SS Ancon transiting the Panama Canal
On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was inaugurated with the first passage of ship. A U.S. cargo and passenger vessel – the Ancon – crossed the American-built waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, 98 years ago today.
As California and Oregon began to be colonized, the United States decided to build the manmade waterway across Central America. Initially, the building rights were granted to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Frenchman who had completed the Suez Canal. Construction began in 1881, but lack of planning, disease and financial woes drove Lessep out of business. Around 1892, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a former chief engineer of the canal works and a French citizen, acquired the assets of the bankrupt French company.
As the 20th century rolled in, the U.S. found it necessary to be the only possessor of the canal to move warships and goods quickly after gaining acquisitions from the Spanish-American War. In 1902, the U.S. Congress authorized purchase of the French canal company (pending a treaty with Colombia), and allocated funding for the canal’s construction, according to http://www.history.com. In 1903, the U.S. was granted use of the territory in exchange for monetary compensation. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, but the Colombian Senate, fearing a loss of power, refused.
Caption: Construction work on the Gaillard Cut is shown in this photograph from 1907
After a governmental battle, on November 6th, the U.S. was able to recognize the Republic of Panama, and on November 18th the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed with Panama. This permitted the U.S. exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. In exchange, Panama received $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later.
Three years later, American engineers decided on the construction of a lock canal, and the next three years were spent developing facilities and eliminating tropical diseases in the area. The official construction began in 1909. In one of the largest construction projects of all time, U.S. engineers moved nearly 240 million cubic yards of earth and spent close to $400 million in constructing the 40-mile-long canal (or 51 miles long, if the deepened seabed on both ends of the canal is taken into account).
Panama later pushed to revoke the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, and in 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos signed a treaty to turn over the canal to Panama by the end of the century – which occurred on December 31, 1999.
Construction of locks on the Panama Canal, 1913