The Panama Canal Opens – 8/15/1855

World History |


The Panama Canal is one of the most famous waterways of the world. It was one of the first American-built waterways and stretches across the Isthmus of Panama. It currently connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and was christened by the United States vessel the Ancon, a passenger ship that also held cargo. 

Settlers rushed to occupy California and Oregon in the 19th century because they were enticed by the idea of gold. The building of a waterway to Central America would also increase travel prospects and trade rights. In 1855 the United States completed a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. At the time this waterway and pieces of land were part of Columbia. Colombia awarded the building of the canal to a French entrepreneur. Ferdinand de Lesseps was responsible for the construction of the Suez Canal. The construction on the sea-level canal started in 1881. Due to some ridiculously inefficient planning and the unfortunate disease among the workers the production came to a grinding halt. Bankruptcy in Lesseps’ company drove the government to stop the project entirely. But that wasn’t the end of the Panama Canal.

Three years later, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla acquired the assets of Lesseps’ company and was charged to complete the canal. The sole possession of the canal was a bargaining chip for the United States. At the time the U.S. wanted the ability to move warships and other supplies through the canal. Congress even authorized purchase of a French canal company to allocate funding to the construction of the canal. In 1903, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty was signed with Columbia although Columbia ended up refusing the treaty for fear of losing their sovereignty.

Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time, gave approval to the Panamanian independence movement. It was engineered by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla’s canal company. Basically this was a big money grab for the French company. On November 3rd of 1903 a small group of Panamanians issued their intent to separate from Colombia. They issued their own declaration of independence. The U.S. railroads removed trains from their station in Colon and stranded Colombian troops there that were charged with squashing the rebellion in Panama.

Later that month the U.S. recognized Panama as the Republic of Panama, cementing their existence as a sovereign state aside from Columbia. Through this the United States somehow received all of the rights to the Panama Canal Zone. They paid 10 million dollars and an annuity of 250,000 dollars after 9 years. Johny Hay who served as the Secretary of State negotiated the treaty and the treaty was almost immediately condemned by the Panamanians, who felt that their hard-fought sovereignty was being disrespected. 

American engineers built a lock Canal in the Panama straight and it finished on August 15th of 1914. It opened to traffic and was christened by a United States cargo ship the same day. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the drama with Panama though. They pushed to revoke the treaty and in 1977 President Carter and the dictator of Panama signed a treaty to turn over the canal as of December 31st of 1999. Today it remains in Panamanian control. 

Share On Facebook