A tugboat guides the massive Cosco Shipping Panama toward the new Panama Canal locks. The expanded canal, which originally opened in 1914, will be able to handle larger ships. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

Fireworks exploded as a huge container ship made the first passage through the expanded Panama Canal this week, heralding a new era for one of the world’s great marvels of engineering.

Global travel and trade were made far easier when the canal was completed in 1914. Instead of sailing all the way around South America, ships could shave thousands of miles off the journey between Asia and the Americas by traveling across narrow Panama.

The nine-year, $5.25 billion expansion project opens the canal to large container ships, such as the Chinese-owned Cosco Shipping Panama, which entered the canal on the Atlantic side in the early morning of June 26. The 984-foot-long vessel completed its journey to the Pacific Ocean later that day, led by tugboats and cheered by dignitaries and thousands of excited onlookers.

The project opened nearly two years late after construction delays, conflicts between workers and management, and unexpected costs. But officials were still in a celebratory mood as they declared the expanded canal open for business.

“This is an achievement that all of us Panamanians should be proud of,” President Juan Carlos Varela said at the ceremony on the outskirts of Panama City. “Today marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere and the world.”

A bird’s-eye view of the locks. ( Panama Canal Authority /European Pressphoto Agency)

The century-old canal risked becoming obsolete without the expansion project, as many large ships were too bulky to travel its waterways. A new shipping lane allows passage for ships that carry as many as 14,000 truck-size containers, long steel boxes that can be filled with a wide range of items, such as cars and clothing.

A series of locks — sections of the canal that are separated by gates — allow ships to be raised and lowered in the water as they pass from ocean to ocean. For journeys from the Atlantic to the Pacific, water is added to the locks so that vessels are raised 85 feet, allowing them to pass through a long lake before they descend to sea level on the Pacific side.

Nations had dreamed of building a canal across Latin America for hundreds of years when the French began work on a Panamanian canal in the 1880s. Thousands died of accidents and disease, however, and it wasn’t until the United States took over in the early 20th century that the canal was finally finished.

Control of the canal was transferred from the United States to Panama in 1999. Since then, it has generated about $10 billion in income for the Central American nation. Some 35 to 40 vessels use the waterway each day, and the canal is estimated to handle about 6 percent of the world’s ocean trade.

Panamanians at the ceremony expressed hope that the expansion will help the economy in a country where about 25 percent of the people live in poverty.

“I think the inauguration of the locks is excellent for the current generations and those to come,” said Moises Gonzalez, a 40-year-old mechanic who worked on the construction of the locks for six years. “Opportunities for us. We have to find a way for it to reach the people.”