Skip to content

Panama Canal History Essay Introduction

The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates back to at least the 1500s, when King Charles I of Spain tapped his regional governor to survey a route along the Chagres River. The realization of such a route across the mountainous, jungle terrain was deemed impossible at the time, although the idea remained tantalizing as a potential shortcut from Europe to eastern Asia.

France was ultimately the first country to attempt the task. Led by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt, the construction team broke ground on a planned sea-level canal in 1880. The French soon comprehended the monumental challenge ahead of them: Along with the incessant rains that caused heavy landslides, there was no effective means for combating the spread of yellow fever and malaria. De Lesseps belatedly realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult and reorganized efforts toward a lock canal, but funding was pulled from the project in 1888.

Following the deliberations of the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission and a push from President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. purchased the French assets in the canal zone for $40 million in 1902. When a proposed treaty over rights to build in what was then a Colombian territory was rejected, the U.S. threw its military weight behind a Panamanian independence movement, eventually negotiating a deal with the new government in 1903 that gave them rights in perpetuity to the canal zone.

Seemingly not grasping the lessons from the French effort, the Americans devised plans for a sea-level canal along the roughly 50-mile stretch from Colón to Panama City. The project officially commenced with a dedication ceremony on May 4, 1904, but chief engineer John Wallace encountered immediate problems. Much of the French equipment was in need of repair, while the spread of yellow fever and malaria was frightening off the workforce. Under pressure to keep construction moving forward, Wallace instead resigned after a year.

A railroad specialist named John Stevens took over as chief engineer in July 1905 and immediately addressed the workforce issues by recruiting West Indian laborers. Stevens ordered new equipment and devised efficient methods to speed up work, such as the use of a swinging boom to lift chunks of railroad track and adjust the train route for carting away excavated material. He also quickly recognized the difficulties posed by landslides and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was best for the terrain.

The project was helped immensely by chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas, who believed that mosquitoes carried the deadly diseases indigenous to the area. Gorgas embarked on a mission to wipe out the carriers, his team painstakingly fumigating homes and cleansing pools of water. The last reported case of yellow fever on the isthmus came in November 1905, while malaria cases dropped precipitously over the following decade.

Although construction was on track when President Roosevelt visited the area in November 1906, the project suffered a setback when Stevens suddenly resigned a few months later. Incensed, Roosevelt named Army Corps engineer Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals the new chief engineer, granting him authority over virtually all administrative matters in the building zone. Goethals proved a no-nonsense commander by squashing a work strike after taking charge, but he also oversaw the addition of facilities to improve the quality of life for workers and their families.

Goethals focused efforts on Culebra Cut, the clearing of the mountain range between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel. Excavation of the nearly 9-mile stretch became an around-the-clock operation, with up to 6,000 men contributing at any one time. Despite the attention paid to this phase of the project, Culebra Cut was a notorious danger zone, as casualties mounted from unpredictable landslides and dynamite explosions.

Construction of the locks began with the pouring of concrete at Gatún in August 1909. Built in pairs, with each chamber measuring 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long, the locks were embedded with culverts that leveraged gravity to raise and lower water levels. Ultimately, the three locks along the canal route lifted ships 85 feet above sea level, to man-made Gatún Lake in the middle. Hollow, buoyant lock gates were also built, varying in height from 47 to 82 feet. The entire enterprise was powered by electricity and run through a control board.

The grand project began drawing to a close in 1913. Two steam shovels working from opposite directions met in the center of Culebra Cut in May, and a few weeks later, the last spillway at Gatún Dam was closed to allow the lake to swell to its full height. In October, President Woodrow Wilson operated a telegraph at the White House that triggered the explosion of Gamboa dike, flooding the final stretch of dry passageway at Culebra Cut.

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, although the planned grand ceremony was downgraded due to the outbreak of WWI. Completed at a cost of more than $350 million, it was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history to that point. Altogether, some 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete went into building the locks, and nearly 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt were excavated during the American construction phase. Of the 56,000 workers employed between 1904 and 1913, roughly 5,600 were reported killed.

Bolstered by the addition of Madden Dam in 1935, the Panama Canal proved a vital component to expanding global trade routes in the 20th century. The transition to local oversight began with a 1977 treaty signed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, with the Panama Canal Authority assuming full control on December 31, 1999. Recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994, the canal hosted its 1 millionth passing ship in September 2010.

TR | Clip

TR and the Panama Canal

On February 1, 1881, driven by patriotic fervor and capitalized by over 100,000 mostly small investors, the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique began work on a canal that would cross the Colombian isthmus of Panama and unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, led the project. His plan called for a sea-level canal to be dug along the path of the Panama Railroad. Some 50 miles in length, the canal would be less than half as long as the Suez. De Lesseps estimated that the job would cost about $132 million, and take 12 years to complete.

Europeans had dreamed of a Central American canal as early as the 16th century; President Ulysses S. Grant sent seven expeditions to study the feasibility of such a work. As travel and trade in the Western hemisphere increased, the need for a canal grew increasingly more obvious. To sail from Atlantic to Pacific, ships navigated around Cape Horn, the treacherous southern extremity of South America. A New York to San Francisco journey measured some 13,000 miles and took months. 

A canal across Panama would save incalculable miles and man-hours. It would also, Ferdinand de Lesseps believed, make its stockholders rich, just as the Suez had done for its investors. Ample evidence supported de Lesseps' claims; the tiny cross-Panama railway had made in excess of $7 million in the first six years of operation. That construction of the railroad had cost upwards of 6,000 lives failed to dampen de Lesseps' enthusiasm.

The French hacked a broad pathway through the jungle from coast to coast, and on January 20, 1882, commenced digging. They commanded an impressive array of modern equipment, from steam shovels and locomotives to tugboats and dredges. Their work crew consisted mostly of local black and Indian laborers. In the first months, the digging progressed slowly but steadily. Then the rains began. De Lesseps, who visited Panama once-during the dry season-had disregarded the warnings of men who knew Panama intimately. Now his crew discovered the real Panama-mile upon mile of impassable jungle, day upon day of torrential rain, insects, snakes, swamps, hellish heat, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever and the Chagres River.

The Chagres snaked across the canal route a total of 14 times. Ignoring the warnings of engineers who deemed the task impossible, de Lesseps' decided to dam and divert the river, which he had only seen at low ebb. In the rainy season, the Chagres rose to a monstrous, churning torrent that swept away anything that stood in its way. It was distinctly inhospitable to taming.

Chest deep in mud, the French force dug onward. Time and time again, the rain and the Chagres destroyed what engineering and hard labor had wrought. Mudslides buried men, supplies, and machines. And from the freshwater pools that lay everywhere, a deadly plague of insects rose.

In 1881, the French recorded about 60 deaths from disease. In 1882, the number doubled. The following year, 420 died. Malaria and yellow fever were the most common killers. Because the company often fired sick men to reduce medical costs, the numbers probably reflect low estimates. Believing the fumes from rotting vegetation caused the disease, doctors at the French hospital at Ancon advised workers to avoid the night air. Only after thousands of deaths would the cause be attributed to virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Three out of four men hospitalized at Ancon died, despite the massive investments that made the hospital among the finest in the tropical world. In no small manner was this hastened by the architecture of the hospital gardens. To protect the potted plants from attack by ants, gardeners had set the pots in pottery bowls filled with water. Disease-carrying mosquitoes multiplied in these reservoirs by the million and carried their deadly cargo through the screenless windows of the hospital each night.

Year after year, the digging-and the dying-continued. As the toll mounted, so did discontent. French investors grumbled at the lack of progress. In the page's of Harper's Weekly, American cartoonist Thomas Nast caricatured de Lesseps, wondering "Is M. de Lesseps a Canal Digger or a Grave Digger?"

When the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique failed in December,1888, thousands of French investors lost their money. The word Panama quickly became synonymous with scandal and fraud. About $287 million had been spent. Fifty million cubic meters of earth and rock had been moved. Eleven miles of canal had been dug. Twenty thousand men had died. The canal remained unfinished, but the dream had not yet ended. Theodore Roosevelt would soon take up the cause.

Shortly after ascending to the presidency, Roosevelt spoke of the Panama Canal in a speech to Congress. "No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent," Roosevelt said, "is as of such consequence to the American people."

Roosevelt acted quickly. In 1902, the United States reached an agreement to buy rights to the French canal property and equipment for a sum not to exceed $40 million. The U.S. then began negotiating a Panama treaty with Colombia. The U.S Department of War would direct excavation. Many, both in the press and in the public, sensed a scandal, or, worse yet, good money thrown after bad.

In the New York Journal, William Randolph Hearst opined that "the only way we could secure a satisfactory concession from Colombia would be to go down there, take the contending statesmen by the necks, and hold a batch of them in office long enough to get a contract in mind." Hearst's statement proved prophetic.

