The Panama Canal
For hundreds of years transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific by ship required a long, arduous, and, dangerous trip around Cape Horn, the site of some of the stormiest and most dangerous waters on earth. Cape Horn could be avoided by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, increasing the length of the journey enormously, or by unshipping at the Isthmus of Panama, crossing the Isthmus, and embarking again on the Pacific Coast. This too was dangerous, for health reasons due to yellow fever and malaria, and corrupt local governments which often sheltered bandits, not to mention the bandits themselves.
The French began building a canal across the isthmus in 1881. By 1884 more than 200 workers per month were dying from yellow fever, malaria, bites from the poisonous snakes which thrived in the Panamanian jungle, and other causes. The French effort persisted until 1889. In 1894 another French company resumed work, accomplishing just enough to retain French rights to the franchise allowing the work across Panama, at that time part of Colombia. US interests, spurred by Roosevelt and others, explored ways of purchasing the French interests.
A treaty between the United States and Colombia was negotiated through which the United States obtained a lease in perpetuity for the land through which it would complete the canal, but the Colombian government refused to ratify it, and when a rebellion in Panama arose Roosevelt moved quickly to support the rebels. US diplomats urged the Panamanian rebels to declare independence and when they did the United States immediately recognized the new nation of Panama. Roosevelt then sent US ships to intervene in the Panamanian Revolution. Secretary of State John Hay negotiated a treaty with the new Panamanian ambassador which gave the United States a lease on the land, permission to build the canal and defenses to protect it, creating the Canal Zone.
Members of both major political parties in the United States and many Panamanians were outraged, and foreign reaction to Roosevelt’s militaristic actions expressed alarm, many condemning them as acts of war against Colombia. Roosevelt considered it simply fait accompli, especially after the Canal Zone treaty was ratified by the Senate. “I took the isthmus,” Roosevelt said, “started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” The United States eventually paid reparations to Colombia in exchange for Colombian recognition of the independence of Panama.
The United States purchased the remaining French equipment and paid roughly $1.00 per cubic yard of completed excavations, beginning work on the canal in 1904. Most of the French equipment was discarded quickly, often replaced with equipment designed specifically for its purpose related to canal construction. The Panama Canal was first transited by shipping in 1914. Wider locks to accommodate larger ships have twice been installed, but the original locks remain in operation after more than a century of use. Today it takes under eight hours to transit the canal, and about 15,000 ships do so annually.