As most people are aware, the Suez Canal was blocked earlier this year for six days (March 23-29). According to the Suez Canal Authority, which maintains and operates the waterway, the canal has closed five times since it opened for navigation in 1869. Interestingly, the Panama Canal has never been blocked, and has only been closed for a day. That occurred in 1989, when U.S. military forces staged an assault in Panama to depose the country’s leader, Manuel Noriega.

A shortcut to the Orient

The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates back to at least the 1500s, when King Charles I of Spain (whose nation laid claim to most of Central and South America) instructed his regional governor to survey a route along the Chagres River. A shorter water route from Europe to Asia across Central America was the goal. However, engineering and other challenges of building a canal across the mountainous, jungle terrain proved much too daunting for the engineering knowledge of the time. 

Nonetheless, the idea was considered many times; the desire for a shortcut from Europe to Asia was too tempting. In particular, throughout the 1800s, U.S. and British politicians and business leaders wanted to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. A canal across Central America connecting the two great oceans via the Caribbean Sea would allow ships to avoid sailing through the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, which added another 5,000 miles to a voyage.


A close-up map of the Panama Canal and its components. (Map:

First attempts to build a canal across Central America

According to the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State, in 1850 the U.S. and Great Britain negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to end “rivalry over a proposed canal through the Central American Republic of Nicaragua.” However, the proposed Anglo-American canal never progressed past the planning stage. 

An illustration of Count Ferdinand de Lesseps and his successful Suez Canal. (Image: Alchetron)

A French canal?

Ultimately, the first country to attempt a canal in Central America was France. The French were led by the builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps. Construction began on a sea-level canal in 1880. The French quickly realized the huge challenges they faced. Heavy and ongoing rain caused landslides. Worse yet, yellow fever and malaria killed more than 20,000 of the construction crew, sidelined many others and demoralized the rest. After years of effort, De Lesseps came to the realization that a sea-level canal was an impossible task. He then conceived of a canal using locks; however, the project’s funding was terminated in 1888. 

The U.S. steps in

Despite the failure of the French effort, U.S. interest in a canal continued. The Isthmian Canal Commission was created and authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1899 “to determine the most feasible and practicable route” in Central America to build a canal to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. The commission was chaired by retired U.S. Navy admiral John G. Walker. Interestingly, Walker also chaired another Congressional commission (the Nicaragua Canal Commission); its final report recommended Nicaragua for the construction of a canal. But there were financial, business and political interests that favored a canal through the Colombian province of Panama…

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian wrote, “The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901 abrogated the earlier Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and licensed the United States to build and manage its own canal.” 

The Panama Canal Commission issued its report on November 16, 1901; it also recommended Nicaragua. Why? Because the company that owned the assets of the failed French attempt to build a canal wanted more than $109 million for its assets. After difficult negotiations, the company lowered its price to $40 million on January 4, 1902; the Commission hastily reconvened at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt. Reconsidering the location of the proposed canal, the Commission this time chose Panama as the preferred route. 

This led the U.S. Senate to vote in favor of a location in the Colombian province of Panama for the canal on June 19, 1902. Before the end of the year, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian Foreign Minister Tomás Herrán signed a treaty to build the new canal in Panama. However, the financial terms of the treaty were rejected by the Colombian Congress.

President Theodore Roosevelt pushes the canal as a national imperative.

Following through on his ideology of “speak softly and carry a big stick…,” President Roosevelt responded by sending U.S. warships to Panama City (on the Pacific Ocean coast of Colombia) and Colón (on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Colombia) in support of Panamanian independence. Colombian troops were unable to move swiftly enough through the jungles of the Darien Strait; the province of Panama declared its independence on November 3, 1903. 

The new Republic of Panama appointed Philippe Bunau-Varilla (a French engineer who had been involved in the French effort to build a canal) as its “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.” He and U.S. Secretary of State Hay negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903. The treaty granted the United States a 10-mile wide strip of land in perpetuity for the canal in exchange for a payment of $10 million to the new government of Panama, an annual annuity of $250,000 and a U.S. guarantee regarding Panama’s independence. There was also the $40 million payment made to the French company that had sought to build a canal in the 1880s for its equipment.

