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two large ships tied up to the side of the canal with more smaller boats behind them
Gatun locks looking toward Atlantic entrance of canal, showing tugs, dredges, and barges ready for first lockage from sea level up into Lake Gatun, c1913

Panama Canal: Locating Collections at the Library of Congress

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August 15th marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, a tremendous engineering endeavor that has played a major role in trade and commerce over its hundred years.  The canal was a feat of endurance, as well as engineering, connecting two oceans in a way that made shipping and commerce faster and more economical.

The desire for a quick route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the area now known as Panama has a long history, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that efforts to develop a route really got underway.  In the 1880’s there was an effort by the French to construct a canal in Panama that was ultimately unsuccessful.  But the desire for a canal wouldn’t die.

Map of proposed Panama Canal between Gorgona and Panama City
Map. proposed Panama Canal between Gorgona and Panama City, c1895

In 1903 the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty between the U.S.  and Panama was signed.  This treaty, along with other events in Panama that year, put the U.S. in a position to eventually build a canal.  The United States took control of the canal property on May 4, 1904 and the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) was established to oversee construction.  President Theodore Roosevelt appointed John Findlay Wallace as chief engineer.  Wallace resigned after a brief tenure, at which point John Frank Stevens was appointed.  During Stevens’ tenure, he made it a point to address some of the most troubling concerns, one of which was living conditions.  After Stevens resigned, U.S. Army Major George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over as chief engineer and saw to the Canal’s completion. The cost to the U.S. to build the Canal is estimated to have been $375,000,000, although in some ways the cost was much higher considering the thousands that died of diseases and accidents.

Panama Canal under construction featuring a train track and rail car with cranes overhead
Panama Canal, Harris & Ewing, 1913.

Until 1939 Panama was a protectorate of the United States, but after World War II the relationship between them changed.  Control of the Canal Zone, over which the U.S. still maintained authority, became more contentious, and by the 1970’s discussions began regarding control of the Canal Zone. On September 7, 1977 the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed, granting full Panamanian control over the Canal effective at noon on December 31, 1999. At that time the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) assumed control.

If you are interested in doing more research on the Canal, the Hispanic Division has produced a guide – Reference Guide to Panama Materials at the Library of Congress – to coincide with this anniversary.  It includes assistance in finding materials in the special collections, such as prints, photographs, maps, legal material, newspapers, and manuscript collections, as well as material from the American Folklife Center and Rare Book.  Since there is a large amount of material in the general collections, there are topical breakdowns including: Bibliographies, Civilization and Culture, Description and Travel, Education, Foreign Relations, History, Immigration, Indigenous Cultures (Aborigines), Literature, Music, Panama Canal, Politics and Government, Religion, and Social and Economic Conditions.

Note: An earlier version of this blog listed an incorrect treaty name.

Comments (13)

  1. Is a record of workers available to search for laborers?

  2. Great question John.

    This is likely to be something that requires a bit of time to figure out. It may be that some of the manuscript collections have something buried deep but finding it could take time. I am thinking of the Canal Zone Library-Museum Panama Collection. You can ask them – or even the Hispanic Division – about that by submitting via Ask A Librarian.

    The National Archives has some record which might be of use though it is limited.

    Also, there is also other sources including at the University of Florida:

  3. I am looking for a letter John F. Stevens wrote to President Roosevelt on January 30, 1907 that was thought to be a letter of resignation.

    It was six pages long and every one seems to quote it so it must be available someplace.

    Any help in getting a copy would be appreciated.


  4. The Manuscript Division has the Roosevelt papers and may be better able to answer this question. They have an Ask a Librarian that you can submit question to.

    They may also help you to locate sources for Stevens papers as well.

  5. Memorial day is upon us

    Maybe the canal zone collection could benefit from on online display/blog containing the names of distinguished American canal construction administrators and engineers, that contributed to the building of the Panama canal.

    As for the foreign construction labor force, predominantly from the Caribbean but not exclusively, maybe a list of the participants in the construction days essay competition, housed in box 25 could also very well serve Memorial day recognition purposes for that collaborative work force also

  6. I am looking for primary sources from people who had built the panama canal

  7. Hi Ellen,

    I am looking for detailed purchase contracts with U.S. firms. More precisely, are there any contract records containing goods purchased from the U.S., company names, value, and date?

    Thank you in advance.

  8. i would like more pic of the work

  9. Hello, Ellen.
    I am in search of a letter that John F. Stevens wrote to President Roosevelt on January 30, 1907, which was believed to be six pages long.
    I would greatly appreciate any assistance in obtaining a copy.
    Thank you in advance!

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