The Panama Canal: Explorers, pirates, scientists and engineers

April 18, 2007

ANN ARBOR—After 96 years, American involvement in the Panama Canal will end Dec. 31. But this act is only the latest chapter in a 400-year saga of canal proposals and projects as outlined in the latest exhibit at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library.

From Columbus and other explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries to blood-thirsty pirates, colonists and land speculators to gold seekers, revolutionaries, brilliant scientists and civil engineers, the story of the Panama Canal is a tale of scandals as well as successes, all documented in the exhibit by letters, photos, hand-written accounts, political cartoons and news magazines of the era.

“The Isthmus of Panama was the first potentially practical passageway between east and west to be discovered,” says John
, director of the Clements Library. “Even before Magellan, there was talk of building a water route across the Isthmus. The first 350 years of Panama Canal history was largely one of grand dreams and disappointing
realities. The more serious projects became, the more elusive the goal.

Finally, under the forceful leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, the United States rose to the challenge and produced what remains to this day one of the engineering wonders of the world.”

As early as 1597, a map of the Panama region suggested that a “ditch” between the two oceans would be an easy project. Such maps, Dann says, underestimated the difficulties of the terrain and would continue to mislead distant government officials and entrepreneurs for centuries.

The first serious excavations for a canal were begun in the 1880s by the French with Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, as chief engineer, and although a practical failure, the effort determined the American commitment to the Panama route in 1903.

The California gold rush of 1848 attracted thousands to the West Coast of the United States, but the only routes available were across the Plains or around Cape Horn, both dangerous and difficult. Once news of the precious yellow metal got out, ships began transporting men to Nicaragua and Panama where they would disembark and travel overland to the Pacific coast, and then re-board a ship for passage to California. The earliest Forty-Eighters and Forty-Niners encountered difficult conditions as they crossed Panama by canoe, footpaths, and mountainous terrain. “Although the foliage, birds, animals and native people were exotic, and the country beautiful,” Dann says, “disease, crime, and profiteering claimed many victims. By the early 1850s, railroads eased the journey, but the need for a canal became obvious.”

Mountains were removed, as was huge quantities of rock and dirt. The terrain was unstable and subject to frequent slides burying equipment, taking lives, and forcing long construction delays. From 1906 until 1914, tens of thousands of workers cut the canal across the Isthmus bringing the project to completion five months ahead of schedule and well under budget.

And what does the future hold for the Panama Canal, once the U.S. relinquishes control? Dann raises such questions as: Will Panama resist pressure to develop the land and lakes which enable the delicate hydraulic system to operate? Will the Panama Canal be rebuilt to accommodate larger ships? Will a sea level canal be built there, or at one of the other routes which were abandoned when the Panama site was chosen? These questions, says Dann, remain open and will be affected by such unpredictable factors as oil prices, ecological concerns, and both international and domestic politics.

The Canal is essentially unchanged since its construction at the beginning of the 20th century. But Dann envisions a new chapter in the Canal’s history, “possibly with all the drama and international intrigues of the past 500 years.”

The Clements Library in large part owes its existence to the Panama Canal project. William L. Clements, graduate of U-M’s first Engineering School class of 1882, designed and manufactured cranes and steam shovels in Bay City, Mich. The Panama Canal project created an unprecedented need for such equipment and Clements’ factory was in high gear between 1904 and 1915. Not only did Clements’ business produce equipment, but it allowed him the extra personal income to put together one of the greatest collections of Americana in the world. Clements built and donated the present library to his alma mater.

“The Panama Canal” exhibit continues at the Clements Library through Additional information about the “hand-over” of the Canal can be obtained from the Gerald R. Ford Library on the U-M campus. Most of the negotiations for the exchange of the Canal were made during Ford’s administration.