The History of the Panama Canal

By Adam Mutcher

Interest in a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific began with
the explorers of Central America early in the 16th century. Hernán
Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, suggested a canal across the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec; other explorers favored routes through
Nicaragua and Darién. The first project for a canal through the Isthmus
of Panama was initiated by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who in
1523 ordered a survey of the isthmus. A working plan for a canal was
drawn up as early as 1529, but was not submitted to the king. In 1534 a
local Spanish official suggested a canal route close to that of the present
canal. Later, several other canal plans were suggested, but no action was
Eventually the Spanish government subsequently abandoned its
interest in the canal, but in the early 19th century the books of the
German scientist Alexander von Humboldt revived interest in the
project, and in 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the
construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it.
Nothing came of this effort, however, and the revolt of the Spanish
colonies soon took the control of possible canal sites out of Spanish
hands. The republics of Central America instead tried to interest groups
in the United States and Europe in building a canal, and it became the
subject of debate in the US Congress. The discovery of gold in
California in 1848, and the rush of would-be miners stimulated US
interest in digging the canal. Various surveys made between 1850 and
1875 indicated that only two routes were practical, the one across
Panama and that across Nicaragua. In 1876 an international company
was organized; two years later it obtained a concession from the
Colombian government (Panama was then part of Colombia) to dig a
canal across the isthmus.
The international company failed, and in 1880 a French company
was organized by Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez
Canal. But his company went bankrupt in 1889. But US interest in an
Atlantic-Pacific canal continued. In 1899 the US Congress created an
Isthmian Canal Commission to examine the possibilities of a Central
American canal and to recommend a route. The commission first
decided on the Nicaraguan route, but reversed its decision in 1902 when
the Lesseps company offered its assets to the US at a price of $40
million. The US government negotiated with the Colombian government
to obtain a strip of land 6 mile wide across the isthmus, but the
Colombian Senate refused to ratify this concession. In 1903, however,
Panama revolted from Colombia. That same year the US and the new
state of Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty by which the US
guaranteed the independence of Panama and secured a perpetual lease
on a 10 mile strip for the canal. Panama was to be compensated by an
initial payment of $10 million and an annuity of $250,000, beginning in
1913. The figure was later raised.
In 1905 the Isthmian Canal Commission decided to build a canal
with locks rather than a sea-level channel, and this plan was approved
by the US Congress the following year. President Theodore Roosevelt
put the construction work under the direction of the US Army Corps of
Engineers; Colonel George W. Goethals. The construction of the canal
ranks as one of the greatest engineering works of all time. It was
estimated that the canal would be completed in ten years; however, it
was in operation by the summer of 1914. The construction involved not
only excavating an estimated 175 million cubic yards of dirt, but also
sanitizing the entire canal area, which was infested with the mosquitoes
that spread yellow fever and malaria. The sanitation work was
undertaken by Colonel William C. Gorgas of the US Army Medical
Corps, who virtually eliminated the diseases. An unexpected difficulty
in the actual construction was the prevalence of slides of earth from the
banks of the canal, particularly in the Gaillard Cut. Reexcavation after
such slides added about 25 percent to the estimated amount of dirt
moved. The final cost of the canal was $336 million. Also 5,609 men
died in building the canal.
In 1977 the United States and Panama agreed on two new treaties
to replace their 1903 agreement. These treaties provided for Panama's
sovereignty over the Canal Zone shortly after their ratification and its
control of the canal itself at the beginning of 2000, but left the US the
right to defend the canal's neutrality even thereafter. The treaties took
effect in 1979. In 1996, 13,536 ships used the canal. This goes to show
how valuable the Canal really is