Prior to World War I, oceanic travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had to route dangerous passages around southern South America. Considerations for a way to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific were present for centuries. More recent among these include survey expeditions Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, who wrote as an Army Captain in 1852 of disease and other tragedies during military travels while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, “The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description.” A survey by Grant included Panama where it was found that the current route of the Panama Canal was nearly the same as what was proposed by Grant’s survey.
Other efforts by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps of France, who built Egypt’s Suez Canal, led the charge to begin construction on a canal across the isthmus of Panama in 1880. By 1888, challenges such as illness from yellow fever, malaria along with constant rain and mud slides resulted in ending plans by the French.
Further attempts to diminish the lengthy and costly trek began with a United States negotiation with Great Britain with Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer who served as British minister to Washington, and United States Secretary of State John M. Clayton. A sense that a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was viewed as necessary in order to maintain American strength throughout the world. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 allowed for the United States and Britain to maintain joint control by quelling rivals over a proposed canal idea for construction through Nicaragua, northwest of Panama. That agreement was replaced by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty during President William McKinley’s Administration in 1901 by United States Secretary of State John Hay and British Ambassador Lord Julian Pauncefote. This agreement replaced the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 because movement toward building the canal was still had not occurred. Since no action was being taken toward construction after several decades, requests that the United States hold charge over the canal’s construction and control brought about the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty where Britain agreed the United States should take control of the project.
In June 1902, Congress passed H.R. 3110, the Hepburn Bill named for Representative William Peters Hepburn which also became known as the Panama Canal Act of 1902 and the Spooner Act. The bill approved construction of a canal in Nicaragua connecting the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Senator John Coit Spooner offered an amendment to the bill that would provide the president, who was Theodore Roosevelt at that time, authorization to purchase the French company that canceled construction in the late 1800s and allow the United States to purchase the rights, assets and site for construction on land owned by Columbia for a canal through Panama not to exceed $40,000,000.
An isthmian canal was especially viewed as imperative by Congress by 1902 in order to improve United States defense. The USS Maine had exploded in Cuba and the USS Oregon that was stationed on the West Coast would need a long two months to arrive on the Atlantic side near the Caribbean to aid in the Spanish-American War. In a Senate speech, Senator Spooner mentioned:
“I want…a bill to be passed here under which we will get a canal. There never was greater need for it than now. The Oregon demonstrated [that] to our people.”
Conflicts regarding sovereignty over Panama continued past earlier agreements made. By 1903, The United States aided a revolution to help Panama gain independence from Columbia, establishing the Republic of Panama through the Hay-Herrán Treaty of 1903. United States Secretary of State John Hay and Tomás Herrán, Columbian Foreign Minister signed the treaty, but Columbia’s congress would not accept it.
That same year, Secretary Hay, and Phillippe Bunau-Varilla representing Panamanian interests signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, and ratified by the Senate in 1904. While tensions still remained, the new agreement provided independence for Panama and the agreement allowed the United States to build and use a canal without limit. This increased the Canal Zone and gave the United States, in effect, sovereign power including authority to maintain order in the affected area.
Finally able to go ahead with the project, President Roosevelt selected a committee for an Isthmian Canal Commission to see the canal through, including a governor and seven members. The commission was previously arranged by President William McKinley who was assassinated in 1901. Other presidential involvement was especially present by Howard Taft who served as President after Roosevelt. As Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Taft visited the canal more and participated the most over the longest time. The commission under Roosevelt was arranged to have a representative from the Army and Navy and the group would report to the secretary of war. The United States Army engineers were involved in the planning, supplies, and construction throughout. President Roosevelt argued that: “the War Department ‘has always supervised the construction of the great civil works and…been charged with the supervision of the government of all the island possessions of the United States.’”
Approved, yet fraught with many build challenges, the Panama Canal under control of the United States began in 1904 with construction at the bottom of Culebra Cut, formerly called Gaillard Cut, with 160 miles of track laid at the bottom of the canal. The track would need to be be moved continually to keep up with the shoveling of the surrounding ground and to keep construction materials arriving along the canal route using hundreds of locomotives. Locomotives were used to haul dirt, called dirt trains, along the route. Wet slides caused by rain and slipping of softer dirt were among many hindrances to construction. Other slides, some of which occurred during dry seasons, were caused by faults in the earth due to cuts in the sidewalls of the canal. The slides expanded into the cuts, but the workers kept at their tasks. Rock drills were used to set dynamite shots. Six million pounds of explosives per year were used to cut the nine mile canal. The first water to enter the Panama Canal flowed in from the Chagres River. The Chagres Basin is filled by the Gatun Lake, formed by the man-made Gatun Dam on the Atlantic end of the canal.
Led by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, improvements began for how the canal would work. The American engineers redesigned the canal so that two sets of three locks would have one set at the entrance of the Pacific side, and the other set on the Atlantic side. It was the largest canal lock system built at that time. The lock chambers were 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide and up to 81 feet tall, equipped with gates, and allowed for two-way traffic. The large ships and containers are accommodated by the width of the canal. The locks were designed to raise and lower ships in the water controlled by dams and spillways. The engineering marvel of the locks and dam system proved cost effective by saving money, construction time and providing safety. An earth dam was designed with a man-made lake to limit excavation. It was also the largest dam in the world at the time of construction, intended to maintain the elevation of water level. The dam allowed millions of gallons of water to be released daily through the canal, with a top thick underwater spillway that offered protection from flooding.
Col. William C. Gorgas who served as Surgeon General of the Army during World War I, previously worked to prevent disease and death during construction of the canal. Col. Gorgas worked to eradicate major threats of yellow fever and malaria which was viewed as a much greater threat than all of the other diseases combined. He mentioned during a 1906 medical conference, “ malaria in the tropics is by far the most important disease to which tropical populations are subject,” because “the amount of incapacity caused by malaria is very much greater than that due to all other diseases combined.”
The total cost of the canal to America, as completed in 1914, is estimated at $375,000,000 dollars. The total included $10,000,000 paid to Panama and $40,000,000 to the French company. Fortifying the canal cost an additional $12,000,000. Thousands of workers were employed throughout construction from many countries. The jobs were often dangerous, but those overseeing the project made efforts to protect from injury and loss of life.
In 1964, Panama protested control over the canal by the United States which led to the Permanent Neutrality Treaty that Panama wanted in order to make the canal open to all nations, and a Panama Canal Treaty providing joint control over the canal by the United States and Panama. These treaties were signed in September 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera. Complete control over the Panama Canal was transferred to Panama in 1999.
Engineers whose efforts to put forth unprecedented technological construction ideas overcame seeming insurmountable odds cutting the fifty miles of canal through mountains and jungle. Completed and opened on August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal offered a waterway through the isthmus of Panama connecting the oceans, creating fifty miles of sea-level passage. The American cargo and passenger ship, SS Ancon, was the first to officially pass through the Panama Canal in 1914. A testament to American innovation and ingenuity, the American Society of Civil Engineers has recognized the Panama Canal as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is author of Who Wants to Be Free?, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments, and Moments with Billy Graham.
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