The U.S. officially begins construction on the Panama Canal

A ceremony on May 4, 1905 marks the official beginning of the second attempt to build the Panama Canal. This second attempt to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will succeed, dramatically altering world trade as well as the physical and geopolitical landscape of Central America.

For decades before it was attempted, merchants and engineers fixated on the idea of creating a passage through Central America for ocean-going vessels, sparing them thousands of nautical miles and the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. A French company was the first to attempt building such a canal, but the results were disastrous: roughly 20,000 workers perished due to accidents and tropical diseases, and the company collapsed without coming close to completing the canal. 

In 1902, the United States Congress passed the Spooner Act, authorizing the acquisition of the defunct French company. After failing to reach a deal with Colombia to dig the canal, the Unites States backed separatists in the Isthmus of Panama, leading to the birth of a new nation as well as the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land 10 miles wide along the route of the canal over which the United States would hold jurisdiction.

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On May 4, 1905, dubbed “Acquisition Day,” the project became official. The Americans largely avoided the mistakes that had doomed the French project. Engineers used dams to create an inland lake, connected to the oceans by locks, rather than building a sea-level canal all the way across the isthmus. In addition to creating Gatún Lake, then the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also required the blasting of the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, an artificial gorge which was dynamited out of the rock of the Continental Divide so that the canal could flow through.

In October of 1913, nearly 10 years after construction had resumed, a telegraph from President Woodrow Wilson triggered the detonation of a dike and the flooding of the Culebra Cut, joining the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. The following August, the Panama Canal officially opened, immediately altering patterns of world trade in ways comparable only to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Accidents, disease and the extremely hot conditions killed 5,609 workers over the decade it took to complete the canal. The United States remained the de facto sovereign of the canal and the Canal Zone until 1979 when, under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. agreed to transfer management of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

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