#tbt: The Quiet Opening of the Panama Canal

By Alyson Foster
Content & Collections Specialist, National Geographic Library


This bird’s-eye view of the Panama Canal appeared with the February 1912 issue of National Geographic magazine, two years before the waterway opened to traffic. Map by the National Geographic Society

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. The canal remains one of the greatest construction projects ever undertaken, an effort that spanned more than three decades. It required the labor of tens of thousands of workers who dug their way nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) across the rugged terrain of the Central American isthmus, literally moving mountains as they went.

The blast of Gamboa Dike clears the canal's path to the Pacific Ocean. Photograph by Roscoe G. Searle, National Geographic
The blast of Gamboa Dike clears the canal’s path to the Pacific Ocean. Photograph by Roscoe G. Searle, National Geographic

Credit for completing the canal goes to the United States government, which took up the project more than a decade after the French builder Ferdinand de Lesseps abandoned it in 1889.

But constructing a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans wasn’t solely an American aspiration. Sailors around the world had been dreaming of a transisthmian shortcut since the 1500s. Before the canal was built, ships traveling between Asia and Europe (or from one coast of the United States to another) were forced to sail all the way around South America. The Panama Canal allowed travelers, sailors, and shipping companies to shorten their trips by thousands of miles, saving them large amounts of time and money. It also meant sailors no longer had to navigate around Cape Horn—some of the most treacherous waters in the world.

But the dream came at a high price. The financial and human costs of building the Panama Canal were staggering. In total, the French and Americans spent more than $600 million on the endeavor, and huge numbers of workers died from malaria and yellow fever. In the early years, the canal hospitals were so overcrowded that the staff would sometimes bring coffins into patients’ rooms while they were still alive.

As the long and arduous process of building the Panama Canal drew to a close, it seemed only fitting that a grand event should commemorate the official opening. People from all over the United States submitted suggestions for the ceremony. Schoolchildren in Oregon petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to have the battleship Oregon lead a flotilla of ships through the canal. National Geographic Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor wrote the canal’s chief engineer, George W. Goethals, to suggest that Roald Amundsen’s Fram accompany the first group of ships through the new waterway. He believed it would be a fitting tribute for “the staunch little craft” that held, he wrote, “the record of fartherest North and fartherest South of anything that floats.”

But the canal’s opening was to be overshadowed by other events taking place on the world stage. On June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Public attention was turned to the conflict brewing in Europe—a conflict that would emerge as World War I.

A new era had begun. In the light of a looming global war, celebrations and ribbon-cutting ceremonies seemed unimportant, even frivolous.

Crowds watch the first boat travel through the Miraflores Lock. Photo by Roscoe G. Searle
Crowds watch the first boat travel through the Miraflores Lock. Photo by Roscoe G. Searle

The first ocean-going ship that sailed through the Panama Canal was a humble cement boat called the Cristobal. The official grand opening was carried out by a ship called the Ancon, and there were no heads of state or celebrities there to celebrate the event. One person on board the ship remarked on the anti-climactic feeling of the occasion: “[A] strange observer coming suddenly upon the scene would have thought that the canal had always been in operation, and that the Ancon was only doing what thousands of other vessels must have done before her.”

Anti-climactic or no, the Panama Canal went on to be used by thousands of ships from countries around the world and is still in use today. And a plan to build another Central American canal is in the works. Nicaraguan officials recently announced plans to work with the Chinese to construct a new canal that would connect the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. If completed, it would give sailors yet another path between the oceans.

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