Opening of the Panama Canal

1998 32¢ Panama Canal Opens stamp
US #3183f – from the Celebrate the Century Series

After a decade of construction, the Panama Canal opened to traffic on August 15, 1914.  Dubbed one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the canal helped to significantly cut down on the travel time between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Proposals for a canal across Nicaragua or Panama began as early as 1889.  United States’ public opinion of the canal was generally unfavorable until 1898, when the battleship Maine blew up at a Cuban naval base.  As the Spanish-American War loomed, the battleship Oregon sailed through San Francisco’s Golden Gates to save the day.  The eyes of the world were on its 16,000-mile course around Cape Horn and through the dangerous Strait of Magellan.  The 67-day journey clearly showed the military significance of an isthmian canal.  However, President McKinley was assassinated before he could negotiate rights to a canal.

1939 3¢ Panama Canal stamp
US #856 pictures President Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of the major proponents of creating the canal, as well as George Washington Goethals, the project’s chief engineer.

Successor Theodore Roosevelt saw the canal as vital to America’s role as a global power.  With negotiations underway in both Nicaragua and Panama, Roosevelt’s strained relationship with Columbia and the asking price of $100 million for the Panama venture could have tipped the scales in favor of a Nicaraguan canal.  However, a Nicaraguan postage stamp picturing a volcano was sent to every US senator, stating it could cause problems, and that Panama had no volcanoes.  This helped persuade the US Senate’s decision.  Construction began in 1904.

1939 Panama Canal Classic First Day Cover
US #856 – Classic First Day Cover.

Almost immediately, administrators began preparations for the tremendous influx of people who would eventually assemble to work on the project.  Faced with the knowledge that most of the work force would be imported to the region from America and Caribbean countries, authorities quickly established a postal service to serve their needs as well as those of the Canal Commission.  A postal service was established in June 1904, using Panama stamps overprinted “Canal Zone.”  Later, US stamps were overprinted, and eventually brand-new Canal Zone stamps were produced.

1939 Galliard Cut stamp
US #CZ123 pictures the “Gaillard Cut” – an artificial valley dug through the continental divide.

In November of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to travel outside the continental United States.  His visit to the Panama Canal Zone reflected an evolution in his views regarding the canal’s role in the world.  While he initially spoke of the canal in terms of a political, commercial, and military necessity, Roosevelt now allowed himself to be inspired by the romance of the project.  Roosevelt spoke of the dramatic challenges in its structural design and of the tremendous difficulties that must be overcome to complete the project – a mighty battle involving both national honor and that of the work force.

1913 2¢ Panama-Pacific Exposition: Panama Canal stamp
US #398 was issued to promote the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which celebrated the completion of the canal as well as San Francisco’s recovery from a devastating 1906 earthquake.

The construction was an arduous undertaking, costing the US $375 million and 5,600 lives.  Over the course of the 10-year project, over 75,000 people from the US, Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other nearby islands braved the harsh conditions to help make the canal a reality.

1958 4¢ SS Ancon stamp
US #CZ149 pictures the SS Ancon, the first ship to pass through the canal in 1914.

A grand celebration was to be held on August 15, 1914, to celebrate the official opening of the Panama Canal.  A fleet of international warships was to assemble off Hampton Roads, Virginia. From there, they would travel through the Panama Canal to San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

However, World War I intervened.  The grand opening was a modest affair.  There were no international dignitaries in attendance, although Colonel Goethals watched from a railcar as the cement-carrying American steamship SS Ancon traveled the canal.

1904-78 Canal Zone Collection of 100 Stamps
Item #M11596 – Collection of 100 Canal Zone stamps.

When it first opened, the canal saw annual traffic of about 1,000 ships, and that number rose to over 14,000 in the 2000s.  The canal has been updated and expanded over the years and the average ship takes a little over 11 hours to get through the locks.

Find lots of Canal Zone stamps here.

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3 responses to "Opening of the Panama Canal"

3 thoughts on “Opening of the Panama Canal”

  1. I traveled from New Orleans to Cristobal on the only remaining Canal Zone ship traveling to Panama in December of 1964 as the ships doctor. It was a very interesting journey and we traveled on the train to Panama City and got to see much of the canal including the docks and “mules” which maneuver the ships thru the locks. My good friend Dr Manuel Roy who was from Panama met us at the train and showed us a marvelous time the short stay of two days in Panama City.

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  2. This article completely skips the “diplomacy” involved in securing the rights to construct the canal in Panama. Panama was part of Columbia, and the U.S. was negotiating with Columbia for the rights to build the canal. Columbia wanted more money than was being offered and and greater rights of sovereignty in the zone. The U.S. government under Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanians to stage an insurrection. When the insurrection occurred, Roosevelt sent a warship to prevent Columbian forces from landing. The new Republic of Panama quickly signed a treaty granting the U.S. the rights to occupy the Canal Zone and build the Canal.

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  3. In 1998, my wife and I had the pleasure of crossing the Panama Canal, as tourist on a cruise. The crossing was an all-day event. I remember taking a nap in the early afternoon and upon waking, we were still crossing the canal.
    I did see the mules, they’re actually small tractors that pull and guide the ship through certain sections of the canal. I may add that many of the workers that perished in the undertaking, did so as a result of malaria.

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