American Experience: Panama Canal
Airs Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 9:30 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published January 21, 2011 at 11:56 a.m., updated April 2, 2012 at 2:38 p.m.
On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, just a few years earlier, the French had failed disastrously.
Photo Gallery: Working on the Panama Canal
The life of workers in the Canal Zone was filled with hardships: constant rain, backbreaking work, racial tensions between West Indian and white laborers, and the constant fear of debilitating illnesses such as yellow fever or malaria. Early working conditions were so harsh that nearly all skilled American workers deserted within a year. As work on the canal progressed, however, the Isthmian Canal Commission improved facilities and provided incentives for workers to stay. This photo gallery provides a look into the everyday life of the people that lived and worked on the canal from 1904 to 1914.
Creating the Canal
Forty five years after the U.S. first considered building a canal through Central America, the Panama Canal opened to the public. Thousands lost their lives in the effort to construct the canal, one of the most daring and innovative accomplishments of its time, and it remains integral to worldwide shipping today. Explore the timeline.
But the U.S. paid a price for victory: more than a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than $350 million — the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time — and the loss of more than 5,000 lives.
Along the way, Central America witnessed the brazen overthrow of a sovereign government, a revolutionary public health campaign, the backbreaking removal of hundreds of millions of tons of earth and construction on an unprecedented scale.
"Panama Canal" features a delightful cast of colorful characters ranging from an indomitable president to visionary engineers to tens of thousands of workers from around the world, rigidly segregated by race.
Using an extraordinary archive of photographs and footage, some remarkable interviews with canal workers and firsthand accounts of life in the Canal zone, director Stephen Ives and producer Amanda Pollak (AMERICAN EXPERIENCE “New Orleans” and “Roads to Memphis”) unravel the remarkable story of one of the world’s most significant technological achievements.