History of Panama Canal (1513 – 1914) Connecting Dots on the Map

What is an isthmus? It is a relatively narrow strip of land (with water on both sides) connecting two larger land areas.

Why Panama? Because it is irresistible. It was irresistible for everyone, who looked at the map of Americas for 400 years. At first, they search for a open waterway. There was none.

Then they searched a passage to the North and to the South of the continent. On September 6, 1522 a news reached Spain that there is a water passage to the South. Only one ship with 18 men returned. They started 3 year earlier with 5 ships and a crew of 237.

Ice and cold securely blocked Northwest Passage passage over Canada until warm summer of 2009.

Finally, Panama Isthmus. This narrow strip of land in a nice warm climate. It was so tempting and inviting to create a year-round route for trade and for world domination.


Overview of Main Events on the Isthmus

Years Description
1850-1855 American private company builds a 47.5 miles long (76.5 km) rail road across the Isthmus ($8 mil)
1879-1889 French private company attempts to build a sea-level canal and goes bankrupt
1904-1914 US Government builds a lock canal and begins operations on August 15, 1914 ($375 -400 mil)


Before We Begin

In this chronological list of event bellow it would be hard to reflect these points:

– Amazing political, economic and diplomatic intricacies between European powers and US for the influence and control of future potential canal sites

– Amazing intrigues and concession fights between governments of several potential sites – Darien and Panama in Colombia, Nicaragua and even Mexico (Tehuantepec) for building future canal

Political concerns about any one country gaining unfair advantage over any future canal

Economic concerns that future canal will ruin powerful trans-continental rail roads in US

Engineering, cost and capacity considerations to pick either a sea-level or a lock canal

– A sea-level canal requires protection from seasonal free flow of local rivers. It is possible either with a gigantic tunnel (many times larger than a road tunnel) or with high dikes on both sides to prevent local rivers from flooding the canal and eroding the banks. A sea-level canal also requires a much deeper excavation that makes the problem of landslides a top concern.

– A lock canal requires regulation of local rives against flooding and droughts to ensure a year-round save passages. That is usually done with a dumb on both ends of the canal to create large deep lakes. A lock canal highest elevation needs to be low enough so that enough continental water can be supplied by gravity to the upper portion of the locks.

– Mysterious and scary character of malaria and yellow fever until its origin was finally traced to mosquitoes

– Need to bring absolutely everything (including labor force) for the construction from outside (only sand, rock and water were local)

– Very short dry season and very long continuous tropical rain season

– A dual need to transfer (1) goods and raw materials between Atlantic and Pacific faster than through Cape Horn, and transfer (2) military ships and personnel to eliminate the need to have Atlantic and Pacific fleets.


