The Panama Canal : A Brief History

Very few human endeavors have ever conceded to change the face of the planet on which we live as did the successful completion of the interoceanic Panama Canal in 1914 by the United States. Such projects before this time had only managed to build up or tear down existing geographical features - the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the trans-continental railroads - but none had ever even aspired to accomplish something so incredulous as splitting the continents. This the United States did and more - the Panama Canal was soon to become a vital link for the entire world. Despite previous failures by other organizations, the United states as a whole was able to overcome the numerous dangers present at the isthmus between North and South America, and build what remains today one of the greatest engineering marvels of the modern world.

The idea of a path between North and South America is older than their respective names. Columbus had searched in vain for a passage through the land that would lead him to the Indies where treasures awaited, and repeated sailors since had done the same. Emperor Napoleon III of France once toyed with the idea of building a canal in France's land across the sea, but never with much enthusiasm.

No real progress, other than ideas and brainstorms, was made until the nineteenth century, when a French individual felt it was time for a French-owned canal at Panama, then a republic of Colombia. This individual was Ferdinand de Lesseps, the most important foreigner involved with Egypt's Suez Canal ("the hero of Suez"). Lesseps' success at Suez made him confident, perhaps too confident, that a canal at Panama would be no different. As he proceeded to convince his countrymen of such, stock for his new company, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, was sold (after much press coverage had been purchased to boost the company's name) with unnerving results : the company had only managed to raise 8% of what Lesseps had hoped for - 30 million francs of his requested 400 million francs.

Work began in 1882 along the route of the 1855 Panama Railroad (the concession having been given by Colombia in 1878), Lesseps was in his seventies. From that point on, the company and the canal were plagued by troubles, most being financial. Several times, Lesseps was forced to go back to his countrymen to garner funds, often as loans and once as a lottery. Serious also were unexpected setbacks in the actual excavation of the canal zone. Disease, in the forms of yellow fever and malaria, put much of the work force in the hospitals or six feet underground. The rocky ground of the formerly volcanic area proved to be too much for the French steam shovels and dredges, and headway was made only when a plan for dynamiting the rocks underwater and dredging up the pieces was put forth by Philippe Bunau-Varilla (who was later to become one of the most influential individuals in the United States' interest in the canal). Of no help was Lesseps' insistence on a sea-level canal, like he had done at Suez, as opposed to a lock canal, while the latter proved to be cheaper and more feasible even by reports of the time.

In 1885, due to the tremendous problems encountered in trying to excavate a sea-level canal, the plan was changed to include a single, temporary lock and other adjustments in order to speed up the availability of the canal for traffic. Still, it was of no use : in 1889, Lesseps' company was liquidated in order to pay back investors and banks from which the company had borrowed. The appraisal of the company's belongings - including equipment, maps, and the value of the land already excavated - was very high, and in 1894, a new company, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, was created in France to attempt to finish the canal. All involved thought of this as an impossible feat by the French, and ideas ran strong to sell the canal zone - possibly to the United States. France resented the loss of millions of francs (the estimated cost of the company's pursuit of the canal, including publicity and possibly a little bribery, is almost 1.5 billion francs), and subsequent trials of the heads of Lesseps' company, including Lesseps himself, began in 1893. Lesseps was condemned by the court, but never fined nor jailed. Charles de Lesseps, Ferdinand's son, and others were eventually charged with bribery, only one being sent to prison. Charles was forced to pay the fine of another defendant, but could not raise the money so fled to London until his government accepted a partial payment, nearly 5 years later. France had determined that she could not possibly complete the canal. With a lease on land in Colombia until 1903, the search was on for a buyer. Eventually, France found a friend in the United States of America.

At the time, a canal in the Latin American isthmus was not a new idea to America, either. In 1887, the government sent a regiment under Lieutenant Menocal to survey Nicaragua for a canal site. In 1889, Congress chartered the Maritime Canal Co, headed by the millionaire J.P. Morgan to build a canal in either Nicaragua or Panama. After discussions, the Nicaragua route was chosen, and construction began. In 1893, a stock panic in America caused Maritime to loose all funding, and excavation stopped - the first and last of America's blunders on the canal. In 1897, congress appointed a fact-finding Canal Commission, which promptly recommended the Nicaraguan route. In 1899, the second Canal Commission did the same. President McKinley probably would have signed a bill introduced by Senator J.T. Morgan securing funds for a Nicaraguan canal, had an assassin's bullet not taken his life on September 6, 1901. The subsequent inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt was to become a time of strained relations with Colombia, and new friendship in a brand new nation - the Republic of Panama.

