Such a route would have given the Spanish a military advantage over the Portuguese. In 1788, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Spanish should create it since it would be a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America, which tropical ocean currents would naturally widen thereafter. During an expedition from 1788 to 1793, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for its construction. Given the strategic location of Panama and the potential offered by its narrow isthmus separating two great oceans, other trade links in the area were attempted over the years.
The ill-fated Darien scheme was launched by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1698 to set up an overland trade route. Generally inhospitable conditions thwarted the effort, and it was abandoned in April 1700. Another effort was made in 1843. According to the New York Daily Tribune, August 24, 1843, a contract was entered into by Barings of London and the Republic of New Granada for the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Darien (Isthmus of Panama). They referred to it as the Atlantic and Pacific Canal and was a wholly British endeavor. The article states that it was expected to be completed in five years. The plan was not carried out. At nearly the same time, other ideas were floated, including a canal (and or a railroad) across Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Nothing came of that plan either.
Such a route would have given the Spanish a military advantage over the Portuguese. In 1788, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Spanish should create it since it would be a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America, which tropical ocean currents would naturally widen thereafter. During an expedition from 1788 to 1793, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for its construction. Given the strategic location of Panama and the potential offered by its narrow isthmus separating two great oceans, other trade links in the area were attempted over the years. The ill-fated Darien scheme was launched by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1698 to set up an overland trade route. Generally inhospitable conditions thwarted the effort, and it was abandoned in April 1700.
In 1846 the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty granted the United States transit rights, and the right to intervene militarily in the ithmus. In 1849, the discovery of gold in California created great interest in a crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.The Panama Railway was built by the United States to cross the isthmus and opened in 1855. This overland link became a vital piece of Western Hemisphere infrastructure, greatly facilitating trade and largely determining the later canal route. An all-water route between the oceans was still seen as the ideal solution, and in 1855 William Kennish, a Manx-born engineer working for the United States government, surveyed the isthmus and issued a report on a route for a proposed Panama Canal.
His report was published in a book entitled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1877 Armand Reclus, an officer with the French Navy, and Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse, two engineers, surveyed the route and published a French proposal for a canal. French success in building the Suez Canal, while a lengthy project, encouraged planning for one to cross the isthmus.
Panaman kanavan historian ensimmäinen askel otettiin jo vuonna 1513, kun espanjalainen tutkimusmatkailija Vasco Núñez de Balboa ylitti Panaman kannaksen ensimmäisenä eurooppalaisena. Siitä lähtien käynnistettiin useita hankkeita kanavan rakentamiseksi. Ne kaikki jäivät pelkästään paperille. Varsinainen kanavahanke alkoi virallisesti vuonna 1880, kun Ranska aloittaa kanavan rakentamisen kannaksella.
Ajatus kanavan rakentamisesta Nicaraguaan oli myös ollut esillä, sillä maan Nicaraguanjärveltä ei olisi ollut vaikeaa päästä Karibianmereltä - Tyynellemerelle.
Kanava kuitenkin rakennettiin Panamaan, sillä kannas on siellä kapeampi kuin missään muualla Keski-Amerikassa.
Rakennustyöt alkoivat vuonna 1904, ja kanava avattiin liikenteelle vuonna 1914.
The first attempt to construct a canal through what was then Colombia's province of Panama began on 1 January 1881. The project was inspired by the diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was able to raise considerable finance in France as a result of the huge profits generated by his successful construction of the Suez Canal.
De Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal as at Suez, but only visited the site a few times, during the dry season which lasts only four months of the year. His men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, during which the Chagres River, where the canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 35 feet (10m). The dense jungle was alive with venomous snakes, insects and spiders and the worst aspect was the yellow fever and malaria (and other tropical diseases) which killed thousands of workers: by 1884 the death rate was over 200 per month. Public health measures were ineffective because the role of the mosquito as a disease vector was then unknown. Conditions were downplayed in France to avoid recruitment problems,
but the high mortality made it difficult to maintain an experienced workforce. With this, they couldn't continue their work on the Panama Canal.
The main cut through the mountain at Culebra had to continually be widened, and its slopes reduced, to minimize landslides into the canal. Steam shovels had been invented but were still primitive. Other mechanical and electrical equipment was limited in its capabilities, and steel equipment rusted rapidly in the climate.
