Forty five years after the U.S. first considered building a canal through Central America, the Panama Canal opened to the public. Thousands lost their lives in the effort to construct the canal, one of the most daring and innovative accomplishments of its time, and it remains integral to worldwide shipping today.

Charles de Lesseps
Library of Congress

Charles de Lesseps
November 17, 1869

French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps completes work on the Suez Canal in Egypt. The canal allows a direct line of transportation and trade between Europe and Asia.

Also this year, President Ulysses S. Grant establishes the Inter-Oceanic Canal Commission (IOCC) and sends out an expedition to investigate possible routes for a canal. The idea of a canal will continue to be a priority for Grant throughout his presidency as he seeks a faster shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.


January 1875

A 100-man investigatory team from the U.S. surveys Panama -- then a part of the Republic of Colombia -- for a feasible canal route. They deem a Panama canal too expensive and propose a canal in Nicaragua with 12 locks at either end and 10 miles of aqueducts to supply water to the summit level.


May 29, 1879: The French Attempt

Two years after a French team completes their own survey of Panama, their government approves Ferdinand de Lesseps' plan for a sea-level canal. The cost is estimated at 1.2 billion francs ($240 million).


December 30, 1879

With exclusive rights from Colombia, De Lesseps arrives in the Panama region and begins construction. The plan includes constructing a 40-meter high dam at Gamboa to hold back the Chagres River and a 24-meter wide path through the Culebra Cut.


August 1881

In Havana, Cuba, Dr. Carlos Finlay identifies the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever. This theory, however, will not catch on widely until the early 20th century.


January 1882

French workers complete surveys and build accommodations and work yards as excavation begins.


March 1883

Waylaid by flooding and landslides, the French team is behind schedule; only 660,000 cubic meters of earth have been excavated thus far, though de Lesseps had promised over 5 million cubic meters by this time.


French laborers
Library of Congress

French laborers
Early 1884

An epidemic of yellow fever panics the workers. In 1883, an estimated 400 workers died of disease, compared with only 126 the year before. 

More than 300 French engineers ask to return home and are denied.


July 1884

An outbreak of dysentery cripples the already largely incapacitated workforce, affecting about 30% of workers. International press begins to openly doubt the French team's ability to complete the canal project.


A man stands in front of overturned equipment
The Library, U.S. Military Academy, West Point NY

A man stands in front of overturned equipment
March 1885

Civil war in Colombia spreads to Panama and overwhelms French troops who have been enforcing order in the region.

Taking advantage of the confusion, a U.S. Navy ship docks in Colón and enforces order.

 


May 3, 1885

Racial tensions between native and Jamaican workers lead to a violent confrontation. Panamanian soldiers kill 25 Jamaicans and wound 20 others. The incident causes scores of Jamaicans to return home, and the canal becomes devoid of its primary source of manual laborers.

That summer, only 8 million cubic meters of earth will be excavated, out of the 120 required for the canal.


A French excavator works in Culebra Cut
National Archives

A French excavator works in Culebra Cut
February 17, 1886

De Lesseps and a party from France and the United States visit Panama. De Lesseps predicts that the canal will be finished by July 1889.

Two months later, French engineer Armand Rousseau will submit a report to the French government concluding that the canal's completion is possible but a government lottery bill would do much to help fund the project. His report also hints at the unfeasibility of a sea-level canal. De Lesseps refuses to adopt the idea of a lock-canal plan.


Summer 1886

After four years of excavations, only a few feet have been removed from the top of Culebra Cut out of the hundreds necessary to reach sea level.


January 1888

Frustrated by the inefficiency of the excavation, De Lesseps hires Gustav Eiffel (who will become famous after the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889) to construct locks for the canal as a temporary solution while sea-level excavation continues.


December 15, 1888

After a nine-month fundraising campaign that included borrowing 30 million francs from friends and selling lottery tickets, de Lesseps runs out of money. His company, Compagnie Nouvelle, collapses, ruining the fortunes of 800,000 private investors.


January 10, 1893

Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son Charles are found guilty of fraud and maladministration of the Canal project. De Lesseps will die within two years, at the age of 89.


Theodore Roosevelt
Library of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt
September 14, 1901: The U.S. Attempt

Vice President Theodore Roosevelt takes the oath of office after President William McKinley is assassinated. Roosevelt immediately declares the need to build a canal in Central America. 


French machinery abandoned in Panama
Library of Congress

French machinery abandoned in Panama
July 25, 1903

The stirring of a movement for Panama's independence begins with a meeting between Senator Arango, employees of the Panama Railroad, and American Army officers.

The idea will take hold over the course of the summer with the encouragement of U.S. conspirators.


November 2, 1903

A U.S. ship, the Nashville, arrives in Panama to provide support for the Panamanian revolution. Soon after, a Colombian ship named the Cartagena arrives in the port of Colón, filled with troops ordered to stop the rumors of Panamanian independence.