Theodore Roosevelt was the Big Stick president. Might was good, though not necessarily right. Roosevelt was especially proud of America's navy, and its naval power. The incident during the Spanish War involving the battleship Oregon's two-month trip around South America (by which time the war was nearly over), which had sponsored Morgan's bill for a canal, had also affected Teddy, and the rest of America, in a big way. In previous reports, the recommendation of Nicaragua was based on cost, and then because France's Compagnie Nouvelle had refused to sell their belongings for less than $100 million. Seeing that the company would loose to Nicaragua, the two main foreign advisors in the company - William Nelson Cromwell and Philippe Bunau-Varilla - managed to talk the company to lower its price to a mere $40 million, which would put the Panama project at a cost about equal to Nicaragua. Now, the biggest battle over the canal was to begin.

Most of America was still under the impression of the first two Canal Commissions, which advocated Nicaragua, no matter how outdated the findings were. It became the personal battle of William Cromwell and Philippe Bunau-Varilla to get the Panama site chosen. Cromwell was the hired American Counsel of the New Panama Canal Company (Compagnie Nouvelle). Both he and Philippe owned stock in the French holding company, and knew they would loose everything unless the Panama site won over Nicaragua. Both used their personal fortunes, for they were relatively wealthy, to buy publicity in newspapers and magazines, phamphlets, and lectures (mostly Philippe) promoting Panama. Their efforts finally paid off when a handful of Senators backed them. In 1902, when Iowan Senator William Hepburn introduced a bill providing for a Nicaraguan canal, Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin attached an amendment that literally reversed the bill, and provided for a canal at Panama instead. The Senate voted between the Spooner amendment and the original proposal, and with a little help from Philippe playing on the fears of the volcanos along the canal site (Philippe managed to find fifty copies of a Nicaraguan stamp that depicted the largest of the volcanos near the canal site - 20 miles away - and had one sent to each Senator on the day of the vote), the Spooner amendment passed without the original Nicaraguan canal proposal. This Spooner Bill promptly passed the House of Representatives, and was signed by Big Stick Roosevelt himself.

The Spooner Act gave the President $40 million to purchase the New Panama Canal Company, and the power to negotiate a treaty with Colombia. The former was easy, the latter impossible. The first treaty, the Hay-Herran treaty, gave Colombia $10 million and $250,000 annually for the duration of a 100-year lease on a six-mile wide strip of the isthmus, and was rejected by the ever-changing Colombian government. What happened next is described by Theodore Roosevelt in History of the Panama Canal by Ira Bennett as : Panama wanted to sell the land to America, but Colombia refused. Panama planned a revolution, and Roosevelt sent a battleship, the Nashville to protect "American lives in Panama", which meant that no other country was going to land on the isthmus (invasion by land was impossible because of the impenetrable Panamanian jungle). Panama declared its independence from Colombia, and America recognized their declaration, else Colombia would have reconquered the area, endangering American interests. Philippe Bunau-Varilla was made American ambassador for Panama by telegram after the independence, and consequently wrote up a treaty between Panama and America with Senator John Hay - the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty - which was ratified by the new Panamanian Government in 1903, and by the American Senate in early 1904.

Before any work could begin, the most deadly of the problems on the isthmus had to be overcome - disease. The government wasn't going to allow mortality rates like had been seen during the French reign - somewhere between ten and twenty thousand were estimated to have died at the canal zone between 1882 and 1888. For this purpose, American doctor William Gorgas was called to examine the area. The most troublesome diseases were the mosquito-carried malaria and yellow fever - the same diseases that had kept Napoleon Bonaparte from putting down the uprising in Hati in 1801 - but almost all diseases known to man were endemic. Tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, bubonic plague - all were cases on file at Panama hospitals in 1904.

Gorgas, while not the discoverer of the ability of mosquitos to transmit certain diseases, that credit is reserved to Dr. Ronald Reed, he brought what he had learned at Havanna to Panama. The theory and proven fact was that malaria and yellow fever were transmitted from infected to healthy individual by female mosquitos of the Anapheles and Stegomyia breeds, breeds only common along the equator. Gorgas' goal now was to eliminate the mosquito population from the canal zone. This was not easy as the French had built a veritable mosquito hotel along the canal site - sewage drains and bowls of water used to protect people and objects from the vicious umbrella ants were first-rate mosquito incubators. Gorgas' troops busied themselves with covering all standing or slow-moving bodies of water with a combination oil and insecticide, and isolating infected persons in wire-screen tents. It took the personal recommendation of John Stevens, then head engineer of the canal, to President Roosevelt for Gorgas to get the equipment and medicine he needed to accomplish what he started, but at last the whole of the Canal zone became the pest-free resort area that it remains today, and medical teams and hospitals could pay more attention to other diseases - bubonic plague, tuberculosis - that affected the workers (to a much lesser extent than malaria and yellow fever had).

Now began the relatively easy part for America - actually building the canal. First Congress set up a Commission to be the ruling body over the canal area - any goods or funds requested by the chief engineer were to be confirmed as necessary by the Commission. The last thing America wanted was to have their canal attempt fail because of overspending and loose watch on funds, that which had killed the French mission. The first thing necessary to do was to comply with the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, and fix up Panama City and Colon. Men were hired locally and overseas to pave the roads, put in decent sewer and water systems, and repair the buildings. Also taken up was the elimination of mosquitos and other pests from places of residence - no easy task in a bug-heaven like Central America. In no time, the cities were built better than they had ever been, and it was time to pour all attention to the canal.

The first chief engineer was John F. Wallace, an American civilian engineer. He was elected by the Canal (Walker) Commission in May, and he arrived at the isthmus in June. Immediately work began on repairing the falling French buildings left there since the 1880's. Also, new railroad track had to be laid because the French's track width was much too narrow to hold the American railroad cars. The red tape was a tremendous setback - it often took months for orders for equipment to reach the isthmus. Wallace started the excavation at Culebra Cut - a ten mile long stretch through the highest and rockiest area of the canal route - and after almost a year, American machinery was being used to dig the huge expanse of mountain.

Fed up with the time it was taking for even the simplest necessities to reach the area, Wallace went back to the States to complain to Roosevelt and the Commission. Roosevelt promptly disbanded the Commission, and appointed seven new members. Wallace, temporarily satisfied, sailed back to the canal zone only to be caught in the middle of a rather large yellow-fever epidemic. Wallace, fearing for himself as well as his family, travelled back to the United States, to discuss "complicated business" with vice president William Taft. Taft had gotten other news from a colleague who had spoken to Wallace before he left the zone, who said that Wallace had gotten a higher-paying job offer in the States, and was preparing to quit unless given more power over the operation and a higher salary. At their meeting, Taft accepted Wallace's resignation, and the next day released a transcript of their conversation, which literally ended any hope Wallace had of coming back to America unscathed. Unfortunately, this was not the last trouble the canal had with chief engineers.

The second Panama Canal Chief Engineer was John Stevens. Selected to replace Wallace by the Commission in July of 1905, Stevens was another American civilian engineer. The first building of labor housing began, and work began in earnest on deciding what type of canal to build - sea-level, as the French had tried, or using locks. Wallace had favored a sea-level canal, but was no longer connected to the project. Stevens requested a lock canal, and this influenced Roosevelt's similar decision. Stevens put his workers - of all nationalities - to work on fixing more of the existing French equipment while American machines were on the way down. Mapping of the Chagres River - the huge river that was to be turned into an artificial lake for the lock-canal proposal - was accomplished, and locations to block the river and put the locks was completed. Roosevelt visited the zone for the first time, and diseases that ran rampant through the canal zone began to be distinctly reduced in occurrence.

It was after Roosevelt had returned to the U.S. that Stevens began to dislike working at the canal. In a letter to the President, he did not resign, but stated that he was not "anxious to continue in service." As he has done with Wallace, Roosevelt accepted Stevens' "resignation", and Army Lieutenant George Washington Goethals was appointed by Roosevelt to replace him. From this point on, the canal was under a military-discipline control, and the Army was not going to relinquish this control.

George Goethals was definitely the most together of the chief engineers. Used to working within the government's rules, he knew how to get what he needed quickly. Right away, he introduced a cost-keeping system to keep track of costs of the different materials and jobs, and increase or decrease spending accordingly (which would eventually save millions of American dollars). Workers were organized on projects in order to keep everyone busy. Goethals set up a complaint board every Sunday where workers could come and state their grievances directly to Goethals. Most of the workers came to respect Goethals and what he did for the organization of the canal in a very short time.