Time-line of the Panama Canal History

Date Event Description
1513-09-25 European to see Pacific Ocean for the first time On Tuesday, September 25-th (Tuesday that year actually fell on September 27), 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa climbed the hill somewhere in Darién Province, Panama. He was 38. It is located just over 100 miles away from the present site of Panama Canal. He saw el Mar del Sur (the South Sea or Pacific Ocean). He named the bay entering into the land The Gulf of San Miguel, because it was the feast of the archangel Michail four days later (September 29-th). He reached waters of Pacific on 29-th and took formal possession of all things “adjoint” to discovered body of water from Pole to Pole in the name of Kings of Castile (Spain).Note: Do not believe everything old books are telling you. Here is a simple experiment. In Excel find out a WEEKDAY of 9/27/1913. It is Saturday. So is 9/27/2313, and so is 9/27/2713. Unfortunately, Excel doesn’t allow to go back beyond 1/1/1900, but it is only logical to think that 9/27/1513 also was Saturday. Not so simple. See next entry for a clarification.2 survived Spanish sources that copied data from the original Balboa travel journal would tell you that discovery was made on Tuesday, September 25, 1513.
1582-02-24 Initiate transition to a Gregorian calendar Pope Gregory XIII in a papal bull introduces a 10 days correction to calendar. The day following Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be Friday, October 15, 1582. If take the date Thursday, October 4, 1582 as a proven fact and count back year by year to 1513, I can confirm that September 25, 1513 was a Sunday. That means two things:
, this discovery was most likely made on Tuesday, September 27 old style and,
second, discovery should be celebrated on October 7 new Gregorian style.
1848-01-24 Gold discovered in California James Marshall hired by John Sutter in Coloma, CA (El Dorado county) on the American river discovers gold. Thousands of new customers for Isthmian transit route are created overnight.
1850-04-15 An agreement signed to build a PRR Vise-President of the Panama Rail Road Company (PRR) John L. Stephens signed a treaty with New-Granada (Colombia) for the construction of the indicated railroad across the Isthmus within 6 years. Granadian Government should not consent that any other Company or individual should undertake any other macadamized carriage-road; plank-road or road of any other kind, suitable for the use of wheeled carriages, between the two oceans, across the Isthmus.”
1850-04-19 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty US – GB treaty to: (1) Not to obtain or maintain exclusive control of any future canal, or unequal advantage in its use;(2) To extend US-Britain protection to any other practicable communications, whether by canal or railway, which connects North and South America;(3) Not to occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito Coast or any part of Central America, nor make use of any protectorate or alliance, present or future.
1850-05 Rial road construction begins Without any inauguration procedure work begins at Manzanillo Island in Limon Bay on Atlantic side on the Isthmus.
1852-02-29 Town of Aspinwall is named Town on Manzanillo Island (Atlantic terminus of the rail road) are inaugurated and named Aspinwall – financier and founder of Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Colombian Confederation protested and issued an order naming the town for the original discoverer of Manzanillo, Christopher Columbus – Colon.The confusion existed until 1890 when the Colombian government ordered its post office department to return all mail to sender addressed with the name “Aspinwall” on the envelope.
1852-03-15 First section in operation First section from Aspinwall (now Colon) to Bohio Soldado (see map above) opened for operation. First 16 miles completed with 31 miles left to build to Panama City. First-class fare  -$25.
1853-11-24 Bridge over Chagres First locomotive crossed the 652 feet bridge over Chagres in Barbacoas. Previous attempt of a bridge was consumed by the river in a flash flood in 1852. 47.5 miles of railroad had required 170 bridges and culverts of 15 feet or more; 134 bridges and culverts of less than 15 feet.
1854-01-19 American expedition in Darien 27 Americans under lieutenant Strain begin a modern attempt to cross the Isthmus of Darien from Atlantic side at Caledonia Bay. 5 separated and returned back to the ship. Expedition takes an unexpected, uncharted route down Chuqunaqua river. 5 die, 4 crossed on March 9, 13 are found by a British rescue team with Strain on March 23 from Pacific side. 2 more die, one within hours, other within month of the rescue.
1855-01-27 Rail Road Completed At a midnight in the darkness and rain the last rail was laid – 37 miles from Colon and 10.5 miles from Panama City.
1866-11 Wyse First Expedition to the isthmus Frenchman Lieutenant Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse leads 17 men to explore possibilities of a canal in Darien. 3 die. It is impossible to build a sea-level canal here.
1869-05-10 Transcontinental Rail Road Connects in Utah At Promontory, Utah (near Salt Lake City) Union Pacific tracks joined with the Central Pacific Railroad. Now, there is railroad across continental US. That eliminates Panama Rail Road monopoly and its importance begins to go down.
1869-11-17 Opening of a Suez Canal “The Great Frenchman” – Ferdinand de Lesseps opens Sues Canal for traffic in Egypt
1877-12-06 Wyse begins his exploration in Panama First 2 months Wyse explores San Blas route (to the west of Colon). Returns to Panama and got convinced in possibility of building a sea-level canal between Chagres valley and Rio Grande valley along the route of PRR. His plan required 7.7km tunnel through continental divide.
1878-03-20 Wyse signs a concession to build a canal Wyse was given exclusive rights to build an inter-oceanic canal through Panama for 99 years. He could sell the concession to a private company, but not to a government.
