Panama Canal

The Land Divided, The World United

Building the Panama Canal


Ancón: Town adjacent to Panama City near the Pacific entrance to the Canal. Ancón was the site of French and American hospitals and housing for workers during construction of the Canal.

Aspinwall: Town incorporated as the Atlantic terminal of the Panama Canal Railroad.

William Henry Aspinwall (1807-1875): New York businessman who operated the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, delivering mail between Panama and the U.S. west coast. In 1850, he helped financed construction of the Panama Railroad.

Atlantic-Pacific Inter-Oceanic Canal Study Commission: Congressional commission formed in 1964 to study the feasibility of building a sea-level canal through Central America. The Commission published their findings in 1971.

Balboa: City at the Pacific entrance to the Canal that was home to the administrative headquarters of the U.S. Panama Canal Zone and a U.S. navy base. Since December 31, 1999, Balboa is a district of Panama City and headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519): Spanish explorer who in 1513 became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean during an expedition in present-day Panama.

Bridge of the Americas: Located near Balboa on the Pacific side of the Canal, it was the first highway bridge across the Canal. Opened in 1962 as the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, Panamanians changed the name to Bridge of the Americas in 1979.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940): French engineer who worked in Panama during the French construction effort during the 1880s. In 1903, as a representative of the newly formed Panamanian government, he signed the Hay-Buanau-Varilla treaty that gave the U.S. the right to build a canal in Panama.

Canal Zone: Territory in Panama granted to the U.S. as part of the 1903 Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The Canal Zone extended five miles on each side of the Canal and three miles into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The U.S. operated the Canal Zone until 1979. Thereafter, the land became part of Panama.

James Earl “Jimmy” Carter (1924 – ): Thirty-ninth president of the United States in office from 1977 to 1981. In 1977, President Carter negotiated new Canal treaties with Panamanian leader General Omar Torrijos. Ratified in 1978, the Torrijos-Carter treaties required the U.S. to relinquish ownership of the Canal to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999.

Chagres River: Waterway in Panama that provides a water supply for the Canal locks. The U.S. built two dams on the river, at Gatun to form Gatun Lake and the Madden Dam east of the Canal.

Henry Chauncey (1795-1863): New York banker who became partners in the Panama Railroad Company during the 1850s with William Aspinwall and John Stephens.

Centennial Bridge: Cable-stayed bridge carrying six lanes of traffic that opened in 2005 across Culebra Cut on the Pacific side of the Canal.

Colón: City in Panama near the Atlantic entrance to the Canal. The city was named after Christopher Columbus.

Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama: A new French canal company formed in 1894 to complete the work of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ failed Compagnie Universelle. The new canal was to be a lock canal, but the project ultimately went unfinished. The U.S. purchased the assets of the French company in 1903.

Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique: French company formed in 1879 by Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal across present-day Panama. The company dissolved in 1889 after years of financial struggles in a failed attempt to build a canal.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506): Italian-born explorer who made four voyages to the Americas between 1492 and 1504, sailing under the Spanish flag. During his fourth voyage, he sailed along the isthmus of present-day Panama.

Cristóbal: Port that is adjacent to the city of Colón on the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. Both Cristóbal and Colón were named after Christopher Columbus.

Cucaracha: Section of Culebra Cut that experienced major landslides during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Culebra Cut: Nine-mile channel of the Panama Canal dug through the continental divide. The Cut was the largest portion of excavation work during construction of the Canal. In 1915, President Wilson changed the name to Gaillard Cut in honor of David Gaillard, the engineer in charge of excavation who died before the Cut’s completion.

James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887): Civil engineer who designed a bridge in St. Louis, Missouri, that was the first bridge across the Mississippi River. In 1880, he proposed a railway system that would carry ships across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico as an alternative to building a canal through Panama.

Expansion project: Five billion dollar project initiated by Panama in 2007. The project includes adding a third set of locks, dredging, and upgrading equipment.

Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894): French diplomat and administrator who oversaw the construction of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869. In the 1880s, de Lesseps led construction of a canal across Panama, a venture that ultimately failed due to tropical diseases and financial troubles.

Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1915): Cuban medical doctor credited with making the discovery that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever virus. In 1881, Finlay published his mosquito theory in Anales de la Real Academia. In 1901, his findings were proved in Cuba by Dr. Walter Reed and colleagues of the Yellow Fever Commission.

Gaillard Cut: see Culebra Cut.

