(First 2 Pages)
Interest in a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific began with the explorers of Central America early in the 16th century. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, suggested a canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; other explorers favored routes through Nicaragua and Darién. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who in 1523 ordered a survey of the isthmus, initiated the first project for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. A working plan for a canal was drawn up as early as 1529, but was not submitted to the king. In 1534 a local Spanish official suggested a canal route close to that of the present canal. Later, several other canal plans were suggested, but no action was taken.
Eventually the Spanish government subsequently abandoned its interest in the canal, but in the early 19th century the books of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt revived interest in the project, and in 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it. Nothing came of this effort, however, and the revolt of the Spanish colonies soon took the control of possible canal sites out of Spanish hands. The republics of Central America instead tried to interest groups in the United States and Europe in building a canal, and it became the subject of debate in the US Congress. The discovery of gold in California in 1848, and the rush of would-be miners stimulated US interest in digging the canal. Various surveys made between 1850 and 1875 indicated that only two routes were practical, the one across Panama, and that across Nicaragua. In 1876 an international company was organized; two years later it obtained a concession from the Colombian government to dig a canal across the isthmus.
The international company failed, and in 1880 Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, organized a French company. But his company went bankrupt in 1889. But US interest in an Atlantic-Pacific canal continued. In 1899 the US Congress created an Isthmian Canal Commission to examine the possibilities of a Central American canal and to recommend a route. The commission first decided on the Nicaraguan route, but reversed its decision in 1902 when the Lesseps Company offered its assets to the US at a price of $40 million. The US government negotiated with the Colombian government to obtain a strip of land 6 mile wide across the isthmus, but the Colombian Senate refused to ratify this concession. In 1903, however, Panama revolted from Colombia. That same year the US and the new state of Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty by which the US guaranteed the independence of Panama and secured a perpetual lease on a 10-mile strip for the canal. Panama was to be…