1879-05-15 Paris Congress on Inter-Oceanic Canal 135 delegates gather in Paris to select a type and location for future canal under chairman Ferdinand de Lesseps
1879-05-29 Vote on the Canal Type and Location Out of 135 delegates 98 were present at the vote time. 78 voted for a sea-level Panama route from Limon Bay to Panama City, right on top of PRR. The undisputed leader Ferdinand De Lesseps is 76 years old an this point.
1879-07-05 De Lesseps buys Wyse concession All ownership in the Wyse concession transferred to De Lesseps for $2,000,000, who was to organize as he should see fit a company to carry out the contract.
1879-08-07 First Public Subscription Only $6 mil were subscribed out of planned $80 mil. It was a good stopping point.
1879-09-01 First issue of Bulletin To promote the idea of the calal and quiet the opposition the first issue of bimonthly Bulletin du Canal Interoceanique appears in Paris (till February 1889).
1880-01-01 Inauguration of the Canal De Lesseps stages a first act with his 7-year old daughter swinging the fist symbolic pickax over earth-filled champagne box on board of a steam tender Taboguilla.
1888-02 First section of canal is opened A stone barrier is removed at Mindi Hill. Canal is now open from Colon to Bohio Soldado, just like first section of rail road (PRR) 26 years earlier. Unlike the railroad, there is no financial advantage to have a portion of incomplete canal. 26 year later (1914) all this area will be submerged under man-made Gatun lake 85″ above sea-level. All this work will be in vain.
1888-09 Work is finally get organized Canal work at a full speed forward. 14K men at work, and excavation rate at about 1 mil. cubic meters a month.
1888-12-15 No postponement of payments After a series of failed Company bond issues, French Government rejects a 3-month postponement by the company of payment of its bills.
1889-01-07 A word reaches Panama All work stoppes at Culebra Cut
1889-02-04 Old Company Dissolved Compagnie Universelle Du Canal Interoceanique is no more. Savings of thousands French people are now gone. Sacrifices of thousands of laborers and engineers are wasted.
1894-10-21 New French Canal Company On the ruins of first bankrupt company a new Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama organized. This company would be required to perform a minimum rate of excavation to maintain concession from Colombian Government. All the work would be done at Culebra Cut, as this would contribute toward any type of canal to be build in the future.
1898-12-02 Try to get US interested President McKinley receives a copy of the report of Comité Technique, detailing a lock canal over Panama isthmus.
1898-12-10 Treaty of Paris between US and Spain Cuba is freed from Spain and Spain assumes its debt as an assistance measure. US gets Puerto Rico and Guam as indemnity, and also gets Philippines for $20 mil.
1900 Americans are now armed with a convenient military base in Cuba. They are ready to concentrate their efforts on a trans-oceanic canal that they can protect. The best site is Nicaragua, where there is a friendly government and there is no French company to deal with.Without the canal USS Oregon in 1898 had to go around the cape Horn to join US forces in the Atlantic. It took 66 days to cover 14,000 miles. Colombia owns Panama as a province and wants to allow someone to build the canal, but retain all the political and economical control in their hands. They will require a serious bribing. French Panama company must sell to Americans. Otherwise all their assets are nothing and all the French investments are lost. But company operates under a Wyse concession from Columbia that prohibits sale to a foreign government. Clayton-Bulwer Treaty is still preventing any power to occupy and fortify any transportation route through the isthmus.All the peaces of the puzzle are currently locked. Nothing promises a speedy resolution. But US is a new emerging power in the region with a series of industrial and military victories on its side.
1901-09-06 President McKinley was shot US President William McKinley is shot in Buffalo with 2 bullets.
9/11/01 – Does it sounds familiar?
1901-09-14 Roosevelt becomes a new president McKinley dies. Vice-president Theodor Roosevelt become a new president
1901-10 First Estimate is Given French Panama company gives a price estimate – $109 mil to US Government.
1901-11-18 Second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty First peace of the puzzle – remove Clayton-Bulwer Treaty restrictions. Second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty was signed between US and Britain. (01) Nullified the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 (see above)
(02) US gets the right to create and control a canal across Central America. Fortification of the canal was not mentioned, but during the negotiations the British foreign secretary admitted that the United States would have the right to fortify.Here are possible Britain justifications for the treaty:We are currently involved in a remote and costly war at South Africa;
We already firm in control of Suez Canal and shortest route to India;
We need to concentrate on keeping Germany checked in Baltic, Russia in Black sea;
We only benefit, if allow US to go ahead with inevitable, and gain a valuable ally;
We will gain a reliable guarantor of our possessions in Caribbean and would be able to free our squadrons for tasks closer to home.
1902-01-04 New Price is wired from Paris to Washington Price for French Panama company is lowered from $109 mil to $40 mil.
1902-01-09 US Senate votes 308-2 for Nicaragua Canal. Senate appropriated 100,000,000 to begin construction in Nicaragua.
1902-05-08 Volcano of Mt. Pelée eruption Mount Pelée on French Caribbean Island of Martinique erupts and kills 30,00 people. Town of Saint-Pierre is destroyed. It is not anywhere near Nicaragua, but all of a sudden that emphasizes the dangers of volcanic activity and shifts support away from Nicaragua route. Second significant eruption took place May 20.
