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Every since the lands of the New World were mapped, people dreamt of creating a canal through Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
For almost 500 years, that dream was just that. A dream. Creating such a canal would require one of the greatest engineering projects in human history.
It was finally achieved in the early 20th century with an enormous amount of machinery, money, human lives, and a whole lot of political arm-twisting.
Learn more about the Panama Canal and how it came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Anyone who has ever looked at a map of the Western Hemisphere can immediately see the value of a canal going through Central America.
North and South America extends 14.6 thousand kilometers or nine thousand miles from the Arctic Ocean to Cape Horn. It is a massive continental-sized roadblock for anyone who wants to sail between Asia and Europe or for anyone wanting to sail from the East to the West Coast of the Americas.
The first idea for a canal to cross the isthmus of Panama dates back only 25 years after Columbus arrived in the New World.
In 1517, Vasco de Balboa crossed the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific and found out just how small the distance was between the two oceans.
In 1534, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered a survey to be conducted for the construction of a canal. His intent was to reduce the distance required to sail to Peru.
The problem wasn’t the distance. It was the fact that a mountain range ran through the middle of the isthmus.
The idea of a canal through Panama never went away.
There were always ideas floating around about creating a canal. As trade and shipping increased, the need for such a canal became greater and greater.
Sailing around South America added as much as 8,000 miles to a voyage depending on where you were going. Perhaps more importantly, sailing around Cape Horn was inherently dangerous.
The seas south of Cape Horn are part of the Drake Passage and have some of the roughest seas in the world. Moreover, the prevailing winds there make it very difficult to sail from east to west.
Oh, yeah, and there can be icebergs.
The idea of a canal picked up steam in the 19th century, which was probably the greatest century of canal building the world had seen.
The isthmus of Panama was originally part of the country of Gran Colombia when it became independent from Spain in 1821.
The first serious plan for the creation of a canal took place in 1826 when the United States approached the newly independent country of Gran Colombia about getting the rights to build a canal. The Colombians declined because, just having achieved independence, they didn’t want to get entangled with a larger country.
In 1843, the British were the next to take a stab at a canal. Their plan was to create what they called the Atlantic-Pacific Canal, but it, too, was never even started.
The California gold rush of 1849 renewed American interest in a canal. It resulted in the construction of the Panama Railroad, which was completed in 1855. The railroad carried passengers and goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific and became the fastest way to get from the East to the West coast of the United States.
The first real attempt at creating a canal took place by the builder of the Suez Canal, the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. He created a company, raised funds, and began work on January 1, 1881.
The Suez Canal was a much longer canal, but it was also much easier to build. The Suez Canal is fundamentally a big ditch that just connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite being only 40% the distance of the Suez Canal, a canal in Panama was a much greater engineering challenge due to the mountains, extreme precipitation during the rainy season, venomous snakes, dense jungle, and disease.
The French team wanted to build a sea-level canal, hadn’t done enough research, and wasn’t prepared for anything they encountered.
The French team worked for eight years, spent over $287,000,000, and lost the lives of over 22,000 workers on the project, mostly from disease. However, there were also many work-related deaths and injuries from landslides, rockfalls, and other industrial accidents.
In 1889, the French project declared bankruptcy, and the investments of over 800,000 investors disappeared.
In 1894, a second French company took over the project and advocated a system of locks rather than a sea-level canal.
In 1897, the US Government once again became interested. There was two options that they investigated. One was a canal through Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua, and the other was to purchase French rights and pick up where they left off.
They went with the Panama option.
The project received a big boost after the assassination of President William McKinley when Theodore Roosevelt became president, who was a big supporter of the canal project.
In 1902 the United States purchased all the assets from the French canal company for $40 million dollars.
However, the US had to negotiate the rights to the canal.
In January 1903, the US and Colombia, of which Panama was still a part of at this time, signed the Hay–Herrán Treaty, which granted the United States a lease that they could renew in perpetuity.
The US Senate ratified it, but the Colombian Senate did not.
It was then pointed out that there was an active separatist movement in Panama, which had existed for 80 years since they achieved independence from Spain.
So, unable to secure a treaty with Colombia, the United States threw its weight behind the Panamanian independence movement.
On November 2, 1903, the US blocked Colombia ships from transporting troops to Panama, which they couldn’t reach by land because there were no roads going through the Darian Gap, which connected Panama to the rest of Colombia.
The next day, Panama declared independence from Colombia and was immediately recognized by the United States.
Just three days later, on November 6, 1903, the United States and Panama signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, signed by the US Secretary of State John Hay and the Panamanian representative Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla….who just so happened to be the French engineer who worked on the canal project.
The treaty allowed the United States to a zone where they could build a canal and administer it indefinitely.
If this whole becoming independent and then finalizing a treaty to give away a big hunk of your new country sounds kind of fishy, that was the case at the time.
The Colombians were upset at losing a part of their country, there were Panamanians who were upset at giving away a big hunk of their country, and there were Americans upset about how shady everything went down—the New York Times called it an “act of sordid conquest.”
Nonetheless, the deal was done, and the Americans went to work on the Canal. They took control of all the former French assets in Panama in May 1904.
The US Government created the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) to oversee the construction of the canal and the administration of the canal zone.
The French infrastructure, having not been used in years, was in poor shape. The first order of business was repairing everything.
The Americans were able to do a much better job than the French did, if for no other reason than they had the resources of the government behind them, rather than a private corporation with limited funds.
A large number of Afro-Carribean workers were brought in to work on the canal many of whom settled in Panama permanently. They were recruited primarily from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados.
The Americans also learned from the French, who suffered massive losses due to disease. The Americans instituted a large scale mosquito eradication program in the canal zone, as they were the primary vector of disease transmission.
The Americans initially made the same mistake as the French by trying to build a sea-level canal. The problem was that as they excavated the mountains, they had to excavate an enormous amount of earth to avoid landslides if the sides were too steep.
By 1906, they came to the conclusion that the sea-level canal wasn’t going to work. They opted for a series of locks and lakes that would raise ships a total of 85 feet or 26 meters above sea level.
This would require the construction of both the largest dam and the largest artificial lake in the world at that time.
The new plan would require the excavation of an additional 13 million cubic meters of earth on top of the 23 million that the French had already moved.
The planned completion date for this new lock strategy was in 1916, ten years after the new plan was put in place
The Americans upgraded all the French equipment with more modern and powerful versions and also purchased significantly more equipment.
For the next several years, thousands of men toiled in the construction of the canal. While the Americans adapted better to the climate than the French and made efforts to eradicate disease, they still lost 5,855 men during the construction of the canal, again, mostly to disease.
A landmark day in the construction of the canal took place on October 10, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson sent a signal from the White House via telegraph, which initiated an explosion that blew up a dyke that filled up the Culebra or Gaillard Cut. This was the channel that crossed the continental divide and was the moment when the Atlantic and the Pacific were finally connected by water.
The Panama Canal was declared complete on August 15, 1914, two years ahead of schedule. The first ship to pass through the canal was an American cargo ship, the SS Ancon.
The opening of the canal had an immediate impact on shipping.
Ports in South America saw a drop in traffic as ships simply bypassed them.
Transit times for shipping from the east to west coasts of both North and South America were reduced.
Construction on the canal never really ended. There were repairs and additions done over the next several decades, including a reservoir to keep the lakes filled and extensions of the locks in 1939 to allow larger military vessels through.
The US Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1917 in large part to defend the canal.
The Canal Zone, which extended five miles or eight kilometers from the canal on either side, was effectively an American territory, even though it was still technically Panamanian land.
The status of the canal zone becam a contentious issue beginning in the 1950s. The US encouraged the French and British to give up the Suez Canal to the Egyptian government. It then raised the question, if the Egyptians were to control the Suez Canal, then why don’t the Panamanians get to control their canal?
On January 9, 1964, riots broke out which, killed 20 Panamanians and 5 US soldiers, a day which is still commemorated in Panama as Martyr’s Day. After the riots, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.
Negotiations to hand over control of the canal began in 1974 under the Nixon administration and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
An agreement for the transfer of the canal was finalized on September 7, 1977, with a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos.
The treaty stipulated that the canal would be transferred to Panama under the condition that it remain neutral to all shipping.
The canal was formally transferred to Panama on December 31, 1999.
The Panama Canal is still extremely important. About 14,000 ships per year pass through the canal, and in 2010 the one millionth ship passage took place.
One problem which has arisen is that cargo ships have gotten progressively larger. There is a particular design of ship known as a Panamax ship which is the largest ship that can pass through the canal.
In 2006, in a nationwide referendum, Panamanians approved an expansion of the canal with 77% of the vote.
The canal expansion began in 2007 and was completed in 2016. It added a new set of locks to increase the amount of ship traffic and allowed for larger ships to pass through. The new maximum-size ship is known as a Neopanamax.
The Panama Canal is not the end of the story when it comes to efforts to improve transit times from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There is still talk of a Canal across Nicaragua and also for additional dry canal rail links for shipping containers.
Over 100 years after the completion of the Panama Canal, it still remains one of the greatest engineering projects in history. It is a vital part of international commerce, and it is one of the largest sources of revenue for the nation of Panama.
The dream of a canal that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were over 400 years in the making. Its fulfillment took an enormous amount of lives, money, and resources and not an insignificant amount of political skullduggery.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener lstebbins over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Love this podcast!!
Gary! Your podcast is so awesome, I love to learn about new things, and I’m interested in pretty much everything, so your podcast is perfect! I’m working my way through all the shows .. can’t wait to let you know when I’ve joined the completionist club … until then, thank you for creating this most excellent podcast…your faithful listener from the Garlic Capital of the World ?
Thanks, lstebbins! I assume that when you speak of the Garlic Capital of the world, you are talking about Gilroy, California, located between San Jose and Monterey.
You will be happy to note that when you join the completionists club, you will find a host of garlic-themed dishes available in the California chapter.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show, and also remember you can now leave reviews on individual episodes on Spotify.