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The shortest distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is the tiny
Isthmus of Panama which joins Central and South America. The dreams of building a
canal through this land dates back to the 1500’s. The Isthmus was a key player in the
California gold rush for prospectors. The French originally tried to build a canal but
failed and the United States took over. [2 McCullough 24-26] There were many
setbacks, the greatest of which was disease and Roosevelt sent William Gorgas to
handle the problem. [Jorden 14] “When the canal was finished it truly joined two
separate worlds.” [2 McCullough 30]
Hundreds of years before the Panama Canal was completed, people of many
lands dreamed of building a canal across Central America. “As early as 1517, Vasco
Nunez de Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific, saw the possibility of a canal
connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.” [2 McCullough 24] During the period of
the 1840’s and 50’s, present -day Panama was a providence of Colombia. Colombia
feared that Britain would try to seize Panama for use as a canal site. Colombia signed
a treaty with the United States in 1846 in which they agreed to guard all trade routes
across Panama and to preserve Panama’s neutrality. [Cameron 37]
During the California gold rush, the Isthmus of Panama became an important
route between the Eastern United States and California. [2 McCullough 34] “Many
prospectors sailed from Atlantic ports to Panama, crossed the isthmus by boat, mule, or
on foot, and took another ship to California.” [Cameron 44] In 1850, a group of
business executives pooled together $8 million dollars and built a railroad across the
isthmus that was completed in 1855. This was the first solid link in a chain of events
that sparked the building of the Panama Canal. [St. George 12]
The French first tried to construct a canal across the isthmus in 1878 under the
company headed by Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who had directed the construction of
the Suez Canal. [2 McCullough 181] He faced many hardships and once said,
“Faithful to my past, when they try to stop me, I go on.” [2 McCullough 182] They
planned to dig a canal at sea level, therefore eliminating the use of locks. In 1886,
many problems arose with this plan and so the French decided to build a canal similar
to the one that operates today. [Jorden 126-127] Due to problems with disease,
specifically yellow fever, and corrupt business running the digging projects, the French
sold out to a second French firm, the New Panama Canal Company, took over in 1894.
They made very half-hearted attempts at digging, in order to keep the franchise until
another buyer could be found. [Cameron 69]
The United States originally endeavored in building a canal across Nicaragua in
1899 since it would require less digging than a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.
The French saw this and sent Philippe Bunau-Varilla to persuade the Americans to
purchase the Panama Canal Zone. He told them that the Nicaraguan volcanoes
presented the danger of lava flows and earthquakes, and that Panama was safer. In
1902, Congress gave President Theodore Roosevelt permission to accept the French
offer if Colombia allowed the United States permanent use of the canal zone. [St.
George 30-37] Congress acted after the United States and Britain had replaced the
Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with the Hay-Paunceforte Treaty which gave the United States
the sole right to build and operate a canal across Central America. [Cameron 82]
In 1903, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay signed a canal treaty with a
Colombian representative, Tomas Herran. The treaty provided that the United States
would give Colombia an initial payment of $10 million and pay $250,000 annual rent for
the use of the zone. The problem was that the Colombian legislature refused to
approve the treaty because it felt this was not enough money. [Jorden 199-200]
A group of Panamanians feared that Panama would lose the commercial
benefits of a canal across the isthmus. The French company worried about losing the
sale of its property to the United States. [St. George 49] The Panamanians, with the
help of the French and some encouragement from the United States, revolted against
Colombian November 3, 1903, and declared Panama independent. [2 McCullough
223] In accordance with its 1846 treaty with Colombia, the United States sent ships to
Panama to protect the Panama Railroad. Marines landed in Colon, and prevented
Colombian troops from marching to Panama City, the center of the revolution, by
forming a long line across the Panama-Colombia border. [Cameron 107] On
November 6, 1903, the United States recognized the Republic of Panama. Less than
two weeks later, Panama and the United States signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty.
It gave the United States permanent, exclusive use and control of a canal zone 10
miles wide. [Jorden 282-283] “In return, the United States gave Panama an initial
payment of $10 million, plus $250,000 a year, beginning in 1913.” [Jorden 284] The
United States also guaranteed Panama’s independence. The United States took over
the French property in May 1904. [St. George 56]
The greatest obstacle to building the Panama Canal wasn’t the dense jungle,
that was just an element of the biggest problem, it was disease. [2 McCullough 254]
“The Isthmus of Panama was one of the most disease-ridden areas in the world.”
[Cameron 125] In 1904, President Roosevelt gave Col. William C. Gorgas the task of
cleaning up the Canal Zone so that building could begin. [Cameron 126]
Gorgas, an American physician, had become famous for wiping out yellow fever
in Havana, Cuba, after the Spanish-American War. He was a public health doctor who
knew exactly how to attack the problem. He knew that he had to kill the source of the
yellow fever and malaria–the mosquitoes. [2 McCullough 271] He had all of the
windows and doors installed with screen to block out bugs. He knew the mosquitoes
hung around water so he had all the streets leveled and paved so that no standing
puddles would occur when a storm hit. Also, with respect to the water problem, he had
all marshes drained to eliminate the insects there. [Jorden 320] He began to cover the
wells to keep the disease-carrying rats out of the streets. He also began cutting down
brush and tall grass where the mosquitoes and other disease carrying insects dwelled.