November 4, 1903

Panama claims its independence from Colombia a day after capturing the Colombian general Valencia Tovar and bribing troops remaining in Colón to leave the isthmus.

The United States formally recognizes the Republic of Panama two days later, and deploys Navy ships to protect the new country's autonomy and instill a sense of order.


Christening the Panamanian flag
The Library, U.S. Military Academy, West Point NY

Christening the Panamanian flag
November 18, 1903

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, or Canal Treaty, is signed in the newly independent republic of Panama, giving the United States rights to build a canal on the Panamanian isthmus for an annual payment of $250,000.


March 3, 1904: The U.S. Arrives in Panama - The Wallace Years

President Roosevelt establishes the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) to see through the construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt orders them to "make the dirt fly" -- to start work on the canal as soon as possible.


May 2, 1904

The U.S. government purchases what is left of the French canal construction company, Compagnie Nouvelle, for $40 million.


John Findley Wallace
Scots and Scot's Descendants in America

John Findley Wallace
June 28, 1904

A small U.S. workforce arrives in Panama to survey, plan, and continue the excavation begun by the French. They are led by Chief Engineer John Findley Wallace.

Chief Medical Officer Colonel William C. Gorgas arrives in Panama with a team of seven men. He immediately focuses on the staggering death rate the French had come across during their time on the isthmus, looking for possible causes. His studies on the local population will show that over 70% of the local Panamanian population has malaria.


July 1904

Fearful of repeating the mistakes of corruption and ineptitude that plagued the French attempt, the ICC compulsively checks and rechecks requests. Every decision on canal construction must be cleared with each member of the Commission, a process that is laborious and time consuming.


November 1904

The workforce in the canal zone swells to 3,500 men. At the end of the month, the U.S. attempts to recruit Jamaican workers but finds them hostile to the idea after a disastrous experience with the French.


November 12, 1904

The first Bucyrus steam shovel arrives in Colón, able to excavate five cubic yards of spoil in a single scoop. Despite the efficiency of the steam shovel, the 50-year old rail system proves incapable of carrying that amount of spoil away.


November 21, 1904

The first worker during the American effort in Panama contracts yellow fever. Six more will get the disease in December and eight more in January. As panic sets in, many engineers and workers resign and return to the U.S.


December 31, 1904

The U.S. sets up a recruiting agency in Barbados, and unskilled laborers flock to the Isthmus.


June 28, 1905

Frustrated by the ICC's bureaucratic red tape and the low productivity of a disease-ridden work force, Wallace resigns as chief engineer.


July 3, 1905

A Barbadian worker dies of bubonic plague, and the "Great Scare" begins.

Despite the doubts of U.S. politicians, William Gorgas stays committed to his theory that mosquitoes are transmitting malaria and yellow fever. Finally, with Roosevelt's backing, Gorgas' sanitation workforce is increased from 200 to 2,000 men this month. He begins a complete eradication effort of the Aëdes aegypti mosquito, fumigating homes with his "mosquito brigades."


July 26, 1905: The Stevens Years

New Chief Engineer John Stevens arrives in Panama stressing the importance of satisfactory accommodations and sanitation before construction can be continued. He immediately places an order for new, state-of-the-art equipment to improve the rate of excavation. 


August 1, 1905

With the rusty and decrepit Panama Railroad now 60 years old, Stevens realizes he is unable to cart out the spoil at the same furious rate the canal is being dug. Stevens orders all excavation in Culebra Cut to be temporarily halted and turns his attention toward the repair of the railroad.


September 1905

Three thousand Barbadian workers are now in Panama.

By the following month, the rapid inflation of food prices will lead to the malnutrition of many West Indian workers. Twenty-six catch pneumonia.


November 11, 1905

The last death from yellow fever is reported in Panama City after Gorgas orders $90,000 worth of copper screening to protect workers from mosquito bites.


Workers paving Arosamena Street
National Archives

Workers paving Arosamena Street
November 18, 1905

Despite considerable progress with excavation, U.S. engineers still have not decided on the best way to build the canal. A minority report titled Report of the Consulting Engineers for the Panama Canal sways the ICC toward the idea of a lock plan by outlining the excessive time and cost of digging down to sea level.

By the end of this year, 22,500 West Indians will be working on the canal.


January 1, 1906

A Senate Committee Inquiry is established to look into rumors of mismanagement and corruption in the Panama canal zone.


The Gorgona Post Office
Bill McLaughlin

The Gorgona Post Office
January 1906

The first school for children in the canal zone opens.

In the next month, John Stevens will set up more than 50 mess kitchens to provide cooked food to West Indian workers. White workers are fed in "hotels," and within a year over 12,500 workers live in ICC-built barracks.

Workmen begin to create clubs and societies to pass the time. The Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos will become the largest club among Panama workers with over a thousand members.