A political cartoon from the Spanish-American War period. (Image:

The liberation of Spanish territory in the New World

To take a step back, the Spanish-American War took place in 1898. The U.S. won, ending Spain’s centuries-long domination of much of the Caribbean, Central and South America. Under the treaty, which was signed on December 10, 1898, Spain renounced claims to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S., and transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States for $20 million.

Because Cuba was a U.S. territory, troops were stationed on the island (and still remain more than a century later at Guantanamo Bay). Like Panama and much of Central America, Cuba was also plagued by yellow fever and malaria. Therefore, on August 1, 1900, U.S. military physician General Walter Reed and three others visited Dr. Carlos Finlay, a Cuban physician and scientist who had developed a “mosquito hypothesis.” Reed thought the key to beating yellow fever was to determine how the disease was transmitted. He and his associates moved forward with Dr. Finlay’s work and demonstrated that Aedes aegypti mosquitoes transmitted the fever. 

The battle against yellow fever included isolating patients with the disease.
(Photo: Panama Canal History Museum)

Major William C. Gorgas, Chief Sanitary Officer in Havana, used Reed’s discovery to control yellow fever in Cuba. As the 20th century began the United States was now a world power with overseas possessions and a role in international affairs. At the same time, construction of the Panama Canal was at a standstill. What today is a key shipping route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was a breeding ground for disease, particularly yellow fever. 

A graveyard in Panama for Americans who died during the construction of the Panama Canal. (Photo: Marine Corps University)

Building the canal

In addition, the first planners of the U.S. canal did not learn from the French effort; they too envisioned a sea-level canal from Colón to Panama City. The project officially began on May 4, 1904; however, chief engineer John Wallace immediately encountered problems. Most of the French equipment that the U.S. had paid $40 million for was in need of repair, and yellow fever and malaria were still major issues for the construction workers. 

Wallace resigned after a year on the job; he was replaced in July 1905 as chief engineer by John Stevens, whose background was in railroads. He and U.S. engineers developed innovative construction techniques and the critical redesign of a sea-level canal to a canal with locks. He convinced President Roosevelt that a lock-based canal made the most sense because of the terrain. Among other reasons, the canal’s locks would protect ships from mountain landslides. 

This political cartoon from the 1900s illustrates the fact that President Teddy Roosevelt staked his reputation – and the reputation of the United States, on building the Panama Canal. (Image:

Because of the ongoing problems caused by yellow fever and malaria, Major Gorgas was appointed Chief Sanitary Officer in the Panama Canal Zone due to his earlier success in Cuba. He used the same strategy of destroying mosquito breeding sites to break the yellow fever transmission cycle. Gorgas and his team painstakingly fumigated houses and cleansed standing pools of water. The last reported case of yellow fever on the isthmus occurred in November 1905, while malaria cases dropped dramatically over the next decade. This public health campaign enabled the U.S. to resume construction of the canal.

President Teddy Roosevelt at the Panama Canal construction site in November 1906.

Construction was progressing when President Roosevelt made an official visit in November 1906. However, the canal suffered another setback when Stevens suddenly resigned in 1907.  Roosevelt named an Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant Colonel, George Washington Goethals, as the new chief engineer. Moreover, Roosevelt granted Goethals authority over nearly all administrative matters in the canal zone. 

Goethals first challenge was a work strike; he broke the strike, but also made sure that workers’ facilities were improved. He focused construction efforts on the Culebra Cut, which entailed clearing a mountain range between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel. The excavation of the almost nine-mile “cut” went on around-the-clock; as many as 6,000 men were working at all times. The Culebra Cut phase of the project was even more dangerous than most of the work; casualties mounted from rockslides and explosions when explosives were used improperly or without adequate safety precautions.

In August 1909 construction on the all-important system of three locks began. Built in pairs, each chamber of the locks measured 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. In addition, the locks were built with culverts that leveraged gravity to raise and lower the water levels. When they were finished the three locks in the canal were able to lift ships 85 feet above sea level, maneuvering them into man-made Gatún Lake in the middle. The engineers and construction crew also built hollow, buoyant lock gates, which varied in height from 47 to 82 feet. The system was electrically powered and those running the system oversaw operations at a central control board.

Construction on the Panama Canal’s locks. (Photo: University of Colorado Boulder)

The Panama Canal is a reality!

