On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, fifteen years earlier, the French had failed disastrously. But the U.S. paid a price for victory: a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than 350 million dollars -- the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time -- and the loss of more than 5,000 lives. Along the way, Central America witnessed the brazen overthrow of a sovereign government, the influx of over 55,000 workers from around the globe, the removal of hundreds of millions of tons of earth, and engineering innovation on an unprecedented scale. The construction of the Canal was the epitome of man’s mastery over nature and signaled the beginning of America’s domination of world affairs.

The second half of the 19th century was a time of expansion and great technological advancement. Americans built the Brooklyn Bridge and completed the Transcontinental Railroad. The French had constructed the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869 and set their sights on a canal through the Panamanian Isthmus. But after eight years of earthquakes, floods and disease-stunted progress, the French returned home bankrupt. The canal project would lay abandoned for nearly 15 years.

When President Theodore Roosevelt came to office in 1901, he saw the creation and control of the canal as the key to America projecting itself as a world power. "If we are to hold our own in the struggle for supremacy," Roosevelt insisted, "we must build the canal." With Roosevelt's backing, Panamanians claimed their independence from Colombia in 1903 after a bloodless revolution. The United States and Panama signed a treaty giving the U.S. sovereignty over the "Canal Zone," a 440 square mile area stretching across the isthmus.

Over the next decade, engineers, politicians, and laborers involved in this epic undertaking faced incredible hardships: bureaucratic inefficiencies, wild terrain, extreme weather, outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria, and generally poor working conditions. Three different engineers would take on the project during its time. In 1904, John F. Wallace came to the isthmus with an order from President Roosevelt to "make the dirt fly." When Wallace left Panama after only a year, he had accomplished little and left morale along the isthmus low. In July 1905, John Stevens took over as chief engineer. He first sought to rebuild the railroad -- a project that both organized the entire endeavor and allowed for the development of innovations that would prove crucial to the success of the canal's construction. By the time he was finished the railroad functioned as a giant conveyor belt for excavated spoil, shifting continuously to accommodate the work as it progressed.

With the railroad system improved, Stevens concentrated on the Culebra Mountain, the highest point of the Isthmus. He quickly realized that digging a sea-level cut through the mountain while battling the formidable current of the Chagres River would be impossible. He supported a new plan with a system of locks, a massive dam to control the Chagres, and a giant artificial lake 85 feet above sea level. Implementing this plan exhausted Stevens, who resigned in February 1907.

Colonel George Washington Goethals became the third and final chief engineer for the Panama Canal. Goethals' stepped up the pace of production, refusing to negotiate with strikers and ordering labor to continue around the clock; at any given time, day or night, thousands of men were working in the canal. The rigorous production schedule yielded visible progress by 1911, improving worker morale. In May of 1913, steam shovels finally met at the middle of the Cut. Soon workers sealed the last spillway at Gatun dam, allowing the water of Gatun Lake to rise to its full height. After demolishing the dikes at either end of the canal, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans rushed inland, and the final stretch of the Culebra Cut was flooded. On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal was finally opened to the public.

After more than a decade of struggle, successful completion of the Panama Canal established the U.S. as a global power in commerce and technology at the dawn of the 20th century.

Panama Canal features a fascinating cast of characters ranging from the indomitable Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the Canal as the embodiment of American might and ingenuity, to Colonel William Gorgas, an army doctor who instituted a revolutionary public health campaign that all but eradicated Yellow Fever, to the visionary engineers who solved the seemingly impossible problem of cutting a 50-mile long slice through mountains and jungle. The film also delves into the lives of the thousands of workers, rigidly segregated by race, who left their homes to sign on for an unprecedented adventure. In the Canal zone, skilled positions were reserved for white workers while a predominantly West Indian workforce did the backbreaking manual labor, cutting brush, digging ditches and loading and unloading equipment and supplies. Using an extraordinary archive of photographs and footage, rare interviews with canal workers, and firsthand accounts of life in the Canal zone, Panama Canal unravels the remarkable story of one of the world's most daring and significant technological achievements.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH