Friday, August 15, 2014

Happy Birthday, Panama Canal!

Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the greatest engineering projects ever completed. While plans to unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans existed for decades before the Canal was actually built, it took multiple attempts to successfully complete the project.

In the end, it was American money, American engineering and Caribbean labour which carved a route between Colòn and Panama City. It must not be forgotten that the American endeavour built on the failed French project, which had accomplished more work than has been acknowledged in the popular imagination.[1] But it was the American decision to run construction like a totalitarian state, controlling everything from working practices to leisure time, which allowed the Canal to open on August 15, 1914.

However, the momentous occasion was overshadowed by the deteriorating situation in Europe. Whereas the opening of the Canal should have been a great occasion for the celebration of global cooperation in what was arguably a project from which all trading nations could benefit, the opening came just weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland. Much of the traffic during the first few years of Canal operation was naval, especially once the United States opened up the Pacific Theatre.

The Canal Record, the official newspaper of the American-controlled Canal Zone, reported the momentous occasion. The report seems subdued, especially given the years of work leading up to the event, but the situation in Europe weighed heavily on events (in fact, the congratulatory telegraph published by the Record came from the American Secretary of War). The Record reported that:

Commercial traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by way of The Panama Canal was inaugurated on Saturday, August 15, by the Government steamship Ancon, which made the trip from entrance to entrance in approximately nine hours, well within the previously estimated time for the passage of a ship through the Canal. The complete trip from the ship's berth at dock No. 9. Cristobal, to the end of the dredged channel, five miles out in the Bay of Panama, was made in approximately nine hours and 40 minutes. There were no unscheduled delays, and the handling of the vessel in the locks and through the channel sections characterized the entire operation as one of the smoothest up to that time.

The Ancon carried, as guests of the Secretary of War, about 200 people, the list including President Porras and his cabinet and other Panama Government officials the members of the diplomatic corps and resident consuls-general, officers of the- Tenth Infantry and Coast Artillery Corps, officials of The Panama Canal, and a few others. A special train was run, leaving Panama at 5 a. m., on Saturday, conveying the guests from the Pacific end direct to the dock at Cristobal.

The vessel left its berth at about 7.10 a.m., arrived in the Atlantic entrance at 7.30, and at Gatun Locks at 8 o'clock. It entered the lower lock at Gatun at the same hour and passed out of the upper lock on the water of Gatun Lake about one hour and a quarter later. The entrance to the Culebra Cut section at Gamboa was reached at about 11.15, and Cucaracha slide was passed at 12.20 p. m. Pedro Miguel Lock was reached at 12.56, and the vessel passed into Miraflores Lake at about 1.19. It entered Miraflores Lock at about 1.56, and passed out of the lower lock into the sea channel at 3.20. It arrived off Balboa docks at 4 o'clock, and reached the end of the dredged channel at 4.30. This completed the official trip, and the vessel returned to Balboa, anchoring in the channel at about 5.10 p. m. People gathered to witness the passage at various points along the route, and at Balboa as many as 2,000 were present.[2]

Elizabeth Parker, who had come to the Canal Zone during construction to marry her fiancé, witnessed the opening from the deck of one of the first ships through the completed canal. Her recollection perhaps more accurately sums up the mood of the day, as a "dream of centuries had come true!"[3]

From an academic perspective, the construction and operation of the Canal remains an interesting topic of study. Whereas earlier historiography of the Canal focused heavily on the political machinations and engineering, more recent work has been more social and cultural in nature.[4] The science of malaria control is frequently cited as the main reason for the French failure and the American success.[5] The gold and silver roll (the division of black and white workers) is used as a case study for racial segregation outside the continental United States.[6] More recently yet, historians are beginning to shed light on leisure and tourism in the Canal Zone. This is one of my main areas of interest and it helps to illustrate just how much control the American administration had over the workers during construction of the Canal. Such strict control was necessary to combat disease and prevent a repeat of the French failure, but it also calls into question the status of the Zone as a utopia.[7] The dream world so often talked about by people living in Panama during construction days wasn't as open and free as one might expect.

Nevertheless, the project opened up one of the busiest trade routes in the world. In the globalized 21st century, containerized shipping has thrived thanks to faster journeys between Asia and the Americas, all because of a visionary endeavour completed 100 years ago today. Happy birthday, Panama Canal!


1. For a detailed look at the French effort, see the first third of David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (London: Simon & Schuster, 1977).
2. Canal Record, August 19, 1914. Online at
3. Elizabeth Kittredge Parker, Panama Canal Bride: A Story of Construction Days (New York: Exposition Press, 1955), 90.
4. McCullough, The Path Between the Seas.
5. Paul S. Sutter, “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal,” Isis 98, no. 4 (December 2007): 724–54.
6. Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).
7. Alexander Missal, Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).