The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending US$287,000,000 and losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors. Work was suspended on May 15 and in the ensuing scandal, known as the Panama affair, various of those deemed responsible were prosecuted, including Gustave Eiffel. De Lesseps and his son Charles were found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, though this was later overturned and the father, at 88, was never imprisoned.
In 1894, a second French company, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, was created to take over the project. A minimal workforce of a few thousand people was employed primarily to comply with the terms of the Colombian Panama Canal concession, to run the Panama Railroad, and to maintain the existing excavation and equipment in salable condition. The company sought a buyer for these assets, with an asking price of US$109,000,000. In the meanwhile they continued with enough activity to maintain their franchise and Bunau-Varilla eventually managed to persuade de Lesseps that a lock and lake canal was more realistic than a sea-level canal
At this time, the President and the Senate of the United States were interested in establishing a canal across the isthmus, with some favoring a canal across Nicaragua and others advocating the purchase of the French interests in Panama. The French manager of the New Panama Canal Company, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, who was seeking American involvement, asked for $100 million but accepted $40 million in the face of the Nicaraguan option. In June 1902, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of pursuing the Panamanian option, provided the necessary rights could be obtained, in the Spooner Act.
On January 22, 1903, the Hay–Herrán Treaty was signed by United States Secretary of State John M. Hay and Colombian Chargé Dr. Tomás Herrán. For $10m and an annual payment it would have granted the United States a renewable lease in perpetuity from Colombia on the land proposed for the canal. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate on March 14, 1903, but the Senate of Colombia did not ratify it. Bunau-Varilla told President Theodore Roosevelt and Hay of a possible revolt by Panamanian rebels who aimed to separate from Colombia, and hoped that the United States would support the rebels with U.S. troops and money. Roosevelt changed tactics, based in part on the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty of 1846, and actively supported the separation of Panama from Colombia and, shortly after recognizing Panama, signed a treaty with the new Panamanian government under similar terms to the Hay–Herrán Treaty.
On November 2, 1903, U.S. warships blocked sea lanes for possible Colombian troop movements en route to put down the rebellion. Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. The United States quickly recognized the new nation. On November 6, 1903, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, as Panama's ambassador to the United States, signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting rights to the United States to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses. This is sometimes misinterpreted as the "99-year lease" because of misleading wording included in article 22 of the agreement. Almost immediately, the treaty was condemned by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country’s new national sovereignty. This would later become a contentious diplomatic issue between Colombia, Panama and the United States.
President Roosevelt famously stated that "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me." Several parties in the United States proposed this to be an act of war on Colombia: The New York Times called the support given by the United States to Mr. Bunau-Varilla an "act of sordid conquest." The New York Evening Post called it a "vulgar and mercenary venture." More recently, historian George Tindall labeled it "one of the greatest blunders in American foreign policy." It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, and the best illustration of what Roosevelt meant by the old African adage, "speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far." After the revolution in 1903, the Republic of Panama became a U.S. protectorate until 1939.
Thus in 1904, the United States purchased the French equipment and excavations, including the Panama Railroad, for US$40 million, of which $30 million related to excavations completed, primarily in the Gaillard Cut (then called the Culebra Cut), valued at about $1.00 per cubic yard. The United States also paid the new country of Panama $10 million plus $250,000 more each year. (In 1921, the United States paid Colombia US$10 million, plus US$250,000 per annum for several years; in return, Colombia recognized Panama under the terms of the Thomson–Urrutia Treaty.)
The U.S. formally took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904, inheriting from the French a depleted workforce and a vast jumble of buildings, infrastructure and equipment, much of it in poor condition. A U.S. government commission, the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), was established to oversee construction and was given control of the Panama Canal Zone, over which the United States exercised sovereignty. The commission reported directly to Secretary of War William Howard Taft and was directed to avoid the inefficiency and corruption that had plagued the French 15 years earlier.
On May 6, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed John Findley Wallace, formerly chief engineer and finally general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project. Overwhelmed by the disease-plagued country and forced to use often dilapidated French infrastructure and equipment, as well as being frustrated by the overly bureaucratic ICC, Wallace resigned abruptly in June 1905.
He was succeeded by John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad. Stevens was not a member of the ICC; he increasingly viewed its bureaucracy as a serious hindrance and ended up bypassing the commission and sending requests and demands directly to the Roosevelt Administration in Washington.
