Panama Canal open to traffic - HISTORY
Year
1914

Panama Canal open to traffic

The American-built waterway across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is inaugurated with the passage of the U.S. vessel Ancon, a cargo and passenger ship.

The rush of settlers to California and Oregon in the mid 19th century was the initial impetus of the U.S. desire to build an artificial waterway across Central America. In 1855, the United States completed a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama (then part of Colombia), prompting various parties to propose canal-building plans. Ultimately, Colombia awarded rights to build the canal to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French entrepreneur who had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. Construction on a sea-level canal began in 1881, but inadequate planning, disease among the workers, and financial problems drove Lesseps’ company into bankruptcy in 1889. Three years later, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a former chief engineer of the canal works and a French citizen, acquired the assets of the defunct French company.

By the turn of the century, sole possession of the isthmian canal became imperative to the United States, which had acquired an overseas empire at the end of the Spanish-American War and sought the ability to move warships and commerce quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1902, the U.S. Congress authorized purchase of the French canal company (pending a treaty with Colombia), and allocated funding for the canal’s construction. In 1903, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty was signed with Columbia, granting the U.S. use of the territory in exchange for financial compensation. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, but the Colombian Senate, fearing a loss of sovereignty, refused.

In response, President Theodore Roosevelt gave tacit approval to a Panamanian independence movement, which was engineered in large part by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla and his canal company. On November 3, 1903, a faction of Panamanians issued a declaration of independence from Colombia. The U.S.-administered railroad removed its trains from the northern terminus of Colón, thus stranding Colombian troops sent to crush the rebellion. Other Colombian forces were discouraged from marching on Panama by the arrival of U.S. warship Nashville.

On November 6, the United States recognized the Republic of Panama, and on November 18 the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed with Panama, granting the U.S. exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. In exchange, Panama received $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later. The treaty was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Bunau-Varilla, who had been given plenipotentiary powers to negotiate on behalf of Panama. Almost immediately, the treaty was condemned by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country’s new national sovereignty.

In 1906, American engineers decided on the construction of a lock canal, and the next three years were spent developing construction facilities and eradicating tropical diseases in the area. In 1909, construction proper began. In one of the largest construction projects of all time, U.S. engineers moved nearly 240 million cubic yards of earth and spent close to $400 million in constructing the 40-mile-long canal (or 51 miles long, if the deepened seabed on both ends of the canal is taken into account). On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was opened to traffic.

Panama later pushed to revoke the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, and in 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos signed a treaty to turn over the canal to Panama by the end of the century. A peaceful transfer occurred at noon on December 31, 1999.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Malcolm slays Macbeth

At the Battle of Lumphanan, King Macbeth of Scotland is slain by Malcolm Canmore, whose father, King Duncan I, was murdered by Macbeth 17 years earlier.Macbeth was a grandson of King Kenneth II and also had a claim to the throne through his wife, Gruoch, who was the granddaughter ...read more

Berlin Wall built

Two days after sealing off free passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, East German authorities begin building a wall–the Berlin Wall–to permanently close off access to the West. For the next 28 years, the heavily fortified Berlin Wall stood as the most tangible ...read more

India and Pakistan win independence

The Indian Independence Bill, which carves the independent nations of India and Pakistan out of the former Mogul Empire, comes into force at the stroke of midnight. The long-awaited agreement ended 200 years of British rule and was hailed by Indian independence leader Mohandas ...read more

The Japanese emperor speaks

On this day in 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcasts the news of Japan’s surrender to the Japanese people.Although Tokyo had already communicated to the Allies its acceptance of the surrender terms of the Potsdam Conference several days earlier, and a Japanese news service ...read more

Japan gives ultimatum to Germany

On this day in 1914, the government of Japan sends an ultimatum to Germany, demanding the removal of all German ships from Japanese and Chinese waters and the surrender of control of Tsingtao—the location of Germany’s largest overseas naval bases, located on China’s Shantung ...read more

Woodstock begins in upstate New York

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, “An Aquarian Exposition,” opens at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York. Promoters expected the music festival, modeled after the famous Monterey Pop Festival, to attract up to 200,000 for the weekend, but nearly a half a million people ...read more

Regional Forces victorious

South Vietnamese officials report that regional forces killed 308 Communist troops in four days of heavy fighting along a coastal strip south of the DMZ. This was one of the biggest victories of the war for the regional forces in the war and was extremely significant since one ...read more

Charles Comiskey born

On August 15, 1859, Charles Albert Comiskey, namesake of Chicago’s famous Comiskey Park, is born in Chicago, Illinois. Comiskey went on to become the first and only player to later own a team.Before he was nicknamed “The Old Roman,” Charley Comiskey was just a kid who loved ...read more

Indian captive William Wells is killed

Potawatomi Indians kill William Wells, an Indian captive turned Indian fighter.Born in Pennsylvania in 1770, Wells migrated with his family to Kentucky when he was nine years old. Five years later he was captured by Miami Indians and adopted into the family of the Wea village ...read more

Edna Ferber, author of Show Boat, is born

Edna Ferber is born on this day in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ferber went to work as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal while still in her teens. She began publishing stories in her early 20s, and the reading public fell in love with her lively, no-nonsense character Emma McChesney, ...read more

Apocalypse Now released

On this day in 1979, Apocalypse Now, the acclaimed Vietnam War film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, opens in theaters around the United States.The film, inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, among other sources, told the story of an Army captain ...read more

Hurricane Alicia pounds Texas coast

Hurricane Alicia forms south of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico on this day in 1983. Three days later, the Texas Gulf Coast is slammed by the storm, causing 21 deaths, thousands of injuries and billions of dollars in damages.When Alicia hit Galveston, Texas, it was the first ...read more

Wife of slain minister released from jail

Mary Winkler, who confessed to fatally shooting her pastor husband Matthew Winkler in his sleep at their church parsonage in Selmer, Tennessee, is released from jail on $750,000 bail. Winkler was later convicted in his killing, but served only a short time in prison.On March 22, ...read more