History of Panama Canal – Building & Expansion: Historical Overview – Early Building Proposals & Canal Construction

The US's intentions to influence the area (especially the Panama Canal construction and control) led to the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903.

Building a Panama Canal in the early 1900s was not a new idea – the history of Panama Canal construction dates back to the 16th Century, 400 years before its completion.

The Panama Canal is a vital shipping lane linking the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Opened in 1914, it was one of the greatest engineering projects of the modern age. However, the concept of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama was not a new one. The navigational possibilities of the isthmus, a comparatively narrow strip of land linking North and South America, had been realized as far back as the 16th Century.

Panama Canal History – Original Concept

In 1513, Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa led an expedition across the Isthmus of Panama. He, like Columbus and Cortes, had heard from natives that to the west lay a great ocean, separated by only a narrow tract of land. On 25th September 1513 he became the first European to reach and set eyes upon the Pacific Ocean.

It was immediately obvious that the Isthmus of Panama was a vital bridge across the Americas; a potential passage that would allow access from sea to sea without having to navigate Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.

Historian J. Saxon Mills states that the original concept of an artificial water route through the isthmus should be attributed to Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron. Ceron, a cousin of Cortez, had been in Panama with Balboa and had spent many years unsuccessfully searching the coast of Latin America for a navigable strait linking the Atlantic with the Pacific.

Growing doubtful that such a strait existed, Ceron turned his attentions towards the Isthmus of Panama and, as Saxon Mills relates, “prepared plans for the construction of a waterway there – almost precisely along the route chosen for the American canal nearly four hundred years later”. However, Ceron died before his ideas could be put into practice.

Further Panama Canal Construction Surveys

It would appear that Ceron did not take his ideas to the grave. In 1534, Charles V, King of Spain, formally ordered further investigation into the possibility of an artificial waterway across the Isthmus of Panama. He ordered the Governor of Costa Firme (the old name for the Panama region) to survey the Chagres River valley as a potential route for the construction of a ship canal.

Once again, the surveyed route followed to a large extent the course of the present day Panama Canal. However, the governor politely informed Charles V that the undertaking of such an engineering feat was impossible. Overland trading routes across the Isthmus of Panama became the accepted norm for many years to follow.

Alessandro Malaspina & Panama Canal Building Plans

Not until the late 18th Century did a new Panama Canal construction project be given much serious thought. The epic 1789-1794 scientific expedition of Alessandro Malaspina, again under the Spanish flag, saw Malaspina visit Spanish colonies and other territories throughout the Americas. When the expedition landed in Panama, Malaspina planned out the excavation of the Panama Canal, for the first time demonstrating the feasibility of the undertaking.

Ferdinand de Lesseps & the First Panama Canal Construction Efforts

Overland links continued on the Isthmus of Panama, facilitated by the construction of the Panama Railway in 1855. Panama was now free of Spanish colonial rule, Spain having lost its hold on Latin America. The idea of a water route through the Isthmus of Panama had not been forgotten, and a new phase in the history of the Panama Canal was beginning.

In the 1880s a French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps finally set about the construction. However, the French were poorly prepared, both physically and logistically, for the task ahead.

Their attempt to build a sea-level canal (one which did not utilize locks) was a disaster. Malaria and yellow fever decimated the workforce, equipment rusted and failed in the heat and humidity, and geological and hydrological considerations had been badly managed. The project was abandoned in 1889 at the expense of over 20,000 lives.

Successful Construction – Panama Canal Built in 1914

The construction of the Panama Canal would finally be realized when the United States, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, bought out the French equipment and excavations. Work began in 1904 and the Panama Canal was finally opened in 1914.

Four hundred years had passed since Vasco Núñez de Balboa first crossed the Isthmus of Panama and Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron had considered the construction of an artificial waterway. The two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, had finally been linked through the landmass of Latin America.


  1. J. Saxon Mills – The Panama Canal: A History and Description of the Enterprise, Van Rensselaer Press, 2008, ISBN 1408690659
  2. Ervan G. Garrison – A History of Engineering and Technology: Artful Methods, CRC Press, 1998, ISBN 084939810X