Construction Begins on the Panama Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Construction of the Panama Canal was a ten-year engineering project that overcame numerous obstacles before it was completed.

Summary of Event

The Isthmus of Panama is a narrow strip of land in Central America between Costa Rica and Colombia. At its narrowest point, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are separated by fewer than 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) of land. During the California gold rush in the early 1850’s, a railroad was built across the isthmus. Travelers from the eastern United States could go by ship to the port of Colón on the Atlantic side, take a short train ride to Panama City on the Pacific side, and then continue by ship to San Francisco. In comparison, going across the United States to California by wagon train was a much more difficult journey, only for the hardiest travelers. Panama Canal Engineering;Panama Canal [kw]Construction Begins on the Panama Canal (Summer, 1904) [kw]Panama Canal, Construction Begins on the (Summer, 1904) [kw]Canal, Construction Begins on the Panama (Summer, 1904) Panama Canal Engineering;Panama Canal [g]Latin America;Summer, 1904: Construction Begins on the Panama Canal[01060] [g]Panama;Summer, 1904: Construction Begins on the Panama Canal[01060] [c]Science and technology;Summer, 1904: Construction Begins on the Panama Canal[01060] [c]Engineering;Summer, 1904: Construction Begins on the Panama Canal[01060] Goethals, George Washington Gorgas, William Crawford Stevens, John Frank Reed, Walter Lesseps, Ferdinand de

The construction of a canal across Panama had long been viewed as very desirable for shipping because it would eliminate the need for ships to make the long and dangerous trip around South America. France made the first serious attempt to build the “big ditch” under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully directed the building of the Suez Canal through the Egyptian desert. The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, made it possible for travelers from Europe to get to India and the Far East without going around the continent of Africa. Lesseps, a popular hero in France, made an inspection trip to Panama in 1879 and announced that a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans should be easier to build than the Suez Canal had been. The company that Lesseps formed to carry out the project raised money from private investors and began construction in 1881. Lesseps had greatly underestimated the magnitude of the task, however, and the work came to a halt in 1889.

The French effort failed for several reasons. First, the French machinery was too small and lightweight for the job. Suez had sand, whereas Panama had rocks and mud. Second, yellow fever Yellow fever and malaria Malaria killed more than twenty thousand people in Panama, including men working on the canal, in eight years. The role of mosquitoes Mosquitoes as disease vectors in transmitting these tropical diseases was not yet established, sanitation was inadequate, and working conditions were poor. Finally, Lesseps’s plan for a sea-level canal was not practical in Panama. In the middle of the isthmus, the mountains are more than 295 feet (90 meters) high and almost 7 miles (11 kilometers) wide. In order to make a channel down to sea level, the canal builders would have to blast a large amount of rock away with dynamite. The French did make considerable progress with this endeavor in the highest terrain in what was known as the Culebra Cut, but, unfortunately, frequent mud slides during the rainy season refilled some of the excavated area.

In the United States, popular support for building a canal in Central America developed during the Spanish-American War from 1898 to 1900. The battleship Oregon was stationed in San Francisco in March, 1898, when the captain received orders to bring his ship to Cuba as quickly as possible to participate in the blockade. At a maximum speed of sixteen knots, the Oregon traveled south along the coast of Chile, came around the tip of Argentina, and headed north toward the Caribbean. Along the way, there were delays because of illness among the crew, a four-day storm, and Spanish warships. After ten long weeks, the battleship finally arrived off the coast of Cuba. This dramatic voyage was publicized widely and later became a rallying point in Congress for those who advocated federal funding for a canal because of its military necessity.

Drawing on a magazine cover in June, 1904, praises Theodore Roosevelt for his role in initiating construction of the Panama Canal.

(Library of Congress)

The U.S. government under President Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Panama Canal negotiated an agreement in 1902 with the French canal company to take over its unfinished project. The land belonged to Colombia, however, and that nation turned down an American offer of ten million dollars for the strip of land along the canal route. A so-called phony revolution took place on November 3, 1903, when the Republic of Panama seceded from Colombia. Panama;revolution Revolts;Panama Within three weeks, the United States recognized the new country and obtained rights from Panama to a ten-mile-wide “canal zone” at the original price that had been offered to Colombia. Twenty years later, the United States paid an indemnity of twenty-five million dollars to Colombia in compensation for this subterfuge.

John Findley Wallace Wallace, John Findley was appointed chief engineer and coordinator of the building project in 1904, but he remained on the job only for about a year. Progress in excavation was too slow, and an outbreak of yellow fever in the spring of 1905 took many lives. President Roosevelt replaced Wallace with engineer John Frank Stevens and appointed William Crawford Gorgas, a U.S. Army doctor and sanitarian, to head a project to eradicate mosquitoes in the Canal Zone.

In the late 1890’s, English physician Sir Ronald Ross Ross, Ronald had proved that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes, and in 1900-1901, U.S. Army physician Walter Reed had found that yellow fever has the same mode of transmission. Previously, it was believed that these dreaded illnesses were caused by tropical climate and poor sanitation. Gorgas had worked as sanitation officer with Reed in Cuba, where his efforts led to a steep decline in yellow fever cases, and he knew what had to be done. He ordered the spraying of larvicide oil on standing water surfaces, where mosquitoes breed, and the installation of a sewage system where canal workers were living. He also trained exterminators to fumigate buildings and ordered sick patients placed in an isolation cage so mosquitoes could not get to them to feed and then spread the disease further. The campaign against mosquitoes was so effective that yellow fever was completely eliminated in the Canal Zone by 1906, and malaria cases were gradually reduced to the point where less than 10 percent of the workers contracted the disease.

Under Chief Engineer Stevens, the design of the canal was changed from a sea-level route to one that would use a series of locks. The idea was to create a large lake well above sea level; ships would be raised up to the lake with three locks on one side and then lowered back down to the ocean with locks on the other side. The design was appropriately called “a bridge of water” going from ocean to ocean. Gatun Dam, Gatun Dam which took more than six years to construct, eventually formed Gatun Lake, with an area of approximately 102 square miles (264 square kilometers). The lake, which ships could cross under their own power, provided the waterway for more than half of the canal route. Building the locks to raise and lower the ships was a mammoth project. Each was more than one thousand feet (305 meters) in length, requiring large quantities of cement and the construction of huge steel doors that had to swing open and shut to hold the water.

President Roosevelt visited Panama for three days in 1906, the first time in history that an American president made a trip to a foreign country. Although Stevens was popular with the workers in the Canal Zone, he had some disagreements with Roosevelt and resigned his position as chief engineer in 1907. Roosevelt immediately replaced him with Colonel George Washington Goethals, whose forceful leadership carried the canal project through to its successful conclusion.

Goethals had to deal with the difficult problem of the Culebra Cut through the mountains, which was to be the passageway from Lake Gatun to the locks on the Pacific side. Goethals recognized that the speed of excavation was limited by the rate of rock removal. Up to thirty trains per hour carried rocks from Culebra to be dumped as a breakwater in the ocean. Workers had to shift the tracks daily as the steam shovels advanced. The biggest tragedy of the project was a premature dynamite explosion that killed twenty-three workers in 1908. Occasionally mud slides, especially during the rainy season, spoiled a month’s work in moments.

Goethals segregated the labor force into a hierarchy with three distinct categories. First came the “gold employees,” about fifty-six hundred white Americans who were paid in gold, with an average salary of several thousand dollars per year. Next came the “silver employees,” about four thousand European laborers, mostly from Spain and Italy, who were paid about five hundred dollars per year in silver. At the bottom of the pay scale were about thirty thousand blacks from Jamaica and the Caribbean area, who received about three hundred dollars per year. All of the groups received higher income than they could have earned at home. Strict segregation between the groups was maintained in housing, quality of food, medical care, and transportation to the job site. To maintain good morale, Goethals saw to it that entertainment was provided in the form of motion pictures, band concerts, and baseball games. A locally produced weekly newspaper called the Canal Record spurred on competition between work crews.

In the fall of 1913, Gatun Dam was finished and the lake behind it began to fill with water, extending into the Culebra Cut. On August 15, 1914, ten years after the start of construction, the first ship made the transit from ocean to ocean in slightly under ten hours. Goethals received a congratulatory telegram from the U.S. secretary of war in Washington, who declared that a “stupendous undertaking has been finally accomplished, and a perpetual memorial to the genius and enterprise of our people has been created.”


The Panama Canal Act of 1912 Panama Canal Act (1912) provided for the operation, maintenance, and protection of the canal. The tolls to be charged for commercial ships to pass through were set in proportion to their tonnage. American vessels used the canal for free at first because the construction costs had been paid for with tax money. During its first seventy-five years of operation, the canal served an average of ten thousand ships annually. In 1990, the toll charged for one transit of the 62,000-ton Star Princess of the Princess Cruise Line was $120,000. All of the canal’s operation and maintenance costs—including the cost of underwater dredging, which is necessary to maintain the proper depth of water—have to be covered by the tolls.

