Panama Canal Timeline 1513-Present Day

Panama CanalThis timeline shows a chronology of the construction and expansion of the Panama Canal


1513 (during)
The explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first person to cross Panama.
1524 (during)
Charles V of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, wanted to find a route through Central America that would offer a direct route for ships travelling from Spain to Peru.
1529 (during)
Charles V ordered a survey of the Panamanian Isthmus into the feasibility of a canal. A rough plan was drawn up but was never put into operation.
1668 (during)
Sir Thomas Browne published ‘Pseudodoia Epidemica’. In his book he mentioned that it would be very advantageous for trade between Europe and China if the isthmus of Panama were to be cut through by the sea or by man.
1698 (during)
The Darien Scheme was an attempt by Scotland to establish an overland trade route across the Panamanian Isthmus of Darien.
1700 (April)
The Darien Scheme was abandoned by Scotland due to the inhospitable conditions of the land.
1788 (during)
Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Spanish should construct a canal through Panama to provide a safer voyage for ships travelling to the Spanish countries on the western side of South America.
1790 (around)
Alessandro Malaspina explored the Panama region and outlined plans for the construction of a canal.
1826 (during)
The United States opened negotiations with Gran Colombia (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama). However, President Simon Bolivar declined the offer fearing that American presence would undermine the independence of Gran Colombia.
1843 (August)
Barings of London made a contract with the Republic of New Granada for the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Darien. It was to be called the Atlantic and Pacific Canal and construction was expected to take 5 years. However, the plan was never put into operation.
1844 (around)
An idea to build a canal and/or a railway line across the Isthus of Tehuantepec in Mexico was considered.
1846 (during)
Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty
This treaty negotiated between the United States and the Republic of New Granada gave the United States the rights to transit the Isthmus of Panama. The treaty also gave America the right to intervene militarily in the area.
1848 (during)
California Gold Rush
The discovery of gold in California led to an unprecedented number of people wanting to get to the western United States. This led to renewed interest in th e construction of a crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. William H Aspinwall offered travellers a steamship journey from New York to Panama, an overland crossing of Panama and a steamship journey from Panama to California. The total journey time of 40 days was far quicker than rounding Cape Horn.
1850 (during)
Panama Railroad
The United States began construction of a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama.
1855 (during)
Panama Railroad
Now called the Panama Railway, the rail link across Panama was completed and opened.
1855 (during)
William Kennish, working for the United States government, made a survey and published ‘The Practicability and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans’.
1876 (during)
Following the achievement of the French in building the Suez Canal, Armand Reclus and Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse surveyed the route for France and published a report. They advised building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. La Societe International du Canal Interoceanique was established to construct the canal.
1879 (May)
An international engineering congress led by Ferdinand de Lesseps met in Paris. The majority were speculators, politicians and friends of de Lesseps. Only a minority were engineers. It was estimated that the project would cost $214,000,000.
1880 (14th February)
French Construction
The proposed cost of the French construction was reduced to $168,600,000.
1881 (1st January)
French Construction
Ferdinand de Lesseps had raised considerable investment for the construction of the canal through Panama due to the success of the Suez Canal. However, due to the inhospitable terrain, the tropical climate and the need for locks the construction of a canal through Panama presented more of a challenge. De Lesseps insisted that the canal be built at sea level and that locks should not be used.
1884 (during)
French Construction
Thousands of workers were dying from tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Although the mortality rate of over 200 workers per month was played down, it was still difficult to recruit workers. It was also proving to be more difficult than first thought to build the canal without locks.
1887 (during)
The United States Army Corps of Engineers made a survey of Nicaragua for canal possibilities.
1889 (during)
The Maritime Canal Company was instructed to begin a canal through Central America. The company chose Nicaragua.
1889 (15th May)
French Construction
Work was suspended on construction after the supply of money ran out. De Lesseps had raised and spent $287,000,000. 800,000 investors had lost their savings and 22,000 workers had died.
1889 (4th February)
The Panama Affair
This was the name given to the scandal surrounding the collapse of the French construction effort. De Lesseps and his son Charles were found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. However, the sentence was later overturned.
1893 (during)
The Maritime Canal Company lost money in the panic of 1893 and its work in Nicaragua stopped.
1894 (during)
The New Panama Canal Company
