A Brief History of the Panama Canal

When you think of the easiest way to get from one side of the Americas to the other, you probably picture traveling through the Panama Canal. The waterway that spans more than 50 miles makes it easier for ships — and, of course, people — to seamlessly travel from the east side of North or South America to the west. But did you know that the Panama Canal has existed for more than 100 years and that the current version is just the latest modification of it? If you’ve spent sleepless nights wondering how the Panama Canal came to be, we have the answers with this quick history lesson.

The Reason for the Canal

Aerial view of the Panama Canal landscape seen from the Atlantic side
Credit: dani3315 / Shutterstock

Before the construction of the Panama Canal, traveling from New York to San Francisco via ship was hardly easy or efficient. To make the 13,000-mile 60-day journey, you had to travel down the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of the continent) and then follow the western coastline until you reached California. This inefficient shipping passage saw a massive uptick in cargo vessels between 1870 and 1910 — making the case for a faster way to get from one side of the country to the other.

The Americans Weren’t the First Construction Team

Historical black and white photo of Panama Canal workers as they began construction, 1913
Credit: Everett Historical / Shutterstock

Even though the United States takes credit for building the canal in 1904, they were not the first to think of creating a canal through the narrowest part of Central America. As far back as 1513, explorers were looking for ways to shorten their voyage around the continents. Vasco Nunez de Balbao was the first European to discover the Isthmus of Panama, a thin stretch of land that separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the French surveyed the region and broke ground on a canal.

A Bold Undertaking

Aerial view of the Panama Canal and the Bridge of the Americas with mountains in background
Credit: Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock

Coming off of the success of the Suez Canal in Egypt, French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps was confident that he could replicate that engineering feat in Panama. But he quickly realized that their original plans of building a canal at sea level weren’t realistic. The construction team didn’t want to rely on locks, but the topography and geology made that goal impossible.

Eventually, famed engineer Gustave Eiffel was brought in to create a locks-based canal. Between issues with diseases like malaria and yellow fever, poor engineering plans, and the massive loss of life, Lesseps was never able to make a dent in the canal’s construction project. His firm first broke ground in Panama during 1881, but eight years and $200 million later, the project was abandoned with claims of mismanagement and fraud — with Eiffel being indicted as a co-conspirator. Shortly after, another French firm attempted to continue the project but later halted construction because of similar issues.

The Third Time’s the Charm

Aerial view of modern Panama Canal locks on a clear day
Credit: Galina Savina / Shutterstock

More than a decade after the French abandoned work on the Panama Canal, the Americans tried their hand at building it. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, a committee was convened to determine the canal’s viability. It was found that the canal could be constructed — but not at sea level. The land that was identified as the ideal location was located in Colombia.

To make the canal happen, the U.S. adopted a pro-Panamanian independence political agenda that created an independent nation and gave the territory control over those critical lands. In 1904, the U.S. broke ground in Panama, roughly a year after the nation’s creation via the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty that also made the U.S. the sole owners of the proposed canal. While the local response to the canal’s construction in the young nation wasn’t positive, construction continued.

They Should Have Measured Twice and Cut Once

Close up view of the Panama Canal locks during a sunset
Credit: jdross75 / Shutterstock

Shortly after construction began, the Americans faced many of the same issues that the French experienced. Original engineers opted for a sea-level canal, meaning that they would also struggle with heavy rains, poor ground conditions, and landslides. And as with the French, malaria and yellow fever created even more delays by decimating their workforce. The U.S.-led Panama Canal project also faced setbacks with multiple chief engineers resigning within a year of signing on to the project. But nine years and three chief engineers later, construction was completed in 1913, with a locks-based Panama Canal opening to ships on August 15, 1914.

Ownership Transition and a Facelift

Crowd of tourists watch as a ship enters the Panama Canal
Credit: B. Franklin / Shutterstock

The U.S. maintained control of the Panama Canal until December 31, 1999. At this point, the nation of Panama regained control of the land with the understanding that the waterways would remain neutral and open to international freight and passenger ships. Without a doubt, the Panama Canal is a critical waterway, not just for the U.S. but the world. It’s a major shipping lane that makes moving international freight significantly easier.

Today, the canal features three lanes of locks to accommodate as many as 14,000 transits per year, based on 2017 figures. This includes commercial ships that moved more than 400,000 tons of freight each year. And in 2010, the Panama Canal welcomed its millionth vessel through its waterway.

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