A New World Power, 1890-1914

Author: Encyclopedia Britannica  | Date: 1550-1909

The Building of the Panama Canal

When he crossed the Atlantic, the object Columbus had in view was to find a western passage from Europe to Cathay. It was with the greatest reluctance, and only after a generation of unremitting toil that the explorers who had succeeded him became convinced that the American continent was continuous, and formed a barrier of enormous extent to the passage of vessels. The question of cutting a canal through this barrier at some suitable point was immediately raised. In 1550 the Portuguese navigator, Antonio Galvao, published a book to demonstrate that a canal could be cut at Tehuantepec, Nicaragua, Panama or Darien, and in 1551 the Spanish historian, F. L. De Gomara, submitted a memorial to Philip II, urging in forcible language that the work be undertaken without delay. But the project was opposed by the Spanish Government, who had now concluded that a monopoly of communication with their possessions in the New World was of more importance than a passage by sea to Cathay. It even discouraged the improvement of the communications by land. To seek or make known any better route than the one from Porto Bello to Panama was forbidden under penalty of death. For more than two centuries no serious steps were taken toward the construction of the canal, if exception be made of William Paterson’s disastrous Darien scheme in 1698….

The French plan was for a sea-level canal having a depth of 29 1/2 feet and bottom width of 72 feet, involving excavation estimated by De Lesseps in 1880 at 658,000,000 francs, and the time required at eight years. The terminus on the Atlantic side was fixt by the anchorage at Colon, and that on the Pacific side by the anchorage at Panama. Leaving Colon, the canal was to pass through low ground by a direct line for a distance of six miles to Gatun, where it intersected the valley of the Chagres River ;pass up that valley for a distance of twenty-one miles to Obispo, where it left the Chagres and ascended the valley of a tributary, the Cumacho; cut through the watershed at Culebra, and thence descend by a valley of the Rio Grande to Panama Bay. Its total length, from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific, was about forty-seven miles….

Work under this plan continued until the latter part of 1887, the management being characterized by a degree of extravagance and corruption rarely, if ever, equalled in the history of the world. By that time it had become evident that the canal could not be completed at the sea-level with the resources of time and money then avail-able. The plan was accordingly changed to one including locks, and work was pushed on with vigor until 1889, when the company, becoming bankrupt, was dissolved by a judgment of the Tribunal Civil de la Seine, dated the 4th of February, 1889, a liquidator being appointed by the court to take charge of its affairs….

The interest of the United States in an isthmian canal was not essentially different from that of other maritime nations down to about the middle of the nineteenth century, but it assumed great strength when California was acquired, and it has steadily grown as the importance of the Pacific States has developed. In 1848 and again in 1884, treaties were negotiated with Nicaragua authorizing the United States to build the canal, but in neither case was the treaty ratified. The Spanish War of 1898 gave a tremendous impetus to popular interest in the matter, and it seemed an article of the national faith that the canal must be built, and, furthermore, that it must be under American control.

To the American people the canal appears to be not merely a business enterprise from which a direct revenue is to be obtained, but rather a means of unifying and strengthening their national political interests, and of developing their industries, particularly in the Pacific States; in short, a means essential to their national growth. The Isthmian Canal Commission, created by Congress in 1899 to examine all practicable routes, and to report which was the most practicable and most feasible for a canal under the control, management and ownership of the United States, reported that there was no route which did not present greater disadvantages than those of Panama and Nicaragua. It recommended that the canal at Panama have a depth of 35 feet, and a bottom width of 150 feet, the locks to be double, the lock chambers to have a length 740 feet, width 84 feet, and depth 35 feet in the clear….

This report caused the New Panama Canal Company to view the question of selling its property in a new light, and in the spring of 1901 it obtained permission from the Colombian Government to dispose of it to the United States. It showed itself, however, somewhat reluctant to name a price to the Canal Commission, and it was not till January, 1902, that it definitely offered to accept $40,000,000. In consequence of this offer, the commission in a supplementary report issued on the 18th of January, 1902, reversed the conclusion it had stated in its main report, and advised the adoption of the Panama route, with purchase of the works, etc., of the French company. A few days previous to this report the Hepburn bill, authorizing the Nicaragua canal at a cost of $180,000,000, had been carried in the House of Representatives by a large majority, but when it reached the Senate an amendment—the so-called Spooner bill—was moved and finally became law on the 28th of June, 1902. This authorized the President to acquire all the property of the Panama Canal Company, including not less than 68,869 shares of the Panama Railroad Company, for a sum not exceeding $40,000,000, and to obtain from Colombia perpetual control of a strip of land six miles wide; while if he failed to come to terms with the company and with Colombia in a reasonabletime and on reasonable terms, he was by treaty to obtain from Costa Rica and Nicaragua the territory necessary for the Nicaragua canal.

Negotiations were forthwith opened with Colombia, and ultimately a treaty (the Hay-Herran treaty) was signed in January, 1903. The Colombian Senate, however, refused ratification, and it seemed as if the Panama scheme would have to be abandoned when the complexion of affairs was changed by Panama revolting from Colombia and declaring itself independent in November, 1903. Within a month the new republic, by the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, granted the United States the use, occupation, and control of a strip of land ten miles wide for the purposes of the canal. A few days after the ratification of this treaty by the United States Senate, in February, 1904—the concession of the French company having been purchased—a commission was appointed to undertake the organization and management of the enterprise, and in June Mr. J. F. Wallace was chosen chief engineer. Work was begun without delay, but the commission’s methods of administration and control soon proved unsatisfactory, and in April, 1905, it was reorganized, three of its members being constituted an executive committee which was to be at Panama continuously. Shortly afterward Mr. Wallace resigned his position and was succeeded by Mr. John F. Stevens.

In connection with the reorganization of the commission a board of consulting engineers, five being nominated by European governments, was appointed in June, 1905, to consider the question, which so far had not been settled, whether the canal should be made at sea-level, without locks(at least except tidal regulating locks at or near the Pacific terminus), or should rise to some elevation above sea-level, with locks. The board reported in January, 1906. The majority (eight members out of thirteen) declared in favor of a sea-level canal as the only plan "giving reasonable assurance of safe and uninterrupted navigation"; and they considered that such a canal could be constructed in twelve or thirteen year’s time, that the cost would be less than $250,000,000, and that it would endure for all time.

The minority recommended a lock canal, rising to an elevation of 85 feet above sea-level, on the grounds that it would cost about $100,000,000 less than the proposed sea-level canal, that it could be built in much less time, that it would afford a better navigation, that it would be adequate for all its uses for a longer time, and that it could be enlarged with great facility and less cost.

These conflicting reports were then submitted to the Isthmian Canal Commission for consideration, with the result that, on the 5th of February, it reported, one member only dissenting, in favor of the lock canal recommended by the minority of the board of consulting engineers. Finally this plan was adopted by Congress in June, 1906. Later in the same year tenders were invited from contractors who were prepared to undertake the construction of the canal. These were opened in January, 1907, but none of them was regarded as entirely satisfactory, and President Roosevelt decided that it would be best for the Government to continue the work, which was placed under the more immediate control of the U.S.A. Corps of Engineers. At the same time the Isthmian Canalcommission was reorganized, Major G. W. Goethals, of the Corps of Engineers, becoming engineer in chief and chairman, in succession to Mr. J. F. Stevens, who, after succeeding Mr. T. P. Shonts as chairman, himself, resigned on the 1st of April.

The following are the leading particulars of the canal: The length from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific will be about 50 miles, or since the distance from deep water to the shore-line is about 4 1/2 miles in Limon Bay and about 5 miles at Panama, approximately 40 1/2 miles from shore to shore. The summit level, regulated between 82 and 87 feet, above sea-level, will extend for 31 1/2 miles from a large earth dam at Gatun, to a smaller one at Pedro Miguel, and is to be reached by a flight of three locks at the former point. The Gatun dam will be 7,200 feet long along the crest, including the spillway, will have a maximum width at its base of 2,000 feet, and will be uniformly 1,000 feet wide at its top, which will rise 115 feet above sea-level. The lake (Lake Gatun) enclosed by these dams will be 165 1/4 square miles in area, and will constitute a reservoir for receiving the floods of the Chagres and other rivers as well as for supplying water for lockage. A smaller lake (Lake Miraflores), with a surface elevation of 55 feet, and an area of two square miles, will extend from a lock at Pedro Miguel to Miraflores, where the valley of the Rio Grande is to be closed by an earth dam on the west and a concrete dam with spillway on the east, and the canal is to descend to sea-level by a flight of two locks. All the locks are to be in duplicate, each being 110 feet wide with a usable length of 1,000 feet divided by a middle gate.

The channel leading from deep water in the Caribbean Sea to Gatun will be about seven miles long and 500 feet broad, increasing to 1,000 feet from a point 4,000 feet north of the locks in order to form a waiting basin for ships. From Gatun locks, 0.6 mile in length, the channel is to be 1,000 fete or more in width for a distance of nearly 16 miles, to San Pablo. Thence it narrows first to 800 feet, and then for a short distance to 700 feet, for 3 1/2 miles to mile 27 near Juan Grande, and to 500 feet for 4 1/2 miles from Jan Grande to Obispo (mile 31 1/4). From this point through the Culebra cut to Pedro Miguel lock, it will be only 300 feet wide, but will widen again to 500 feet through Miraflores Lake, 1 1-3 miles long, to Miraflores locks, the total length of which, including approaches, will be nearly a mile, and will thence maintain the same width for the remaining 8 miles to deep water on the Pacific. The minimum bottom width of the canal will thus be 300 feet, the average being 649 feet, while the minimum depth will be 41 feet.

In 1909 it was estimated that the construction of the canal would be completed by the 1st of January, 1915, and that the total cost to the United States would not exceed $375,000,000, including $50,000,000 paid to the French Canal Company and the Republic of Panama, $7,382,000 for civil administration, and $20,053,000 for sanitation.


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Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, "The Building of the Panama Canal," A New World Power, 1890-1914 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.10, Pp.169-176 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=JG6NI6G8FCV8R6Y.

MLA: Encyclopedia Brittanica. "The Building of the Panama Canal." A New World Power, 1890-1914, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.10, Pp.169-176, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=JG6NI6G8FCV8R6Y.

Harvard: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 'The Building of the Panama Canal' in A New World Power, 1890-1914. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.10, Pp.169-176. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=JG6NI6G8FCV8R6Y.