This past winter break, my wife and I traveled to Panama on vacation with an aim of seeing something of the nature, culture, and history of that Central American nation. We also had an interest in seeing the man-made “wonder” of the canal, even as Panamanians work feverishly to excavate and build a new and wider channel to accommodate larger shipping in time for the celebration of the canal’s hundredth year anniversary of operation in 2014.

Although everyone today recognizes the strategic and commercial importance of the Panama Canal, materials in our own rare books library demonstrate that in the nineteenth century there was no consensus that Panama would be the best site for an inter-oceanic canal. In 1849, American millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt negotiated an exclusive rights contract with the Nicaraguan government to establish an overland crossing by stagecoach and train and build a canal within twelve years time. Although his overland route prospered, a civil war in Nicaragua and William Walker’s filibustering invasion put a halt to canal construction, though the United States continued to show interest in reviving the Nicaraguan Canal project in the 1880s and 1890s. In addition to negotiating treaties with Nicaraguan officials, the U.S. also commissioned a survey of the proposed route. Our library holds a copy of both the report of the surveying party published in 1886, and the message of U.S. President Grover Cleveland on the feasibility, permanence and potential costs of the Nicaraguan canal proposal in 1896.

The French, of course, were the first to see the potential of a Panamanian canal project. In 1880 the Geological Society of Paris signed a treaty with the Colombians—(as Panama was still a state in Colombia). Two years later, a French company under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps—(chief engineer of the Suez Canal)—began construction on the Panama Canal using Black laborers from the French Caribbean. In the first eight years, however, the French lost more than 20,000 workers to malaria and yellow fever, and the under-funded project lost support and steam. While U.S. canal commissioners had long favored a Nicaragua project, the opportunity to buy and take over the bankrupted French project shifted U.S. interests to the Panamanian isthmus. Looking to recoup their losses and protect their land investments, in 1902 the French Canal Syndicate hired lobbyist William Nelson Cromwell to promote the Panama canal initiative. When in May 1902 a volcanic eruption in the Caribbean killed 30,000 in Saint Pierre, Martinique, Cromwell planted a story in the papers about an eruption and seismic shocks of the Momotombo volcano in Nicaragua and distributed leaflets with a stamp prominently featuring the Momotombo volcano to every U.S. senator to be voting on which canal project would be pursued.

The Wolfsonian-FIU rare books library has a wealth of material dealing with the United States phase of canal construction in Panama, including several pictorial works featuring hand sketches and lithographic illustrations of the building of the canal. The library also holds materials from the Panama-California Exposition held in San Diego, California in 1915 which celebrated the completion of the canal the year before.


There are also a number of vintage souvenir view books dating from the twenties and thirties with images of the completed canal. Many of these items feature images of U.S. naval warships passing through the locks and channel in a show of military might.

The library also holds a copy of Measurement of Vessels for the Panama Canal, a work by Emory Johnson intended to ensure the construction of ships that would fit within the limits of the locks of the canal.

Ironically, today new and larger canal channels are being dredged and locks constructed in Panama to accommodate the larger container and passenger ships being built.

~ by "The Chief" on January 7, 2011.


  1. I wonder what the ecological impact of this man-made “wonder” is, considering the massive amount of fresh water the canal turns into waste water?

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