The Panama Canal

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13557

The creation of the Panama Canal was 500 years in the making. After multiple attempts by multiple countries, the United States managed to connect the world in a way only dreamt of for centuries.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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In 1817, construction began on the Erie Canal, which stretches across a majority of New York State. Take a look at this 1840 map showing its location.

Erie Canal, 1840

Image from New York State, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • Considering how long this canal is, why do you think it took almost a hundred more years for construction on the much smaller Panama Canal to begin in 1914?

North-West Passage

The idea that there should be some waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans existed ever since Europeans found the New World.

People assumed that, since North and South America were such vast landmasses, there must be some way to reach Asia without having to go around these continents. However, these assumptions would prove to be wrong.

In 1534, after seeing how small the distance between the two oceans was at modern-day Panama, Charles V of Spain explored the possibility of constructing a canal.

Canals and modifications of the land had been carried out for centuries by humans all around the world, but the tools required for this particular project would take hundreds of years and millions of dollars to develop.

map of Panama

After several minor attempts by many different nations over the centuries, the U.S. began construction on a railway across the isthmus (narrow strip of land between seas) in 1850.

While obviously not a canal, this would help clear the forest and rapidly speed up the transportation of goods as long as a ship was waiting on the other side to receive them.

It took five years to lay down the track on this 40-mile stretch of land. By comparison, the 3,000-mile Trans-Continental Railway across the United States took six years to build.

Panama Canal Railway map

Image by Jkan997, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

  • Why did it take so long?

The jungle.

French Attempts

The jungle in Panama was unlike anything westerners had seen, and it is still one of the deadliest places on Earth.

As you watch a History Channel clip below on France's role in the construction of the canal, pay attention to the description of the jungle.

Modern Marvels: The Construction of the Panama Canal (S1, E3) | Full Episode | History:

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  • Why was everyone so sure Lesseps could build the Panama Canal?

The land in Panama was completely unlike the desert terrain in Egypt, where he had built the Suez Canal. The grasses and ferns of the jungle, coupled with the deadly insects and disease from mosquitos, eliminated a majority of the European workforce.

After spending $300 million and nine years attempting to tame the Panamanian isthmus, the French government almost collapsed.

  • Why would a country care so much about something like this?

By the late 1800s, European powers controlled much of the world except for South America.

World Empires and Colonies, 1898

Image by Roke, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

This necessitated trade networks across the oceans. Whomever could manage to shorten the journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean would not only make a fortune on passage through the canal, but would control the flow of trade around the world.

The construction of the Panama Canal, along with the Suez Canal, would give France an edge in the newly globalizing economy.

U.S. Success

Once the French gave up and abandoned the project, the United States attempted to build the canal. They were encouraged by their success with the Erie Canal and hoped to control trade through the area.

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned European nations about colonizing North and South America. It gave the U.S. power over the affairs in the New World, and the Panama Canal would be a natural progression of this.

United States of Colombia map

Image by Arab Hafez, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 3.0 license.

By the time the United States became involved in the project in 1903, the state of Panama was seeking to break free from Colombia. President Theodore Roosevelt saw this as an opportunity. If he helped the rebels win their revolution, they would be more willing to give America a favorable lease on the land the canal would occupy.

Kearsarge II, U.S. Navy Battleship No. 5

U.S. Navy photograph from Naval History and Heritage Command is in the public domain.

Once independence was achieved, backed by the U.S. military, Panama granted the U.S. a 99-year lease on the land the canal would occupy. The U.S. quickly purchased the French equipment left behind and got to work.

By 1906, construction was well under way, and even Theodore Roosevelt himself went to help in the project.

Roosevelt at the Panama Canal, 1906

Image by The New York Times, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Gunboat Diplomacy

The construction and ownership of this canal was so vital to U.S. interests that Roosevelt felt justified in using the military to aid in the acquisition of the canal zone. He has often been criticized for manipulating a small nation to give him what he wanted under threat of invasion.

You can make up your own mind about whether his military actions were right or wrong. The effect the Panama Canal would have once it was finally built, however, is undeniable.


Panama Canal map

If we look at this map of the path ships would take across the canal, we see that much of it is a manmade lake, except for the beginning and end. Points 1, 2, and 3 are the places in which a series of locks exist to move ships up and down in elevation.

  • Are the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans at different elevations?

No. In order to reduce the amount of digging into the earth the canal would require, engineers decided to create an artificial, elevated lake for the ships to travel through. The locks raise the ships far above sea level so they may pass through the lake and descend on the other side.

Panama Canal lakes and locks

In 1914, when this canal was finished, it forever altered the trade between nations and even within the United States. Large-scale products were cheaper to ship via the ocean rather than on railroads. Now, ships did not need to travel all the way around South America.

To see the canal in action, watch this (silent) Panama Canal - Full Transit - Time Lapse from Steve Noble. Pay attention to how these locks lift the ships up and drop them back down:

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Now that you know how it works and what it took to build, let's assess the larger effects the Panama Canal had for the United States in the Got It? section.

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