[Cameron 155] One example where he obtained massive supplies for the zone was
While the Sanitation Department budget for 1904 had been $50,000,
Gorgas now ordered $90,000 worth of copper screening alone (only
copper could withstand Panama’s humid climate), 50,000 gallons of
kerosene and 200 barrels of larvacide a month, 3,000 garbage cans,
5,000 pounds of soap and 120 tons of insect powder America’s entire
output for a year. [St. George 64]
By 1906, he was getting a good start. He had wiped out yellow fever and eliminated
the rats that carried bubonic plague in the Canal Zone. He told Congress, the
engineers, and the President that he needed at least three more years to totally
cleanse the place. Unfortunately for everyone who was involved, digging began soon
after. [2 McCullough 289] During the first couple years of construction, there were
many setbacks to the 6600 deaths from various diseases. Throughout all this Gorgas
continued his work and by the last year of construction, only 1 or 2 men died from
disease. [St. George 68]
“Roosevelt appointed a civilian commission to lead the canal project.” [Cameron
166] He appointed John Frank Stevens as one of his foreman and John F. Wallace as
his other. “Stevens had played an outstanding role in the building od the Hill-owned
Great Northern Railway.” [1 McCullough 67] In 1906, Congress decided to build a
canal with locks, rather than the sea-level canal that the French had originally planned.
[Jorden 348] When challenged with the question of the American presence in Panama,
he answered, “Tell them I am goin to make the dirt fly on the Isthmus.” [1 McCullough
66] Engineers believed that a canal with locks would be cheaper and faster to build.
They also felt a canal with locks would control the Chagres River’s floodwaters better
than a sea-level canal would. [Jorden 350] The work progressed slowly because of
disease, the dense jungle, and disagreements among the commission members. In
1907, Roosevelt put Colonel George W. Goethals, an Army engineer, in charge of the
project and the Canal Zone. [St. George 75-76] The high command consisted of :
The governor of the Panama Canal George Goethals, Lt. Col. William L.
Silbert, Joseph C.S. Blackburn, Rear Adm. Harry H. Rousseau, Joseph
Bucklin Bishop, Lt. Col. Harry F. Hodges, Col. William C. Gorgas, and Lt.
Col. David D. Gaillard. [2 McCullough 332]
This was the governing body of the construction and other task like public health.
The construction task involved three major engineering jobs. The builders had
to excavate the Gaillard Cut, build a dam across the Chagres River to create Gatun
Lake, and build the canal’s locks. The biggest job was digging the Gaillard Cut;:
The hills through which the cut runs consist of a soft volcanic material,
and digging into them was like digging into a pile of grain. As soon as
workers dug a hole, more rock and earth would slide into the space, or
push up from below. The engineers had originally expected to remove
about 95 million cubic yards of earth and rock to build the canal. The
actually dug out about 211 million cubic yards. Some of this was later
used in the construction of the Gatun Dam. [2 McCullough 351]
Most of the digging was done by massive 95 ton steam-powered cranes. Each of the
locks was about as high as a six story building with the flood pipes being18 feet in
diameter. The ground was very uneven and hard to cut over or around. There was a
85 foot difference between the top of the locks to the sea level. Massive ditches were
cut in order to house the enormous ships that would be passing throught the canal.
There were many systems of railroads inthe canal during construction for visitos like
the President and for ease of transportation of the workers. Everything was operated
and still is by a hydro-electric plant a eletric switch room. [2 McCullough 355-368]
At the height of the work in 1913, more than 43,400 people worked on the
Panama Canal. Three-fourths were blacks from the British West Indies, the rest were
from Italy, Spain, and the skilled clerical workers came from the United States. [St.
The canal was ultimately made up of 6 locks, 2 lakes, and the Gaillard Cut. the
Gatun lake was deepen so that a ship sould pass right throught without any locks. [St.
Goerge 102] “The first ship to pass through the canal was a passenger-cargo ship
named the S.S. Ancon on August 15, 1914.” [Cameron 200] A giant landslide in the
Gaillard Cut closed the canal for a few months in 1915-16. It was the last major
interruption in the final completion of the Panama Canal. [Jorden 412] “President
Woodrow Wilson officially declared the Panama Canal open on July 20, 1920.” [St.
George 119] The final product cost about $400 million which includes $40 million paid
to the French, $10 million to Panama, and $20 million for sanitation. [Jorden 414]
“Since 1903 the United States has invested about $3 billion in the Canal enterprise,
approximately two-thirds of which has been recovered.” [Netscape 1] The canal was
built so that a ship can pass either way. Since the official opening in 1920, there have
been no major repairs done at all on the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal truly made
real it’s slogan: “The Land Divided, the World United.” [Jorden 440]
Cameron, Ian. The Impossible Dream: The Building of the Panama Canal, New
York, Sam Fox Publishing Co. Inc., 1965
Jorden, William J. Panama Odyssey, Austin, Texas, University of Texas Press,
1. McCullough, David G. American Heritage, A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!
October 1976, pgs. 65-71, 100-103
2. McCullough, David G. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the
Panama Canal: 1870-1914, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1977
Netscape. Panama Canal Commission, “Panama Canal History,”
St. George, Judith. Panama Canal: Gateway to the World, Winnipeg, Canada,
Anchor Publishing, 1989
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