Home ° 2017

Central America

Costa Rica ° El Salvador ° Guatemala ° Honduras ° Nicaragua ° Nicaragua Canal
Panama: ° Aspinwall ° Cruces ° The Canal ° Panama Railroad

The Panama Canal

Chagres, The City Front by Eadweard J. Muybridge.

Noted photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830-1904) photographed Panama's Isthmus at the turn of the Century.

His travels to Panama were funded by Pacific Mail line in the hope that his images would bring investors to the area.

Here is his view of a young boy standing at the water's edge in "Chagres, The City Front," from the stereograph series "Isthmus of Panama, illustrated by Muybridge.

Thursday Morning, December 5, 1850, Daily Alta California

A Ship Canal Across the Isthmus.

Will this dream of three centuries ever end in reality? Will all the talk and calculations, conventions, and disputes, reckoning of expenses and profits, of benefits and fortunes it would confer, go for nothing, or shall the idea wake into fact with the full day sun of progress and enterprise, and the great world of commerce and civilization witness the wedding of the two Oceans? Perhaps no scheme of the present day involves more weighty considerations than that of schooping out a passage way for ships through the mountains, which have been called the "back bone" of our continent those "rock-ribbed" barriers which have so long resisted the billowy years of time, as well as the lashing tides of ocean. A great portion of European navigation and commerce, especially that of England, is deeply interested in the scheme. But to the United States especially is the question one of incalculable importance, and to no portion of so much as to California.

The interests that would be promoted by the completion of this gigantic enterprise, seem to be that of nearly all the maritime nations of the two continents. With the exception of Brazil, and perhaps Buenos Ayres, we do not at present see how the trade of any people would suffer by the construction of this great pathway of nations. To the people and States on the western side of South America, and those of Central America, the advantages likely to result in the more immediate and rapid interchange of trade and ideas that would necessarily follow so great work, seem so manifest as not to need specification. The whaling interests of France and England would necessarily reap great advantages by bringing the new whaling ground beyond Bherings’ Straits in the Arctic, some fifteen thousand miles nearer their home ports and markets. To the British government it is a question perhaps of as much political importance in reference to her possessions beyond Oregon, as to her commercial business and interests in the northern Pacific.

Panama. Isthmus. 1849.

Panama. Isthmus.
Proposed Canal/Rail routes
Tallis/Rapkin Map, 1849.

The rapid advance of California and Oregon in population and business will be sure to increase the estimate which Great Britain will put upon her possessions to the north of us; and not only that, it will also have a tendency to make that territory worth possessing, by giving it the countenance of respectable and thriving neighbors, whose necessary wants will make a market for what these British possessions do and can produce for export beyond what they shall need for consumption. Population, which has been for so many years nearly stationary there, will be likely henceforth to increase, and with it its trade, commerce and importance in every point of light as connected with Great Britain and ourselves. The great advantages of easy and rapid intercommunication between the colony and England are evident, and so would be its certainty by the ship canal.

But especially would the United States gain by the successful termination of this Ocean wedding. Our new possessions added to our old, on this shore, our already prominent position, business and prospects, point out with more certainty than any priestess of Apollo or augury in the Eternal City ever seemed to indicate a hoped-for event, that to the free thought and action and enterprise which our liberal institutions have promoted and sent abroad in the heads and hands and hearts of our people, is given, not only control of the destinies of this continent, but also the command of the Pacific Ocean; the fashioning, at least by example, the new governments already growing to maturity and ripening for independence; and thus also shaping the political complexion that will, at no very distant day, prevail among the nations of civilized and improving people who will be grouped and dotted about through the great Pacific.

For, disguise the matter as it may be, the colonies which Great Britain has planted in the Pacific, are just as certain to follow our example and set up for themselves, as that they are of the same race and impelled by similar impulses and hopes. Our intercourse with them all will henceforth be ten times as great as heretofore, and will have a proportional influence. This influence will be peaceable, as heretofore, but none the less beneficial, and much more effective for being of that character. Every thing that contributes to our prosperity and advancement strengthens the force of our example. And thus the ship canal, while it would bring the British colonies of the Pacific in much more direct, frequent and close intercourse with the mother government, would offset it in a measure, by adding so much to our nationality and consequent influence over them. But we have wandered for our intention. For the Sandwich Islands, China, and Japan, which will ere long be open to our trade, this through passage from ocean to ocean; would be the most certain installment to ensure prosperity.

In the light of such great importance have the governments of Great Britain and the Untied States considered it while engaged through their agents in settling amicably the disputes which has arisen in reference to it. They have pledged themselves to encourage the great undertaking, and that no monopoly shall result from its construction.