David du Bose Gaillard (1859-1913): U.S. engineer and Lieutenant Colonel who led the construction of the engineering work in Culbra Cut from 1906 until his death eight months before the Canal officially opened. Culebra was renamed the Gaillard Cut during U.S. ownership of the Canal from 1914 to 1999.

Gamboa Bridge: Rail and road bridge across the Chagres River.

Gatun Dam: Earthen dam on the Chagres River in Panama that created Gatun Lake. The dam always provides hydroelectric power to operate the Canal locks.

Gatun Lake: One hundred sixty-four square mile reservoir created by the Gatun Dam. Fresh water from the lake supplies the water necessary to operate the Canal locks and provides 32 miles of navigable waterway of the 48-mile Canal.

Gatun Locks: Three-step lock system at the Atlantic entrance to the Canal. The locks raise and lower ships between the ocean and Gatun Lake, which is 85 feet above sea level.

Adolphe Godin de Lépinay (1821-1898): French engineer who proposed in 1879 building a lock canal across Panama. His idea of damning the Chagres River and building locks at the Atlantic and Pacific entrances was similar to what was eventually constructed by the U.S in the twentieth century.

Gold payroll: Segregated system of pay during U.S. construction of the Canal. Gold roll workers were white, primarily American, more highly paid, and paid in U.S. gold coin. The system was a color line, with separate privileges, eating facilities, and building entrances for gold and silver workers. President Eisenhower ended the gold and silver payrolls in 1955.

George Washington Goethals (1858-1928): U.S. engineer who served as Chief Engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission from 1907 until the Panama Canal opened in August 1914. He served as the first Governor of the Panama Canal from 1914 until 1917.

William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920): U.S. Army doctor who worked with yellow fever patients in Texas and Cuba during the late 19th century. He eradicated yellow fever in Cuba prior to his appointment as Chief Sanitary Engineer in Panama.

John Milton Hay (1838-1905): U.S. Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905 under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, Hay negotiated a treaty with Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an envoy of the Republic of Panama, which secured the right for the U.S. to build a canal in Panama.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859): German naturalist and explorer who traveled in Central and South America from 1799 to 1804. He became widely known in his time through public lectures and his publications, Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland and Kosmos.

Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC): U.S. Congressional commission formed in 1899 to recommend a site for a canal in Central America. President Theodore Roosevelt reorganized the ICC to oversee the construction and operation of the Panama Canal.

Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973): Thirty-sixth president of the United States in office from 1963 to 1969. In 1964, following riots by Panamanians over U.S. presence in the Canal Zone, Johnson renegotiated the U.S.-Panama canal treaty and created a commission to study the feasibility of building a sea-level canal.

Landslide: A movement of earth down the slope of a mountain or hill. Engineers encountered numerous slides during excavation of Culebra Cut.

Lidgerwood unloader: A three-ton plow manufactured by the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company of New York City. An unloader was attached at the end of flatcars hauling dirt by rail from excavation sites. Attached by cable to the lead car, a winch pulled the plow forward, unloading dirt from the train cars, saving hundreds of hours of labor if unloaded by hand.

Locks: System of chamber filled or emptied of water to raise or loser a vessel. At the Panama Canal, all existing lock chambers are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

Madden Dam: Completed in 1935, the Madden Dam forms Madden Lake, a reservoir that provides a back-up water supply for the Panama Canal.

Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521): Portuguese-born explorer who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the earth from 1519 to 1522. Though Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, one of his ships returned to Europe to complete the circumnavigation.

Malaria: Mosquito-borne disease that causes fever, chills, and flu-like illness. Left untreated, malaria can kill.

Miraflores Locks: Two-step lock system at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The locks raise and lower ships between the ocean and Miraflores Lake, which is 54 feet above sea level.

Mules: Electric-powered locomotives that guide ships through the Panama Canal locks.

Nicaragua route: Proposed route for a sea-level canal through Nicaragua.

Aurin Bugbee Nichols (1845-1929): Office Engineer during the building of the Panama Canal. He arrived in Panama in 1904 at the beginning of construction and worked in the Canal Zone until the Canal’s completion in 1914.

Operation Plowshare: Atomic Energy Commission project that explored using nuclear explosives for civil engineering excavation.

Panama: Southern most country in Central America with a land area of 29,157 square miles. At the time of the handover of the Canal at the end of 1999, approximately 3,000,000 people lived in Panama.

Panama Canal Authority: Agency of the Government of Panama that oversees the operation and maintenance of the Panama Canal. The PCA began oversight of the Canal on December 31, 1999, when the U.S. handed over control of the Canal to Panama. The PCA has an Administrator, an Assistant Administrator, and an 11-member Board of Directors.

