Many people do not know why the Panama Canal was built or what the troubles were in building it. Many people believe it was built for control over the oceans or having a stronger military. This essay paper will explore the problems and the importance of building the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal was completed in the year 1914 and is ranked as one of the world’s greatest achievements. The United States built the Panama Canal as a cost off 380 million dollars. For ten years, thousands of workers worked on it (The World Book Encyclopedia 122).
It was during the Spanish American war when many had learned that there should be a canal built across the Central America isthmus (Bailey et al 673). Theodore Roosevelt became the President of the United States in 1901. Roosevelt believed that the United States needed a strong navy who could patrol the oceans of the world. In Roosevelt’s mind the canal was the perfect idea to make it easier for the navy to move between oceans and become stronger. During Roosevelt’s presidency he devoted himself to building the Panama Canal (Mann 11).
The first step in building the canal was to get an O.K. with Colombia because at that time Panama had belonged to them (Mann 12).

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The United States had the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which gave them sole right to build and operate the Panama Canal (The World Encyclopedia 125). The same treaty also provided that the United States would give Colombia an initial payment of 10 million and pay 25,000 annual rent for use of the zone (Bailey et al 672). Roosevelt wanted the government of Columbia to sign the treaty, but many Colombians thought it was unfair (Mann 12). Although the treaty sounds pretty tempting the Colombian legislature refused to approve the treaty because they felt is was not enough money (The World Encyclopedia 125). Many Panamanians did not like being part of Colombia and wanted their independence. United States sided with Panama to support Panama’s Rebellion against Colombia. The revolution lasted three days and Panama had won their independence twelve days later Panama signed the treaty with the U.S. to have the Panama Canal built (Mann 15).
The greatest obstacle in building the Panama Canal was disease. The Isthmus of Panama was one of the most disease-ridden areas in the world (The World Encyclopedia 126). When the Americans took over to build the canal many diseases took the lives of laborers. Roosevelt realized the job would never get done if workers were getting sick and dying (Mann 15). After his realization Roosevelt sent a world famous expert on tropical disease to Panama to lead the fight against yellow fever and Malaria. Dr William Gorgas had earned his good reputation by completely wiping out yellow fever in an island in Cuba (internet 1). Unfortunately Gorgas did not get the job done right away in Panama because in 1905 there was an outbreak of yellow fever that caused a panic in the Canal Zone. Many workers left the country and the Canal Construction came to a hold. Dr. Gorgas had a sanitary department with 4,000 workers who worked hard to eliminate the mosquitoes that spread yellow fever (Mann 16). By 1906, Dr. William Gorgas had completely wiped out yellow fever and eliminated the rats that carried the bubonic plague. Between the years of 1906 and 1914 he reduced the number of malaria cases by 90% (Mann 17). The Panama Canal was certainly ready for some more building.
Many thought the diseases was enough and nothing else could go wrong, but there was still a tremendous problem that came up in Panama. Americans were building the Panama Canal according to the French Plan (The French tried to build the canal before the Americans and failed.) the French Plan called for waterway to move at sea level from end to end (Mann 19).
That part of the plan was impossible. Roosevelt ignored the impossibility to build the canal so he stayed with the idea of having a sea level canal. But by 1905 John Stevens was the chief engineer of the Panama Canal. He had changed Roosevelt’s mind to building a lock canal that would be less digging (Mann 20-22).
The Chagres River was another large and dangerous obstacle the Americans overcame. I was the largest river in Panama and with rainfall it could destroy almost everything in its path including the canal (Mann 26). The lock canal plan had solved that problem. It called for a dam and the river was backed up behind the dam creating Gatun Lake. The American’s were able to control the wild river enough to make it part of the canal. This was part of the canal required no excavation and saved Americans time and money (Mann 28).
Although the Americans were saving time and money there was still a greater challenge over their heads. It was called the Cordillera Mountains and tremendous digging had to be done. It turned out to be the most difficult, dangerous, and heart breaking part of the job (Mann 30). The builders had to remove earth and rock. The removal was done by hand with picks and shovels, but mostly with dynamite and heavy machinery (Mann 30). The dynamite they worked with was unstable in the heat and had cause death to the builders with explosions, debris, and fire. Digging through the mountains mudslides had become a serious problem (Mann 33). Many acres of mud destroyed steam shovels, railroad tracks and filled up the bottom of the mountain that had just been dug out. The mudslides meant more digging and most workers thought the digging would never end (Mann 33).
Some workers had living conditions provided for them in Panama, which made up for risks and discomforts many of them had (Mann 37). The workers had comfortable houses, free medical care, good food, higher salaries, and inexpensive clothing. Good schools were provided for children along with churches and social clubs (Mann 37). Many of the workers were not Americans. The majority of the workforce was black and did not have the provided living conditions like other workers. They were often paid less and lived in the shacks in the jungle or a crowded slum (Mann 39).
Although there were many delays the canal was completed six months ahead of schedule. The S.S. Ancon made the first official passage through the Panama Canal (The World Encyclopedia 126). The boat was decorated with bright flags and it sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific and made the reality of the canal slogan, “The Land Divided is the World United” (The World Encyclopedia 126).
The Panama Canal is a vital commercial and military waterway. About 12,000 vessels travel through the canal a year. Many of the ships carry about 168 million short tons annually. The most frequent users are the Americans who are traveling to or from the United States. Other users are Canada and Japan. Huge quantities of war materials and thousands of troops passed through the canal during World War II, The Korean, and the Vietnam War (The World Encyclopedia 126).
The Panama Canal still stands today and is in use. It is the greatest accomplishment of the 20th century. It is a masterpiece of engineering and as smoothly today as it did in 1914. It was still built in spite of the difficult work and working conditions (Bailey et al 635). Stevens, Gorgas, and Gothals are the best-known heroes of the canal but were the only ones (Mann 42). Many of the workers received medals for their commitment, hard work, and dedication (internet 1).
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