Historical Review of the Panama Canal

The history of the construction of the Panama Canal is the saga of human ingenuity and courage: years of sacrifice, crushing defeat, and final victory. Many gave their life in the effort.  Follow the story from the early days of the French construction period, to the completion by the United States, and into the present time.

Panama Canal Early Days

historicalA working plan for a canal across Panama was drawn up as early as 1529 but no attempts were ever made to dig a canal until 1880. The builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, organized a French effort to build a canal across Panama. Lesseps started working in 1880 on a sea level canal. The effort was unsuccessful due to Yellow Fever and Malaria that killed close to 20,000 workers. French investors were left with unusable property which they eventually sold to the United States for its Panama Canal construction.

Panama Canal Construction 1904 to 1914

Under the presidency of President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States, established the necessity of building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Since Panama was a part of Colombia during the time, the Government of the United States of America negotiated with Colombia on the possibilities of building a Canal. When Colombia refused to grant a concession, the USA backed a rebellion in Panama and received the rights to build and operate a canal in return of guaranteeing Panamanian sovereignty.

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed in 1903 and it gave the United States the right to build and operate the canal. Subsequently in 1904, the first Americans arrived for the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904. The first years were spent in preparation. American Engineers decided on the appropriate construction of a lock canal, started developing construction facilities, and worked in eradicating tropical diseases present in the area. Panama Canal construction finally began in 1909. It was one of the largest construction projects of all times. Not only did the workers excavate 240 million cubic yards of earth; but also, they had to find places to put it as the torrential rain in Panama caused constant mudslides. Much of the rock and earth used for the construction was carried by a railroad to the Panama City side of the canal and was used to fill in between the islands that now make up the Amador Causeway.

The final cost of Panama Canal construction was close to $400 million in building the 40-mile-long canal. The usual figure of fifty miles includes the dredged seabed at both end of the canal. A number of boats passed through the canal in 1914 but continual mudslides required re-excavation. It was not until August 15, 1914 that the construction of the Panama Canal was officially opened to traffic.


The Panama Canal Authority (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá, ACP) is currently the autonomous Panama government entity that is in charge of running the canal today. This entity took over at the end of 1999 when the USA relinquished all control. ACP is currently in the midst of a major construction project that will add an entire set of much larger locks to the Panama Canal.