Before it was built in the early twentieth century, a canal through Panama was a dream of men for over 400 years -- to alter the course of ships as they circumnavigated the globe.
In the 1880s the French tried to build a canal through Panama, and failed. After eight years of disease and destruction, they could not figure it out. At this time Panama was not its own country, but part of Colombia - which itself had become independent from Spain in 1810. Panama became independent of Spain, like the rest of Central America, in 1821 and voluntarily became part of Colombia.
However, in 1903, with recognition from the United States, the province of Panama declared its independence from Colombia. It was a bloodless revolution, where the Panamanians basically bought out the loyalty of the Colombian soldiers. On the morning of November 3, 1904, they declared their independence, and by sunset, they had secured it, without a single drop of blood being spilled.
Just two weeks later, the United States reached an agreement with Panama to control what they called the canal zone. And by the end of 1903, the work to attempt to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama began.
After the first year, it looked like the Americans were going to succumb to the same problems as the French. After spending $78 million, many of the American soldiers, including the leadership of the project, became frustrated. That is when they turned to John Stephens, one of the greatest railroad constructors in the world, a man who went through the Rocky Mountains to build a railroad.
Upon arriving in Panama, Stephens first focused on building a unique railway system that would be able to be a “conveyor belt” to take out any of the dirt and rubble that they were digging. He then had to convince President Theodore Roosevelt that this was a matter of logistics and they needed to build a dam and then a series of locks to get through the mountain passages on the southern end of the isthmus of Panama
“The problem is one of magnitude, not miracles,” said Stephens.
By 1906, there was a labor force of 24,000 men working on building the canal; about 70% were from the West Indies. This is the same labor pool that the French had initially drawn from as well. While these men from places across the West Indies were put in the hardest part of the labor, and paid more poorly than workers from the U.S, it was still a better economic opportunity for them than they had in their nearby home countries, so they continued to come.
But one of the biggest killers of men was disease -- most especially, yellow fever. Dr. William Gorgas was brought in to solve this problem. The tactic he employed was a massive campaign to eradicate mosquitoes. Not everyone agreed with Gorgas that this was the best solution. Gorgas, a native of Alabama, had once contracted yellow fever himself and survived. So he was determined to eradicate it so others would not have to suffer as he did. And he was one of the lucky ones.
He put forth a proposal to the U.S. government, asking for $1 million towards the campaign to eradicate mosquitoes. His first request was met with a response of just $50,000 to complete his proposed project. This would not be enough. Luckily, a friend of President Roosevelt, believed in Gorgas and convinced the President that if he wanted to succeed in building a canal in Panama, he would need to invest in Gorgas’ plan to eradicate mosquitoes. Roosevelt agreed.
As Gorgas commenced his plans, he fumigated homes in the canal zone. He went to the waters and destroyed the larva where mosquito eggs hatched. He went to the jungles and destroyed their nesting grounds. He quarantined patients with yellow fever and put mosquito nets around their homes so mosquitoes could not carry the yellow fever from them to others. He tracked every last place a mosquito could live. It was what seemed an impossible feat, but by the end of 1906, he succeeded, saving thousands of lives. Destroying mosquitoes and eradicating yellow fever was a huge part of what made the digging of the canal possible.
In November 1906, President Roosevelt went to Panama. It was the first time in U.S. history that an American President left the country while in office. He arrived in Limon Bay, near the port of Colon, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. During his trip, he just showed up in places spontaneously, made impromptu speeches, urging the men to be men. He instilled in them pride in what they were doing for the United States. He went during the time of year when rain was at its hardest. He said he wanted to see Panama in its worst conditions. He spent 12 days in Panama and one of the most famous photographs of any U.S. President featured Roosevelt on a crane.
In early 1907, Stephens resigned from the leadership of building the Panama Canal. This stunned Roosevelt, but Stephens was simply exhausted by the project’s undertaking. The next man put in charge of the canal’s construction was a U.S. Army general and civil engineer, George Washington Goethals.
Not long after his arrival, Goethals faced a strike by many of the U.S. workers on the canal, who requested higher wages and more vacation days. Goethals had no tolerance for this and sent the strikers packing. While this stalled the project for a few months, he made a statement. Once new workers were hired, the construction restarted by July 1907.
Goethals became known as “the czar of Panama.” He not only ran all the operations to build the canal, he was also in charge of all the governance of the Canal Zone, which stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, dividing the country of Panama almost in half, with the middle section (of a few miles wide) being official U.S. territory.
One of the most difficult tasks of the construction of the canal was the Culebra cut near the Pacific Ocean side of the canal. The days were noisy, hot, and dangerous, with constant landslides that would take lives and material as well as set back the project weeks and months at a time.
U.S. laborers didn’t last long with many often returning to the U.S. and warning others not to go into what seemed like a hell hole where your life was constantly at stake. This forced the American governance to improve conditions, especially for the white American workers. They built nicer homes, social halls, and recreational activities for the workers. In many cases, married workers brought their wives and children to live in these homes in the canal zone as well. As conditions improved, the American workers stayed. And over time, the project even started attracting American tourists.
The real marvel of the canal is the locks. They are magnificently large and more complex than any locks built prior to this construction. In the summer of 1913, the locks were finished. Throughout the project, water was also moved into what became (at the time) the largest artificial lake in the world, Gatun Lake. After the locks were completed, water was then moved into the canal and began to fill it.
In October 1913, waters from the lake rushed into the cut. By this time, Woodrow Wilson was president. From the Oval Office, he pushed a button to send a telegraph that then automated the waters to release into the canal. At 2:00 PM that day in Panama, there was a large boom that burst the dams to move the water. There was a lot of uncertainty about what would actually happen, but the water moved as planned and the canal was formed and finished!
August 15, 1914 was the official opening of the canal. But 12 days prior, the first ship made a test run. The name of the ship was the Cristobal (named for Christopher Columbus). It made a crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Panama Canal -- the first ship in history to do so.
The Panama Canal took more than 10 years to construct. At the time, it was the largest expense of the U.S. federal government, with a $350 million outlay. Over 5,000 lives were lost in building the canal. But the completion defined the United States to the world. It announced that there would be a new power for the new century. It also showed the promise that this is what the United States could do for the whole world.
Each time a ship passes through the canal, it must enter a series of locks. As a ship moves into the locks on the Pacific side, over 26 million gallons of water pour into the lock and it raises the ship 30 feet. These are often massive cargo ships, with some passenger cruise ships also coming through.
Unfortunately, Teddy Roosevelt never saw the canal once it was finished, but it remains one of his greatest legacies, and part of his overall legacy of announcing the United States as a superpower on the world stage.
Jan van Hardeveld was one of the young Americans who came to Panama to help build the canal. He came from Wyoming and was one of the very few Americans who was there throughout the entire construction from 1904 to 1914. His wife Rose and their children had come a little over a year after he first arrived and stayed through its completion.
Van Hardeveld was awarded the Roosevelt medal for his service in Panama. The medal was always with him, carrying it in his pocket and often holding it in his hands. He said that whenever he looked at the medal, “I thought of the many times that I nearly gave into doubts that the canal could ever be completed, that it was ever meant to be. But most of all, I was remembering how my answers to my own doubts every time was my faith in my country. I’ve always believed that America could accomplish anything she set out to do.”
Today, on an average day, more than 40 ships pass through this canal, day and night, 24 hours a day. It doesn’t stop. And, as mentioned earlier, every time a ship comes through the locks on the Pacific side, 26 gallons of water are used to lift that ship 30 feet higher. It takes a ship about 8 to 10 hours to pass through the entirety of the canal, guided by a local pilot who boards the ship at one end and brings it through the other.
It was a marvel to see this in person, in early October 2021, as I visited the canal with my friend Marshall, who lives in Florida, and my friend Chris, who lives in his native Panama and works in the shipping industry today. I will detail this 4-night trip in a separate series of articles
On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an agreement with Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos, setting in motion the ceding of control of the canal and the entire U.S. territory surrounding it on both sides back to the Panamanians. On April 18, 1978, the U.S. Senate ratified the Panama Canal Treaty. Former President Jimmy Carter came to Panama for the ceremonies on December 31, 1999 and on January 1, 2000, Panama regained control of the canal and the territory -- and the U.S. forces officially left in a smooth and peaceful departure.
There are many opinions of whether the United States should have ceded control of the canal and the U.S. territory back to Panama. Many Americans today seem to have forgotten this issue which was especially contentious in the 1970s. On the ground in Panama, it seems most, if not all, Panamanians agree that the territory was rightly ceded back to them. It is a complicated issue with many views across many sides of the people of Panama and the United States. However, the countries have great relations today, and Panama is in a much better place politically and economically than it was in the 1970s or even in the 1990s. The economy there is vibrant and the people of Panama have very good will towards the United States, as we would learn during our trip to Panama in early October 2021.
You can find the details of our trip in a separate series of articles, starting here.