1902-05-29 New York Sun reports that the Momotombo volcano had erupted in Nicaragua.  This is about 100 miles away from proposed canal route.
 1902-06-04  Senate debate to pick Nicaragua route or Panama route goen on from Jun 4 till June 19
1902-06-16 One of the enterprising owners of a new French Panama company Philippe Banua-Varilla distributes among 45 senators (from other sources – “Fight for the Panama Route”, p, 148 – distributed among 90 senators) ready to vote on Panama and Nicaragua a one-centavo stamp from Nicaragua (issued in 1900), showing mount Momotombo  (please see: http://books.google.com/books?id=nRsoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA246 and navigate to the next page to see the image)
Artist showed smoke coming out off the top of volcano, and that could have been the last straw that defeated Nicaraguan canal cause.
Spooner bill and Spooner amedment There is a certain confusion here. The Spooner bill (the right to grant franchises and sell lands in the Philippines) was rejected on September 1, 1900. The Spooner amendment passed on March 2, 1901 and allowed the President to govern the Philippines by authority of Congress and not by his wartime authority as Commander in Chief. What is confusing, is what all this has to do with Panama?
1902-06-19 Panama route wins over Nicaragua Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio proposal (substitution of Spooner amendment) in favor of Panama Canal passes in Senate with a narrow margin (42 vs 34). Some sources give a completely different breakdown: 67 to 6. Now US cleared the ways to purchase French Panama Canal company and negotiate treaty with Colombia.
1902-06-28 Signing Spooner Act into law President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Spooner Act into law. Spooner Act authorized the President to buy the rights and properties of the New French Canal Company and “to cause to be constructed” an Isthmian canal of sufficient capacity and depth to provide “convenient passage for vessels of the largest tonnage and greatest draft now in use, and such as may be reasonably anticipated.”
1902-09-27 Omnipotent lawyer Cromwell reinstated as representative on French Panama company in USA
1903-01-22 Hay–Herrán Treaty signed US – Colombia Treaty that was never approved by Colombia. Facing inevitable rejection or inaction from Colombian side US has to search for other solutions to the problem.
1903-03-17 Approval of Hay-Herrán Treaty US Senate approves Hay-Herrán Treaty with Colombia to obtain Panama zone for construction of the canal.
1903-11-03 Revolt in Panama Revolt in Panama was planned on a local election day in US. Next day media was full of returns from the elections. Only on the 5-th attention returned to the revolt in Panama, but it was a done deal.
1903-11-06 US recognizes Panama Republic of Panama is recognized by US. Bunau-Varilla appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary near Government of the US
1903-11-18 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty Last Piece of the Puzzle – US- Panama treaty that gave US unlimited unrestricted rights in a 10 mile zone around canal construction zone. This was the very last obstacle before construction could begin.
1904-05-02 US Government Buys French Company Assets of second French company – Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama – sold to US Government for $40 mil.
1904-11-08 Roosevelt wins presidential elections Theodore Roosevelt wins presidential elections against democrat Augustus Van Wyck of Brooklyn.
1906-11-14 US President visits Panama Canal First time since George Washington, US President Theodore Roosevelt stepped on a foreign soil.
1907-04-01 New Chief Engineer Stevens resigns. General George Washington Goethals becomes a new Chief Engineer
1908-01-15 Locks width is set to 110′ President approves the plan to extend locks width to 110 feet to accommodate the largest US battleship then planned
1909-03-04 Taft becomes US President Former Roosevelt Secretary of War William Howard Taft becomes 27th US President
1910-04-25 Gatun reservoir is closed At 17:00 on April 25, 1910 the flow of Chagres river was stopped by closing old French West diversion canal. The water begins to accumulate in man-made Gatum Lake (Lago Gatun). For four years waters of Chagres river will accumulate behind the man-made dumb to reach a required height of 85′.
1912-02-15 Railroad relocated Rising water forced relocation of old railroad to a higher ground. Abandon the railroad section between Gatum and Gorgona.
1913-03-04 New US President Woodrow Wilson becomes 28th President of the United States
1913-05-20 Culebra Cut is finished At 16:30 excavating teams from both sides of Culebra Cut met on a lower grade.
1913-09-26 First use of the locks At 16:45 tug “Gatum” entered the lower chambers of Gatum locks. The tug was lifted in 3 stages and entered the lake in 1 hour and 51 minutes.
1913-10-10 Fill Culebra Cut with water At 14:00 president Wilson from a White House activated a sequence to blow a dike at Gamboa. Water rushed into Culebra Cut and reach the other side (Cucuracha) in 18 minutes.
1913-12-08 From Pacific to the top The ladder dredge “Marmot” with small craft took a first continuous lockage from Pacific to summit level
1914-01-07 First Complete Transit Floating crane “Alexander La Valley” was taken down from Culebra to the Pacific side.
1914-04-01 Goethals inaugurated as Governor General Goethals inaugurated as a First Governor of The Panama Canal.
1914-08-03 Rehearsal transit Ocean-going Panama Railroad ship Cristobal has its share of adventures on the voyage from Pacific to Atlantic. By the end of the trip news reaches Panama: Germany declared war on France. World War I began.
1914-08-15 Inauguration of The Panama Canal Official opening of Panama Canal for business. Panama Railroad S.S. Ancon traveled the entire length of the canal from 8:00 to 15:20. Canal can accommodate ships up to 65,000 tons. Current world largest sea vessel has tonnage of 260,000.


