Panama Canal

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Panama Canal,

waterway across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic (by way of the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific oceans, built by the United States (1904–14, on territory leased from the republic of PanamaPanama
, Span. Panamá, officially Republic of Panama, republic (2015 est. pop. 3,657,000), 29,760 sq mi (77,081 sq km), occupying the Isthmus of Panama, which connects Central and South America.
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) and expanded by Pamana (2007–16). The canal, running S and SE from Limón Bay at Colón on the Atlantic to the Bay of Panama at Balboa on the Pacific, is 40 mi (64 km) long from shore to shore and 51 mi (82 km) long between channel entrances. The Pacific terminus is 27 mi (43 km) east of the Caribbean terminus. The minimum depth is 41 ft (12.5 m).

From Limón Bay a ship is raised by Gatún Locks (a set of three) to an elevation 85 ft (25.9 m) above sea level, traverses Gatún Lake, then crosses the Continental Divide through Gaillard (formerly Culebra) Cut and is lowered by Pedro Miguel Lock to Miraflores Lake and then by the Miraflores Locks (a set of two) to sea level. The average tidal range on the Atlantic side is less than a foot (.3 m); that on the Pacific side is 12.6 ft (3.8 m).

U.S. Interest in a Canal

Building an interoceanic canal was suggested early in Spanish colonial times. The United States, interested since the late 18th cent. in trading voyages to the coast of the Pacific Northwest, became greatly concerned with plans for a canal after settlers had begun to pour into Oregon and California. Active negotiations led in 1846 to a treaty, by which the republic of New Granada (consisting of present-day Panama and Colombia) granted the United States transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama in return for a guarantee of the neutrality and sovereignty of New Granada.

The isthmus gained more importance after the United States acquired (1848) California and the gold rush began, and the trans-Panama RR was built (1848–55) with U.S. capital. At the same time, interest in an alternate route, the Nicaragua CanalNicaragua Canal,
proposed waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. One often considered route would be 172.8 mi (278 km) long and would generally follow the San Juan River, then go through Lake Nicaragua near the southern shore and across the narrow isthmus of Rivas
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, was strong in both Great Britain and the United States. Rivalry between the two countries was ended by the Clayton-Bulwer TreatyClayton-Bulwer Treaty,
concluded (Apr. 19, 1850) at Washington, D.C., between the United States, represented by Secretary of State John M. Clayton, and Great Britain, represented by the British plenipotentiary Sir Henry Bulwer.
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 (1850), which guaranteed that neither power should have exclusive rights or threaten the neutrality of an interoceanic route. In the 1870s and 80s the United States tried unsuccessfully to induce Great Britain to abrogate or amend the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

After the United States acquired territory in the Caribbean and in the Pacific as a result of the Spanish-American WarSpanish-American War,
1898, brief conflict between Spain and the United States arising out of Spanish policies in Cuba. It was, to a large degree, brought about by the efforts of U.S. expansionists.
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 (1899), U.S. control over an isthmian canal seemed imperative. Following protracted negotiations, a U.S.-British agreement (see Hay-Pauncefote TreatiesHay-Pauncefote Treaties
, negotiated in 1899 and 1901 by Secretary of State John Hay, for the United States, and Lord Pauncefote of Preston, British ambassador to the United States, for Great Britain, with the object of modifying the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, concerning the
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) was made in 1901, giving the United States the right to build, and by implication fortify, an isthmian canal. It was then necessary for Congress to choose between Nicaragua or Panama as the route for the canal.

French Attempts

Meanwhile a concession for building a sea-level canal in Panama (granted 1878) was acquired by a French company under Ferdinand de LessepsLesseps, Ferdinand Marie, vicomte de
, 1805–94, French diplomat and engineer. He entered the consular service in 1825 and was minister to Spain (1848–49). Later, while serving in Egypt, he conceived the idea of a Suez Canal, and in 1854 he obtained from Said Pasha,
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. Work began in 1881, but poor planning, disease among the workers, construction troubles, and inadequate financing drove the company into bankruptcy in 1889. Amid charges of corruption and mismanagement, French courts transferred (1894) the rights and assets to a new company. Although the alternate Nicaragua route was favored by the United States, an American representative of the French company, William Nelson Cromwell, began working vigorously to interest the United States in the Panama route, and Philippe Bunau-VarillaBunau-Varilla, Philippe Jean
, 1859–1940, French engineer, prominent in the Panama Canal controversy. An engineer after 1884 in the original French company for building the canal, he was chief engineer before the company went bankrupt in 1889 and was the organizer (1894)
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, a leading figure in the new company, devoted himself to the cause. When a U.S. commission recommended a canal through Nicaragua in 1901, Bunau-Varilla persuaded the French directors to reduce the price of the company's rights, gaining the support of Mark HannaHanna, Marcus Alonzo
(Mark Hanna), 1837–1904, American capitalist and politician, b. New Lisbon (now Lisbon), Ohio. He attended Western Reserve College for a short time, then entered his father's wholesale grocery and commission business at Cleveland in 1858.
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 and later of President Theodore RooseveltRoosevelt, Theodore,
1858–1919, 26th President of the United States (1901–9), b. New York City. Early Life and Political Posts

