Aug. 15, 2014, marked the centennial of the completion of the Panama Canal, a 48- mile waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal is a key conduit for international maritime trade.
Plans by the Panamanian government to celebrate the historic event began more than a year ago. A Panama Canal mobile app was launched to communicate about Panama around the world. Educational and cultural institutions in U.S. cities such as Miami and Gainesville, Fla., will also mark the occasion with exhibits. Nearly every cruise line to Panama has one trip scheduled through the canal this year to mark the centennial.
The Library of Congress has a free, 134-page reference guide to Panama materials in its collections. The guide, which is available as a downloadable pdf on the Hispanic Reading Room website, references the wealth of materials available about Panama in the Library’s General and Special Collections (such as maps, manuscripts, newspapers, photographs and legal material). Subjects include civilization and culture, foreign relations, history, literature, politics and government and the Panama Canal. Housed in the Library, the papers of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson contain a wealth of material about the Panama Canal–its construction having spanned their administrations. The papers of Roosevelt’s Secretary of State John Hay and the canal’s chief engineer George W. Goethals, along with the Panama Collection of the Canal Zone Library-Museum (1804-1977), are just a few of the Library’s most significant resources for the study of the canal’s construction.
Following the attempt by the French to construct the canal, the U.S. took over the project in 1904, during Roosevelt’s administration. Panama had become independent of Colombia the previous year, with the help of the U.S. The decade-long project cost the U.S. nearly $375 million to complete, with the aid of more than 45,000 workers, many of whom lost their lives. The majority of workers came from the West Indies and Spain. All told, workers from about 40 countries participated in the construction.
After a period of joint American-Panamanian control, the canal was returned to the Panamanian government in 1999 under the terms of a treaty negotiated by President Jimmy Carter and approved by Congress. The canal is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency.
This article is featured in the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.