December 30, 1881, Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana


Panama Canal Workers Camp, 1886.

Construction of the Panama Canal.

In the next few weeks, owing to the demand of the United States senate for the full correspondence with England relative to the Panama canal, the American people are destined to become very famliar with the terms and stipulations of the so-called Clayton-Bulwer treaty. Mr. Blaine, while secretary of state, assumed the right of the United States to have exclusive control of the Panama canal.

This has provoked a perfect fusilade of adverse criticism from the English press and which is being re-published in the eastern papers. The London Times repels the proposition that in case of war England would disregard the stipulatins provided expressly for a state of war, and asks what equivalent Mr. Blaine offers for canceling the treaty. It deelares that the neutrality of the canal is of the very highest concern to England, and insists on the treaty as a valid document binding on the United States as well as England. The Daily News pronounces the ex-secretary's claim to treat the Panama canal as exclusively of American concern as "an astounding assumption of authority," while the Standard is disposed to consider it as a game of bluff or a "confidence trick." From all quarters the comments are hostile.

All the English papers criticise the peremptory language of Mr. Elaine's dispatch, the use of discourteous and certainly undiplomatic modes of expression, such as "requires modifications, "necessary changes," "will not consent to perpetuate the treaty," "assert the right to control the transit." It is asked, "whether this is to be viewed as the language of menace, or only clumsiness due to the ignorance of diplomatic usages."

The general view is that England has much more interest in the canal, from a commercial point of view, than the United States, and cannot consent to place the control of it in the hands of any power, however friendly. Just here is the important point. The best data at hand, in order to place this canal question intelligently before the American people and show which country would be saved the greatest distances, and therefore have the largest interest in it commercially, is that given in Admiral Ammens' report to the navy department, where he argues the advantage of the route for ships via the isthmus canal as compared with the old route via Cape Horn. The admiral gives the following figures:

  • From New York to Valparaiso via Cape Horn, 8,720 miles; via the Nicaragua canal, 4,626 miles;
  • Liverpool to Valparaiso via Cape Horn, 9,100 miles; via the canal, 7,326 miles;
  • From New York to Callao via Cape Horn, 10,000 miles; via the canal, 3,376 miles;
  • Liverpool to Callao via Cape Horn, 10,400 miles; via canal, 6,026.
  • From New York to Honolulu via Cape Horn, 13,530 miles; via canal, 6,550;
  • Liverpool to Honolulu via Cape Horn, 18,780 miles; via canal, 9,200 miles.
  • From New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, 13,610 miles; via canal, 5,010;
  • Liverpool to San Francisco via Cape Horn, 13,665 miles; via canal, 7,600.

The saving of distances it will be seen is largely in favor of English commerce and when we consider the vast bulk of England's commerce on all seas and how much larger it is than that of any other nation we can appreciate the great interests that country has at stake. And when we also realize that France, Germany, Italy and Spain will co-operate with Great Britain it will be seen that just now we can not force any high handed policy and that the most careful diplomacy must attend on all the preliminary steps toward settling the International status of the canal and preserving its neutrality in case of war.

October 28, 1884, Daily Leader, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

Commodore Schufeldt, U.S.N., Has Little Faith in It
Also in Eads Railway

WASHINGTON CITY, Oct. 28 --Commodore Schufeldt, who has just returned from an inspection of the Panama Canal, appears to have little faith in the success of M. DeLesseps' scheme. Referring to the project, the commodore said:

I was in San Francisco, and having a good deal of curiosity to see for myself just what the Panama canal was and what was being done there, I went down and took a look at it. My conclusions were not very favorable to the prospects for the completion of the enterprise, and I seriously doubt if it ever will be completed. They have spent there already as much as the Suez canal cost when opened to traffic, and have merely scratched the surface nothing more. M. DeLesseps accomplished a great work in the Suez canal, and doubtless believes that he is to do more in the Panama canal, but he will find a very different state of affairs there, and obstacles to overcome besides which those of the Suez canal wore more trifles.

The fact seems to be that this work was undertaken without an adequate idea of the situation. The French are enthusiastic for DeLessep, and he had but to go there and scratch the ground, look over the situation and declare it practicable, and the people of France were ready to furnish their funds. Now the original sum is exhausted, and there is little to show for it. It will take, in my opinion, $400,000,000 to do this work, and then I don't believe it can be accomplished on the plans originally made for a canal without locks. It may be completed some time, but, if so, it will probably be after the original investors and a good many others have stepped down and out. Of course money enough will accomplish almost anything, but I doubt if it will be found practicable to put the amount into this enterprise that it will require for its successful completion."