Of a prosperous and distinguished family, Theodore Roosevelt was educated by private tutors and traveled widely.
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. The commission reversed its recommendation, and Congress authorized purchase of the French company's rights and construction of the Panama Canal.

Insurrection against Colombia

The Hay-Herrán TreatyHay-Herrán Treaty
, 1903, aborted agreement between the United States and Colombia providing for U.S. control of the prospective Panama Canal and for U.S. acquisition of a canal zone. It was signed by U.S.
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, signed (Jan., 1903) with Colombia, would have given the United States a strip of land across the Isthmus of Panama in return for an initial cash payment of $10 million and an annuity of $250,000, but the Colombian senate refused to ratify it. An insurrection, involving Bunau-Varilla and other proponents of the canal as well as the regional population, was encouraged by the United States. Panama rose in revolt on Nov. 3, 1903, declaring itself independent of Colombia. Invoking the treaty of 1846, the United States sent an American warship to Panama, and its presence prevented Colombian troops from quelling the outbreak. The new republic was formally recognized three days later, and on Nov. 17 the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed, granting to the United States, in return for the same terms offered Colombia, exclusive control of a canal zone in perpetuity, other sites necessary for defense, and sanitary control of Panama City and Colón. Colombia's efforts to secure redress for the loss of Panama later resulted in ratification of a treaty (1921) by which the United States paid Colombia $25 million, and Colombia recognized the independence of Panama.

Construction and Improvements

Construction of a lock canal was decided on in 1906. The first three years were spent in the development of construction facilities, surveys, and disease control. The canal was informally opened Aug. 15, 1914; formal dedication took place on July 12, 1920. The total cost was $336,650,000, and c.240 million cu yd (184 million cu m) of earth were evacuated. Madden Dam, which stores additional water for the locks, was completed in 1935.

In 1939 treaty amendments increased Panama's annuity to $434,000 (retroactive to 1934 to offset dollar devaluation), provided for a transisthmian highway, and (at Panama's insistence) abrogated the U.S. guarantee of the neutrality and sovereignty of Panama. Although in the same year Congress authorized construction of a third set of locks, World War II intervened, and the plans were shelved. In 1955 the annuity was raised to $1,930,000, and the United States undertook to build a high-level bridge (completed 1962) over the Pacific side of the canal. The Gaillard Cut was widened in 1969 to permit two-way traffic.

Panamanian Control

In the 1960s there was increasing agitation in Panama to achieve greater Panamanian control over the canal, resulting in the negotiation of a new treaty (1967) which failed, however, to gain ratification by the Panamanian government. In 1977 negotiations were successful, and a new treaty was signed. It returned the Panama Canal Zone to Panama while setting up joint U.S.-Panamanian control of the canal until the end of 1999, when Panama gained full control. A separate treaty (1979) guarantees the permanent neutrality of the canal. In 0ct., 2006, Panamanian voters approved expanding the canal by adding a third series of larger locks paralleling the existing locks; the new locks, whose construction was inaugurated in 2007, opened in 2016, enabling wider, longer vessels with deeper drafts to transit the Isthmus. New shipping channels were also added, existing channels deepened and widened, and the maximum level of Gatún Lake raised. The largest modern merchant ships, however, cannot pass through the expanded canal.


See G. W. Goethals, The Panama Canal: An Engineering Treatise (1916); M. P. DuVal, And the Mountains Will Move (1947, repr. 1968); D. G. Payne, The Impossible Dream (1972); J. P. Speller, The Panama Canal (1972); G. H. Summ and T. Kelly, The Good Neighbors: America, Panama, and the 1977 Canal Treaties (1988); A. C. Richard, The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness, 1870–1990 (1990).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Panama Canal


an artificial waterway in Panama, Central America, that bisects the Isthmus of Panama at its lowest part and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. One of the most important international waterways, the canal passes through a separate zone under the jurisdiction of the USA (seePANAMA CANAL ZONE).

