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Panama Canal Historical Timeline

Published: September 14, 2010



  • President Ulysses S. Grant orders survey expeditions to Central America.
  • The route of the current Panama Canal is nearly identical to that proposed by this Panama survey.


  • An Interoceanic Canal Commission appointed by President Grant chooses the Nicaragua route instead of the Panama route.
  • The Navy Expeditions take place between 1870 and 1875


  • French firms attempt to build a canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but fail to do so as a result of financial woes and disease, which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 workers.


  • President William McKinley orders the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission to study all routes feasible to constructing a water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
  • The Nicaragua route is chosen above the Panama route once again.


  • Panama declares independence from Colombia as a result from military pressure by President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Panama signs the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which grants the United States the power to construct a canal in Panama.


  • Americans begin construction on the Panama Canal


  • On Jan. 7, the first complete Panama Canal passage by an ocean vessel takes place. The Alexandre La Valley, a French crane boat, travels from the Atlantic to the Pacific side.
  • On Aug. 15, the official opening of the Panama Canal occurs.


  • Total tonnage of ships transiting the canal is around 5 million and tolls total approximately $4 million.
  • Avalanche at Gaillard Cut closes the canal for seven months.


  • American armada of 33 ships returning from the war zone transits the canal to the Pacific, including seven destroyers and nine battleships ships, fulfilling the vision of Theodore Roosevelt.


  • More than 5,000 ships a year transit the canal, almost equal to the number of ships transiting the Suez Canal.


  • Kuna Indians revolt in Panama in an effort to resist Panamanian assimilation.


  • Howard Air Force Base is constructed by the U.S.
  • Richard Halliburton swims the length of the canal marking the lowest toll charged to transit the canal at 36 cents.


  • President Franklin Roosevelt travels through the Panama Canal.


  • U.S. begins construction on a third set of locks over concern of Japanese bombing during World War II. They are never completed, but will be later used in the Panamanian canal expansion project.


  • President Roosevelt enunciates the “Good Neighbor Policy” and calls the Pan American Peace Conference. Discussions on Panama sovereignty ensue.


  • Panama ceases to be U.S. protectorate when the U.S. Senate passes the Hull-Alfaro treaty.
  • More than 7,000 ships transit the canal annually.


  • Plebiscite in Panama to renegotiate the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty with the U.S.


  • 10,000 Panamanians protest opposition to military bases on Panamanian soil. By 1948, under President Harry Truman, the United States evacuates all occupied bases and sites outside the Canal Zone. Panama later rescinds and allows bases to have a 15-year lease in 1955.


  • President Eisenhower arrives in Panama for the First Summit of the Americas.


  • President Kennedy proposes the Alliance for Progress in Latin America which would enable Panama to share in resources to raise living standards and advance social and economic development, something that had been unavailable to Panama in the 1950s.


  • When President Lyndon Johnson is President, anti-U.S. rioting breaks out in the Panama Canal Zone, resulting in the deaths of 21 Panamanians and three U.S. soldiers. Violent clashes between Panamanians and American soldiers begin when U.S. students attempt to raise the American flag at the Canal Zone high school. An order banning the flying of any flags in front of Canal Zone schools had been issued on Dec. 30, 1963, because of Panamanian sensitivity to U.S. control of the Zone. These events lead to attempts to renegotiate the Canal Zone’s status.
  • Panama breaks ties with the U.S. and demands a revision of the canal treaty.


  • Night lighting is added to the Panama Canal and nighttime transits inaugurated.


  • Transits of ships through the canal exceed 15,000 a year. Tonnage is more than 100 million and tolls exceed $140 million.


  • The United States renews negotiations on a just and equitable agreement between the two countries under President Nixon and continues negotiations under President Ford.


  • Dirt slide dumps 1 million cubic yards into Gaillard Cut.


  • U.S. and Panama negotiations for a Panama Canal Zone treaty completed in the Carter administration.
  • President Carter and General Torrijos sign the Panama Canal treaties (the Torrijos-Carter Treaties) in Washington, D.C. The two treaties abrogate the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903 and call for the U.S. to eventually turn over control of the waterway to Panama.


  • The U.S. Senate votes 68-32 to turn the Panama Canal over to Panamanian control on Dec. 31, 1999.
  • President Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos exchange instruments of ratification for the Panama Canal treaties.


  • The 1977 Panama Canal Treaties become law. The U.S. returns the Canal Zone, but not the canal, to Panama after 75 years.


  • The leader of Panama, General Omar Torrijos, dies in a plane crash.


  • President Ronald Reagan approves the new Panama Canal Commission official seal by Executive Order.


  • An agreement is signed at the United Nations by the United States, Panama, and Japan for a commission to study alternatives and/or modifications to the Panama Canal.


  • President George H. Bush orders U.S. forces into Panama in part “to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty.” Approximately 26,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Panama and capture former intelligence chief and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency informant, Panamanian President Manual Noreiga, for racketeering and drug trafficking.


  • Panama Canal Commission becomes a government corporation with the signing into public law by President Bill Clinton.


  • The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is created.


  • On Dec. 31, the American flag is finally lowered over the Canal Zone, bringing to an end to the American era of the Panama Canal.
  • New toll rates are implemented by the ACP, but the former toll structure is retained.


  • Cruise tourism through the Panama Canal becomes institutionalized in Panama with Holland America, Celebrity and Carnival cruise lines.
  • Panama plans a $5.9 billion project to enlarge the Panama Canal to meet demands of the larger post Panamax ships. Panamax ships can carry 65,000 tons and can fit through the present day canal, while the post-Panamax ships can carry up to 330,000 tons. The expansion is made necessary because of the increase in container shipping.


  • On Oct. 22, Panama citizens vote to approve a national referendum for $5.25 billion to expand the Panama Canal. Supported by Panamanian President Torrijos, Jr. the referendum is passed by 76.8 percent of the vote.


  • North access channels to new Pacific locks are awarded to contractors.
  • Deepening and widening of the Pacific entrance begins.


  • Colon, Panama, becomes the home port for the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
  • The Disney Magic, a cruise ship, pays $313,200 to transit canal. Nearly 1 million ships have crossed the canal since it opened in 1914.
  • A new lighting system is completed, increasing the brightness in the Panama Canal by 300 percent.


  • Currently 9,000 workers, mostly Panamanian, work at the canal. They guide about 12,000-15,000 ships a year to cross the isthmus.
  • On July 8, a contract to expand the locks is awarded to a consortium which includes Panama, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, which will take a lead in the design of the locks.

Timeline courtesy of Thomas O’Brien, Director of Research, Center for International Trade and Transportation