In 1908, changes in the design of the canal had to be made because of unforeseen problems. The width of the canal was increased to 300 feet (from 200 feet), and the size of the locks to be used was increased by 15 feet (95 to 110 feet). Because of the threat of a silt blockage at the Pacific end, a breakwater - the Naos Island breakwater - was built using excavated dirt from the canal. Also created with the extra soil was a military reservation on the Pacific side, but most was dumped in the jungle wherever railroad tracks could be laid. The Pacific locks were moved inland, both for military strategy - harder to hit from the water - and necessity - the supports had begun to sink at the first location.

The most difficult area of excavation was the area at Culebra Mountain - Culebra Cut. The canal had to be dug out of the largest mountain in the path, which was one of the smallest mountain on the isthmus. The French had floundered at Culebra because they had attempted to maintain a certain slope at the sides - an angle that became impossible to hold. The heavy Panamanian rainfall caused mudslides year round until a very gradual slope was attained by the massive steam-shovels working almost twenty-four hours a day. All told, 96 million cubic yards of dirt were removed from the Cut, 30 million of that being soil deposited in the bottom of the Cut by landslides. Dynamite was the tool of choice for loosening the rocky ground - over 19 million pounds of explosives were used in the Cut alone - and only eight fatalities resulted.

The overall design of the canal was this : a dam built at Gatun (to create the largest artificial lake in the world at the time) to fuel the locks; a series of three locks at Gatun (to get past the dam), each would raise or lower ships 85 feet vertically; another set of two locks at Pedro Miguel and a single at Miraflores (Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores are cities within the Canal Zone) on the Pacific side; the width at the bottom of the canal was to be 300 feet, the width at the top was dependent on the location (1800 feet at Culebra); the Naos Island breakwater, and armaments at both entrances to keep the canal free for international travel. The locks themselves were enormous, in keeping with the canal "tradition". Over a thousand feet long each, they were manufactured in the States and transported to the site in sections and cemented together, of which the engineers did a remarkable job since cementing was a relatively new and unstudied area of construction. Water was to flow into or out of the locks through gigantic culverts in the walls of the locks, each being many times the height of a person. The lock gates were also sent down in pieces and completed on site, and double sets of doors (two gates at each end of a lock) were installed for protection of the canal (in case one gate were damaged or malfunctioning). Another series of precautionary measures were later installed in the control house, all to keep anything from damaging the canal. (When the canal went into operation, it was built to survive a naval bombardment, runaway ships in the locks, malfunctioning equipment, and inept controllers.) Railroad-type cars held and moved the ships - vessels did not traverse the locks under their own power.

The canal was completed in August of 1914, under budget by twenty-three million dollars. The first ship to cross the isthmus was the concrete ship Cristobal, the official and publicized ship to make the voyage was the Ancon. Unfortunately, the opening came just as World War I started in Europe, and so the fact that the greatest human endeavor had been completed was last on most everyone's mind. Initial traffic on the canal was around two-thousand ships annually until the war was over, when it jumped to five-thousand ships a year, then to seven-thousand, and more in recent times. The toll was initially 90 cents a ton, but was raised in 1974 due to increasing costs of operation (the canal is only allowed to break even) to $1.08 a ton. The canal is used by almost all interoceanic travel, either commercial or private. The only exception being today's oil supertankers, which were not designed to travel through the canal (and are nearly 50 feet too wide to fit inside the locks). Surprisingly, the problem over the Culebra Cut has not yet been solved - even today slides put rock and debris at the bottom of the canal, and dredges must be called in to clear the path. Even in this day of man controlling nature, we are not the masters, nor ever shall be.

The Panama Canal was, is, and shall remain the terran engineering marvel of the 20th century. Never before nor since has any project accomplished the feats of mastering the elements, of engineering and construction, or of future planning as has been done at Panama. After 87 years of continuous service, it continues to be as useful as the day it became operational. An operation that was impossible only 30 years earlier, the American country rallied behind the energetic laborers that were going to bend the isthmus between North and South America until it broke and a new path between the seas was created. Killer diseases, high costs, seemingly impossible excavations, all faced the engineers at the Canal Zone, but one by one they were overcome until the Panama Canal alone stood out from among the rubble and invited people of the world to come and cruise her waters - a new pathway for the ever-expanding, ever-changing human race.


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

Cameron, Ian. The Impossible Dream. New York: William Morrow & Co, Inc, 1971.

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.

Tyler Jones, May 31, 1990