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Panama Canal 101 for its 100th anniversary Aug. 15

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The Panama Canal, the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century, opened 100 years ago Aug. 15 -- America's costliest effort in dollars and human life at that time.

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The Library of Congress has, among its millions of digitized records, an enormous amount of Panama Canal-related information on-line in its "Topics in Chronicling America" section, http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/panama.html, and also in its Prints and Photographs Division, http://loc.gov/pictures/, and elsewhere within the world's largest library.

America's Panama Canal mammoth project took ten years and more than 5,000 lives to construct the canal through the Isthmus of Panama. This shortened the route between U.S. Atlantic and the Pacific by 7,000 miles.

Important dates include:

  • 1889: The French abandon an unsuccessful attempt to build a canal through Panama connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.
  • 1902: The U.S. Congress passes the Spooner bill, authorizing the government to build a canal through Panama.
  • November 1903: A revolution in Panama, aided by the U.S., results in Panama's independence from Colombia, and establishment of the Republic of Panama.
  • Feb. 23, 1904: Panama grants the U.S. control over the Panama Canal zone for $10 million.
  • May 4, 1904: U.S. acquires French property relating to their canal effort for $40 million. Construction begins that year.
  • November 1906: President Teddy Roosevelt travels to Panama--the first U.S. President to travel abroad while in office.
  • Aug. 15, 1914: The Panama Canal is officially opened.

President Theodore Roosevelt considered the Panama Canal the most important goal of his administration (1901-1909), according to a July 1, 1902 letter to Secretary of State John Hay. (FYI, Hay, in a letter to Teddy Roosevelt, described the Spanish American War as a "splendid little war." In that 1898 war, Lt. Col Theodore Roosevelt commanded the Rough Riders.)

Photos and a film of President Teddy Roosevelt inspecting the canal site include a snapshot of him operating a steam shovel.

The project was hugely controversial on many fronts. Here are a couple of newspaper articles, among many linked at the "Topics in Chronicling America" section.

The canal was not only a great achievement of American engineering, but also of American medicine, the Library notes. Measures implemented by the project's chief sanitation officer, Dr. William C. Gorgas, contributed to eradicating malaria and yellow fever. Those are the two main factors that led to the failure of the French effort in the 19th century, and deaths of some 22,000 workers. Dr. Gorgas made Colón and Panama City the healthiest cities in Central America, the Library adds.

American author and artist Joseph Pennell visited Panama January-March 1912, and created 30 sketches on the history of building the canal. Click here to see a selection from Pennell's series.

The Library had a one-day display for the media, with treasured items including the Library's

  • Earliest map that showed the Isthmus of Panama, dating back to 1544, by Battista Agnese of Venice.
  • Pre-canal photos of market boats in Panama Bay, ruins of Old Panama, natives washing clothes, and other scenes.
  • Letters from canal workers, including Panama Canal Chief Engineer George W. Goethals' March 17, 1907 letter to his son, George R.. "The magnitude of the work grows & grows on me…"
  • "March King" John Paul Sousa's "The Pathfinder of Panama", honoring its opening Aug. 18, 1914.

While "The Pathfinder of Panama" is no "Stars and Stripes Forever", may this story help readers find a path to Panama Canal info through the magnificent Library of Congress.

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