Certainly the full history of the Panama Canal could fill page after page until you had yourself quite a book. Panama Canal history is generally thought of as beginning in the 1800's, but studies show that the Spanish had plans for a canal at the Panama Isthmus long before that. Dating back to around 1530, the Spanish were busy conquering much of the New World. As they began to transport their riches back to the Spanish homeland, they were always interested in more efficient routes. It was suggested to Spanish Ruler Charles V that Panama might serve as an ideal place to construct a water passage joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This would considerably cut the time it took to otherwise sail around the southern edge of South America. The Spanish would even survey a possible site and work on plans for construction by the year 1529. However, wars back home caused the project to be put on hold.
In 1534, the Spanish revisited the idea of building the first Panama Canal, and had they not abandoned the notion, it would have been constructed close to where the present day canal is found. An Italian-Spanish explorer and officer by the name of Alessandro Malaspina would go on to recommend the possibility of a canal in Panama again in the late 1700's, only to see nothing happen. Finally, in the 1850's, the construction of the Panama Railway led speculators to really start considering the actual building of the Panama Canal. In 1876, a company of international conglomerates petitioned the Colombian government for the right to build a canal across Panama. Not able to realize their goal, it would be the French who would first actually attempt the massive venture. Under Suez Canal developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French drew up plans for a canal without locks, and began building the Panama Canal on January 1, 1880. Unfortunately for French workers, a proper study of all things involved was never executed, and some 20,000 of them would die in the process. Yellow fever, malaria and landslides were among the prime causes of death, and many surviving workers eventually ended up returning to France. By 1893, the French had abandoned the project all together, and the ill-fated history of the Panama Canal seemed to be a theme that would only persist.
Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States bought out the French equipment and took over the excavations for the Panama Canal on May 4,1904. The U.S. had recently helped Panama gain its independence from Colombia, which figured prominently in the U.S. building of the Panama Canal. As a result of the help they received, Panama awarded the United States full control of the Panama Canal, and the Panama Canal Zone. John Frank Stevens was Chief Engineer of the project from 1905-1907, and he was responsible for laying down the initial groundwork, rebuilding the Panama Railway and creating a viable infrastructure for future improvements. This time around, Panama Canal history would see the canal workers being better cared for. In terms of drawing up a new engineering scheme, Stevens decided that building locks was the way to go, and President Roosevelt agreed. In 1907, George Washington Goethals took over as chief engineer, overseeing the ensuing building of the Panama Canal. Finished two years ahead of time, the canal was opened on August 15, 1914, with the cargo ship Ancon the first to pass through. Though the American group had taken better measures to ensure better health and safety, some 5,600 workers still perished. Together with the French workers, some estimated 27,500 workers died while building the Panama Canal.
Further improvements on the Panama Canal were made in subsequent years. Some improvements were scrapped, however. World War II, for example, was responsible for the cancellation of a few ideas. After World War II, more and more Panamanians found U.S. control of the canal to disagreeable. Student protests were just one way of showing the U.S. that the issue was a serious one and not likely to go away. In 1974, negotiations between Panama and the U.S. led to the 1977 signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. These treaties marked a most important stage in Panama Canal history. Panama would agree to make the Panama Canal a neutral site that the U.S. could protect against for their own interests. It was also decided that on December 31, 1999, Panama would take control of all canal operations. Exactly as planned, Panama did just that, finally gaining possession of its most prized asset. These days, Panama Canal tourism is a significant source of income for the country, and anyone on vacation in the country should consider adding a Panama Canal tour of some kind to their itinerary. And, for an in-depth look into Panama Canal history while vacationing in Panama, it is recommended that you visit Panama City's Museum of the Panama Canal, located at Calle 5a Este. Taking in the museum's exhibits is a great way to learn as much as you can before taking a Panama Canal tour.