In the tropics for a Panama Hat: it was all about developing the West
For ages, an Isthmus held two oceans apart at what is now known as the country of Panama. Certainly aboriginal peoples in the region, and later explorers from European countries, tried to pry apart that piece of land, to make travel easier between the worlds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
None of the earlier attempts were successful. In the modern sense, creating a waterway system that traversed the various sea levels from east to west, was not possible without money, technology and manpower. French and American attempts overlapped in the late 1880s, technologically and vision-wise.
Gold-seekers were extreme risk-takers of 1849. Some travelled over land in covered wagons and by train, some on board ship, and all experienced a rite of passage once arriving in Gold Country, right before it became the state of California.
Of the routes they may have taken, two of these must have influenced the decision of the U.S. to forge a treaty (1903) with France, the country then deeply involved with canal projects. In order to travers the mass of land that was the United States and arrive on the Pacific Coast required passage on a ship sailing from New York (for example), south along the continents of the Western Hemisphere, and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and then north along the Pacific coast of South America to San Francisco, a distance of 12,000 miles and many weeks’ journey.
An overland route was possible, combining a voyage by ship to Central America, and then a train ride over the Isthmus at Panama. This was the preferred, but expensive version, and did not rule out a second voyage by ship, from Pacific Panama to San Francisco. How this was possible is in itself a dramatic history.
The Panama Railroad Company had been formed in 1847 in New York in order to build railway transportation from east to west coast. Over 5 years of unremitting hardship, disease, and worker’s deaths, fifty miles of tracks were laid in the Panama region and the line was opened for business in January, 1855. The company served traffic from Central and South America, and to and from California and was really successful for 12 years, until the U.S. transcontinental railroad, a monumental competitor, was installed. Later, the Panama Railroad, a land-based company, added ocean travel to its business in late 1880s and began the profitable transport and provision of goods to the Panamanian region for foreigners living there.
Then in 1903, the Hay-Brunau-Varilla Treaty created an agreement between the U.S. and France. The Treaty gave the U.S. the option to overtake and complete the canal-building project begun by the French. Besides engineering the project, the ever-present threat of tropical diseases, and the provision of supplies from outside the region created severe challenges to the success of the waterway system.
At the opening of the Canal in 1914, after many years of overcoming obstacles in geology, climate and health associated with working difficult terrain in tropical conditions, the U.S. Congress created an organization known as “The Panana Canal” as distinguished from Panama Canal Zone, which denotes the geographic area. Eleven years earlier, the Republic of Panama had been formed, freeing the country from the clutches of Colombia, with whom it had been related since 1821.
Perhaps the most aggressive building scheme at the time would not have been possible without eradicating the threat and destruction of disease. Panama Canal construction workers, many of whom were not native to the Isthmus, remained to work on the Canal for years at a time. They thus required necessities such as housing, supplies, food and clothing. These items were readily accessible in their native countries and so they were shipped to Panama and then delivered to the commissary system which sold these items. This was possible due to the over-land transportation furnished by the Panama Railroad Company.
The workers’ experience also included sickness and death prevalent in the region due to malaria and yellow fever. Called “pestilential” by the publications of the times, it was one of the plagues to health brought under control at first by William Crawford Gargas, who taught sanitation and control of the insect breeding areas (water retention in pools and reservoirs close to housing).
Several rare books and pamphlets outlined in the following articles delineate the history of the Canal, each in a unique way.