De Lesseps' most powerful piece of machinery reminds one of children construction sets in its capacity and technology.  It would be great for moving level sand, but not mud, landslides, and dynamited rock.
The work force: efforts to import Chinese were rejected by Panamians;  Basque workers, while excellent, were too few.  So 20,000 workers were imported from Barbados (40% of the entire work force).
Everything went wrong, and it is testimony to the courage of the French in the field and the mesmerizing influence that de Lesseps had on French investors that his effort lasted for nearly ten years. (1879-1889).  In the end there was only bankruptcy for his followers…large and small.  Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen had invested their savings.  Their investment loss was 1 billion francs more than was spent on the Suez Canal.  Panama was truly a money pit, and it was a burial ground for an estimated 20,000 Panamanian and Caribbean workers (and three of every five French engineers) who died from Yellow Fever and malaria.
At the end, in 1889, the French left a small ditch flooded with water, roiled railroad track, abandoned machinery and for shipping still, a long trip around South America.
President Theodore Roosevelt
Fifeteen years later, with new technology, new energy, fresh money and the thrust of determined political leadership, the United States took on the task.  It was not easy, but it was now doable and it was done.
The numbers associated with the final, successful assault on the transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic are mind numbing, and I will mention only a few in posting the pictures below.  Fortunately, there is an easy way to gather them all together and put them in meaningful context.  Read David McCullough’s,
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.  You won’t be disappointed.
When you get the book, go to the index and look up the following names.  They will guide you quickly through the American effort.

Theodore Roosevelt: President of the United States. “I took the canal”.    T.R. rammed through an executive driven administration of the project that let such talented men as John Stevens and G. W. Goethals have their way with the work.

Philippe Bunua-Varilla: A Frenchman well invested in the project who arranged the separation of Panama from Columbia and negotiated the treaty which gave  the U.S. the right to build and manage a canal “in perpetuity”.  

Dr. William Gorgas: responsible for systematic destruction of Yellow Fever in the Canal Zone. He sanitized the canal and Stevens gave him unlimited funding to do it.  Malaria killed more people than "yellow jack", but until the fever was under control, people would regard Panama as unsafe.  Gorgas brought it under control in 18 months.

Mr. John Stevens: responsible for the careful planning, incredibly careful planning, to excavate and build the canal.   He used the railroad as a finely tuned instrument of attack.  His leadership abilities were outstanding and his use of the railroad to manage the digging, hauling and dumping of soil is legendary.

Colonel George Washington Goethals: when Stevens had enough of digging, seven years of it, he resigned.  Roosevelt, outraged that someone would quit on him, appointed an Army officer, Col. G.W. Goethals, because “he couldn’t quit”.  Goethals finished the job.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchmen well invested in the French effort to dig the canal, saved his investment and earned a 3% return on it by negotiating the separation of Panama from Columbia, with the protection of the United  States and then negotiating the treaty that gave the United States control of the Canal Zone "in perpetuity".
"There are three diseases here in Panama, Stevens told his men, "yellow fever, malaria and cold feet.  And the most deadly is cold feet. We will change that."  And he did.  He dug the canal....for seven years.  Then he left for reasons he never revealed.
Left to Right: Lt. Col, William Sibert; Joseph C. S. Blackburn; Rear Admiral Harry H. Rousseau, Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Colonel George W. Goethals (front), Lt. Colonel Harry F. Hodges, Colonel William C. Gorgas; Colonel David Gaillard.

Goethals ruled, reporting only to Secretary of War, and through him to the President.  Roosevelt wanted someone who could "make things happen" and he had long wearied of committees.  Goethals did the job.

When a major landslide filled the Culebra Cut, Gaillard, responsible for that section, asked Goethals what to do.  "Dig it out" Goethals said.  Gaillard, after whom the cut is now named, died of a brain tumor before the canal was opened.

As part of the dispensation of justice in the Canal Zone, Goethals held weekly Sunday sessions wherein he resolved complaints filed by the workers.  In one instance, not pleased by the decision, a worker said he was going to appeal.  "Appeal to whom?" said Goethals.  His was the final word on all things in the zone.
Above, first transit, the tugboat, Gatun, enters the lock there to test it out.
Above, the steamer Ancon, sails through the Culebra Cut, in the formal opening of the Panama Canal, August 15, 1914.