Panama Canal



One hundred years after the opening of the Panama Canal, this major trade route is set for a historic expansion.  The original construction of the canal is an incredible engineering triumph, as well as a story of challenge and conflict.  Join Active Minds as we discuss the creation of Panama Canal, the role of the United States in its origins, and its continued importance to global commerce.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Panama Canal celebrates its centennial on August 15, 2014, 100 years after the voyage of the SS Ancon through the Panama Canal.
  • The Panama Canal is a 52-mile lock canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. Nearly 15,000 ships pass through the canal annually.
  • The first survey to see if a canal could be built across the isthmus was done at the behest of King Charles I of Spain in 1534. This first survey roughly followed the course of the current Panama Canal.  At the time, the surveyor declared that a canal would be impossible to build.
  • Throughout the 1800s, American and European leaders and businessmen desired a way to reduce the distance (and expense) of shipping goods between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by creating a canal through Central America. In 1878, the French acquired a concession from the nation of Colombia to build a canal in the region of Panama, which was at that time a part of the Republic of Colombia.  The French began construction of a canal under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who had successfully built the Suez Canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The French abandoned their attempt after nine years, ending in bankruptcy and the loss of approximately 20,000 lives.
  • In 1903, US took advantage of a civil war in Colombia to foment the creation of an independent Panama.  Under the US-supported leadership of a French engineer, Phillippe Bunau-Varilla, the newly independent Panama granted the US in perpetuity a 10-mile wide strip of land for constructing a canal.  In exchange, Panama received a one-time $10 million payment to Panama, and an annual annuity of $250,000. In 1904, the US began what would be a ten-year effort to construct the Panama Canal, facing the challenges of disease and difficult working conditions to create one of the greatest engineering feats in human history.
  • From 1914 on, the US maintained sovereignty over the Canal and the Zone surrounding it.  Under pressure from a resentful Panamanian populace, the US began to give up that sovereignty in 1977.  In 1999, the US officially handed sovereignty of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government.
  • As of 2006, almost 40% of the world’s container ships were too large for the canal.  In 2007, the Panamanian government launched a $5.25 billion, seven-year project to update and improve the canal. The project is slated to be completed in 2015 and has gone over budget.
  • In 2014, Nicaragua’s parliament approved a proposal by a Chinese consortium to build a canal across the country to rival that of Panama.

Exploration Questions

  • What motivated people and countries to sacrifice so much for the building of the Panama Canal?
  • How did the building of the canal affect the people of Panama? The country of Panama?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your thoughts about how the United States has handled its involvement with the canal?
  • Have you passed through the Panama Canal? What impressed you most about the canal?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Simon & Schuster, 1978.  698 pages. The author chronicles the creation of the Panama Canal.
    Click here to order
  • Engle, Margarita.  Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  Harcourt Brace, 2014. 260 pages.  This work of young adult fiction tells the story of the construction of the Canal from the perspective of the young people who worked and lived in Panama at the time.
    Click here to order