The Panama Canal, built from 1881-1914 (with the French trying first, then Americans), connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, taking only 20 or 30 hours for ships to cross its entire length of 77.1 kilometers.  For ships traveling between New York and San Francisco, instead of going around Cape Horn, traveling through the canal saves an astonishing 12,669 Kilometers of distance.

The Panama Canal is a monumental feat of engineering, and its construction wasn’t without its toll.  According to hospital records, 5,609 died of diseases and accidents during the U.S. construction period.  Of these, 4,500 were West Indian workers.  During the French construction period, roughly 20,000 workers died – many related to yellow fever and malaria.

Between 13,000 and 14,000 ships use the canal every year.  The fee?  On average, the largest ships will pay a toll of $450,000 to cross.  Gatun Lake, formed during the canal’s construction provides some 52 million gallons of water necessary for each ship to make a trip.

The animation below shows a simplified version of how the Panama Canal works:

How the Panama Canal works (animated gif)

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal