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Celebrating the Panama Canal's Centennial (1914-2014)


panama canal 1919
NYPL Digital Gallery, ID: 440672, Panama Canal, America. (ca. 1919-1929)

Spanish version/La version en Español

The Panama Canal celebrates one hundred years on August 15, 2014.

What do we know of the canal that connects the two largest oceans of the world?

The canal is “about 80 km (50 miles) long and 150 m (490 feet) wide, across the isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans” (Oxford Reference). The waterway connects to 144 maritime routes from over 80 countries each week (Embassy of the United States, Panama).

What is a Canal? 

A canal is a waterway that has been excavated and connects sea routes. The Panama Canal and Suez Canal are the two most important waterways in the world. The Panama Canal is located in Central America and extends from Limon Bay to the Gulf of Panama. It is the busiest canal in the world. Each year more than ten thousand vessels cross it. The Suez Canal is located between Port Said, Egypt, and the Gulf of Suez and allows ships sailing between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, thus shortening the sea route between Europe and Asia (World Book).

Panama canal 1919-2
Panama Canal, America. (ca. 1919-1929) NYPL Digital Gallery, ID: 440692

The Panama Canal is a key point in promoting world trade and saves users significant travel time through the Americas (IIP Digital). More than 1 million vessels with a total load of more than 9 billion tons have traveled the Canal (Annual Report 2013 (PDF Format)). The Panama Canal has been the longest and most expensive construction project in the history of the world. The process of building the Canal was done in two stages. The project was initiated by the French from 1881 to 1888. It was then continued and successfully completed by the Americans in August 15, 1914 (Gale World History in Context). Many workers from around the world came to the isthmus to build the Canal (American Experience).

The twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, negotiated, supervised and authorized the purchase and construction of a canal through the isthmus of Panama through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, signed on 18 November 1903 (Embassy of the United States, Panama).

For many, the Panama Canal was certainly a dream come true. Columbus himself was looking for a way to reach the Pacific through the narrow isthmus of Central America. For centuries, monarchs, presidents, explorers and entrepreneurs - all struggled to find such a passage, knowing that whoever controls it could exert unparalleled power over world trade, and therefore the fate of nations. (Panama Fever). 

Adapted from NYPL Digital Gallery, Image ID: 465015
The world, on Mercator's projection / By David H. Burr ; engraved by S. Stiles & Co., N. York.(1840)

Works presented below tell the story of its construction. Panama Fever is one of the first books that tell the story of this powerful project that lasted almost 30 years. Diaries, memoirs, letters and other contemporary reports narrate the experience of those who built the canal, including the political and business personalities that influenced the international diplomacy, and workers worldwide who rushed to take the opportunity of high wages and thus also to be part of history (American Experience).

However, literature also recounts the harsh reality of Panama. This massive construction job cost many lives. Thousands of workers succumbed to various diseases, such as dysentery, yellow fever and malaria. They also had to fight various calamities caused by extreme climate conditions, such as the blistering heat, torrential rains, and fatal landslides (Panama Canal: Gateway to the American Century).

Learn more about this great Canal, considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world through the range of information available for adults, teens and children:

Building the canal

Building the Panama Canal by Sylvia Engdahl
Presents differing viewpoints on the history of, and controversies surrounding, the Panama Canal, and features four personal narratives about its construction and the displacement of natives that resulted from it. Reference work only available at the research library: Stephen A. Schwarzman. For adults and young adults.

Building the canal

Building the Panama Canal by Russell Roberts
Explores the building of the Panama Canal, including both the failure of a French Count and Roosevelt's success.  For children.

Canal builders

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal by Julie Greene
Rather than emphasizing the long  celebrated triumph of American engineering and ingenuity, the author focuses on the working conditions and historic importance of the thousands of workingmen and workingwomen who traveled from all around the world to build it.  For adults.


Locks, Crocs, & Skeeters: The Story of the Panama Canal by Nancy Winslow Parker
Combines poetry, history, brief biographies, and science to document the creation of the Panama Canal.  For children.

Panama 1

Panama by Byron Augustin
This Central American nation, linking the North and South America, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, is also the melting pot of races and cultures. It also possesses precious gifts of our natural world with unique mixing of species.  For children.

panama 1

Panama by Dana Meachen Rau
Provides an overview of the geography, history, and culture of the small North American country that touches two oceans and links two continents.  For children.

panama 2

Panama Canal by Margaret Hall
Explore the building of the Panama Canal and America's involvement through engaging text and detailed illustrations.  For children.

panama 3

The Panama Canal by McNeese Tim
Describes the planning and building of the Panama Canal.  For children.


Panama 4

Panama Canal: Gateway to the American Century
Detailed documentary uses photographs and footage, interviews with canal workers, and firsthand accounts of life in the Canal Zone to tell story of how the Panama Canal opened on August 15th, 1914, connecting the world's two largest oceans and creating  “one of the world's most significant technological achievements.”  For adults.

The Panama Canal by Peter Benoit
Explains Panama Canal Design and construction.  For children.

panama 5

The Panama Canal by Heather Miller
"Describes the struggles and accomplishments in building the Panama Canal. Includes glossary, websites, and bibliography for further reading." Cover.  For children.

panama 6

The Panama Canal by Elizabeth Mann
Relates the history of how the Panama Canal was planned and built, including the political, international, and health aspects of getting the project finished on time.  For children.

Panamá Canal: 1880-1914 by Omar Jaén Suárez
A Pictorial work of the design and construction history of the Panama Canal. Reference work only available at the research library: Stephen A. Schwarzman. Bilingual. For adults.

Panama 7

The Panama Canal by Barbara Gaines Winkelman
Relates the history of how the Panama Canal was built and studies the economic and political consequences of its construction.  For children.

panama 7-

The Panama Canal in American History by Ann Gaines
Examines the planning, building, and maintenance of the Panama Canal and its current status.  For children.

panama 8

The Panama Canal Transfer: Controversy at the Crossroads by Susan Dudley Gold
Examines the history of the Panama Canal, from its conceptual stage through construction up to today, and discusses its controversial political aspects.  For young adults.

Panama Fever by Matthew Parker
“The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time--the Building of the of the Panama Canal.” Cover.  For adults.

panama fever


silver people

Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal by Engle, Margarita
A fictionalized account of the Panama Canal. Fourteen-year-old Mateo and other Caribbean islanders face discrimination, segregation, and harsh working conditions when American recruiters lure them to the Panamanian rain forest in 1906 to build the great canal.  For children.

Other related articles are available online at Articles and Databases:

More from the Web:

For more related resources about Panama and its Canal, please visit the Library catalog.

Spanish version/La version en Español

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