A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Studying the Panama Canal

Celebrate the 103rd anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal this month by digging into the celebrated passageway’s fascinating history.

A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Studying the Panama Canal

People had been talking about building a canal through Panama since the 1500s, but it wasn’t until maverick President Theodore Roosevelt channeled his energy into the project during the early 20th century that the 50-foot waterway across the isthmus of Panama became a reality. Today, the Panama Canal is celebrated as one of the most innovative engineering projects of all time and one of the most costly, in terms of both dollars and lives.



PBS tackles the canal’s history and significance in American Experience: The Panama Canal. This very watchable documentary is an excellent way to put the canal in its historic and modern contexts.



What Is the Panama Canal? (part of the What Was? series) is a young reader-friendly introduction to the history and function of the Panama Canal.

Julie Green takes a different approach in The Canal Builders, focusing on the lives of the builders, most of whom came from the Caribbean to take the dirty, dangerous jobs that white workers didn’t want.

David McCullough’s sweeping history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is considered the definitive read for Panama Canal history.



Harvard’s web-accessible collection Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics offers a compelling look at the African-American experience in the building of the Panama Canal. Other attempts at canal digging had failed in part because of the sheer prevalence of tropical diseases, but the U.S. effort enlisted the assistance of a chief sanitary officer to minimize diseases among its workers.

Learn more about the yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases that plagued work crews via the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections. Explore the Smithsonian Institution’s interactive Let Dirt Fly! exhibit online for a quick history of the canal. It’s pretty amazing to look at the capacities of some of the giant steam shovels brought in to work on the canal and to think that even with all that machinery at full force, it still took more than nine years of non-stop work to actually complete the canal, especially considering how tiny that strip of land looks on the world map.

The Panama Canal Museum has digitized many primary documents relating to the canal and has a useful timeline. You can also explore its online exhibition on the history and significance of the Panama Canal.

This list was originally published in our summer 2014 issue of HSL.