Fantastic New Research Opportunities

Internet in general and Google books in particular are now allowing to conduct an amazing research right at home. Google not only scans the pages, but digitizes the content, making it search-able and readable. And One can always jump back an original page image in case an error is a suspect.

Also, NY Times scanned its issues all the way back to 1851. This feature is still clumsy and slow. Search is inconvenient and returns many unrelated articles, but when you happened to find a item that you’ve been looking for, boy, this is a magical discovery.



Name Years Description
Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla [b-yu-no va-ri-ya]
July 26, 1859, Paris – May 18, 1940, Paris Brilliant French engineer, who quickly took a leading role in constructing Panama Canal with French after 1884. Fervent believer in Panama Canal route. Was acting Chief Engineer in absence of appointee from Paris. Organized and advanced dry and wet dredging methods to speed up the progress of the canal. When company went bankrupt, invested over 1 mil of his own money to keep a new company afloat. Showed amazing diplomatic and leadership qualities persuading US decision-makers to select Panama route over Nicaragua. Manage to sell New French Panama company to US Government for $40 mil and salvage all his money.




Site Book Link
Barnes & Noble Matthew Parker -Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Panama-Fever/Matthew-Parker/e/9780385515344
University of Utah Miles P. DuVal, Jr. – And the Mountains Will Move: The Story of the Building of the Panama Canal. Stanford University Press. 1947 http://prq.sagepub.com/content/1/3/334.full.pdf
Google books Philippe Bunau-Varilla – Panama: the creation, destruction, and resurrection http://books.google.com/books?id=nRsoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA367
Romoli, Kathleen. Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the Pacific. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1953)
 Google books  Dwight Carroll Miner
The fight for the Panama route; the story of the Spooner act and the Hay-Herrán treaty


Site Article Link
BookRags Clayton-Bulwer Treaty http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/Clayton-Bulwer_Treaty
Yahoo! Answers What was the Spooner amendment? http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081123011213AAtdKVC
Panama Railroad Map of the old Panama Railroad http://www.panamarailroad.org/maps/oldrailroadmap.jpg
Searchfor Ancestors The Change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar http://www.searchforancestors.com/utility/gregorian.html
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