What Are Some Historical Facts About the Panama Canal?


Quick Answer

The Panama Canal was conceived of in the 16th century. The French were the first people to attempt to construct a canal through Panama. America originally wanted to build a canal in Nicaragua instead of Panama. Construction occurred in two stages.

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Full Answer

In 1513, Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered that the Isthmus of Panama was a slim land bridge separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1534, Charles V of Spain ordered a survey to determine if a waterway could be built. Surveyors eventually decided that construction of a ship canal was impossible.

The French attempt to build a canal through Panama was initiated by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who constructed the Suez Canal. The French canal project began in January 1881 and ended in 1889 after spending $287 million and losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents. Lesseps was later tried and convicted of misappropriation of funds.

America originally thought a canal through Nicaragua would be a much more plausible route. Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer, persuaded the Americans that Panama was a better alternative. The American Congress approved the purchase of French assets in Panama. The United States then negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which gave America the right to a zone of more than 500 square miles in which it could construct a canal.

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