Panama City: Capital city of the Republic of Panama. Located near the Pacific entrance to the Canal, the city’s population is over 1,400,000.

Panama Railroad: Transcontinental railroad completed in 1855 across the Isthmus of Panama. Kansas City Southern Railway renovated the PRR in 1998. The railway provides passenger service and an intermodal link between the Pacific and Atlantic ports.

Panamax: Size of ship that fits within the original Canal lock chambers that are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

Pedro Miguel Locks: One-step lock system at the Pacific side of the Canal. The lock raises and lower ships between Culebra Cut, which is 85 feet above sea level, and Miraflores Lake at 54 feet above sea level.

Armand Réclus (1843-1927): French navy lieutenant and engineer who performed survey work in Panama and later oversaw canal construction from 1881 until his resignation a year later.

Walter Reed (1851-1902): U.S. Army doctor who performed experiments in Cuba that helped prove the theory that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945): Thirty-second president of the United States in office from 1933 to 1945. In 1936, FDR negotiated the Hull-Alfaro Treaty, which gave economic concessions to Panama and committed the U.S. to build a trans-isthmian highway.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919): Twenty-sixth president of the United States in office from 1901-1909. A strong proponent of building a canal across Central America, Roosevelt maneuvered U.S. foreign policy and used military might to acquire the rights of Panama from Columbia in 1903. Roosevelt visited Panama in 1906 to view construction of the Canal, becoming the first U.S. president to leave the country while in office.

Silver payroll: Segregated system of pay during U.S. construction of the Canal. The silver roll workers, mainly from the Caribbean islands but also from Spain, Italy, and other European countries, were paid much less and in Panamanian silver coin. The system was a color line, with separate privileges, eating facilities, and building entrances for gold and silver workers. President Eisenhower ended the gold and silver payrolls in 1955.

Jackson Smith (1862-1910): American official who worked in the Canal Zone from 1905 to 1908, serving as Head of the Department of Labor, Quarters, and Subsistence and as a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission.

Society of the Incas: Social club during U.S. construction of the Canal, named after the indigenous Pre-Columbian empire of western South America. Membership in the Incas club was limited to American professional workers who had arrived in Panama at the beginning of construction in 1904.

S.S. Ancon: Steamship that transited the Canal during its official opening ceremony on August 15, 1914.

S.S. Cristobal: Sister ship of the S.S. Ancon. The Cristobal transited the full length of the Canal on August 3, 1914, a test run 12 days prior to its official opening.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852): American explorer, archaeologist, and businessman who became vice-president of the Panama Railroad in 1849.

John Frank Stevens (1853-1943): U.S. civil engineer who was appointed Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal from 1905 to 1907. During his brief tenure as Chief Engineer, Stevens was instrumental in combating yellow fever and malaria and in convincing politicians and Canal officials that a locks canal was a more prudent choice than a sea-level canal.

Thatcher Ferry Bridge: See Bridge of the Americas.

Torrijos-Carter Treaty: Agreement between Panama and the United States signed by President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos. The treaty handed over the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

Track shifter: Machine that could pick up and move sections of rail and ties. Track shifters were used in Culebra Cut to frequently move rail lines that hauled spoil from the excavation site.

William Howard Taft (1857-1930): Twenty-seventh president of the United States in office from 1909 to 1913. Taft served as Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, visiting Panama five times to check on construction progress. He traveled to Panama in January 1909 as president-elect to inspect construction.

Omar Torrijos (1929-1981): Brigadier General who became leader of Panama in 1968. General Torrijos signed a treaty with the U.S. in 1977 that transferred control of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999. The treaty also transferred the Panama Railroad to Panama in 1979.

John Findlay Wallace (1852-1921): U.S. civil engineer appointed as the first Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal construction project. He arrived in Panama in June 1904 and resigned a year later.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924): Twenty-eighth president of the United States in office from 1913 to 1921. The Panama Canal officially opened seventeen months after Wilson became president. In 1914, Wilson urged Congress to repeal a clause in the Panama Canal Act of 1912 that exempted U.S. merchant ships from paying tolls to transit the Canal.

Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse (1845-1909): French Navy Lieutenant and engineer who expored potential canal routes in Central America as a protégé of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Wyse negotiated a treaty with Columbia in 1877 that gave de Lesseps’ company a 99-year lease to build a canal.

Yellow fever: Virus found in tropical and subtropical environments that is spread by mosquito bites. Fatal cases of the virus include high fever, bleeding, kidney failure, and jaundice.