August 15, 1914 – Completion of the Panama Canal

On this day in history, a 48- mile waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Caribbean Sea was completed after many difficult years of development.

France began the work in 1881, but gave up because of engineering problems and a high mortality rate from disease. In 1904 the U.S. Senate approved a treaty which gave the U.S. authority to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and control a 10-mile-wide canal zone. It took ten years for the U.S. to complete the canal.

President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel at the Panama Canal, 1906

President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel at the Panama Canal, 1906

The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until a series of riots by Panamanians protesting U.S. control in 1964 created pressure on the U.S. to renegotiate the original treaty. In September 1977 President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera signed two new treaties.

The treaties, named for signatories U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Commander of Panama’s National Guard, General Omar Torrijos, are the “Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal” and “The Panama Canal Treaty.”

The first treaty stated that the United States could use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality, thus allowing perpetual U.S. usage of the Canal. The second treaty stated that the Panama Canal Zone would cease to exist on October 1, 1979, and the Canal itself would be turned over to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. These two treaties were signed on September 7, 1977.

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos at the September 7th signing ceremony. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos at the September 7th signing ceremony. (Jimmy Carter Library)

The canal is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency. In 2007, the Panamanian government launched a $5.25 billion, seven-year project to update and improve the canal. But there have been problems with the construction, and competition from unexpected areas. You can read more about these developments here.

A schematic of the Panama Canal, illustrating the sequence of locks and passages

A schematic of the Panama Canal, illustrating the sequence of locks and passages

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