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This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal

On this day in 1914, an old crane boat becomes the first self-propelled vessel to cross the Panama Canal. The man-made waterway would officially open a few months later. Do you know how and why Americans ended up building that canal in the first place?


Let’s just say that Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly, and carry a big stick” mentality might have played a role.

“Theodore Roosevelt, dressed as a Rough Rider, leading a group of laborers, armed with shovels, to work on the Panama Canal. One man, in the background, wearing a hat labeled “Jake” may refer to John F. Stevens, who took over the chief engineer position for the canal construction in 1905.” -- Library of Congress description

The idea for a canal didn’t originate with Roosevelt, of course. The prospect was investigated as early as 1534. Later, Thomas Jefferson expressed interest, as did Andrew Jackson. Was a canal across the Isthmus of Panama possible? Could the Atlantic and Pacific oceans be connected, shortening trade routes?


Many expeditions and surveys followed, but the French took the first real stab at construction in 1879. Their efforts were plagued by disease and the difficult climate. Tools and clothes could rust or grow mold overnight! Yellow fever and malaria ran rampant. Perhaps worst of all, the project’s leader, Ferdinand de Lesseps, became tunnel-visioned on a sea-level route, even when engineers suggested a system of locks and tunnels.


By 1890, the French had abandoned the venture. Thousands of people had died in the effort. Hundreds of thousands of investors were ruined.


In the meantime, Americans hadn’t completely abandoned the idea of a canal—and the project got a huge boost from none other than Teddy Roosevelt. He’d long been interested in the possibility, even offering unsolicited (unwanted?!) advice during President William McKinley’s first term. The McKinley administration was then contemplating a treaty that would allow construction of a canal, but that would *not* allow American fortifications to be built nearby.


Roosevelt didn’t think too much of THAT! Nor did he hesitate to say so, despite the fact that he was then a Governor, not a federal official.


How quickly things change? Less than two years later, McKinley’s unexpected death had turned that upstart—Roosevelt—into the President of the United States.


“No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent,” Roosevelt would say in his first address to Congress, “is of such consequence to the American people as the building of a canal across the Isthmus connecting North and South America.”


Believe it or not, many Americans then wanted the canal to be constructed near Nicaragua, not by Panama. Even when news came that French were willing to sell their Panamanian holdings, the pro-Nicaragua contingent refused to budge. You can probably imagine the intense months that followed: lobbying, treaty negotiations, congressional hearings. However, you probably didn’t picture one surprising factor that influenced discussions: Nicaragua has a lot of volcanoes! Worse, one long-dormant volcano decided to erupt in the midst of this political upheaval.


THAT certainly didn’t help the pro-Nicaragua lobby.


Over time, pro-Panama forces began to win. Historian David McCullough describes the mood that developed: “[I]ndustrious, practical, moral men—Americans—might succeed where others had failed. Indeed, in an inverse way, the downfall of the French, the sheer unpleasantness and difficulty of taking the Panama route, began to have a peculiar, compelling kind of attraction.”


Why wasn’t that enough? And why did Roosevelt end up interfering when Panama declared its independence from Colombia? Naturally, the story continues soon . . . stay tuned!


Primary Sources:

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