The Land Divided; The World United

The Panama Canal: A Historical, Engineering, Mechanical, Human Capital, and Medical Marvel

On this day, August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opens.

The Monroe Doctrine once and for all declared the political separation of America from Europe. This doctrine fueled the desire to build what would become the Panama Canal. In 1878, however, Columbia granted the job to a French company. President Hayes tried to convince Americans that allowing such a canal to be built and controlled by Europeans would be dangerous and a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1880, Hayes told Congress the canal would become a busy highway between our Atlantic and Pacific shores, “virtually part of the coastline of the United States.” Nobody listened.

The French company’s work, however, came to a screeching halt in 1889. They eventually resumed operations only to suspend them once and for all in 1899, at which point they were willing to sell to the Americans. The only problem was that a portion of the route ran through Columbia’s territory. Congress passed an act on June 28, 1902, authorizing President Roosevelt to accept the French offer, provided Columbia would cede the land. If not, the canal would go through Nicaragua.

The Columbian Congress refused. President Roosevelt believed it was America’s job to “civilize” the world and the canal would be a highway through which we could more rapidly “spread civilization.” So when the Columbian Congress declined, Roosevelt claimed they were getting in the way of the advancement of “civilization.” Six weeks later, a rebellion broke out in Panama, which was one of the states of the United States of Columbia. Roosevelt took advantage of the situation.

The rebels in Panama wanted to rid themselves of Columbian rule. Roosevelt backed the revolution, sent the American marines, and the fight was over in 72 hours. The Republic of Panama was set up in November of 1903. Three days later, the U.S. officially recognized the new Republic, and the European nations soon followed America’s lead.

In 1904, Roosevelt made a deal with the new government of “The Republic of Panama.” For an initial payment of 10-million dollars followed by a yearly fee of 250-thousand dollars, the new Republic ceded to the United States a ten-mile wide-area canal zone. Then TR appointed civilian engineers and commanded them to “make the dirt fly.”

The canal was the most significant engineering feat ever undertaken to date, and it became a wonder of the world. Teddy Roosevelt wanted to see the progress first-hand, so off he sailed to Panama, becoming the first sitting President to travel outside the U.S.

Thousands of workers were engaged in the ten-year, 250-million dollar project aided by advanced industrial revolution machinery. The most substantial cost, however, was in lives. Yellow fever carried by mosquitoes claimed around 26-thousand souls! These numbers might have been far worse, were it not for the efforts of Colonel Gorgas. The Colonel improved sanitary conditions by cutting the underbrush one half-mile back on each side of the canal path and by introducing a pure water supply. As a result of Gorgas’s efforts, the Canal Zone became one of the most disease-free places in the world.

Then, on this day, August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opens. John Constantine was the first to cross the canal, and his ship hoisted a banner which read, “The Land Divided; The World United.”

The Panama Canal is an engineering miracle employing the latest mechanical technology, is a wonder of human capital, and helped advance medicine. How America obtained the canal, however, is something we should ponder.