Colonel William C. Gorgas had been appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project in 1904. Gorgas implemented a range of measures to minimize the spread of deadly diseases, particularly yellow fever and malaria which had recently been shown to be mosquito-borne following the work of Dr. Carlos Finlay and Dr. Walter Reed. There was investment in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water.
Despite opposition from the Commission (one member said his ideas were barmy), Gorgas persisted and when Stevens arrived, he threw his weight behind the project. After two years of extensive work, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. Nevertheless, even with all this effort, about 5,600 workers died of disease and accidents during the U.S. construction phase of the canal.
President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel at Culebra Cut, 1906
Construction work on the Gaillard Cut is shown in this photograph from 1907
In 1905, a U.S. engineering panel was commissioned to review the canal design, which still had not been finalized. It recommended to President Roosevelt a sea-level canal, as had been attempted by the French. However, in 1906 Stevens, who had seen the Chagres in full flood, was summoned to Washington and declared a sea-level approach to be 'an entirely untenable proposition'.
He argued in favor of a canal using a lock system to raise and lower ships from a large reservoir 85 ft (26 m) above sea level. This would create both the largest dam (Gatun Dam) and the largest man-made lake (Gatun Lake) in the world at that time. The water to refill the locks would be taken from Gatun Lake by opening and closing enormous gates and valves and letting gravity propel the water from the lake. Gatun Lake would connect to the Pacific through the mountains at the Gaillard (Culebra) Cut. Stevens successfully convinced Roosevelt of the necessity and feasibility of the alternative scheme.
The construction of a canal with locks required the excavation of more than an additional 170,000,000 cu yd (129,974,326 m3) of material over and above the 30,000,000 cu yd (22,936,646 m3) excavated by the French. As quickly as possible, the Americans replaced or upgraded the old, unusable French equipment with new construction equipment that was designed for a much larger and faster scale of work. About 102 new large, railroad-mounted steam shovels were purchased and brought in from the United States.
These were joined by enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, cement mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills, nearly all of which was manufactured by new, extensive machine-building technology developed and built in the United States. The railroad also had to be comprehensively upgraded with heavy-duty, double-tracked rails over most of the line to accommodate new rolling stock. In many places, the new Gatun Lake flooded over the original rail line, and a new line had to be constructed above Gatun Lake's waterline.
In 1907, Stevens resigned as chief engineer, having in his view made success certain. His replacement, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, was U.S. Army Major George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (soon to be promoted to lieutenant colonel and later to colonel), a strong, United States Military Academy–trained leader and civil engineer with experience of canals (unlike Stevens). Goethals would direct the work in Panama to a successful conclusion.
Goethals divided the engineering and excavation work into three divisions: Atlantic, Central, and Pacific. The Atlantic division, under Major William L. Sibert, was responsible for construction of the massive breakwater at the entrance to Limon Bay, the Gatun locks and their 5.6 km (3.5 mi) approach channel, and the immense Gatun Dam. The Pacific Division, under Sydney B. Williamson (the only civilian member of this high-level team), was similarly responsible for the Pacific 4.8 km (3.0 mi) breakwater in Panama Bay, the approach channel to the locks, and the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and their associated dams and reservoirs.
Spanish laborers working on the Panama Canal in early 1900s
The Central division, under Major David du Bose Gaillard of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned one of the most difficult parts: excavating the Culebra Cut through the continental divide to connect Gatun Lake to the Pacific Panama Canal locks.
On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson sent a signal from the White House by telegraph which triggered the explosion that destroyed the Gamboa Dike. This flooded the Culebra Cut, thereby joining the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Alexandre La Valley (1887) (a floating crane built by Lobnitz & Company, and launched in 1887) was the first self-propelled vessel to transit the canal from ocean to ocean. This vessel crossed the canal from the Atlantic in stages during construction, finally reaching the Pacific on January 7, 1914. Cristobal (a cargo and passenger ship built by Maryland Steel, and launched in 1902 as SS Tremont) was the first ship to transit the canal from ocean to ocean on August 3, 1914.
The construction of the canal was completed in 1914, 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375,000,000 (roughly equivalent to $8,600,000,000 now) to finish the project. This was by far the largest American engineering project to date.
The opening of Panama Canal in 1914 caused a severe drop in traffic along Chilean ports due to shifts in the maritime trade routes.