By Jen Baldwin
What project involved three countries and took 126 years to complete? Need a hint? The countries involved in the project include Spain (in the 1500s), France (in the 1880s) and the United States (in the early 1900s).
Answer: The Panama Canal
Here’s another riddle. What was the focus of research started in the mid-1800s by a monk and today serves as the basis for evidence in criminal court cases around the world? Hint: Consider Dolly, the sheep, and her claim to fame.
This week’s blog began as a focus on the 50-mile Panama Canal. The canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, so this week marks its 99th birthday. However, as I researched the Panama Canal and considered my own life, I saw a larger picture and felt drawn to that as well. In the end, this blog focuses on the idea of connection between people and families.
Building the Canal
The idea behind the Panama Canal started when the Spanish colonized the Americas. Spanish monarchs, eager to receive the riches confiscated from Peru and Ecuador, ordered the first survey. Construction plans were drawn up, but put on hold when wars in Europe took priority.
Over a century later, a French engineering company, flush from its success in cutting the sea level Suez Canal, followed suit. Construction began in earnest 1881. It didn’t go well. An estimated 27,000 workers died, mostly due to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Financial mismanagement eventually forced the failure of the company and the project was mothballed.
In 1904, the United States took over the project. A team mostly led by John Frank Stevens, a veteran of the Great Northern Railroad, convinced President Roosevelt that a canal with a large dam and locks through Panama was realistic. It took ten years and 56,000 workers to complete. Without Stevens’ experience with large-scale engineering projects and the lessons learned from the French, it would never have been accomplished.
The impact of the canal cannot be overstated. Travel time between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was immediately cut in half. When the canal first opened in 1914, about 1, 000 ships passed through the canal each year. Today that number has grown to over 14,000 vessels per year.
Some would argue, however, that the significance of the canal goes beyond the amount of vessels or tons of cargo. They would argue that building the canal was more than creating a shorter path between two oceans. With the canal’s completion the world changed suddenly into a smaller and more accessible space.
Today the impact of the canal seems as slow as the pace of the ships passing through it. However the completion of the canal created a long-lasting connection and the world is different as a result.
DNA was discovered in the mid-1800s when scientists performed some basic experiments with plants and chemicals and found a new substance found only in chromosomes.
In the 1920s, research on mice made it possible to deduce that DNA was the molecule of inheritance. However, the current picture of DNA as the carrier of genetic information didn’t emerge until 1953 with the breakthrough double helix theory of James Watson and Francis Crick.
DNA research has come a long way. Who would have thought that DNA would be used as evidence in criminal cases around the world? Who would have thought that it would result in the cloning of animals or that DNA holds the real possibility of tracing the common origin of humans on earth?
We are now trying to collect and understand the DNA of the entire human population. By taking our own DNA test results, and combining them with half a million others, we are writing a human origins story. The Genographic project currently being conducted by National Geographic (here) may prove to be, as their website says, “the greatest journey ever told.”
With 605,000 participants in over 140 countries, the project focuses on our human connection. Since the start of the project in 2005. “our human genetic roots” are becoming clearer.
Today’s blog is about connections. The Panama Canal connected one ocean to another and changed the way we think about the world. The Genographic project will connect the human race and change the way we think about each other. The Panama Canal connected us as neighbors. The Genographic project will connect us as family. Where will it lead? What stories will we be able to tell future generations about projects and discoveries during our lifetimes that connected the world?
Genealogist Jen Baldwin is the owner of Ancestral Journeys, specializing in the Rocky Mountain Corridor. She writes for a variety of publications, speaks regionally on genealogy related topics, is the creator and co-host of #genchat on Twitter, and owns Conference Keeper. She also is co-creator and Co-Chair of the NextGen Genealogy Network and is the Director of Operations for The In-Depth Genealogist. You can connect with Jen on her website or on social media.