The Panama Canal

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12275

When you walk or ride somewhere, you want the shortest route, and sometimes find a shortcut through a remote place. What if you could save thousands of miles of travel? Learn about a huge shortcut!


People and Their Environment, World

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What is the biggest hole you've ever dug? What would it be like to dig a 50-mile trench in a mosquito- and disease-infested jungle? It's called the Panama Canal; see why ships are glad it was built!

Before 1914, if you wanted to travel from Florida to California by boat, you would have to go all the way around South America.

Or, you could carry your boat across country, but that wouldn't fly, so to speak!

Today, there is a manmade canal that provides a much easier and faster route. The Panama Canal has helped to improve travel and trade in the Americas.

panama canal

Talks of building an all-water passage between North and South America are documented as early as the 1500s when the Spanish were looking for an easier route for ships traveling from Spain to Peru. Even Thomas Jefferson encouraged the building of a route through Central America. The Isthmus of Panama was always seen as an ideal location for building this route.

An isthmus is a small strip of land that connects two larger bodies of land and is surrounded by ocean on both sides. The Isthmus of Panama is located in the country of Panama and connects North and South America. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Why do you think this was viewed as the ideal location for constructing an all-water route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans? Discuss your ideas with your teacher or parent.

It took hundreds of years for construction on an all-water route across the Isthmus of Panama to actually happen. Many countries in North America, South America, and Europe had an interest in the route because it provided an easier, safer route for trade, but few countries could afford to build it. Building the route would be expensive and challenging. Finally, in 1881, an investor from France raised enough money to begin construction on a canal. A canal is a manmade waterway. The project was a nightmare. Creating the canal required digging up jungles and cutting through mountains. Workers faced frequent illnesses and injuries from venomous snakes, insect-borne diseases, fevers, and harsh working conditions. It is estimated that at least 200 workers were killed per month while working on the canal. After spending $287,000,000 and losing 22,000 workers, the French stopped working on the project in 1889. A new French company took over the project in 1894, but also faced many challenges and began looking to the United States for help.

The United States worked with Columbia, the country who owned the land at the time, and was granted permanent access to the Isthmus of Panama. Also, in 1904, the United States purchased the construction equipment from France and resumed the work on the canal that the French had started. What the United States did differently from France was provide ways to protect workers from diseases and accidents. They built homes for workers and took measures to guard against mosquitos, who carried diseases. Ten years later, in 1914, the United States finished the canal. It took 43,000 workers and over $350,000,000 to complete. The amount of land removed to build the canal was enough to fill train cars that could wrap around the Earth four times!


The Panama Canal is about 50 miles long. It takes ships roughly eight to ten hours to travel from one side of the Panama Canal to the other. Ships must use locks to travel from one side to the other because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are at different elevations. A lock is a confined area of a canal that can be raised or lowered by opening and closing gates. About 15,000 ships travel along the Panama Canal each year, including trade ships and cruise ships.

Even though the Panama Canal significantly improved transportation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, it was extremely challenging to build. Today, it is considered "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Why do you think it has been given this title? Tell your teacher or parent.

Then, move on to the Got It? section to watch a video about the Panama Canal and take a quiz.

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