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.
In 1903 the Hay-Herrán 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.
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.