Considered the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, the Panama Canal’s story is one of triumph and great sacrifice.
The idea of constructing a canal though the isthmus of Panama dates back to the 16th century, when the king of Spain hoped to forge a route over the mountains and through the jungle to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unfortunately, the undertaking was declared too difficult for the time and abandoned.
The French were the first to attempt what was once thought impossible. The mastermind behind Egypt’s Suez Canal (completed in 1869), Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, broke ground in 1880 in Panama, then a province of Colombia. The difficulty of the task, rampant corruption, and a deadly outbreak of yellow fever and malaria brought construction to a halt eight years later, at the cost of an estimated 20,000 lives and millions of francs.
The United States had been jockeying for a canal through the isthmus for nearly half a century — dating back to the Grant administration. However, no real plan ever got off the ground and the project became a pipe dream in Washington.
A perfect storm of sorts took place in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to aid the thriving independence movement in Panama, and perhaps gain a canal for the U.S. after all. Roosevelt sent warships to the area, fomenting Panamanian independence. Colombia was unable to restore order and ceded the territory in November of that year, giving birth to the nation of Panama. The U.S. was able to negotiate very favorable terms for the building of a trans-ocean waterway, including exclusive rights in perpetuity to the newly established Canal Zone.
Construction of the canal began with a groundbreaking ceremony on May 4, 1904. Chief Engineer John Wallace immediately ran into problems. Much of the French equipment purchased was in dire need of repair or unable to handle the heavy work, and the ever-present threat of tropical disease scared off many workers.
At the behest of Chief Medical Officer Colonel William C. Gorgas, an eradication effort was implemented to deal with the disease-carrying mosquitos. New workers were recruited, and Wallace was replaced by John Stevens, a former railroad man.
By the end of 1905 there were more than 22,000 West Indian workers on site. They began forming social clubs, some with thousands of members, and the first school in the Canal Zone opened.
Stevens set about improving the sanitation and working conditions of the workers, establishing mess kitchens and barracks. The latest construction equipment and additional skilled laborers were brought in. Stevens was also instrumental in convincing Roosevelt that the original plan for a sea-level canal was unfeasible and that plans should move forward with a lock design.
By 1906 progress was slow and disease continued to be a problem, with some 80 workers dying in the month of July alone. President Roosevelt visited the Canal Zone in November of that year, marking the first time a sitting president left the U.S. While there, Roosevelt cleared away much of the bureaucracy that had plagued Stevens and his team. However, even with Roosevelt’s help, the enormity of the task became too much for him, and Stevens resigned in February of 1907.
The project’s third chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel George Goethals, took over and immediate progress was seen. Goethals saw completion of the crucial double-tracked railway, which allowed in and out transport of material and men. Worker strikes, landslides, and the sheer magnitude of the project would cause delays, yet the work continued on, despite objections back in the U.S.
By the close of 1909, the first locks were constructed — made of poured concrete and measuring 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. Hollow gates were added and the locks were now capable of lifting ships 85 feet above sea level.
By 1914, the canal was complete, at a cost of more than $350 million and over 5,000 lives. It would prove to be one of the greatest undertakings ever completed and its contribution to world trade is immeasurable. In 1999, Panama assumed full control over the Canal Zone, and in 2016 new larger locks necessary for accommodating the mega-sized transport ships of the 21st century were opened.
See the Panama Canal firsthand from the deck of a Holland America Line cruise ship.