PRESERVING THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN ERA
The Panama Canal Zone
. What was it? Where was it? Why was it?
Panama Canal Museum
7985 113th Street Suite 100 Seminole, Florida 33772-4785 Phone: 727-394-9338 Website: www.panamacanalmuseum.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Canal Zone was a strip of land and water in the Republic of Panama that was 50 miles long, from the Caribbean on the north to the Pacific Ocean on the south, and ten miles wide except at the two ends, where it narrowed to border the terminal cities of Colon and Panama City. This 500 square mile area was located at the previous site of the unsuccessful French attempt to construct a sea level canal across the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880's. The area was approximately at the midpoint of the country of Panama, which stretches 500 miles on an east-west plane between Colombia and Costa Rica.
The only boundaries between the Canal Zone and Panama were on maps, on survey markers embedded along streets and sidewalks, in the Panamanian rainforest, and in people's minds. Officially, the Canal Zone existed from November 18, 1903, through September 30, 1979, a period of almost 76 years. Except for United States military bases and a few civilian townsites on each end of the Panama Canal, there were no fences or physical barriers between the Canal Zone and Panama for its entire existence.
The Canal Zone was a creation of the Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty of 1903. That treaty empowered the United States to construct a canal through a zone ten miles wide in Panama. Article III of that treaty specified that Panama granted to the United States within the Canal Zone "all the rights, power and authority within this zone which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory. ... to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority." These rights were granted to the United States for a period of time "in perpetuity."
The reason for establishing a Canal Zone in what previously had been a remote province of Colombia was to give the United States a firm geographical and political base in which to construct a canal in another country. In President Theodore Roosevelt's words to his newly appointed Chief Engineer John F. Stevens in 1905, Panama was "in a hell of a mess." It was an undeveloped country full of poverty, disease and death. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue and dysentery were rampant. The areas of French canal construction were described as a "graveyard" of ruin and desolation, with "hundreds of tons of rusted and dilapidated machinery, abandoned trains, and . . 2000 ruined houses empty except for the termites which were steadily eating them away." The nation of Panama was newly independent because of the 1903 treaty, but it had no infrastructure, organized government or established system of law. The treaty created the Canal Zone as an area in which solely the United States would exercise jurisdiction and control while constructing and operating the Panama Canal.
John Stevens and his chief sanitary officer, U.S. Army medical doctor and Colonel William C. Gorgas, led the canal workforce in cleaning up the Canal Zone and making it a safe and sanitary place to live and work. Tens of thousands of 1850's Panama Railroad and 1880's French canal workers had died of yellow fever, but by 1907 Gorgas' public health actions had eradicated the disease in the Canal Zone. The percentage of the workforce of 42,000 (from 97 countries) that suffered from malaria dropped from 84 percent in 1905 to 8 percent by 1915. The improvements in sanitation and health were unparalleled and essential to the construction of the canal.
Stevens and his appointee "Sauare-foot" Jackson Smith took on and solved the serious problems of housing and feeding the Canal workforce. In one year 4600 men were employed in building 1250 new houses and renovating 1200 existing houses, using 43 million board feet of lumber. The most modern subsistence depot in the world was built at the Caribbean ship terminal, staffed by more than 400 and subdivided into cold storage plant, dry storage, ice cream factory, bakery, coffee plant and laundry. By ten a.m. each day, supplies from this depot and from ships arriving from the United States were delivered by railroad to the hotels, restaurants and 76 mess halls along the Canal dig. "Square-foot" Smith brought order out of chaos by establishing in the Canal Zone a system of recruiting, housing and feeding workers that was efficient and fair.
Chief Engineer Stevens himself directed the Canal dig and the expansion of the Panama Railroad to dispose of spoil and transport supplies throughout the Canal Zone until early 1907. He convinced President Roosevelt and the Congress of the advantages of constructing a locks type canal rather than a sea level canal which the French had tried to do and failed. Freedom from disease, adeauate living conditions, efficient transport and modern equipment were the bases of his notable success. As remarkable as the Canal construction later became, it could not have been accomplished without the basic necessities that had to be provided and built first in the Canal Zone.
The Panama Canal was formally opened to the world on August 15, 1914. It was finished ahead of schedule and under budget, the largest construction project in American history.
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Panama Canal Museum
7985 113th Street, Suite 100 Seminole, FL 33772-4785 Tel. (727) 394-9338
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From 1907 until its completion, the Canal project was headed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. (later Colonel and then General) George Washington Goethals, Roosevelt's appointed successor to Stevens. In early 1914 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Goethals Governor of the Panama Canal, where he continued to serve through 1916. Traditionally, from that year on until September 1979 the post that became known as Governor of the Canal Zone was filled with a general officer of the Corps of Engineers appointed by the President of the United States. The Governor served in a dual capacity, later assuming the additional title of President of the Panama Canal Company.
Between 1914 and 1979, the Canal Zone was the home of several generations of many thousands of U.S. citizens, Panamanians and West Indians who worked and lived at the Panama Canal. The town sites in which they lived actually constituted only a small percentage of the 500 square mile area, with the vast majority being undeveloped rain forest, rivers and lakes. Several U.S. military bases also were established for many years in the Canal Zone, concentrated at the Northern and Southern terminals of the Canal. The entire length of the Panama Canal, including three locks complexes and both terminal ends, was situated in the Canal Zone.
The Canal Zone Government had its own police, courts, legal code, postal, customs, draft boards, licensing, libraries, and fire departments. It also operated hospitals and clinics, a school system and cemeteries. All were modeled after communities in the United States and were superbly managed to make life in the Canal Zone as American as possible.
On the Panama Canal Company side of the enterprise, the Canal organization
managed and provided employee housing, buildings and grounds maintenance, commissaries, restaurants, clubhouses, movie theaters, bowling alleys, gas stations and other necessities of life in a typical American community.
At least three generations of American citizens were born in Canal Zone hospitals, raised in its housing, educated in its schools, abided by its laws, attended its churches, worked for its Government or the Panama Canal, and many were buried in its cemeteries. The only restriction to which U.S. citizens were subject was that they could not retire in the Canal Zone. When retired from a career there, they had to move to the United States, Panama or another country of their choice.
On September 7, 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian military dictator Omar Torrijos signed two new Panama Canal Treaties, terminating the 1903 treaty and "all other treaties, conventions, agreements and exchanges of notes between the United States of America and the Republic of Panama which were in force prior to the entry into force of this Treaty." One of the new treaties was a 22 year treaty which, upon its implementation on October 1, 1979, eliminated the Canal Zone and phased out many Canal Zone Government and supporting commercial Canal activities.
On the evening of September 30, 1979, the American flag as the flag of jurisdiction was lowered for the last time and at midnight the Canal Zone ceased to exist. From that date until noon on December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal Commission continued to operate the Canal as a U.S. government agency located in the Republic of Panama. U.S. military bases also continued to operate in Panama, but were phased out of existence by the end of the twentieth century.