The idea of building an interoceanic canal was first proposed in the early 16th century, but only the development of capitalism made its construction possible. In 1846 the USA imposed on Colombia (then New Granada, which included present-day Panama) a treaty granting the USA duty-free transit across the Isthmus of Panama. Compelled to reckon with Great Britain’s influence in Central America, the USA concluded the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850, under which both parties renounced exclusive rights to a future canal in the region and pledged to guarantee its neutrality. Taking advantage of Anglo-American rivalries, France established the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique in 1879, but large-scale corruption turned the construction of the canal into a scandal-ridden venture and caused the bankruptcy of the company.

After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the USA intensified its efforts to build a canal with the aim of dominating the western hemisphere. In 1901 it concluded the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty with Great Britain, giving the USA the exclusive right to build the Panama Canal. Taking advantage of the national liberation movement of the Panamanian people, the USA supported Panama’s demand for secession from Colombia in 1903 and received as compensation a strip of land for the construction of the canal. In 1904 the US War Department undertook construction of the canal. Although the first vessel passed through the canal on Aug. 15, 1914, it was officially opened only on June 12, 1920.

The Panama Canal is 81.6 km long, of which 65.2 km are on land and 16.4 km on the bottom of the Panama and Limón bays (for the passage of ships to deep water). On the Atlantic slope the canal runs through the valley of the Chagres River, in which the man-made Lake Gatun has been created. On the Pacific slope it passes through the valley of the Río Grande. The lowest elevation of the Culebra (Gaillard) Mountain Watershed is 87 m above sea level. After the widening of the Culebra Cut in 1970, the canal’s minimum width increased from 91.5 m to almost 150 m. In the locks the water is at least 12.5 m deep. The part of the Panama Canal that runs through the Mountain Watershed— across Lake Gatun and through the Culebra Cut—lies 25.9 m above the average sea level. The canal has six sets of parallel locks (three on each slope) with chambers 305 m by 33.5 m. The ships are towed through the locks by electric towing locomotives. The average time for passing through the Panama Canal is seven or eight hours and the minimum time four hours. Each day an average of 36 ships pass through the canal, whose maximum capacity, if the two rows of locks are used, is 48 ships a day.

After the canal was built, ships no longer had to sail through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn, and the direction of several major sea routes changed. The canal is most important for navigation between the eastern and western coasts of the USA and Canada (the sailing distance was reduced 2.5 to 3 times), between the eastern coast of the USA and the Far East, and between the Latin American countries.

In 1971 a total of 15,300 ships passed through the canal, hauling 121 million tons of freight, 69 million tons from the Atlantic to the Pacific and 52 million tons from the Pacific to the Atlantic. About 70 percent of the cargo was shipped from or destined for US ports. The traffic flow through the canal has almost reached full capacity. Moreover, the canal’s locks do not accommodate ships with a water displacement of more than 40,000 tons, including large ocean liners, supertankers, and the largest aircraft carriers. A number of plans have been drawn up for rebuilding the canal or for building a parallel canal. A special commission recommended to the US president the construction of a sea-level canal along the La Chorrera-Lagarto route, about 15 km west of the present canal. As yet no date has been set for the construction of such a canal. Railroads and highways between Panama City and Colón run parallel to the canal.

Panama has repeatedly asked the USA for a revision of the unequal 1903 treaty concerning the canal and the Canal Zone. A circuit session of the UN Security Council held in Panama in 1973 discussed this question. In 1974, after the signing of the joint declaration On Basic Principles for Negotiating a New Treaty on the Panama Canal, negotiations between Panama and the USA, begun in 1971, entered a new phase.


Padelford, N. Y. The Panama Canal in Peace and War. New York, 1943.
Diplomatic History of the Panama Canal. Washington, 1914.
Antologia del Canal Panama, 1914–1939. Panama, 1940.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Panama Canal

a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: extends from Colón on the Caribbean Sea southeast to Balboa on the Gulf of Panama; built by the US (1904--14), after an unsuccessful previous attempt (1880--89) by the French under de Lesseps. Length: 64 km (40 miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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