Building the Panama Canal

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Building the Panama Canal


In the early years of oceanic commerce, ships carrying goods between Europe and the Far East had to travel a long, circuitous 12,000-mile (19,308 km) route around the continent of South America. As early as the 1500s, Spanish rulers first explored the idea of creating a canal through the Isthmus of Panama to drastically reduce travel time. In 1903, a treaty between Panama and the United States finally paved the way for the construction of the Panama Canal, a massive feat of engineering which not only united two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, but opened an invaluable artery for international trade.


While the construction of the Panama Canal was not undertaken until the early twentieth century, it was first envisioned several centuries earlier. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) searched in vain for a passage between the North American and South American Continents. In 1534, Charles I of Spain recognized the value of cutting a route through Panama in order to gain greater accessibility to the riches of Peru, Ecuador, and Asia. He ordered a survey of a proposed canal route through the Isthmus of Panama drawn up, but unrest in Europe put the project on permanent hold.

The first construction did not get underway for another three centuries, when a Frenchman named Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805-1894) decided that his country should take responsibility for building an interoceanic canal. Lesseps, who had completed Egypt's Suez Canal just 10 years earlier, felt this new canal would be equally successful. His crew began work on a sea-level canal in 1882, but their equipment proved insufficient to cut through the rocky terrain, money was growing short, and diseases such as yellow fever and malaria decimated the French work force. Lesseps's company was left bankrupt, and the operation was forced to shut down with the canal still incomplete. In 1894, the French created the New Panama Canal Company to finish the task, and set out to find a buyer.

Meanwhile, America too had been eyeing the isthmus. President Theodore Roosevelt, newly at the country's helm after the assassination of President McKinley, began building up America's military might and revitalizing its navy. Strategically, the canal took on new importance, as the U.S. empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific. At the time, it took a full 67 days for the U.S. battleship, the Oregon, to travel from San Francisco to the Caribbean. Roosevelt was determined to prove America's military superiority and show that his country could bridge the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

A few years earlier, the U.S. Congress had chartered the Maritime Canal Co., under the leadership of millionaire J.P. Morgan, to build a canal in either Nicaragua or Panama. Nicaragua was chosen, but a financial panic in the U.S. caused operations to shut down within five years. Now, a battle waged in Congress between completing the Nicaragua project or taking on construction of the Panama canal. In 1902, Iowa Senator William Hepburn introduced a bill to initiate construction of the Nicaraguan canal, to which Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin attached an amendment that literally overrode the bill, providing for a canal at Panama instead.

The Spooner Act gave President Roosevelt $40 million to purchase the New Panama Canal Company from the French, but there was one more obstacle to overcome. Panama wanted to sell the land to America, but Colombia refused. Roosevelt predicted there would soon be a revolution in Panama, and he was right. A local revolt put a new government in Panama, which the U.S. firmly supported.

In 1903, the United States and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty by which the United States guaranteed Panama's independence, and secured the right to construct an interoceanic canal through the Isthmus of Panama. America was given a perpetual lease on the 10-mile (16 km) wide canal zone.


There were several major obstacles standing in the way of successfully completing the canal. It was, first of all, a major feat of engineering. The crews had to dig through the Continental Divide, a ridge of land separating two oppositely flowing bodies of water. The canal was to be the largest earth dam ever built at the time, with the most massive canal locks and gates ever constructed.

Sanitation was also a potential problem. The warm Panamanian climate was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carried malaria and yellow fever. Early French crews lost an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 workers to yellow fever outbreaks between 1882 and 1888. The American government vowed this would not happen to their own crews and to this end, sent in doctor William Gorgas (1854-1920) to examine the area. In 1900, U.S. Army tropical disease expert Walter Reed (1851-1902) had proven that yellow fever was spread by the female mosquito. Gorgas vowed to remove the mosquito population from the canal zone, a task easier said than done. His first job was to treat all standing or slow-moving bodies of water with a combination of oil and insecticide. He covered windows with wire screens and sent health workers door-to-door to search for mosquitoes and their eggs. He fumigated houses and quarantined sick workers. By December 1905, yellow fever was virtually eliminated from the Canal Zone.

