UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Panama Canal - History

From the beginning of exploration and settlement of North America by the Europeans, there were proposals to build canals. As early as 1676, there was a proposal to build a canal in Cape Cod. In 1683, Louis Joliet, who had traveled the upper Mississippi River with his partner, Father Jacques Marquette, proposed canals connecting the Chicago River with the Illinois River, which would connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The first canal to be completed in what would become the United States was in New York, in 1730, across a neck of the Mohawk River. Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other famous figures in the early history of the United States promoted, sponsored, funded, and built canals in the prosperous New England states. By the end of the 18th century, there were numerous canals connecting the rivers and cities of the developing nation.

Canal building continued in earnest in the Northeast United States through the late 19th century. One of the most famous of the early American canals was the Erie Canal, which, upon completion in 1825, was 363 miles long, connecting Albany to Buffalo, New York. With the opening of the Erie Canal, there was a domestic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. It became an important route for westward migration of settlers and supplies, and brought the fruits of the Midwest farms and rangelands to the Atlantic ports.

While some of the early canals were used well into the 20th century, by the late 1800s, railroads gained dominance in the transportation of people and freight over the wide expanses of the country.

The creation of a canal to unite the Atlantic and the Pacific, upon the narrow neck of land which divides North and South, was not a new one. While America was discovered in 1492, and Balboa ascertained the existence of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, an attempt was made to unite the two oceans in 1514. When the Spanish adventurers ascertained that there was no natural passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, they conceived the idea of cutting a canal through the spurs of the Cordilleras.

After realizing the riches of Peru, Ecuador, and Asia, and counting the time it took the gold to reach the ports of Spain, it was suggested c.1524 to Charles V, that by cutting out a piece of land somewhere in Panama, the trips would be made shorter and the risk of taking the treasures through the isthmus would justify such an enterprise. A proposal to pierce the Isthmus of Darien was made as early as 1520 by Angel Saavedra, and Cortez caused the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to be surveyed for the construction of a canal.

A survey of the isthmus was ordered and subsequently a working plan for a canal was drawn up in 1529. The wars in Europe and the thirsts for the control of kingdoms in the Mediterranean Sea simply put the project on permanent hold. In 1534 a Spanish official suggested a canal route close to that of the now present canal. Later, several other plans for a canal were suggested, but no action was taken. The Spanish government subsequently abandoned its interest in the canal. In 1550 Antonio Galvilo suggested four different routes for such a scheme, one of them being across the Isthmus of Panamá.

From the year 1780 down to the middle of the nineteenth century, a host of projects were put forward for piercing the isthmus, some of them very carefully thought out and others purely fancy schemes. In the early 19th century the books of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt revived interest in the project, and in 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it. In 1814 the Spanish cortes ordered the viceroy of New Spain to undertake the piercing of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; but the War of Independence intervened. A survey was made by General Obegoso in 1821. and

In 1823 a franchise was given to John Baily for a house in London, who did nothing, and the privilege was granted to parties in New York, who also failed to carry out the stipulations. Numerous proposals came between 1825 and 1829, which were successively accepted, but neither of them had effect.

The Liberator, Simon Bolivar, president of Colombia, caused Messrs. Lloyd and Falmarc to study the Isthmus of Panama. The Chagres, or Limon Bay and Panama route, surveyed in 1829 by Col. Lloyd and M. Falmarc, subsequently by M. Garella, seemed to have such bad harbors that the idea of a canal by that line was abandoned. Lloyd, whose paper was published in the Philosophical Transactions, London, 1830, proposed to make only a railway from Panama or Chorrera to the Rio Trinidad (tributary of the Chagres), and to establish a port on the Bay of Limon.

In 1829 a franchise was decreed to the king of Holland, and there was some prospect of a canal being constructed; but the war which detached Belgium from Holland broke out, and the king abandoned the project. President Morazan then contemplated doing the work on Central American account, and the survey was begun in 1837, interrupted by Morazan's fall, but continued in 1838 for account of Nicaragua. This same year Edward Belcher, of the British navy, suggested the possibility of an artificial communication between Lake Managua and the Bay of Fonseca. Baily's explorations along the line from Kio Lajas to San Juan del Sur were terminated in 1843, and their publication furnished exact data on the canal.

Meanwhile, P. Rouhand (1839), Veteri (1840), Castellon and Jerez (1842), had unsuccessfully tried to raise funds for the work in Kurope. José de Garny obtained a concession for a canal in 1842, but nothing was accomplished. M. Napoleon Garella, sent out by the French Government in 1843, advocated the construction of a sluiced canal in Panama. The king of France in 1844 refused his cooperation. In 1840 Louis Napoleon became warmly interested foratime. Great Britian in 1847 seized San Juan del Norte on the north, and Tiger Island on the south. Louis Napoleon turned bis thoughts to other subjects. Orsted studied, in 1847-8, for the Costa Rican government, a canal project which differed from Baily's in choosing a low line south of San Juan del Sur along the Sapoa River into Salinas Bay. Nicaragua in 1848 entered into a contract to build the canal with a house in New York, which, however, surrendered it.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the rush of would-be miners stimulated Americas interest in digging the canal. An American company, stimulated by the sudden increase of traffic across the isthmus caused by the discovery of gold in California, commenced in 1849 to construct a railway, and their engineers, Totten and Trautwine, already known in connection with the canal from Cartagena to the Magdalena, managed, in spite of the extreme difficulty of procuring labor, to complete the works in January 1855.

And the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 produced a complete revolution in the commercial relations of the whole world, and had a considerable influence on the researches into the piercing of the American canal. The maritime trade of the globe ardently desired the creation of a navigable zone which will enable it to make the tour of the world, getting rid of the circuit of Cape Horn as that of the Cape of Good Hope was been rid of with the Suez Canal.

Throughout the 1800s, American and British leaders and businessmen wanted to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. To that end, in 1850 the United States and Great Britain negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to reign in rivalry over a proposed canal through the Central American Republic of Nicaragua. This Anglo-American canal, however, never went beyond the planning stages.

Various surveys were made between 1850 and 1875 showed that two routes were most practical, the one across Panama and another across Nicaragua.

The question of an interoceanic canal was not lost sight of; and in 1875 it came up for discussion in the Congres des Sciences Géographiques at Paris. A society under General Turr was formed in 1876 for prosecuting the necessary explorations; and Lieutenant Wyse, assisted by Celler, A. Reclus, Bixio and others, was sent out to the isthmus of Panama in 1876.

On 23 March 1878, the Colombian government approved a contract with Bonaparte Wyse, of the Civil International Interoceanic Canal Society, which had been founded in France, to whom it granted the "exclusive privilege for the excavating of a canal between the two oceans," the privilege to last for ninety-nine years, and the canal to be finished within twelve years after the organisation of the company. The terminal ports and the waters of the canal were declared neutral. The international company failed.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list