The commodore also doubts the practicability of the Eads ship-railway project, and says: "Railway transportation is, I think, the only solution of the problem of commerce across the isthmus."

July 3, 1890, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

Four Methods of Ditching the Isthmus Discussed at Paris.

Paris, July 2d. The Commission sent by the Government to Panama to investigate the condition of the canal, today issued a further report dealing with the defects and omissions of the four plans proposed for the completion of the canal. According to the first of these plans the canal is to be isolated, no use being made of existing waterways. The second plan proposes to make use of such waterways. The third provides for a ship railway as a portion of the proposed interoceanic route, and the fourth for a tunnel through the highlands at Culebra.

October 3, 1894, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Work on the Big Ditch.

Colon, Oct. 2. Work on the Panama canal has been resumed with picks and spades at Culebra Hill, which is eleven miles from the Pacific Ocean and thirty six miles from the Atlantic. Twelve hundred men are required, and their wages will be from $1 to $2 a day. Resumption of work on the canal has caused great commotion everywhere in this region.

October 24, 1895, San Francisco Call

Work on the Panama Canal

COLON, Colombia, Oct. 24. 1t is stated that early next spring work on an extensive scale will be again commenced on the Panama canal. Already 3000 men have been engaged to work on the excavation at Culebra and to construct extensive wharves here.

January 10, 1898, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California

Canal Inspection

COLON, Colombia, via Galveston, January 9. Lyman E. Cooley, well known engineer of Chicago drainage canal fame, and other engineers bound for Nicaragua, have carefully examined the Culebra cut extending from Pedro Miguel to Bas Obispo. They are unanimous in admitting the feasibility of the Panama canal along that route, alleging that the obstacles to be overcome elsewhere would be greater.

March 8, 1898, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Still Inspecting

The Railroad.

PANAMA, March 7. The Nicaraguan Canal Commission commenced their inspection of the line of the Panama Canal Saturday. They went by train from Colon to Bahia and returned along the route of the part of the canal already completed. George Bellin, director-general of the canal, and Chief Engineer Rogers are accompanying the commission over the route. The committee will visit Culebra next Tuesday.

February 28, 1900, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California

Low Points in Central America

Culebra Cut.

The lowest point of land between the two oceans on the American continent is the grand divide in Nicaragua, where the elevation is only 146 feet. The lowest point of land on the Isthmus of Panama, according to the report of the canal commission, is Culebra, which is 333 feet above tide water and is now the scene of active work by the Panama Canal company.

March, 30, 1904, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Members of Panama Commission Leave on Steamship Allianca for Colon
Board Will Make Thorough Examination of Conditions Along Proposed Waterway

NEW YORK, March 29. The members of the Panama Canal Commission sailed today for Colon on the steamship Allianca. They will inspect the entire route of the canal and will look over some of the documents of the Canal Company, preparatory to the delivery of the property to the United States Government. They probably will remain at the isthmus about two months. The commission consists of Rear Admiral John C. Walker, Major General George W. Davis of the District of Columbia, William Barclay Parsons and William H. Burr, New York; Benjamin M. Harrow, Louisiana; C. Ewald Grunsky, California, and Colonel Frank J. Hecker, Detroit. The commissioners were accompanied by Colonel William C. Georgas, assissant surgeon general of the army; Dr. Lewis La Garde of the medical department of the army, and Dr. John W. Ross, medical director of the navy. Roger Farnham, representing William Nelson Cromwell, counsel for the Panama Canal Company, also sailed on the same vessel. The medical men who go with the commission will make an inspection of the canal route with particular respect to the sanitary conditions and will plan arrangements for the sanitation of the canal zone. "Our present plan," said Rear Admiral Walker, "is to go over the entire route of the canal, making an investigation of the work done, the improvements that are necessary and the arrangements that will have to be made for proper sanitation of the district."

Several times, he appeared before congressional committees (under McKinley and Roosevelt administrations) to promote U.S. goods being shipped inbound in U.S. flagged ships. The British, in particular, were using a lucrative triangular route (England, Rio de Janeiro, NY, England) while denying the same route to Americans.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



Merchant Shipping

Merchant Shipping.Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce.  
History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient CommerceMerchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce.
W. S. Lindsay

Kindly Kindly Donate.


DALevy @


Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

Please inform us if you link from your site. Please do NOT link from your site unless your site specifically relates to immigration in the 1800s, family history, maritime history, international seaports, and/or California history.