February 5, 1906

The ICC backs a plan that would construct massive locks at Gatún and create the largest man-made lake in history.


Spring 1906

After journalist Poultney Bigelow blasts the working conditions at the Canal as inhumane and unsanitary, workers pave the streets of Panama City and build a sewer system. The price of food drops.


June 1906

Three hundred fifty additional miles of track have been built along the Panama Railroad. Double tracks now allow for two-way train traffic, and additional track routes allow more spoil to be transferred around the clock.


June 28, 1906

Workers begin clearing the site for the Gatún Dam.


Construction with a crowd of workers by the train
Library of Congress

Construction with a crowd of workers by the train
Mid-1906

The ICC sets up recruiting agencies in Spain and Italy, which will result in over 12,000 contracts with European workers in unskilled labor positions. Spanish men, in particular, develop a reputation for working hard. 

 


July 1906

Despite the strides made in fighting yellow fever, disease is still a problem. Daily, over 75 workers come to the Ancón hospital suffering from malaria. Over 80 die of pneumonia this month alone. 


Many workers saw Roosevelt's trip as a turning point
Library of Congress

Many workers saw Roosevelt's trip as a turning point
November 15, 1906

President Roosevelt visits Panama to see the progress. This marks the first time a sitting president leaves the U.S.

While in Panama, Roosevelt signs an executive order to rework the ICC commission yet again. This streamlines the process for Stevens', who is no longer required to get ICC clearances for every decision.


December 17, 1906

Roosevelt updates Congress on the successes and challenges in Panama. He lauds Stevens' leadership and announces a Medal as an incentive to keep workers from abandoning their posts.


Laborers work on new tracks
National Archives

Laborers work on new tracks
January 1907

After the railroad system is overhauled and worker accommodations are improved, excavation begins again. Sixty-three more Bucyrus shovels arrive in Panama and are immediately put to work. By the end of the month, over 500,000 cubic yards of spoil are excavated out of Culebra Cut.


February 12, 1907

Despite a tremendous leap in the engineering of the canal, Stevens has reached a breaking point. His expertise in railroad engineering, he realizes, is no longer needed, and the massive canal he faces is, as he writes in a letter to President Roosevelt, "to me… only a big ditch." Roosevelt accepts the note as Steven's resignation.


February 26, 1907: The Goethals Years

Roosevelt selects Lieutenant Colonel George Goethals to be the third Chief Engineer of the canal.


March 1907

Over 800,000 cubic yards are excavated this month alone.


George W. Goethals
The Library, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY

George W. Goethals
May 1907

The new Chief Engineer Goethals' leadership is tested in the first weeks of his tenure. In response to a U.S. Steam Shovel Workers strike, Goethals replaces the workers with strikebreakers.


Mid-1907

The Panama Railroad is now completely double-tracked, allowing simultaneous two-way transportation in and out of construction sites.


September 4, 1907

The ICC publishes the newspaper Canal Record.


A landslide in Culebra Cut
Library of Congress

A landslide in Culebra Cut
October 4, 1907

A landslide at Cucaracha moves 500,000 cubic yards into a slope in the Culebra Cut, delaying progress.


December 1907

Construction on the Sosa locks is halted after it is decided that Miraflores would provide a better site for the Pacific-side locks. Excavation at Miraflores begins. 

Six hundred acres of jungle are cleared and construction begins on the Gatún Dam.

The workforce at the canal is at its height, with 46,000 men. Four separate YMCA-run clubs are open around the canal zone, offering bowling, billiards, a gym, and a library to employees. 

By the end of the month, 2,000 men will be let go due to the winding down of major excavation work.


January 1908

This month, 2,712,568 cubic yards are excavated, over half a million cubic yards more than the previous month.


Waiting for the train to the construction site
National Archives

Waiting for the train to the construction site
May 1908

The improvements throughout the canal zone bring unprecedented numbers of wives and children to Panama. Over 1,000 workers' families now live in the canal zone.


December 12, 1908

Twenty-two tons of dynamite are accidentally detonated, killing 23 people and injuring 40 others.

By the end of the year, over 37 million cubic yards of earth have been excavated, half the amount the French accomplished in 17 years.


Early 1909

The ICC recruiting agency in Spain is banned after reports from laborers about the irrepressible climate and unfavorable working conditions make their way to Europe.

This year the student-teacher ratio in the canal zone's white schools averages 17:1, where in black schools the ratio is 115:1.


Workers in the water help blast through the Culebra Cut
National Archives

Workers in the water help blast through the Culebra Cut
March 4, 1909

William Taft is inaugurated as President of the United States.

This month, production in the Culebra Cut reaches a high. More than 68 shovels excavate two million cubic yards within the month.


August 1909

Construction begins on the Gatún Locks' upper basin.


September 1909

Assembly of the locks at Pedro Miguel begins.



My American Experience

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH