History of Panama Canal for Kids

Shortest Path from Europe to Asia

In the 1500s explorers were trying to find a faster way to get from Europe to East Asia. Columbus thought he’d found the way when he ran into America, but it turns out you have to go all the way around the American continent in order to travel from Europe to Asia. If you look at the American continent you realize that there is a very skinny section of land near the middle, which came to be known as the Isthmus of Panama. An isthmus is a skinny section of land. Explorers thought if they could find a river going from the East side of America to the West, this would be another way they could go through America without having to sail all the way around the bottom. To find a route like this would save many, many days at sea. But unfortunately, no such easy route was found. The isthmus had many mountains and thick jungles, so ships would have to continue sailing all the way around the bottom of the American continent.

One way to get from the East side of America to the West would be to build a canal. A canal is a man-made passage through land that has to be dug out. You may have canals near your home, but this would be a much bigger canal! One such canal called the Suez Canal had been dug in Egypt to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. It was a huge effort and took 10 years, but the engineer who made it possible thought he might do the same in Panama. His name was Count Ferdinand Von Lesseps. 

Ferdinand Von Lesseps

Ferdinand and his team traveled to Panama and started preparing to dig, but soon realized how difficult it would be. First of all, the stretch of land from East to West is 50 miles, which is incredibly long. Can you imagine digging a 50-mile-long canal? But the biggest problem was the continuous rain and worst of all, the mosquitos! Have you ever been bitten by a mosquito? It’s annoying and a little painful, right? Well, that was only half the problem with the mosquitos in Panama. The real problem is that they carry diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. So with the rain causing mudslides and the mosquitoes spreading diseases, Ferdinand did not see a way that a sea-level canal could be built. 

Fortunately, there is more than one type of canal. One is a sea-level canal where they dig all the way down to sea level, which means the point where the sea meets the land. The other option is a lock canal. A lock canal is pretty amazing and we’ll learn more about it in a minute. Ferdinand believed they could still build it using a lock canal, but unfortunately, the people paying for the canal changed their mind and in 1888 he and his team had to return back to France.

Teddy Roosevelt

Years later the United States and President Teddy Roosevelt started to take interest in the construction of a canal across the isthmus. At this time the United States was beginning to grow in influence and Roosevelt saw this as a way to do something big and amazing and to make it much faster to ship goods between the East and West coasts of the country. Many businesses were also interested in making the canal work. 

In 1902 the United States paid $40 million dollars to take over what the French had started, but their plans were cut short when the Colombian government decided to not let them build the canal. As you can imagine Teddy Roosevelt and the businesses backing him up were not happy. At the same time, Panamanians who lived in the area wanted to break away from Colombia. The company behind the building of the canal called the Panama Canal Company definitely helped the rebellion along to make sure the new government would let them build the canal. They, with the support of President Roosevelt and the U.S. military, helped the rebels defeat the Colombian army, so they could have their own country, which would become Panama. For example, the U.S. sent a warship to make sure the Colombians didn’t win.

U.S. Purchases the Land

With Panama in control over the land where the canal would be built, the U.S. then bought the land from Panama for $10 million and promised to pay them $250,000 a year afterward. This was called the Hay-Banau-Varilla Treaty after U.S. Secretary of State John Hay. The treaty was a big success for the United States but afterward made the people of Panama wonder if they should have given up their land to a foreign country.

Immediately, the Panama Canal Company got to work yet again trying to construct a sea-level canal. They didn’t learn from the mistakes of Ferdinand and France and ran into many of the same problems, such as diseases spread by mosquitoes.

John Stevens

In 1905 an engineer named John Stevens took over the project. He decided to hire workers from West India, ordered new equipment, and devised better ways to use the railroad to cart off the dirt. He saw the same problems as the French with rain and landslides, decided a lock canal would be the best way to do it, and convinced President Roosevelt to use one instead.

Lock Canals Explained

The amazing thing about a lock canal is that it doesn’t require a canal to be dug all the way down to sea level, instead, it lifts the boat up over the land by forcing the water to rise. This can be hard to describe using words alone, so be sure to check out a video about it, but picture a huge ship moving between different areas of the canal, gates closing on each section of the canal, and water being flooded into each new area so the boat is lifted high enough to move into the next section. It’s a pretty amazing feat of engineering and was going to be the best way to make the Panama Canal work. 

The other problem to be solved was removing the mosquitos so people stopped dying from malaria and yellow fever. Dr. William Gorgas realized that it was the mosquitos carrying the disease, so he undertook a huge effort to eliminate mosquitoes in the area. He cleaned out pools of water where mosquitoes bred and used chemicals to remove them from people’s homes. Yellow fever ended entirely and after his efforts, very few people contracted malaria. 

George Washington Goethals

By 1906 a new engineer Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals was running the Panama Canal project. One of the most difficult areas of the canal digging was the Culebra Cut, a large mountain range that would need to be dug away. Can you imagine digging away a mountain? The workers used dynamite to blast away at the rock and this work became extremely dangerous as explosions caused landslides. 

Most days 6,000 workers were busy digging and blasting away at the mountain to clear the 9 miles of the mountain range. Fortunately, they had some of the newest equipment for excavating such as enormous steam-powered cranes, steam shovels, hydraulic rock crushers, and pneumatic power drills. Without these updated technologies building the canal would have taken much longer. 

Gatun Lake

Another important part of constructing the Panama Canal was using Gatun Lake to fill the locks. Remember, in order to move a ship up through the locks it had to be filled with water. That would require a lot of water! To do this they would open a canal to the lake and let gravity pull the water into the lock and lift the ship. One of the reasons they had to blast their way through the mountain range was to get access to Gatun Lake. 

One of the final projects building the canal was constructing the locks, which involved pouring concrete and building the gates. Each of the 3 sets of locks was 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. It would take 8 minutes for each lock to fill with water to raise it or lower it to the height it needs to move the ship through the canal and 8 to 10 hours to move through the entire canal from ocean to ocean. This might seem like a lot of hours to you, but then remember that it shortened the trip from New York to San Francisco by 8,000 miles and 67 days! That is a major improvement! 

In 1913 two steam shovels digging from opposite directions met in the middle completing the canal, and in October the President at the time, Woodrow Wilson sent a telegram giving the final order to explode the Gamboa Dike, which flooded the dry canal to allow ships to pass through. 

Opening Day

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914. It cost nearly $350 million to build and was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history up to that point. Around 56,000 workers were involved in its construction and around 5,600 lost their lives due to the dangerous circumstances.

Panama Canal Authority

Later in 1977 President Jimmy Carter turned full control of the canal over to the Panama Canal Authority and the Panamanian government. Around 14,000 ships now pass through the Panama Canal every year saving them thousands of miles if they had to go around the end of South America. And of course, it costs to take a ship through the canal, an average $150,000 dollars, which makes sense because most of them are transporting goods to sell and it saves them lots of money for the shortcut. The most expensive ship to go through the Panama Canal was $450,000 due to its size and the lowest toll paid was 36 cents paid by a man named Richard Halliburton who wanted to swim through the canals! Of course, anyone can visit the canal today by cruise ship. 

I hope you enjoyed learning about the Panama Canal. I’m amazed by the people who designed and built it. Today we have their sacrifices to be grateful for!

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Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.