Panama Canal: the early years

“A finer body of men has never been gathered by any nation than the men who have done the work of building the Panama Canal; the conditions under which they have lived and have done their work have been better than in any similar work ever undertaken in the tropics; they have all felt an eager pride in their work; and they have made not only America but the whole world their debtors by what they have accomplished.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US president, 1901-1909 The Panama Canal stands at 77km in length and takes 15 hours to traverse (eight hours are spent waiting in traffic). It is around 40m deep and 150-300m wide and remains integral to worldwide shipping today. If built today, it would cost around US$33 billion to complete. The Panama Canal has its origins as part of Colombia’s Province of Panama. However, when Colombian authorities rejected US plans to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the US supported a revolution, which led to Panama’s independence in 1903.

The first attempt

In 1875, under Colombian control, a US investigative team comprising 100 men began surveying Panama in search of a practical canal route. The search was deemed to be ill-fated, as the prospect of building a canal across Panama was too expensive.

The second attempt

Two years later, a French team of surveyors completed their own survey, and the French government approved diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps plan to build a sea-level canal, costing around US$250 million. Excavation began in 1882, but was not making sufficient progress. Workers had contracted yellow fever, leading to the death of around 400 people in 1884 – a 226% increase from the previous year. In the subsequent four years of excavation, work on the canal was not as productive as originally planned. Violent confrontations occurred between Panamanian and Jamaican workers, resulting in a further 25 deaths, and only a few metres (out of the hundreds required to reach sea-level) had been dug out of the canal. Despite best efforts made by the French, De Lesseps ran out of money to fund the project; his company went bankrupt and the project was abandoned in 1889.

The third attempt

Around the time of Panama’s independence in 1903, a new treaty was negotiated by French businessman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, giving the US perpetual rights to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama for an annual payment of US$250,000. Excavation began again in 1904, under Theodore Roosevelt’s new Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) in order to see through the construction of the Panama Canal.

Michael King, Online Editor, Port Technology International, London, UK

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