Before the actual construction of the canal could begin, the administrative infrastructure had to be put in place. Congress set up a commission to control the canal area, overseeing all transactions. Locals were hired to pave roads, repair the ailing French buildings, lay a new railroad track to accommodate American train cars, and put in a working water and sanitation system.

Next, the commission hired its chief engineer, John F. Wallace, to oversee the project. Wallace began his excavation at Culebra Mountain. Culebra Cut was a 10-mile (16 km) stretch through the rockiest terrain along the canal route. Wallace quickly tired of the commission's layers of red tape, which were draining his time and patience, and petitioned Congress for a new governing body. Roosevelt quickly fired the commission, replacing them with seven new members. Wallace returned to the canal site, but ended up resigning a short time later.

In 1905, Wallace was replaced by John Stevens, and building of the canal began in earnest. Stevens first had to decide what type of canal to build—at sea level, as the French had begun, or by using locks—closed off sections of the water used to raise and lower levels as ships moved through. He decided on a lock canal, a decision which was seconded by President Roosevelt.

But just when work seemed to be finally progressing, Stevens sent a letter to the president, indicating that he was not "anxious to continue in service." His resignation was accepted, and yet another replacement engineer was sought. Roosevelt appointed Army Lieutenant George Washington Goethals, whom he knew would exercise tight control and keep the project within the watchful eye of the U.S. Government. Quickly, Goethals organized his team, introducing a system to cut costs and keep everyone on track.

By 1907, more than 39,000 people were hard at work digging through the rock of the Culebra Cut. But there were problems. When the French had excavated Culebra Cut years earlier, their method involved chopping the tops off of hills and piling the dirt on either side, which led to mudslides. Indeed, the area was plagued by landslides. The American engineers were forced to increase the amount of rock and clay they excavated and adjust the angle of their cut in order to overcome the problem. In 1908, changes were made to the initial design of the canal because of unforeseen problems. The width was increased from 200 feet (61 m) to 300 feet (91 m) and the size of the locks was increased from 95 (29 m) to 110 feet (33 m).

When completed, the canal stretched 50 miles (80 km), through three sets of locks. At its Atlantic entrance, a ship would pass through a 7-mile (11 km) dredged channel in Limón Bay. It would then travel 11.5 miles (18 km) to two parallel sets of locks at the town of Gatun, which were fueled by an enormous man-made lake. Each of the locks would raise or lower ships 85 feet (26 m). Then it was another 32 miles (51 km) through a channel in Gatun Lake to Camboa, where the Culebra Cut began. Another set of two locks located at Pedro Miguel and at Miraflores on the Pacific side would then lower the ship to sea level. Water flowed in and out of the locks through huge culverts, or drains, in the walls of the locks. A railroad-like locomotive served as a tow to pull the ships through the locks.

Ten years after construction had begun, the canal was finally completed in August of 1914 at a cost of approximately $387 million. The first ship to cross through was the concrete vessel Cristobal, however the first publicized voyage was that of the freighter Ancon. Unfortunately, Europe and the United States had just entered into World War I, so traffic across the canal was initially light. At first, around 2,000 ships per year passed through but by the end of the war, that number rose to 5,000. Soon, the Panama Canal was accommodating nearly all of the world's interoceanic trade vessels.

In 1977, the United States and Panama signed two treaties granting the United States control of the canal until the end of the twentieth century. The U.S. was to oversee management, operation, and defense for the canal, and American ships would be free to travel back and forth across it. On December 31, 1999, just as the new millennium was about to dawn, the U.S. handed control of the Canal back over to Panama. At the ceremony, President Jimmy Carter, who oversaw the initial transfer treaty in 1977 told Panama's President Mireya Moscoso, "It's yours."

The Panama Canal would not only prove a modern marvel of engineering, it was to open up a whole new world in international trade. Roosevelt once said of his achievement, "The canal was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President. When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it."


Further Reading


Bennett, Ira. History of the Panama Canal. Washington, D.C.: Historical Publishing Co., 1915.

Chidsey, Donald. The Panama Canal—An Informal History of its Concept, Building, and Present Status. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1970.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

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Building the Panama Canal

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