The French Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama was created to take over the Panama Canal project. Its aim was to run the Panama Railroad and to ensure that the equipment used in the French construction was kept in good condition. This was put up for sale at a price of $109,000,000. The French manager of the new company stated that the construction of a lock-and-lake canal was more feasible than trying to construct a sea-level canal.
1899 (during)
The Isthmian Canal Commission was established to look at possibilities for a canal through Central America.
1900 (during)
The Isthmian Canal Commission discussed possibilities for the construction of a canal across the Americas. Some members favoured construction across the Panamanian isthmus, others favoured building across Nicaragua. It was also suggested that the United States purchase the French interest in Panama.
1902 (June)
The Spooner Act
The United States agreed to purchase the French interests in Panama for $40,000,000 subject to transfer of rights. The French had agreed to accept a lesser amount over fear that the United States would pursue the Nicaragua option.
1903 (22nd January)
Hay-Herran Treaty
This was signed by John Hay, United States Secretary of State and Colombian Dr Tomas Herran. Under the terms of the treaty the United states would pay Colombia $10,000,000 and an annual pension for a renewable lease in perpetuity for the land to build the canal.
1903 (22nd January)
Hay-Herran Treaty
This was ratified by the United States Senate. However, the Colombian government did not ratify the treaty so it did not come into effect.
1903 (Autumn)
President Roosevelt decided to take advantage of a series of revolts by the province of Panama against Colombia and supported Panamanian independence.
1903 (2nd November)
Roosevelt sent United States warships to prevent Colombian troops landing in Panama to put down the rebellion.
1903 (3rd November)
Panama officially proclaimed independence from Colombia.
1903 (6th November)
Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty
This treaty with Panama granted the United States the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. It also made the Republic of Panama a United States protectorate. ???? verify
1903 (6th November)
Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty
Many Panamanians felt that their new government had sold the country to the United States. In the United States there was criticism of the way Roosvelt had manipulated the situation in Panama to his own advantage, in what could be construed as an act of war against Colombia.
1904 (during)
Colonel William C Gorgas was appointed chief sanitation officer of the canal construction project. Gorgas was aware of the recent discovery that amlaria and yellow fever were spread by mosquito. Although the Isthmian Canal Commission opposed him, he took steps to minimise the spread of tropical diseases by improved sanitation and the use of mosquito nets and insect repellent.
1904 (Spring)
The United States purchased the Panama Railroad and equipment from the French as agreed under the terms of the Spooner Act of 1902. The United States agreed to pay Panama $10,000,000 followed by yearly payments of 250,000.
1904 (4th May)
Isthmian Canal Commission
The United States took control of the canal property and established the Isthmian Canal Commission to oversee the construction.
1904 (6th May)
John Findley Wallace, former engineer and manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, was appointed chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project.
1905 (June)
John Findley Wallace resigned his position as chief engineer of the Panama Canal Project. He cited having to use the poorly maintained French equipment and the overly bureaucratic Isthmian Canal Commission as reasons for his resignation.
1905 (26th July)
John Frank Stevens was appointed chief engineer of the Panama Canal. He had little to do with the Isthmian Canal Commission and sent his requests directly to Washington.
1905 (Summer)
John Frank Stevens built new housing for workers in Panama City and Colon then recruited thousands of American workers to work on the project. He also enlarged the railway so that it was capable of transporting soil away from the area.
1905 (Summer)
The United States commissioned a panel to review the canal design. They concluded that the canal should be a sea-level canal as proposed by the French. However, Stevens declared this to be untenable due to the fact that the area frequently flooded. He argued that the best method would be for a lock system that would raise ships from a man-made large body of water 26 metres above sea level (Gatun Lake). Gravity would propel water from the lake to the locks. The Gaillard (Culebra) Cut would connect the Gatun Lake to the Pacific Ocean. Roosevelt was convinced by Stevens and agreed his scheme.
1906 (during)
The work of Colonel William C Gorgas in preventing the spread of tropical diseases had proved successful and mosquito-spread diseases had been virtually eradicated.
1906 (November)
Roosevelt visited Panama to inspect the canal’s progress.
1907 (during)
John Frank Stevens resigned as chief engineer. He was replaced by Major George Washington Goethals a US army engineer. Goethals split the work into three sections:
1. The Atlantic – under the command of Major William Sibert – construction of the breakwater at the entrance to Limon Bay, the Gatun locks and the Gatun Dam.
2. The Pacific – under the command of Sydney Williamson – the breakwater in Panama Bay, the approach to the locks, the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and their dams and reservoirs.
3. The Centre – under the command of Major David du Bose Gaillard – the Culebra Cut to connect the Gatun Lake to the Pacific locks.
1907 (late)
It had originally been planned to add a set of locks at Sosa Hill and add a lake which would extend to Pedro Miguel. However it was now decided to move the locks further inland to Miraflores because it offered a more stable construction.
