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.


Over 40 black churches are in existence throughout the canal zone.

March 1910

Construction of breakwater at Limón Bay begins.

End of 1910

Over a million cubic yards are added to the Gatún Dam each month as it slowly builds up in height and strength.

The Gatun upper locks, mid-construction
National Archives

The Gatun upper locks, mid-construction
May 1911

Assembly of the locks at Gatún begins.

This year, construction on the Gatún Dam will progress. The site will host more than 2,000 workers, unloading over 100 trainloads of spoil each day.

Fall 1911

The Pedro Miguel locks finish construction.

By the end of this year, tourism starts in earnest, with more than 15,000 visitors coming to the canal.


This year, landslides in Cucaracha deposit almost 3 million cubic yards of spoil into the Culebra Cut, all of which has to be laboriously dug out again over the course of four and a half months.

September 1912: Construction Wraps Up

Assembly of the locks at Miraflores begins. They will be completed within nine months.

Two steam shovels meet in the middle of Culebra Cut
National Archives

Two steam shovels meet in the middle of Culebra Cut
May 20, 1913

Excavation at Culebra Cut is completed.

June 27, 1913

The Gatún Dam is complete. The spillway gates are closed, and the new lake fills to its full height.

August 13, 1913

The dike between the Miraflores Locks and the Pacific Ocean is blown up, bringing the water from the Pacific closer inland.

The Gatun Locks in action
National Archives

The Gatun Locks in action
December 10, 1913

After a final push of excavation, an unbroken waterway connects the Atlantic to the Pacific.

January 7, 1914

The French crane boat Alexandre La Valley completes the first passage through the Panama Canal.

By the spring, tugs and boats will begin passing through the canal regularly, and by June, the Panama Canal will earn $7,000 in tolls.

August 4, 1914

The Germans declare war, shifting media attention from the fanfare at Panama to Europe.

August 15, 1914

The Panama Canal officially opens. The toll to cross is 90 cents per cargo ton.


The Queen Mary becomes the first ship too big for the 1,050- by 110-foot locks.


Annual traffic surpasses 7,000 ships.


The Panama Canal is used widely for the transport of material and troops during the Korean War.


Channel lighting is installed, allowing for transportation through the canal 24 hours a day.


The Panama Canal is used extensively for the transport of material and troops during the Vietnam War.

On average, over 15,000 ships a year use the canal.


Tolls are raised for the first time from 90 cents to $1.08 per cargo ton.

The following year, the passenger ship Queen Elizabeth II will pay a record toll of $42,077.88.


The U.S. hands over sovereignty of the Panama Canal to Panama.


The record for total annual tonnage transported through the canal is broken with over 312 million tons crossing. 

With 37% of ships worldwide now too large for the canal, Panama begins a project to improve the canal, constructing two new locks and widening of the passage. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

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My American Experience

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH