The idea of creating a shortcut from Europe to Asia through the Isthmus of Panama goes back to the 1500's. King Charles I of Spain asked his governor of the area to plan a route along the Chagres River across the isthmus. The land was filled with jungle and mountains, so the project seemed impossible at that time and was not begun.
France was the first country to really make a conscious attempt to carve out a water route through the isthmus. In 1880, Ferdinand de Lessups was commissioned by France to begin construction of a sea level canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Constant rain and landslides plagued them, as well as malaria and yellow fever. De Lessups decided that a sea level canal wasn't going to be possible, so he made plans to try a lock canal. However, France decided to stop funding the project in 1888.
In 1902, the United States, under President Theodore Roosevelt, bought France's part of the Canal Zone for $40 million dollars. After it was learned that a part of the zone in which the United States wanted to build belonged to Colombia, the U. S. urged Panama to fight for independence. Then the U. S. made an agreement with the new government of Panama to have rights forever in the Canal Zone.
The U. S. officially began the project for a sea level canal in 1904 under chief engineer John Wallace, but he resigned due to faulty French equipment and the fact that workers fled from fear of malaria and yellow fever. In July 1905, a railroad engineer named John Stevens took over. He devised more efficient ways for excavating and hauling away debris and convinced President Roosevelt that a better way to go would be a lock canal.
Dr. William Gorgas was the chief sanitary officer for the project. He believed that mosquitoes carried the diseases. He cleaned out the pools of standing water and fumigated homes. Yellow fever was gone by November 1905. Within the next ten years, cases of malaria dropped. Stevens resigned suddenly in early 1907. Lt. Colonel George Washington Goethals of the Army Corps of Engineers took over. He used his military experience to get things moving. He also brought about better living conditions for the workers and their families.
Goethals had to clear a 9-mile stretch of mountain and made the project continue 24 hours a day. Landslides and dynamite explosions were very dangerous and caused deaths among the workers. In August 1909, the pouring of concrete for the locks began. The purpose of the locks was to raise and lower water levels across the isthmus from one ocean to the other. The two oceans were not on the same level. The process was run by electricity.
Two steam shovels met coming from opposite directions in 1913. From the White House, using a telegraph, President Woodrow Wilson could trigger the explosion of Gambia dike and allow the last dry bed to fill with water. When the canal opened on August 14, 1915, it was the most expensive building project the United States had ever undertaken. It cost more than $350 million. 5,600 of the 56,000 workers were killed on the project. A dam called the Maddan was added in 1935.
The Panama Canal has been an extremely important part of world trade since it was completed. The time it takes traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific is remarkably short when compared to the course which ships used to take going around Cape Horn. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and the leader of Panama signed a treaty beginning to turn over the canal to Panama. The Panama Canal Authority took over complete control on December 31, 1999. By 2010, one million ships had passed through the canal.
To link to this Panama Canal page, copy the following code to your site: