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.

WATCH: Modern Marvels: Panama Canal Supersized on HISTORY Vault

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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Members of the Niagara Movement meet for the first time

Year
1905
Month Day
July 11

Niagara Movement members begin meeting on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. This all-African American group of scholars, lawyers and businessmen came together for three days to create what would soon become a powerful post-slavery Black rights organization. Although it only lasted five years, the Niagara Movement was an influential precursor to the mid-20th century civil rights movement.

Scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois was a founding member of the Niagara Movement. Twenty-nine men showed up for the group’s initial meeting, which discussed establishing an organization to fight racial segregation and promoting the full incorporation of African Americans into U.S. society.

Du Bois was determined to pit this new group in opposition to the platforms put forward by the Tuskegee Institute’s famed Booker T. Washington—then the nation’s foremost spokesperson on Black issues.

Washington had famously declared in his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech that Black people should remain in the South and work alongside white citizens, even in the face of Jim Crow segregation and race-based violence.

The Niagara Movement opposed Washington’s ideas of appeasement. Members coordinated the creation of several state-level chapters and vowed to agitate for Black voting rights, better health care, education, employment opportunities and civil liberties.

Despite continuing to meet annually around the country, membership in the Niagara Movement only reached a high of 170. A large part of its lack of support was due to its opposition towards Washington, who wielded enough influence to limit publicity about the organization. By 1910, the Niagara Movement had completely disbanded, but its principles lived on in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: Timeline

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The Battle of Tsushima Strait

Year
1905
Month Day
May 27

During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Baltic Fleet is nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The decisive defeat, in which only 10 of 45 Russian warships escaped to safety, convinced Russian leaders that further resistance against Japan’s imperial designs for East Asia was hopeless.

On February 8, 1904, following the Russian rejection of a Japanese plan to divide Manchuria and Korea into spheres of influence, Japan launched a surprise naval attack against Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in China. It was the first major battle of the 20th century, and the Russian fleet was decimated. During the subsequent war, Japan won a series of decisive victories over the Russians, who underestimated the military potential of its non-Western opponent. In January 1905, the strategic naval base of Port Arthur fell to Japanese naval and ground forces under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and in March Russian troops were defeated at Shenyang, China, by Japanese Field Marshal Iwao Oyama.

Russian Czar Nicholas II hoped that the Russian Baltic fleet under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky would be able to challenge Admiral Togo’s supremacy at sea, but during the two-day Battle of Tsushima Strait, beginning on May 27, more than 30 Russian ships were sunk or captured by the superior Japanese warships. In August, the stunning string of Japanese victories convinced Russia to accept the peace treaty mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Roosevelt was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement.) In the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia recognized Japan as the dominant power in Korea and gave up Port Arthur, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan.

Japan emerged from the conflict as the first modern non-Western world power and set its sights on greater imperial expansion. However, for Russia, its military’s disastrous performance in the war was one of the immediate causes of the Russian Revolution of 1905.

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Russian fleet surrenders at Port Arthur


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Year
1905
Month Day
January 02

During the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur, the Russian naval base in China, falls to Japanese naval forces under Admiral Heihachiro Togo. It was the first in a series of defeats that by June turned the tide of the imperial conflict irrevocably against Russia.

In February 1904, following a Russian rejection of a Japanese plan to divide Manchuria and Korea into spheres of influence, Japan launched a surprise naval attack on Port Arthur, decimating the Russian fleet. In the subsequent fighting, Japan won a series of decisive victories over the Russians, who underestimated the military potential of its non-Western opponent.

In January 1905, the strategic naval base of Port Arthur fell to the Japanese; in March, Russian troops were defeated at Shenyang, China, by Japanese Field Marshal Iwao Oyama; and in May, the Russian Baltic fleet under Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski was destroyed by Admiral Togo’s fleet near the Tsushima Islands. These three crucial defeats convinced Russia that further resistance against Japan’s imperial designs on East Asia was hopeless, and in August 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt mediated a peace treaty at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Japan emerged from the conflict as the first modern non-Western world power and set its sights on greater imperial expansion. For Russia, however, the disastrous performance in the war was one of the immediate causes of the Russian Revolution of 1905.

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World’s largest diamond found


Year
1905
Month Day
January 25

On January 25, 1905, at the Premier Mine in Pretoria, South Africa, a 3,106-carat diamond is discovered during a routine inspection by the mine’s superintendent. Weighing 1.33 pounds, and christened the “Cullinan,” it was the largest diamond ever found.

Frederick Wells was 18 feet below the earth’s surface when he spotted a flash of starlight embedded in the wall just above him. His discovery was presented that same afternoon to Sir Thomas Cullinan, who owned the mine. Cullinan then sold the diamond to the Transvaal provincial government, which presented the stone to Britain’s King Edward VII as a birthday gift. Worried that the diamond might be stolen in transit from Africa to London, Edward arranged to send a phony diamond aboard a steamer ship loaded with detectives as a diversionary tactic. While the decoy slowly made its way from Africa on the ship, the Cullinan was sent to England in a plain box.

Edward entrusted the cutting of the Cullinan to Joseph Asscher, head of the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam. Asscher, who had cut the famous Excelsior Diamond, a 971-carat diamond found in 1893, studied the stone for six months before attempting the cut. On his first attempt, the steel blade broke, with no effect on the diamond. On the second attempt, the diamond shattered exactly as planned; Asscher then fainted from nervous exhaustion.

The Cullinan was later cut into nine large stones and about 100 smaller ones, valued at millions of dollars all told. The largest stone is called the “Star of Africa I,” or “Cullinan I,” and at 530 carats, it is the largest-cut fine-quality colorless diamond in the world. The second largest stone, the “Star of Africa II” or “Cullinan II,” is 317 carats. Both of these stones, as well as the “Cullinan III,” are on display in the Tower of London with Britain’s other crown jewels; the Cullinan I is mounted in the British Sovereign’s Royal Scepter, while the Cullinan II sits in the Imperial State Crown.

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Teddy Roosevelt discusses America’s race problem


Year
1905
Month Day
February 13

On February 13, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt delivers a stirring speech to the New York City Republican Club.

Roosevelt had just won reelection, and in this speech, he discussed the country’s current state of race relations and his plan for improving them. In 1905, many white Americans’ attitude of superiority to other races still lingered. Much bitterness still existed between North and South and, in addition, Roosevelt’s tenure in office had seen an influx of Asian immigrants in the West, which contributed to new racial tensions. 

In his argument for racial equality, Roosevelt used the rising tide raises all ships metaphor, stating that if morality and thrift among the colored men can be raised then those same virtues among whites, already assumed to be more advanced, would rise to an even higher degree. At the same time, he warned that the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it [the] debasement of the whites.

Roosevelt’s solution to the race problem in 1905 was to proceed slowly toward social and economic equality. He cautioned against imposing radical changes in government policy and instead suggested a gradual adjustment in the attitudes of whites toward ethnic minorities. He referred to white Americans as the forward race, whose responsibility it was to raise the status of minorities through training the backward race[s] in industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality. Thus, he claimed whites bore the burden of preserving the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.

While Roosevelt firmly believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, his administration took only a passive, long-term approach to improving civil rights. His successors in the 20th century would take the same route–it was not until Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that government efforts to correct racial bias would be encoded into law.

READ MORE: 7 Little-Known Legacies of Teddy Roosevelt

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Franklin Roosevelt marries Eleanor Roosevelt


Year
1905
Month Day
March 17

Future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt weds his fifth cousin once removed, Eleanor Roosevelt, in New York on this day in 1905.

Eleanor, born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in New York in 1884, lost her mother Anna to diphtheria when she was eight. Her father, Elliot, a brother of Theodore Roosevelt, died as a result of alcoholism when she was 10 years old. As a result, Eleanor was raised by the extended Roosevelt family and met her future husband for the first time when she was just two years old and he was four. They saw each other frequently at dances and parties and over the years became very close. In 1903, a 22-year-old Franklin proposed marriage to the 19-year-old Eleanor; the couple wed two years later on St. Patrick’s Day. Former President Theodore Roosevelt gave away the bride. As Franklin pursued a career in politics, Eleanor raised four children (a fifth died in infancy), volunteered in civic organizations and worked for women’s suffrage before becoming first lady.

A year after their wedding, Teddy Roosevelt, who was very fond of his niece, wrote to FDR, “you and Eleanor are true and brave, and I believe you love each other unselfishly…” However, their married life proved less than blissful. In 1918, Eleanor was devastated to discover that Franklin was having an affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor threatened to leave him, his mother intervened and offered to support Eleanor financially if she would stay in the marriage. After that, Eleanor and Franklin maintained the public facade of a married couple but in reality lived as platonic partners who shared an interest in public service.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, the shy Eleanor blossomed as she made public appearances on behalf of her husband and pursued a variety of philanthropic activities. She used her celebrity to promote civil rights and humanitarian causes and also published a daily newspaper column called “My Day.” Roosevelt valued Eleanor’s intellect and viewpoint and often consulted her on presidential matters.

FDR continued to have other affairs, including one with his secretary, Missy LeHand. His son, Elliot, recalled having seen LeHand sitting on his father’s lap and, that he, like the rest of the president’s family, “accepted it as a matter of course.” As for Eleanor, unsubstantiated rumors flourished regarding her alleged lesbian love affair with a female reporter named Lorena Hickok. The two women exchanged letters brimming with sexual undertones. A dear friend and mentor to Eleanor, Hickok moved into the White House in 1940.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor stayed active in public service, becoming a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. She died in 1962.

READ MORE: Why FDR Didn’t Support Eleanor Roosevelt’s Anti-Lynching Campaign

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George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is performed in New York

Year
1905
Month Day
October 28

On October 28, George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which dealt frankly with prostitution, is performed at the Garrick Theater in New York. The play, Shaw’s second, had been banned in Britain. After only one performance, puritanical authorities in New York had the play closed. On October 31, the producer and players were arrested for obscenity, but a court case against the play failed to convict playwright, producer, or actors. Although some private productions were held, the show wasn’t legally performed in Britain until 1926.

Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, and left school at the age of 14 to work in a land agent’s office. In 1876, he quit and moved to London, where his mother, a music teacher, had settled. He worked various jobs while trying to write plays. He began publishing book reviews and art and music criticism in 1885. Meanwhile, he became a committed reformer and an active force in the newly established Fabian Society, a group of middle-class socialists. His first play, Widowers’ House, was produced in 1892.

Shaw became the theater critic for the Saturday Review in 1895, and his reviews over the next several years helped shape the development of drama. In 1898, he published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, which contained Arms and the Man,The Man of Destiny, and other dramas. In 1904, Man and Superman was produced.

In his work, Shaw supported socialism and decried the abuses of capitalism, the degradation of women, and the ill effects of poverty, violence, and war. His writing was filled with humor, wit and sparkle, as well as reformist messages. His play Pygmalion, produced in 1912, later became the hit musical and movie My Fair Lady.

In 1925, Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature and used the substantial prize money to start an Anglo-Swedish literary society. He lived simply, abstained from alcohol, caffeine, and meat, declined most honors and awards, and continued writing into his 90s. He produced more than 40 plays before his death in 1950.

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First nickelodeon opens

Year
1905
Month Day
June 19

On June 19, 1905, some 450 people attend the opening day of the world’s first nickelodeon, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and developed by the showman Harry Davis. The storefront theater boasted 96 seats and charged each patron five cents. Nickelodeons (named for a combination of the admission cost and the Greek word for “theater”) soon spread across the country. Their usual offerings included live vaudeville acts as well as short films. By 1907, some 2 million Americans had visited a nickelodeon, and the storefront theaters remained the main outlet for films until they were replaced around 1910 by large modern theaters.

Inventors in Europe and the United States, including Thomas Edison, had been developing movie cameras since the late 1880s. Early films could only be viewed as peep shows, but by the late 1890s movies could be projected onto a screen. Audiences were beginning to attend public demonstrations, and several movie “factories” (as the earliest production studios were called) were formed. In 1896, the Edison Company inaugurated the era of commercial movies, showing a collection of moving images as a minor act in a vaudeville show that also included live performers, among whom were a Russian clown, an “eccentric dancer” and a “gymnastic comedian.” The film, shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, featured images of dancers, ocean waves and gondolas.

Short films, usually less than a minute long, became a regular part of vaudeville shows at the turn of the century as “chasers” to clear out the audience after a show. A vaudeville performers’ strike in 1901, however, left theaters scrambling for acts, and movies became the main event. In the earliest years, vaudeville theater owners had to purchase films from factories via mail order, rather than renting them, which made it expensive to change shows frequently. Starting in 1902, Henry Miles of San Francisco began renting films to theaters, forming the basis of today’s distribution system. The first theater devoted solely to films, The Electric Theater in Los Angeles, opened in 1902. Housed in a tent, the theater’s first screening included a short called New York in a Blizzard. Admission cost about 10 cents for a one-hour show. Nickelodeons developed soon after, offering both movies and live acts.

READ MORE: How TV Killed Hollywood’s Golden Age

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Fingerprint evidence is used to solve a British murder case

Year
1905
Month Day
March 27

The neighbors of Thomas and Ann Farrow, shopkeepers in South London, discover their badly bludgeoned bodies in their home. Thomas was already dead, but Ann was still breathing. She died four days later without ever having regained consciousness. The brutal crime was solved using the newly developed fingerprinting technique. Only three years earlier, the first English court had admitted fingerprint evidence in a petty theft case. The Farrow case was the first time that the cutting-edge technology was used in a high-profile murder case.

Since the cash box in which the Farrow’s stored their cash receipts was empty, it was clear to Scotland Yard investigators that robbery was the motive for the crime. One print on the box did not match the victims or any of the still-tiny file of criminal prints that Scotland Yard possessed. Fortunately, a local milkman reported seeing two young men in the vicinity of the Farrow house on the day of the murders. Soon identified as brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton, the police began interviewing their friends.

Alfred’s girlfriend told police that he had given away his coat the day and changed the color of his shoes the day after the murders. A week later, authorities finally caught up with the Stratton brothers and fingerprinted them. Alfred’s right thumb was a perfect match for the print on the Farrow’s cash box.

The fingerprint evidence became the prosecution’s only solid evidence when the milkman was unable to positively identify the Strattons. The defense put up expert Dr. John Garson to attack the reliability of the fingerprint evidence. But the prosecution countered with evidence that Garson had written to both the defense and prosecution on the same day offering his services to both.

The Stratton brothers, obviously not helped by the discrediting of Garson, were convicted and hanged on May 23, 1905. Since then, fingerprint evidence has become commonplace in criminal trials and the lack of it is even used by defense attorneys.

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