In the early years of canal operation, three major benefits were attributed to the canal project. First was the major saving in distances traveled by commercial ships that previously had to go around South America. Second was the military advantage of moving U.S. Navy ships rapidly to protect either coast, thus reducing the costs of a two-ocean navy. Finally, the improvements in sanitation and the reduction of tropical diseases accomplished in Panama during the building of the canal served as an example of what could be done to improve living conditions in other tropical countries.

After World War II, various countries that had been part of colonial empires struggled to win their independence. Among these were India, Indonesia, and Algeria. The Suez Canal, which had been administered by France and England for nearly one hundred years, was taken over by Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956. In Panama, resentment began to build up against the United States for its “ownership” of the Canal Zone on Panamanian territory. This spirit of nationalism came to a climax in 1964 when Panamanian rioters entered the Canal Zone and clashed with U.S. troops. The fighting caused the loss of lives and destruction of property and led to a break in diplomatic relations between the United States and Panama.

Over the next several years, difficult negotiations were conducted to draft a new canal treaty. The treaty of 1904 had promised the United States “perpetual jurisdiction” over the Canal Zone, but that clashed with the idea of national sovereignty and the goals of the American Good Neighbor Policy. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter oversaw U.S. ratification of a new treaty with Panama, which the U.S. Senate barely consented to by a two-thirds majority. The new treaty provided for a period of joint administration of the Canal Zone, with a gradually increasing share of the leadership positions given to Panama until December 31, 1999, when all U.S. participation and control of the canal ceased. Some opponents of the treaty described it as a pure “giveaway,” but proponents took the long-range view that good relations with the countries of Latin America are important for U.S. national security. Panama Canal Engineering;Panama Canal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, John. Panama Canal: What It Is, What It Means. Washington, D.C.: Pan American Union, 1913. Written for the American public shortly before the canal was opened. Resembles an enthusiastic tourist guidebook of that era, telling the reader how to get there, where to stay, and which sights are the most spectacular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Ian. The Impossible Dream: The Building of the Panama Canal. New York: William Morrow, 1972. Describes the personalities and contributions of the key figures, from Lesseps to Goethals. Quotes extensively from the Canal Record and gives a sense of an unfolding sequence of successes and setbacks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goethals, George W. “The Panama Canal.” National Geographic 22 (February, 1911): 148-211. Text of an address presented by Goethals to the National Geographic Society; a progress report on the canal project that includes many interesting photographs. Emphasizes the military necessity of the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jasper, William F. “Taming Mankind’s Ancient Foes.” New American 21 (September 5, 2005): 37-40. Relates the story of Gorgas’s work in Panama, including his struggle to overcome bureaucratic opposition when he sought to employ the methods he had used successfully in Cuba to eradicate yellow fever.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keller, Ulrich, ed. The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs. New York: Dover, 1983. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has a collection of more than ten thousand photographs showing the Panama Canal construction. About 160 of these historic pictures are reprinted, each with informative and interesting commentary by Keller. An outstanding documentary record.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDowell, Bart. “The Panama Canal Today.” National Geographic 153 (February, 1978): 279-294. Describes a transit through the canal, with historical notes and observations along the way.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Paul B. The Panama Canal Controversy. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1977. In 1977, President Carter negotiated a new treaty that eventually gave Panama control over the canal. This book describes the U.S. Senate debates concerning ratification of the treaty. Presents questions of U.S. national security versus Panama’s sovereignty from the politically conservative point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salt, Harriet. Mighty Engineering Feats. Philadelphia: Penn, 1937. Describes ten major American engineering accomplishments, including the Panama Canal. Filled with interesting details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snapp, Jeremy Sherman. Destiny by Design: The Construction of the Panama Canal. With photographs by Gerald Fitzgerald Sherman and Jeremy Sherman Snapp. Lopez Island, Wash.: Pacific Heritage Press, 2000. Photo essay and narrative combine to pay tribute to one of the greatest engineering feats of the twentieth century. Features more than 160 photographs never published before, most taken by Sherman during the canal’s construction.

Panama Declares Independence from Colombia

U.S. Acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone

Gorgas Develops Effective Methods of Mosquito Control

Panama Canal Opens

Categories: History