Panama Canal

The 80 km. (50 mi.) long Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, avoiding the need to sail around South America.


Unquestionably, the French were stoked after their completion of the Suez Canal. Given that the project took 3800 years from start to finish their enthusiasm is understandable. Subsequently, they decided to undertake a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans through Panama.

Count Ferdinand de Lesseps broke ground on a sea-level canal in Panama in 1880. Soon he quickly realized the sea levels are too far apart and changed his mind to a lock-and-dam system that raises and lowers ships. Nevertheless, constant rain and landslides made the work difficult. Straightaway, his construction crew kept contracting malaria and yellow fever. Finally, in 1888, he gave up and the French left.

Eventually, in 1902, US President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt purchased the French work for $40 million. The US needed a faster sea route between the east and rapidly developing west coast.

At the time, Panama was Columbian territory and the Columbians refused to allow the Americans rights to the canal. Rather than negotiate, the US arranged for an overthrow of the government and negotiated a lifetime lease with the new puppet regime.

Chief engineer John Wallace started work May 4, 1904, and faced the same problems as the French. Plus, the French had fallen into disrepair by then due to jungle weather. He quit after a year.

Engineer John Stevens

Railroad engineer John Stevens took over in July 1905 and realized building a canal wasn’t all that different than building a railroad. He solved malaria and yellow fever by hiring West Indian and local laborers, who knew how to live in the jungle. Stevens pivoted to railroad equipment rather than proprietary canal making equipment. Consequently, Stevens quickly realized a lock-and-dam system would require a lot of cement, a positive attribute to help offset the landslides.

Dr. William Gorgas embraced the then-new idea that mosquitos carried deadly diseases. He focused on fumigation and eliminating pools of stagnant water, vastly decreasing the mosquito population. Eventually, by November 1905, yellow fever cases ceased and malaria cases continuously declined for the next decade.

Engineer George Goethals

In November 1906 construction was on-schedule and on-budget when Stevens suddenly quit. To this day nobody knows why. President Roosevelt replaced him with Army Corps engineer George Goethals, granting him dictatorial-like powers. Goethals quashed a work strike.

By 1909 the crews were building locks to guide ships to an enormous man-made lake in the middle of Panama. In October 1913 President Wilson detonated the last dynamite blast via a telegraph in the oval office, flooding the last dry part of the canal.

The canal officially opened August 15, 1914. At a final price of $350 million, it was the most expensive construction project in US history and arguably in world history.

From start to finish, about 56,000 workers worked on the canal. The project had a fatality rate of about 10%, about four times the fatality rate for soldiers fighting WWI. On December 31, 1999, the US gifted the canal to Panama.