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History of Panama Canal

The Panama Canal: A History

(1524 – 1914)


A man-made canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Panama Canal is easily one of the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken in the world. Making trade easier between the two oceans, the Panama Canal was first conceived of in the sixteenth century. Construction, however, was not completed until 1914. To this date, the ‘canal’ is “key conduit for international maritime trade.”


In 1524 while Charles V sat on the throne of Spain, the first mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was mentioned. The king, who also held the coveted title of Holy Roman Emperor, ordered a survey of a route through Panama to make it easier for the voyage for ships traveling back and forth from Spain to Peru.  A working plan to achieve this so-called shortcut was drawn up in 1529.  It was eerie similar to the one that came to be nearly four centuries later. However, wars in Europe and other difficulties on the continent including The Inquisition kept the Spaniards from doing much with those plans.


In the early nineteenth century, due to the works of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, interest in the project was revived in Spain. Unfortunately, nothing really came of it. Surveys between the years of 1850 and 1875 proved that two possibilities existed – a route between Panama and a route between Nicaragua. An international company was formed to investigate these possibilities and build the structure. This company failed, and a Frenchman by the name of Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal in Egypt, tried his hand at the project.

In 1879, de Lesseps proposed a sea level canal through Panama. He set up an International Congress to discuss the matter. A decade later, the United States Congress stepped in. Eventually, de Lesseps’ company sold the rights to the Panamanian project for $40,000,000. In 1903, the United States and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. This treaty gave Panama its independence and allowed the United States a ten mile strip near Panama City for the Canal Zone as well as the right to administer the area ‘indefinitely’.

Shortly thereafter, under President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the United States began construction on the Panama Canal. It would take the US nearly a decade to complete construction of this complex engineering project. The canal officially opened on August 15, 1914. The first ship to pass through it was called the Ancon.

Panama History

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