Forgotten History: U.S. Starts Building Panama Canal (4 May 1905)

Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
Unidentified Ship at Cape Horn sometime between 1885-1954
National Library of Australia (via Wikimedia Commons)
Public Domain

For hundreds of years sailors who made the long trek from Europe to the Pacific Ocean had a dream. A dream of one day being able to sail straight across rather than all the way down to the tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Cape Horn, so named by a Dutch captain in 1615, was a major point shipping point where trade ships plied between Europe and Asia. If you wanted to get to China, Japan, or shipping ports on the Pacific western coast (South America up to Alaska), this was the preferred route for many merchant and military vessels. However, the convergence of both oceans at that area also led to it being a treacherous path at times due to fierce storms that really put the skills of a mariner to a test. Many a ship has sunk in those waters and many explorers saw their fleets thinned out in that area. The building of the transatlantic railway helped reduce the need to ship freight and passengers somewhat but not enough. A land route through the Isthmus of Panama was possible though it had its own perils as well. You had to walk from the one coast to the other through a jungle. The Spanish established Panama on the Pacific and the Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic connected by 49 mile (80 km) simple jungle path. The path was simple and not built for moving cargo but moving people (mostly soldiers) from one coast to the other. People who choose this route over taking a ship faced a hot climate, insects that carried malaria, and other surprises that were not for the faint of heart. A railroad was constructed (at heavy cost) to move people and freight but that still left ships making the dangerous route. Hence the dream of a canal was born

Building it was another matter. The French gave it a try and it was a complete failure. The construction costs quickly mushroomed, and they lost 20,0000 workers due to malaria and accidents. The company collapsed and many speculated it could not be done. The US, for both maritime and military reasons, decided to buy up the French company and do it themselves. At the time, the proposed canal was in Columbia resulting having to negotiate terms for the digging of the canal. However, Columbia and the U.S. could not come to terms, leaving the U.S. with a problem. The area of Panama was inhabited by native people who had tried in the past to gain independence from Columbia but not able to pull it off. An early attempt to recognize Panama independence in 1903 was rejected by Columbia. So, with the full support of the US, Panama declared its independence in November 1903. The treaty signed between Panama and the US allowed for the construction of the canal but gave the US sovereign rights in the canal zone. This allowed the US to not only build the canal but administer and defend it as well. Fees for using the canal would go to the zone but also to Panama as well.

It was on 4 May 1905, formally called Acquisition Day, the project became official, and construction would commence. It was completed in 1914. The 52-mile canal now connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without having to sail down to Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Commercial traffic would increase as more cargo and passenger ships could easily move between the two oceans. The 10-mile Panama Canal Zone would grow and become more important as a result. Today only the supersized ships must make the trip down to Cape Horn as they are too big for the Panama Canal.

Today the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Panamanians wanted to revisit the original treaty and gain more control of the canal. In a 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panama leader Omar Torrijos, it was agreed that the Panama Canal Authority would be turned over to Panama in 1999.