The History of the Panama Canal

An engineering marvel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific

New England
Capt. Jeff

As an engineering marvel that spanned the close of the Victorian era to the beginning of World War I, the construction of the Panama Canal has few rivals in superlatives. The excavation of the canal was equal to digging a trench 10 feet deep and 55 feet wide from New York to San Francisco. If all the rocks and soil that were excavated were put on a train of flat-bed railroad cars, the train would encircle the world four times. To blast the ditch, more than 60 million pounds of dynamite were used, which was an explosive force 50 percent greater than the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. And sadly, nearly 26,000 workers died in the construction of the 51-mile-long canal; 70 percent of the dead were French.

In 1869, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat and entrepreneur, finished overseeing the construction of the Suez Canal, which links the Red and Mediterranean seas. It was a sea-level canal without locks, mostly financed through the sale of shares to patriotic French citizens. Although he was known as the Great Engineer, de Lesseps had no technical training or financial experience. In 1879, against the advice of leading engineers of the day, de Lesseps convinced an international committee to construct a sea-level canal without locks through Panama. The engineering seemed foolhardy, since the Caribbean tides on one side of Panama varied by a foot, and the Pacific tides on the other side of the country had a rise and fall of 18 to 20 feet. The proposed canal would also cut across the Chagres River, creating a waterfall 36 feet high in the dry season and almost 80 feet high in the rainy season. And there were no plans to tame this cataract.

Construction began in 1881, but was soon hampered by torrential rains, avalanchelike landslides and mosquitoes. Malaria, yellow fever, and accidents had claimed more than 20,000 lives by 1890, when the French all but abandoned the project. The company formed by de Lesseps to build the canal was bankrupt. It had spent almost $300 million, the equivalent of more than $7.5 billion in today's dollars. Charges of bribery and corruption ensued; de Lesseps was ordered to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but managed to avoid both due to the statute of limitations on his crimes.

With the canal two-fifths finished, the dream of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was put up for sale for $109 million. The Colombian government allowed a newly formed French company to remain on the isthmus to maintain the work already completed, while the world waited for a buyer. At the same time, the United States decided that a canal should be built, but through Nicaragua instead of Panama.

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was president of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1890, he published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, a book that caught the attention of naval strategists in England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan, and would shape their imperial ambitions and naval warfare planning through the Second World War. For the U.S., Mahan postulated that a canal should be built on the isthmus to allow the Caribbean Sea to become an American commercial crossroads and military highway. And Mahan had the ear of Theodore Roosevelt, then a 31-year-old Republican Party reformer who had already published his own book on the naval history of the War of 1812.

By the turn of the 20th century, vice president Teddy Roosevelt had already been assistant secretary of the Navy and had led the Rough Riders' charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley was assassinated on September 14, 1901, and soon after, in his first message to Congress, the newly minted President Roosevelt referred to a Central American canal, saying, No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people. Roosevelt favored the Panama route over the Nicaragua route, and by January 1902 a bill guaranteeing that choice was presented in the Senate. The Senate bill authorized the president to purchase the defunct French canal at the bargain price of $40 million, to acquire from Colombia clear title in perpetuity to a six-mile-wide canal zone, and to complete the canal using federal funding. After six months of political machinations, the act passed Congress and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 28, 1902.

Within a year, the French company agreed to sell its canal holdings, but the Colombian government was very reticent about giving up its sovereignty over the proposed canal zone. The U.S. Navy was dispatched to the Colombian territory of Panama and fostered a revolution that took place on November 3, 1903. The Republic of Panama was quickly declared. United States control of the Panama Canal Zone began on February 23, 1904, and the U.S. Army received the keys to the French properties on May 4. Now the 10-year task of completing the canal would begin in earnest.

After reviewing the French work on the canal, it became clear that a lock canal rather than a sea-level canal should be built, and the new design was in place by the summer of 1907. Concurrent with planning for the locks and dams for the new canals was the need to eradicate the mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever, so that there would be a healthy workforce to complete construction. Due to a variety of sanitation tactics, there was only one case of yellow fever from 1906 until the canal was finished, and deaths from malaria also decreased dramatically.

The first official transit of the Panama Canal took place on August 15, 1914. However, the celebrations were muted, since World War I had begun less than three weeks before. The first naval battle of the war, between Britain and Germany, took place less than two weeks later. All of Mahan's theories about sea power and naval superiority came to fruition. Not long after this, Mahan died peacefully in Washington, D.C., having attained the rank of rear admiral.

Operation of the Panama Canal was handed over to the Panamanian government on December 31, 1999. Under Panamanian control the canal has thrived, with income and traffic going up and accidents going down.

Want to Transit the Panama Canal?

How much do the tolls cost?

Last October, a new toll schedule for yachts was put in place. Boats under 50 feet now pay $800, and those 50 to 79 feet pay $1,300. The tolls for megayachts start at $2,000 and top out at $3,200.

What else will I need to do?

There are more costs, fees, and of course paperwork and procedures to navigate. Visit noonsite.com for an updated checklist.

Where can I dock or pick up a mooring ball?

The well-known Panama Canal Yacht Club in Colon, on the Caribbean side of the canal, was closed four years ago. The Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City, on the Pacific side of the canal, maintains a mooring field with a launch service and plenty of hospitality.

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