On this day August 15, 1914

The Panama Canal opened to traffic, providing a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Isthmus of Panama.

The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914 with the passage of the cargo ship Ancon. Coincidentally, this was also the same month that fighting in World War I (the Great War) began in Europe.

1923 illustrates the elevations through which the canal cuts across the isthmus.

1923 Plan which the canal cuts across the isthmus

5,609 workers died during this period (1904–1914). This brought the total death toll for the construction of the canal to around 27,500.

Construction of the canal began on January 1, 1882, though digging at Culebra did not begin until January 22, 1882. A huge labor force was assembled; in 1888, this numbered about 20,000 men, nine-tenths of these being afro-Caribbean workers from the West Indies.

Although extravagant rewards were given to French engineers who joined the canal effort, the huge death toll from disease made it difficult to retain them — they either left after short service, or died. The total death toll between 1881 and 1889 was estimated at over 22,000.

Even as early as 1885, it had become clear to many that a sea-level canal was impractical, and that an elevated canal with locks was the best answer; however, de Lesseps was stubborn, and it was not until October 1887 that the lock canal plan was adopted.

By this time, however, the mounting financial, engineering and mortality problems, coupled with frequent floods and mudslides, were making it clear that the project was in serious trouble. Work was pushed forward under the new plan until May 1889, when the company became bankrupt, and work was finally suspended on May 15, 1889. After eight years, the work was about two-fifths completed, and some $234,795,000 had been spent.

The collapse of the company was a major scandal in France, and the role of two Jewish speculators in the affair enabled Edouard Drumont, an anti-semite, to exploit the matter. 104 legislators were found to have been involved in the corruption and Jean Jaurès was commissioned by the French parliament to conduct an inquiry into the matter, completed in 1893.

The United States formally took control of the French property relating to the canal on May 4, 1904, when Lieutenant Jatara Oneel of the United States Army was presented with the keys; there was a small ceremony.

The newly-created Panama Canal Zone Control came under the control of the Isthmian Canal Commission during canal construction.

A grand celebration was originally planned for the official opening of the canal, as befits so great an effort which had aroused strong feelings in the United States for many years. However, the great opening never occurred. The outbreak of World War I forced cancellation of the main festivities, and the grand opening became a modest local affair.

The Canal cement boat Ancon, piloted by Captain John A. Constantine, the Canal’s first pilot, made the first official transit of the canal on August 15, 1914. There were no international dignitaries in attendance; Goethals followed the Ancon’s progress from shore, by railroad.


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