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Panama Canal

a 50.72-mile-long man-made channel across the Isthmus of Panama that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through which approximately 12-15,000 ships pass every year (an average of about 40 ships a day)

The Canal

Ships enter the Atlantic (north) end of the canal by way of Limón Bay, the harbor of the city of Cristóbal. From there, the channel runs south for 7 miles, ending at the Gatun Locks, a series of three locks that raise ships about 85 feet to the level of Lake Gatun, a 163-square-mile lake created by the damming of the Rio Chagres. The 22-mile-long ship channel through the lake follows the old river channel. From Lake Gatun the canal passes through the Gaillard Cut, which is 8 miles long, 500 feet wide, and at least 42 feet deep; originally called the Culebra Cut, it was renamed in 1913 in honor of David DuBose Gaillard, the engineer in charge of digging this part of the channel. The Gaillard Cut ends at the Pedro Miguel Locks, which lower ships 31 feet to Miraflores Lake. After crossing the 1-1/2-mile-long lake, ships enter the Miraflores Locks, which lower ships to the level of the Pacific, which lies 8 miles beyond the locks.

A journey through the Panama Canal takes about eight hours. When a ship exits the canal at the Pacific end it will be 25 miles east of its starting point on the Atlantic end.

general map of the Panama Canal


Vasco Nuñez Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the American side, was the first to see the benefits of building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, in 1513, and various European and American interests explored the feasibility of such a canal over the next 300 years.

In 1821, what is now Panama became a province of New Granada (now Colombia), which had gained its independence from Spain two years earlier. In 1850, The United States and Nicaragua signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, in which the two nations agreed to joint control over any canal built across the isthmus. No canal was built, but a group of American businessmen did succeed in building a rail line across the isthmus in 1855.

Serious efforts to build a canal began when, in 1878, Colombia granted French adventurer Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse exclusive rights to build a canal across Panama. Wyse sold his franchise rights to a French company headed by Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, who had directed building of Suez Canal, which broke ground on January 1, 1880 and began actual digging on January 20, 1882. The company faced difficulty from the beginning, especially with mosquito-borne diseases, and went bankrupt in 1889. Another French company took over the franchise in 1894, but it simply halted all work and waited for someone to buy it out.

In 1899, the U.S. Congress authorized a commission to survey possible canal routes across Nicaragua, but the commission ultimately determined that a canal across Panama would be much easier and cheaper to construct. In 1902, Congress gave President Theodore Roosevelt permission to buy the assets of the French company (including the Panama rail line), but only if Colombia agreed to give the United States permanent control over the canal zone. In 1903, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian representative Tomás Herrán signed a treaty wherein the United States would pay $10,000,000 up front and then $250,000 a year for use of a canal zone. The Colombian legislature refused to ratify the treaty, however, because many of its members thought the deal was worth significantly more.

The refusal of Colombia to ratify the Hay-Herrán Treaty angered both the United States and Panamanians. On November 3, 1903, Panamanians, with help from the United States and France, staged a revolt and declared Panama's independence from Colombia. The United States formally recognized Panama's independence on November 6, and within two weeks the two nations had signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, giving the United States exclusive control over a 10-mile-wide canal zone in return for an initial payment of $10,000,000 and $250,000 a year, beginning in 1913. The United States took formal possession of the French franchise and resumed work on the canal on May 4, 1904. Colonel William C. Gorgas was charged with ridding the canal zone of the diseases that had plagued the French, and Colonel George W. Goethals was put in charge of supervising the construction. The S.S. Ancon, a passenger-cargo ship owned by the Panama Railroad Company, made the first trip through the completed canal on August 15, 1914, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson formally opened the Panama Canal on July 12, 1920. By the time it was completed, the canal had cost the United States $380 million (including $40 million paid to the French company, the $10 million paid to Panama, and $20 million spent for sanitation work).

United States control over the Panama Canal Zone became a source of contention between the two countries almost immediately after completion of the canal, and Panamanians often expressed displeasure with having their country bisected by a region controlled by a foreign power. The treaty that established the Canal Zone gave the United States absolute control over the zone for 99 years, but on September 7, 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos signed a series of treaties in which the United States agreed to give up control over the canal on December 31, 1999; the formal transfer did indeed take place on that date.

the Gaillard Cut, with the Pedro Miguel Locks in the foreground
the Gaillard Cut, with the Pedro Miguel Locks in the foreground, as it looks today

Vasco Nuñez Balboa
Suez Canal
President Theodore Roosevelt
George W. Goethals
President Woodrow Wilson
President Jimmy Carter

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This page was last updated on 05/04/2017.