The excavations remaining to be done, shown in black, were to be completed by the U.S. The bird’s-eye scene on the lower panel demonstrates how the completed passage was to look.
The greatest engineering project in the history of the world had been dwarfed by the totality of World War I.
Copyright, Concept & Creation: Geetesh Bajaj
Imagine you are living on the East Coast in the early
20th century. Your family is in the clothing business
and wants to sell clothes to new stores in San
Francisco. Of course, the clothes can’t be loaded
on a plane - there aren't any planes. And trains are
too expensive and unreliable for shipping goods.
If a canal were
built where the
the trip by
Isthmus of Panama
Panama is an isthmus, a narrow strip of
land which has water on each side and
connects two larger bodies of land.
Rounding the Horn
So your family decides to
send the clothes by ship
around the tip of South
America. The trip can
easily take two months,
and many ships (like the
Olympia, pictured) are
destroyed by terrible
storms at Cape Horn.
Shortcut to San Francisco
After looking at these pictures what do
you think would be the challenges of
trying to build a canal through a tropical
jungle and mountains?
Panama rain forest
A tropical jungle may
be a fascinating
place for scientists to
work, but for
workers trying to build
a canal it’s a
trying to dig out
tons of dirt in a jungle
like this. And
there was no insect
repellent to keep
the bugs from biting.
Early History - 1513
Vasco Nunez de Balboa crosses the isthmus of
Panama and becomes the first European to see the
Pacific Ocean in the Americas.
Early History – 1500’s
• 1524 Spanish explorer Hernan
Cortes suggests that a path
across the Isthmus of Panama
would be a great idea
• 1534 The King of Spain wants to build a canal through
• Although these people knew how beneficial to
commerce it would be to create this they didn’t have
the ability to do it
• 1835 - France is given a permit to build a canal
across Panama. However first they have to come up
with a plan to build the canal.
• In 1881 headed
by Suez Canal
After eight years
France gives up on the
The effort lost over 20,000 men and cost over $287
million (1.5 billion francs). The French company was
the greatest business failure of the 19th century.
Through extensive lobbying of
officials, and the
This flag was designed
U.S. Senate to
by Varilla based on the
Flag of the United States
$40 million to the New Panama as a tribute to the U.S.
Canal Company in the form of contribution to Panama's
the Spooner Act of 1902.
The United States
1904 - The United States
begins working on the Canal
1914 - The canal is completed
1977 - The United States signs
a treaty with Panama and
agrees to give Panama
control of the canal in 1999.
On November 2, 1903, the Columbian
naval vessel Cartagena was deployed to
Panama. The US warship Nashville, (left)
with eight 4” guns, however, was able to
force the ship to retreat. The Columbian
garrison on Panama was bribed by US
forces not to intervene. The next day
Panama declared independence.
President Theodore Roosevelt
He was determined to build a canal across Panama. It
would expand trade, helps the United States fleet
mobilize more easily for national defense, and show
the world the United States was
becoming a world power.
Image Courtesy of:
Why was it so important to build a canal?
It is 1904. Feisty Theodore Roosevelt is president, and
the United States is fast becoming one of the most
powerful nations in the world.
Such recent inventions as the
Telephone, the aeroplane,
and the automobile make
the 3,000 mile
“I took it…”
“…the Panama Canal would not
have started if I had not taken
hold of it, because if I had
followed the traditional or
conservative method I should
have submitted an admirable
state paper to Congress…
Accordingly I took the Isthmus,
started the canal and then left
Congress not to debate the canal,
but to debate me."
(pictured on steam shovel during 1906 visit)
•So the United States is ready to do what seemed
impossible-to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
•But a major decision had to be made. Should the
canal be built at sea level like the Suez Canal?
The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans come within 45
miles of each other at Panama’s narrowest point.
