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The Centuries-Long History of the Panama Canal

Dreamt of for hundreds of years, the artificial waterway is a feat of engineering.

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  • President Theodore Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal, 1906.Photo Credit: Library of Congress via PBS

Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, ships that wished to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean had to do so via a lengthy and often dangerous passage around South America’s Cape Horn. As the narrowest point between Antarctica and any other continent, this passage is regarded as one of the most treacherous voyages in the world—yet it was vital to global trade for centuries.

Because of the difficulty and time associated with sailing “’round the Horn,” the idea of a more convenient way to bridge the two oceans was a dream for many years. The earliest records of surveys either searching for natural bodies of water connecting the two oceans or exploring the feasibility of building a canal came about not long after the first European explorer reached the Pacific Ocean by overland travel across present-day Panama.

In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa led a group of conquistadors across the Isthmus of Panama, becoming the first Europeans to reach the Pacific Ocean from the so-called “New World.” Within 20 years, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain had ordered a survey to try to establish a sailing route through the Americas, with the isthmus a likely location.

Many other plans and schemes were proposed in the intervening years to try to find—or build—a way for ships to cross through Panama or some other part of Central America in order to facilitate maritime trade. However, no such canal project ever went under the proverbial shovel until French engineers began work on an ill-fated first attempt in 1881.

By then, several overland routes had already been established through the area to help facilitate trade, most notably the American-built Panama Railroad, which was completed in 1855 and would later prove instrumental in the construction of the Panama Canal. 

At the time that they began construction, France was riding high on the recent completion of the much-longer Suez Canal, which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. If the engineers involved in the project anticipated a similar success with the Panama Canal, however, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Though the proposed route of the Panama Canal was less than half as long as the Suez Canal, the engineering challenges facing the builders were far greater. For one, the Suez Canal was a sea-level canal, while the Panama project required the construction of numerous, massive locks which raise and lower ships large enough to transport cargo. For another, the climate and terrain around the Isthmus of Panama proved much more treacherous. The rivers around which the canal was being constructed were prone to flood, the jungles were full of venomous animals, and deadly outbreaks of disease debilitated workers.

Malaria and yellow fever, in particular, claimed thousands of lives. By 1884, as many as 200 workers per month were dying from various ailments, a fact that was largely downplayed back home so as to avoid recruitment problems. Efforts to combat the illnesses met with limited success, in part because mosquitos had not yet been identified as a vector for the diseases—though Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Finlay had proposed the theory, it would not be confirmed until the Walter Reed Commission in 1901.

history of panama canal
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  • Construction work on the Gaillard Cut, 1907.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By then, the French attempt at constructing a canal through the Isthmus of Panama had stalled, but another world power was eagerly eyeing the project. In 1902, the United States Senate passed the Spooner Act, which officially gave the government the go-ahead to pursue an option to build a canal through Panama. By 1904, the various necessary treaties were in place, and the U.S. paid France some $40 million for the equipment and excavations which were leftover from the French attempt, including around $1 per cubic yard of excavated earth.

The road from the end of the French project to the beginning of the American one was not exactly smooth, however. Between 1902, when the United States first began negotiations, and 1904, when ground was broken on the new canal project, Panama separated from what was then known as Gran Colombia. Colombia had been shaken by an internal civil war, and Panamanian separatists had taken the opportunity to sue for Panama’s independence.

Seeing an opportunity for American interests, the United States sided with the Panamanian separatists, and sent warships and troops to block Colombian conscripts. This support helped to win the United States favorable terms for the building of the canal, even as Panama declared independence from Colombia—an example of what was known as “gunboat diplomacy,” decried in several newspapers of the time as an “act of sordid conquest” and a “vulgar and mercenary venture.” The new Republic of Panama became a protectorate of the United States and would remain so until 1939.

A U.S. government commission officially took control of the canal project on May 4, 1904. The Isthmian Canal Commission, or ICC, reported directly to Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as president in 1909. Though they were better equipped for success than their French counterparts before them, they still had a massive job ahead. The United States had purchased some 30 million cubic yards of excavations from the French, but completing the job would require moving more than 17 million more cubic yards of earth.

Nor was the excavation work the only challenge facing the canal commission. The same problems that had plagued the French—floodwaters, heavy rains, hazardous working conditions, and rampant disease—threatened U.S. efforts, as well. Much of the ultimate success of the Panama Canal project can be laid at the feet of efforts to curtail disease that were put into place by Colonel Willam C. Gorgas, utilizing the newly-confirmed information provided by the Walter Reed Commission. Even then, some 5,600 workers perished during the U.S construction of the canal.

Despite these various setbacks and after cycling through three chief engineers, the canal was completed on August 15, 1914, two years ahead of its projected date. George Washington Goethals, at the time a major in the U.S. Army who would later attain the rank of general, was the project’s third and final chief engineer, and is often credited with bringing it in ahead of schedule. 

On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, the third person to hold the position during the process of the construction of the canal, sent a telegraph signal from the White House which triggered the detonation of the final dike, which flooded the last cut joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the newly-built canal. Though construction continued for another year, this symbolically signaled the completion of what was then the largest engineering project ever undertaken by the United States, and the creation of a maritime passage that had been a dream for nearly four centuries.