The idea of a canal in the middle of the American continent began almost immediately after the continent was first discovered. The Spanish crown realized that by finding a path through the Isthmus of Panama they would gain military and economic advantage over Portugal. The first outline for the construction of this canal was made by Alessandro Malaspina in 1793.
After several attempts to establish trade posts and colonies in Panama, one of the most important steps came only centuries later with the construction of the Panama Railway – constructed to take advantage of the gold rush in California – which helped define the path that would be followed by the canal. In 1880, the first attempts to build a sea level canal were made by the French, under the guidance of Ferdinand de Lesseps. However, the poor preparation of the French and lack of knowledge of the geography of the area led them to abandon the project after spending $287,000,000. In 1894, a second company was created in France in order to maintain the conditions of the previous excavation. However, aware that they wouldn’t be able to finish the project, they placed their assets up for sale.
The United States showed interest in the project and during the administration of president Theodore Roosevelt, new plans were made: it was suggested that it would be more practical to build a canal above sea level that used a series of locks to raise and lower ships from a reservoir. President Roosevelt approved this plan because it would be much easier to build and would assure a faster construction. In 1902, the US congress voted in favor of pursuing the option to construct in Panama only after receiving proper permission from Colombia, who was then the owner of the land of where the Canal was to be built.
On January 22, 1903, a treaty was signed which secured that the United States could lease the land from Colombia to build the canal. The U.S. also promised to support the separation of Panama from Colombia, which occurred on November 3, 1903, when the U.S. moved battleships to prevent an attack from Colombia. Three days after gaining their independence, Panama signed a treaty with the United States granting them rights to building, administering and defending the canal.
Work on the canal began officially on May 4, 1904, after the US bought the French equipment and paid Panama $10 million. The canal was completed in 1914 and its construction took advantage of modern equipment like electric shovels, cement mixers, dredges and railroads that helped quicken the work. The process was threatened by the inhospitable conditions of the Panamanian jungle – including malaria and yellow fever outbreaks, which along with accidents killed almost 28 thousand people during the construction – but the canal was officially inaugurated on August 15, 1914.
The Canal remained in U.S. control until noon on December 31, 1999, in which the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) assumed full command of the waterway. Tension had risen among Panamanians who rightfully felt the Canal belonged to them during the United States’ 85-year reign and 96-year presence, and many of Panama’s national holidays represent the history of this powerful relationship.