1909 (24th August)
The Gatun lake was created by damming the Chagres River. It was the largest man-made lake in the world.
1911 (during)
The Pedro Miguel locks were completed.
1913 (during)
Construction of the Gatun locks was completed.
1913 (May)
Construction of the Miraflores locks was completed.
1913 (26th September)
The tugboat ‘Gatun’ successfully traversed the Gatun locks.
1913 (10th October)
President Woodrow Wilson authorised the explosion that destroyed the Gamboa Dike and flooded the Culebra Cut. This joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
1914 (January)
Construction of the canal was completed. It had cost the United States around $500,00,000.
1914 (7th January)
The ‘Alexandre la Valley’, a floating crane reached the Pacific ocean. It had crossed the canal in stages as it was constructed and was the first vessel to transit the canal.
1914 (1st April)
The Isthmian Canal Commission was disbanded and the canal zone was governed by a Canal Zone Governor. The first governor was George Washington Goethals.
1914 (3rd August)
The ‘SS Cristobal’ was the first ship to transit the canal from ocean to ocean.
1914 (14th August)
Morgan Adams of Los Angeles was the first person to pay a toll to the United States government for using the canal.
1914 (15th August)
The Panama Canal was formally opened with the transit of the cargo ship ‘SS Ancon’.
1921 (during)
Thomson-Urrutia Treaty
This treaty between the United States and Colombia agreed that the United States would pay Colombia $25,000,000.
1930 (during)
The supply of water became an issue and additional water storage was needed.
1935 (during)
The Madden Dam across the Chagres River was completed. This provided extra water storage for the canal.
1936 (1st May)
The deteriorating situation in Europe and the rise of Adolf Hitler prompted the United States to pass a resolution to investigate improving the defence of the Panama Canal and enabling passage of large warships.
1937 (3rd July)
A group of engineers were authorised to carry out a study into the improvement of the Panama Canal.
1939 (24th February)
Engineers reported to Congress recommending that a new set of locks be constructed that could carry larger vessels.
1939 (11th August)
The United States Congress authorised the extension work on the canal.
1939 (Autumn)
Third Lock Scheme
With the outbreak of World War Two, the United States began construction on a new set of larger locks that would carry large warships.
1940 (1st July)
Work began for new approach channels at Miraflores.
1941 (19th February)
Excavation to enlarge the Gatun locks began.
1945 (Autumn)
Third Lock Scheme
When World War Two ended the United States discontinued work enlarging the locks in the canal.
1950s (during)
Relations between the United States and Panama began to deteriorate. Many Panamanians felt that the canal was theirs and there were demonstrations against the United States. The US responded by isolating and militarising the canal region.
1956 (during)
The Suez Crisis
The United States intervened to force France and the UK to allow Egypt control of the Canal. Panamanians felt this set a precedent and increased their demands and protests for the canal to be handed over.
1964 (9th January)
Martyr’s Day
Rioting against the United States saw the deaths of 20 Panamanians and 5 US soldiers.
1966 (during)
Lights were installed so that ships could transit the canal 24 hours a day.
1974 (during)
Negotiations began between the United States and Panama to find a solution.
1977 (7th September)
Torrijos-Carter Treaty
Signed by Omar Torrijos of Panama and Jimmy Carter of the US, this treaty began the process of granting Panama control of the canal on condition that a treaty be signed guaranteeing that the canal be a permanent neutral zone.
1979 (1st October)
Torrijos-Carter Treaty
This became effective and provided for a 20 year transition period.
1999 (31st December)
Panama took full control of the Panama Canal. It was administered by the Panama Canal Authority.
2006 (22nd October)
Third Set of Locks Project
This project to create a system of larger locks in order to allow larger ships to transit the canal was approved by national referendum. The plan was to build two new flights of lock parallel to the existing locks. One would be east of the existing Gatun locks and one would be south-west of the Miraflores locks.
2007 (3rd September)
Third Set of Locks Project
Work began on the new expansion project.
2009 (July)
The Belgian company Jan de Nul together with a consortium of contractors including the Spanish company Sacyr Vallehermoso, the Italian Impregilo and the Panamanian Grupo Cusa were awarded the contract for the work.
2010 (December)
The canal was closed for 17 hours due to excessively heavy rainfall. The rain also caused the collapse of an access road to the Centenary Bridge.
2013 (15th June)
The Nicaraguan government gave the Hong Kong based HKND Group a 50-year concession to develop a canal through Nicaragua.
2014 (January)
A contract dispute caused a two month delay in the work.
2014 (7th July)
The Chairman of the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd approved a route for a canal through Nicaragua.
2015 (June)
Flooding of the new locks began starting with the Atlantic side.
2016 (1st April)
The toll for the canal was changed by the Panama Canal Authority and is now based on vessel type, size and type of cargo.
2016 (26th June)
The new locks opened for commercial traffic. The first ship to use the new locks was the container ship ‘Cosco Shipping Panama’.


Published May 1, 2019 @ 2:50 pm – Updated – [last-modified]

Harvard Reference for this page:

Heather Y Wheeler. (2019 – 2020). Panama Canal 1513 – Present Day. Last accessed [date]

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