<< Back to Lessons Index

Discover_our_World_Yellow / Lesson 4: The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Before the Panama Canal

  • Ships in California, Oregon and Washington Ports had to sail all the way around South America in order to get to the East Coast-and it took ships about one month to sail around South America

  • During the Spanish American War it was important to get ships to the East coast from the West Coast fast

  • The journey from California to Cuba was 7000 miles---long-so a canal through Panama would cut 7000 miles off of a trip from Oregon or California to Cuba or Florida

The Isthmus of Panama

  • There is a piece of land that connects the two continents of North and South America

  • An isthmus---is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger landmasses

  • The Isthmus of Panama is the land strip that connects North and South America

The Dream of a Canal / Waterway to connect the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans

  • The history of the Panama Canal goes back to 16th century.
  • After realizing the riches of Peru, Ecuador, & Asia, and after counting the time it took the gold to reach the ports of Spain, it was suggested in 1524 to King Charles V, that by cutting out a piece of land somewhere in Panama, the trips would be made shorter and the risk of taking the treasures through the isthmus would justify such an enterprise.
  • A survey of the isthmus was ordered and subsequently a working plan for a canal was drawn up in 1529.
  • The wars in Europe and the thirsts for the control of kingdoms in the Mediterranean Sea simply put the project on permanent hold.

King Charles V

Panama Canal History
Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps

  • Various surveys were made between 1850 and 1875 which showed that only two routes were practical, the one across Panama, Colombia and another across Nicaragua.
  • In 1876 an international company was organized; two years later it obtained a concession from the Colombian government 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 in Egypt.
  • In 1879, de Lesseps proposed a sea level canal through Panama-which was part of the country of Colombia.
  • With the success he had with the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt just ten years earlier, de Lesseps was confident he would complete the water circle around the world.

French Canal Project fails

  • In 1880, the French Company began building a canal through Panama, Colombia but the French company had inadequate machines and many Frenchmen had died from diseases in Panama such as yellow fever which was caused by disease carrying mosquitoes
  • Example: Chest deep in mud, the French force dug onward. Time and time again, the rain and the Mud destroyed what engineering and hard labor the French had put into the Canal.
  • Mudslides buried men, supplies, and machines.
  • And from the freshwater pools that lay everywhere, a deadly plague of insects rose.

The French Canal through Panama

  • In 1881, the French recorded about sixty deaths from disease.
  • In 1882, the number doubled.
  • The following year, 420 died.
  • Malaria and yellow fever were the most common killers.
  • Because the company often fired sick men to reduce medical costs, the numbers probably reflect low estimates.
  • Believing the fumes from rotting vegetation caused the disease, doctors at the French hospital at Ancon advised workers to avoid the night air.
  • Only after thousands of deaths would the cause be attributed to virus-carrying mosquitoes.

The French Canal Failed and the French Money was gone

  • When the International Universal Canal Company failed in December of 1888, thousands of French investors had lost their money.
  • The French people had no more money to build a canal
  • The word Panama quickly became synonymous with scandal and fraud.
  • About $287,000,000 had been spent.
  • 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been moved.
  • 11 miles of canal had been dug.
  • 20,000 men had died.
  • The canal remained unfinished, but the dream had not yet ended.
  • Theodore Roosevelt would soon take up the cause.

Theodore Roosevelt

  • Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States, gave a speech to Congress to take up the building of a Canal across the Isthmus of Panama, Colombia.
  • The United States Congress had to make a decision to build a canal through the disease ridden Panama, Colombia or to try Nicaragua
  • Originally, Congress decided on Nicaragua; but a Volcano erupted in the area that they had decided to build the canal in Nicaragua; before the project began
  • Phillipe Bunau-Varilla sent stamps with a picture of a Volcano on it to Congress and therefore, Panama, Colombia was the spot that was decided upon to build the canal.

The U.S. buys the French machines and property in Panama

  • Roosevelt acted quickly after Congress had decided on Panama
  • In 1902, the United States reached an agreement to buy rights to the French canal property and equipment for a sum not to exceed $40 million.
  • In 1903 the U.S. actually purchased the French canal property and equipment.
  • The U.S. then began negotiating a Panama treaty with Colombia.

The U.S. goes to War with Colombia over Panama


  • Colombia did not want to negotiate with the United States
  • Teddy Roosevelt decided along with Panama natives to start a war with Colombia to gain Independence from Colombia
  • Phillipe- Bunau-Varilla was a Panamanian who organized the war for Panama's Independence from Colombia
  • The battle for Panama lasted only a few hours.
  • Colombian soldiers in Colin were bribed $50 each to lay down their arms; the U.S.S. Nashville cruised off the Panamanian coast in a show of support.
  • On November 3, 1903, the nation of Panama was born-Panama was a new Independent country and free of Colombian Rule
U.S.S. Nashville

The country of Panama and the United States negotiate over a Panama Canal

  • The U.S quickly negotiated with Panama over rights to a Panama Canal
  • Americans had written the Panamanian Constitution in advance
  • The wife of Phillipe Bunau-Varilla had sewn Panama's first independent country flag.
  • A payment of $10,000,000 by the United States to Panama secured a canal zone and rights to build in Panama.
  • Bunau-Varilla became the Panamanian minister to the U.S., and he signed a treaty favorable to American interests.

Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

The U.S. Panama Canal Project begins

  • President Teddy Roosevelt of the United States in 1903 was excited to build the Panama Canal-as this was a dream of his
  • Teddy Roosevelt gave orders to "Make the Dirt Fly in Panama"
  • The Panama Canal was to be built on a wide strip of land called the Canal Zone

U.S. Begin building in Panama

  • 1904, the Americans' first year in Panama, mirrored the French disaster.
  • The chief engineer, John Findlay Wallace, neglected to organize the effort or to develop an action plan.
  • The food was terrible, and the living conditions were horrible.
  • Disease struck American builders, and 3 out of 4 Americans quit and sailed back to America.
  • Engineer Wallace soon followed.
  • The Americans had poured $128,000,000 into the swamps of Panama; which had been lost money.

Doctor Gorgas stops Diseases in Panama

  • Dr. William Gorgas, who had helped to get rid of yellow fever in Havana, Cuba during the Spanish American War by killing the mosquitoes that carried the disease, was hired by Teddy Roosevelt to get rid of the yellow fever and malaria carrying mosquitoes in Panama

  • He had workers drain swamps, sweep drainage ditches, pave roads and he installed plumbing to get rid of mosquitoes.

  • They sprayed pesticides by the ton.

  • Entire towns were built up from the jungle, complete with housing, schools, churches, commissaries, and social halls.

Mosquito Fumigation cart

The Canal Project

  • 40,000 men worked on the Panama Canal Project
  • 5,609 men were killed from diseases or accidents while working on the Panama Canal
  • Men also used dynamite and explosives to blast away dirt and rocks-which caused lives to be lost

man with yellow fever in Panama

Stevens is hired to change canal engineering

  • The canal's engineering also changed.
  • Teddy Roosevelt spent nine months to get Congress to accept a "lake and lock" canal engineering method-and his plan was finally successful.
  • Stevens was hired to be the head Panama Canal engineer to build the lake and lock canal
  • He would dam the mighty Chagres River to create the vast Gatun Lake in Panama's interior.
  • Then he would build a series of locks, which would raise ships from the Atlantic side to the level of the lake.
  • The boats would cross the lake, then descend by another set of locks to the Pacific.

The Panama Canal Project/ Teddy visits the Canal

  • After Gorgas had finished killing diseases and mosquitoes in Panama; Stevens, the engineer, began work on a scale never before witnessed.

  • Gigantic Bucyrus steam shovels scooped tons of earth.

  • Railroad cars ran continuously on a double track, dumping the tailings to form the Charges dam.

  • By December 1905, yellow fever had been officially wiped out on the Isthmus of Panama.

  • In November, 1906, Roosevelt himself visited the canal, posing at the controls of a Bucyrus shovel.

Panama Canal Project

  • Nowhere were efforts more dramatic than at the Culebra Cut, where 100,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock would have to be removed.
  • The laborers at Culebra-mostly English-speaking West Indian blacks who made ten cents an hour-moved as much as 200 trainloads of spoil a day.
  • When mudslides filled the Cut repeatedly, they were simply ordered to dig the mud out again.
  • There were accidents of all sorts, lost equipment, and deaths, but there was progress.

The Panama Canal is Almost Finished

  • In May, 1913, steam shovels broke through the Culebra Cut, and the last cement was poured at the Gatun locks.
  • The Chagres filled Gatun Lake, and engineers prepared for the canal's first trial run.
  • It came on September 26, 1913.
  • The tugboat Gatun traveled through the first set of locks and out onto the lake.
  • The locks worked flawlessly.
  • After nine years, the end was at last in sight.

The Completion of the Panama Canal

  • The Panama Canal opened officially on August 15, 1914.
  • The greatest engineering project in the history of the world was complete.
  • Teddy Roosevelt had died before this dream of a Panama Canal was complete.
  • The significance of the Panama Canal was that their was finally a water way passage that connected the West and the East, it connected the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and it also cut 7000 miles off of a trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and it cut time in Sea travel.
  • The obstacles that affected the time it took to build the canal were: The Volcano in Nicaragua, the War with Colombia, the diseases in Panama, the mudslides and equipment failures and financial obstacles-----this project overcame all of these hurdles.

On December 31, 1999 the Panama Canal was transferred from the U.S. to Panama to control.

Panama Canal

  • "On they struggled, ever onward, Blasting stone, and earth, and men; Filling rivers with razed mountains; Filling graves with parts of men. Blood and bone are mixed with concrete, Sweat of brow and grime of toil Mark the rough-neck as he swelters, Weary 'mid the grease and oil. Weary flesh, nor fever's terrors Halt them as they onward go. Forward!  Forward!  Ever Forward! Is the only cry they know."

    -John Hall

Panama Canal Transfer

  • December 31, 1999 marked the transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to the Republic of Panama. We remember all those who built, maintained, and secured the Panama Canal so that the world could have a "shortcut". All of us that were so fortunate to be a part of this marvel, in whatever capacity, take great pride in what was accomplished. We all left a part of ourselves on the Isthmus of Panama. Now it is Panama's turn to take up the challenge. Buena suerte, Panam - you'll always have a special place in our hearts. CZBrats