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The Panama Canal is more than a shortcut for trade ships. For some, it's the watery embodiment of man's triumph over adversity.
This 50-mile-long shortcut was imagined as early as the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors were forced to sail around South America -- or worse, haul their ships and heavy cargo over dry land -- in order to explore both coasts of the New World in a single voyage. The French were the first to attempt construction, and they started their dig in 1882. Despite some major headway, including the carving of the manmade valley known as the Culebra Cut, mosquito-borne diseases and treacherous mudslides forced workers to abandon the project.
At the urging of newly elected President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that a canal would provide serious strategic leverage, U.S. engineers took over the Panama project in 1904. The new crew made major technological and medical advances -- in addition to heavy excavation work, American workers improved the sanitation of nearby towns and greatly reduced the risk of yellow fever, malaria and other deadly diseases in the region.
The Panama Canal was completed in 1914, for a total cost of $387 million. Nearly 25,000 people died during its construction.
Despite a tumultuous past, the canal is looking forward to a bright future. Vessels too large to traverse the canal, known as "Post-Panamax" ships, have fueled demand for expansion, and the Panama Canal Authority currently is planning a $5.25 billion renovation project. Look for a third lane of traffic and other amenities by 2014, when the canal's facelift is slated for completion.