When Colombia grew reticent in its negotiations, Roosevelt and Panamanian business interests collaborated on a revolution. The battle for Panama lasted only a few hours. Colombian soldiers in Colón were bribed $50 each to lay down their arms; the U.S.S. Nashville cruised off the Panamanian coast in a show of support. On November 3, 1903, the nation of Panama was born.

The U.S quickly assumed parental interest. Americans had written the Panamanian Constitution in advance; the wife of pro-canal lobbyist Phillipe Bunau-Varilla had sewn the country's first flag. A payment of $10 million secured a canal zone and rights to build. Bunau-Varilla, installed as Panamanian minister to the U.S., signed a treaty favorable to American interests. The $40 million given to J.P Morgan for distribution to French stockholders disappeared amid rumors of larcenous speculation.

1904, the Americans' first year in Panama, mirrored the French disaster. The chief engineer, John Findlay Wallace, neglected to organize the effort or to develop an action plan. The food was putrid, the living conditions abysmal. Political red tape put a stranglehold on appropriations. Disease struck, and three out of four Americans booked passage home. Engineer Wallace soon followed. The Americans had poured $128 million into the swamps of Panama, to damned little effect.

The arrival of Wallace's replacement, the rugged and ingenious John Stevens, marked a turn in fortunes for the beleaguered canal. Stevens had built the Great Northern Railroad across the Pacific Northwest. In rough territory from Canada to Mexico, he had proven his tenacity. And his new plan of action would ultimately save the canal.

The kind of work that needed done, Steven reasoned, could only be done by a well-housed, well-fed, disease-free labor force. Stevens began work not by not digging, but by cleaning.

Dr. William Gorgas, who had helped to eradicate yellow fever in Havana years before by killing the mosquitoes that carried it, directed sanitation efforts. Workers drained swamps, swept drainage ditches, paved roads and installed plumbing. They sprayed pesticides by the ton. Entire towns rose from the jungle, complete with housing, schools, churches, commissaries, and social halls.

The canal's engineering also changed. After nine months of Capitol Hill lobbying, the push for a "lake and lock" canal, favored by Roosevelt, succeeded. Stevens would dam the mighty Chagres to create the vast Gatun Lake in Panama's interior. A series of locks would raise ships from the Atlantic side to the level of the lake. The boats would cross the lake, then descend by another set of locks to the Pacific. Ironically, the plan was nearly identical to one proposed by the French engineer Godin de Lépinay in 1879, at the same meeting in which M. de Lesseps promoted his sea-level plan.

With sanitation efforts complete, Stevens began work on a scale never before witnessed. Gigantic Bucyrus steam shovels scooped tons of earth. Railroad cars ran continuously on a double track, dumping the tailings to form the Charges dam.

By December 1905, yellow fever had been officially eradicated on the Isthmus. In November, 1906, Roosevelt himself visited the canal, posing at the controls of a Bucyrus shovel. It seemed that the project could not fail. Then, on February 12, 1907, a dispirited Chief Engineer Stevens resigned.

Colonel George Washington Goethals, an Army engineer with experience building lock-type canals, assumed the Chief Engineer's post. Demanding and rigidly organized, Goethals quickly picked up where Stevens left off.

Nowhere were efforts more dramatic than at the Culebra Cut, where 100,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock would have to be removed. The laborers at Culebra -- mostly English-speaking West Indian blacks who made ten cents an hour -- moved as much as 200 trainloads of spoil a day. When mudslides filled the Cut repeatedly, Goethals simply ordered it dug out again. There were accidents of all sorts, lost equipment, and deaths, but there was progress.

At the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side, workers poured enough concrete to build a wall 8' wide, 12' high, and 133 miles long. They built culverts the size of railroad tunnels to channel water from Gatun Lake into the locks. Pittsburgh's furnaces roared as more than 50 mills, foundries, and machine shops churned out the rivets, bolts, nut, girders, and other steel pieces the canal builders needed.

In May, 1913, steam shovels broke through the Culebra Cut, and the last cement was poured at the Gatun locks. The Chagres filled Gatun Lake, and engineers prepared for the canal's first trial run. It came on September 26. The tugboat Gatun traveled through the first set of locks and out onto the lake. The locks worked flawlessly. After nine years, the end was at last in sight.

The Panama Canal opened officially on August 15, 1914. The world scarcely noticed. German troops were driving across Belgium toward Paris; the newspapers relegated Panama to their back pages. The greatest engineering project in the history of the world had been dwarfed by the totality of World War I.

Ride through the Panama canal with this time-lapse video of the locks in action.