Or should it follow the natural rise of the land? This
would mean building locks (to raise and lower ships as
they pass through the canal). Locks this big had not
yet been built. The decision was made in favor of
having locks. Now they just had to figure out how to
Drawn in 1903, this “Topographic, Diagramatic, and
Illustrative Map of the Panama Canal” illustrates the
project for U.S. readers. The top panel depicts the
excavations done by the two French companies that
began construction. The middle panel shows a profile of
Building the Canal
The next few pictures show what the area looked like
when the French started building the canal. What
challenges do you think they faced building a canal in
this type of area?
The average yearly rainfall is about 80 inches.
Flooding makes the ground like pudding, and you can
sink up to your knees in mud. Tropical diseases, such
as yellow fever and malaria are spread by mosquitoes.
The deepest excavation known as the Culebra Cut
would have to be made through a verdant cloud
forest, Panama’s section of the Continental Divide.
John P. Stevens
Hired by Roosevelt as
chief engineer on the
achievement in Panama
was in building the
to complete the canal.
A railroad man, Stevens rebuilt the
Panama Railway and devised a
system for disposing of soil from
the excavations by rail.
Given a nearly unlimited budget and authority, Stevens
increased the size and scale of excavating equipment
and had his medical officer eradicate the dreaded
Yellow Fever mosquitoes.
workers were hired,
mostly from the
Carribean. At least
25,000 of them
were listed as having
died from disease
1909 Arrival of SS.
Ancon with 1500
Barbados at the
Cristobal Port in
Imagine working on the
Panama Canal. By noon
the temperature is about
100 degrees. It’s humidso humid that after it
rains steam rises from
the ground and your
clothes become soaking
wet. There is no shade,
no air-conditioning, and
no place to get cool.
As one worker said, “There was no shelter
from the sun or the rain. There were no
trees, and when the sun shines, you get
it. When the rain falls you get it.”
Photo courtesy of: www.canalmuseum.com
The building of the canal
Photo courtesy of: www.canalmuseum.com
Photos Courtesy of www.panamacanal.com
Photo from the Canal Zone Brats www.czbrats.com
Building the giant lock gates
Courtesy of: http://www.canalmuseum.com/photos/panamacanalphoto026.htm
Canal opening - 1914
When the Panama Canal
opened officially on August 15,
1914, the world scarcely noticed.
German troops were driving
across Belgium toward Paris; the
newspapers relegated Panama
to their back pages.
makes a test run
through the canal
on August 4,
days before the
August 15, 1914
The Panama Canal officially opens with
the inaugural passage of the S.S. Ancon.
Time-lapse cam of a week’s traffic.
Birds Eye View Of the Construction Site At Pedro Miguel Locks - 1913
Ships wait in Gatun Lake for passage through locks.
Once the largest
manmade lake in the
world, at 422 square
kilometers Lago Gatún
is still a plenty
impressive body of
water. It was formed by
damming the Río
Chagres near its
mouth, at Gatún, and is
an integral part of the
The largest ships able
to go through the canal
are described as being
of Panamax size.
How the Panama Canal works
Image Courtesy of: http://www.panamacanal-cruises.com/panama-canal-pictures/crosssections.jpg
How a lock works
A lock is a part of a
canal with gates at
each end where
boats are raised or
lowered to different
The ship goes through a set of gates into a lock
chamber. The water in the chamber is still at sea
level. Then more water comes pouring into the
chamber through valves.
The ship rises like a toy boat in a bathtub. When the
water rises high enough, the ship passes through a
second set of gates and enters a small lake. It goes to
the next lock and the water is raised again.
Today, ships get stuck in traffic jams because there are
so many of them and they often have to wait up to 20
hours to go through the canal.
In 2006, Panama voters
approved a $5.25 billion
plan to expand and modernize the canal. The project
includes two new sets of single-lane, three-step locks:
one set at the Atlantic entrance and one at the Pacific
Since it now takes 52 million gallons of rainwater
to put a ship through the Panama Canal, waterconserving reservoirs are being built as part of the
upgrade for the third channel.