11 Historical Photos of the Panama Canal

Library of Congress
Library of Congress / Library of Congress

Construction on the Panama Canal had ceased earlier in 1914, but it was on this date that the 50-mile-long canal officially opened to traffic after more than 30 years of planning, blasting, dredging, and building. Here are some vintage photos of the canal during the construction and in action.

1. An excavator at work in Bas Obispo in 1886. The machine could remove, on average, 400 cubic yards of material a day. According to the Panama Canal's website, the material removed to create the canal—approximately 268,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock in all—was used to turn an island into a peninsula and to create 500 acres along the Pacific Coast from Balboa to Fort Amador. The rest was dumped in the jungle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2. Construction work in 1888. The building of the canal was started by the French in 1880, when Count Ferdinand de Lesseps—who also developed the Suez Canal—set off a blast at Culebra. Their effort was plagued by problems, and in 1904, the United States officially took over. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

3. Date unknown: An auxillary crane dumps concrete at the Pedro Miguel locks. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

4. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Canal in 1906, where he spoke with workers at Bas Obispo about the project. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

5. Roosevelt also helped them accomplish the task at hand by operating a steam shovel at the Culebra Cut. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson hit a button in Washington that was transmitted by telegraph to blow up a dike at Gamboa, causing the waters of Gatun Lake to flood the cut. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

6. A suction dredge at the Calebra Cut, snapped between 1910 and 1914. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

7. Progress on the canal was impeded by many obstacles, like the landslide these workers were clearing in 1913. Flooding, tropical temperatures, and mosquitoes (which transmitted yellow fever) were also major challenges. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

8. A steam shovel working at the Isthmus of Panama in 1906. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

9. Construction of the Gatan Locks in 1909. When completed, each of the locks in the Panama Canal was 110 feet wide by 1000 feet long; the miter gates, which open and close to allow ships to pass through, are 65 feet wide and 7 feet deep, with their height varying from 47 feet to 82 feet depending on their location. Photo courtesy of CanalMuseum.com.

10. A panoramic view of the construction on the Gatan Lock. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of CanalMuseum.com.

11. On August 15, 1914, American steamship the SS Ancon became the first vessel to officially transit the canal (though the actual first transit had taken place in January of that year). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

12. Ships passing through the Gatan Lock in 1915—but they weren't the only thing that traversed the canal: Adventurer Richard Halliburton swam it in 1923. He paid 36 cents in tolls. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.