This Day in History
Opening of the Panama Canal

Opening of the Panama Canal
August 15, 1914

Much of the early exploration of the American coast - both North and South - was undertaken in the attempt to find a way to the fabled riches of the Indies. The dream of an inland passage was never realized; yet as nineteenth century technology and imperialism shrank the globe, dreamers turned their attention to a Central American canal. The first to make the attempt was Ferdinand de Lesseps - of Suez Canal fame - who formed a French company and won a concession from the Columbian government to start digging. Disease, poor management and bad luck halted the project in 1889. French financiers soon formed the New Panama Canal Company - not to dig a canal, but to sell Lessep’s concession to the highest bidder. Emerging as a world power, the United States took the bait, and in 1903 Columbia and the United States drafted the Hay-Herran Treaty, which would lease the land across the isthmus to the United States for ninety-nine years. In the end, Columbia refused to ratify the treaty. Rumors that the Canal Company might make a deal with Russia or England, the impetuosity of President Theodore Roosevelt, and a convenient revolt in Panama City all conspired to win recognition of independence for Panama and a canal for the United States. Carving out a canal forty miles through the disease ridden jungles of the isthmus was an engineering feat of great daring. Much of the credit goes to Colonel George W. Goethals of the Army Corps of Engineers and to Dr. William C. Gorgas for the eradication of yellow fever and malaria. The Panama Canal opened to traffic on August 15, 1914.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.