After years of construction delays, problems and political, personnel and health-related obstacles, the massive project was nearing completion in 1913. According to, “two steam shovels working from opposite directions met in the center of Culebra Cut in May [1913], and a few weeks later, the last spillway at Gatún Dam was closed to allow the lake to swell to its full height.” To build publicity for the project (and to maintain political ties with a new administration in Washington, D.C.), President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegraph signal from the White House in November 1913 that triggered the explosion of the dike at Gamboa, which flooded the final stretch of Culebra Cut’s dry passageway.

Hundreds of years after it was first conceived (and nearly 45 years since the construction first began on the original French canal), the Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914. A gala ceremony had been planned; however, it was scaled-down because of the start of World War I. At the time, the completion of the Panama Canal was recognized as a major feat of engineering as well as a significant U.S. foreign policy achievement.

A ship, a tug and a construction vessel in the Panama Canal. (Photo:

The canal’s engineering is complex. The sea level of the Caribbean is eight inches lower than the Pacific Ocean. Secondly, the two bodies of water have different tides. In addition, the Isthmus of Panama rises more than 85 feet above sea level, and the physical barriers and challenges were immense.

The cost to the United States to construct the Panama Canal was in the range of $350-$375 million (1912 dollars). At the time it was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history. The statistics of the project are impressive: approximately 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete were used to build the locks; the various excavations totaled almost 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt. More than 56,000 people were employed on the project between 1904 and 1913; more than 45,000 of the workers were Americans that went to Panama to work on the canal project. The Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department estimates that “between 10,000 and 15,000 of them died from accidents and diseases.”  

The Miraflores Lower Locks. Looking north, from crane. Showing east and west chamber. Upper locks in distance. Photo taken on November 10, 1912. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Among the ancillary benefits of the canal during its construction was that it “created jobs for Pittsburgh steel mills, Portland cement factories and General Electric,” according to the Office of the Historian. Moreover, “the Panama Canal symbolized U.S. technological prowess and economic power.”

While ongoing maintenance was continually performed after the Panama Canal opened in 1914, a second huge construction project took place in the mid-1930s. The Madden Dam, completed in 1935, contained the Chagres River to form Madden Lake (now Lake Alajuela), a reservoir that is a crucial element of the canal’s watershed. The lake can store up to one-third of the canal’s annual water requirements to operate its locks. The reservoir is not part of the canal navigational route, however. Water from the reservoir also generates hydroelectric power and supplies fresh water for Panama City. The dam and the reservoir were named for U.S. Representative Martin Madden of Illinois, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee during the canal’s construction. The lake was renamed Lake Alajuela after the Canal Zone was transferred to Panamanian control at the end of 1999.

Under the terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, the U.S. owned the canal inside the nation of Panama. The transition to Panamanian oversight began with the 1977 treaty signed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s leader Omar Torrijos. The controversial treaty allowed the United States to intervene anytime that its use of the canal was threatened. Under the terms of the treaty, the Panama Canal Authority assumed full control of the canal on December 31, 1999.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s President Omar Torrijos celebrate the signing of the Panama Canal treaty. (Photo:

Despite the fact that at the time of the treaty the Panama Canal cost more to run than it returned in profit to American companies, many in the United States were opposed to the treaty. Unquestionably, the treaty improved U.S.-Panama relations (and U.S. relations with other nations in Latin America); nonetheless, many in the U.S. perceived turning over control of the canal as a retreat by the nation from its global power. 

Increasing the Canal’s capacity

The latest major construction project on the Panama Canal was completed earlier this decade at a cost of nearly $7 billion. The canal was expanded by adding a “third lane,” which doubled the canal’s capacity. The expansion opened on June 26, 2016. 

Obviously, the size of ocean-going ships has increased since the Panama Canal first opened almost 107 years ago. The canal’s expansion allows it to accommodate “Neopanamax” ships. Each Neopanamax ship is 1,200 feet long (the length of four football fields) and carries three times as much cargo as a 965-foot-long Panamax ship. Neopanamax ships have the capacity to carry 5,000 to 8,000 containers. The ships vary in width; they are from 14 to 20 containers wide. The average time for a ship to travel the Panama Canal’s 51-mile length today is 13 hours. 

A containership traversing the expanded Panama Canal. (Photo: Panama Canal Authority)

Recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994, the canal hosted its one-millionth passing ship in September 2010. Despite its cost in men and money, the idea first conceived in the 16th century came to pass. A faster way to move goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific became a reality and changed shipping forever.

FreightWaves thanks the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, and Kimberly Amadeo at for information used in this article.