Why Build a Canal in Panama?

How the Panama Canal Works

U.S. Army Engineer Involvement

USS Oregon
The USS Oregon

Isthmian Canal Routes Explored
Map of proposed canal routes

Abandoned French equipment
Abandoned French Equipment

Why Build a Canal in Panama?

Interest in linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the narrow Central American isthmus dates from early Spanish colonization of the New World. When European exploration yielded no navigable water route across the continents, many envisioned a man-made canal through Panama that would shorten sea voyages by thousands of miles. Americans first became interested in a possible canal during the Jefferson administration, and Army engineers began surveys in 1839. By 1850 the United States was a bi-coastal nation with limited overland connections between the Atlantic and Pacific. Prior to the canal's existence, many travelers from coast to coast went not through the vast American interior but across the narrow Isthmus of Panama in row boats, on mules, and on foot. The first railroad across Panama opened in 1855, while the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was not complete until 1869.

By the 1880s American engineers had surveyed numerous possible canal routes in the area between Mexico and western Colombia. American interest in a canal surged in March 1898 as tension mounted with Spain over Cuba and the sinking of the USS Maine. America's newest and most powerful battleship laid at anchor in San Francisco. Over 15,000 miles from the Caribbean, the USS Oregon departed on March 18, 1898, for a 66-day journey around South America. Amazingly, she arrived in time to help defeat the Spanish fleet. America's rising global presence and the estimates that an isthmian canal would have saved the Oregon some 8,000 miles highlighted the need for an American-built canal. Yet the first substantive attempt to build a canal had already begun by French engineers. In 1880 Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the heralded builder of the Suez Canal, gained exclusive building rights along the isthmus. He estimated the project would require $132 million and 12 years to complete. Yet, after 8 years, the project had consumed twice as much money as originally estimated and had cost the lives of roughly 22,000 workers. In 1889 de Lesseps abandoned the bankrupt project, returning to France in disgrace. Although a second French company briefly attempted to complete the project, the renewed American interest prompted the French to sell their holdings to the United States for $40 million in 1902. American engineers devoted several years to surveying and planning, eventually settling on a lock canal design, which was ultimately completed by a team of Army engineers and civilians working for the Isthmian Canal Commission.