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Panama Canal, photograph by Harris & Ewing, 1913

Fifty thousand laborers, largely recruited from the Caribbean, worked 60-hour weeks to cut through mud and rock for the Panama Canal. Thousands died of malaria or yellow fever. The canal was one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, utilizing what were then the world’s largest locks, but it succeeded at a terrible cost of human life.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Panama Canal, photograph by Harris & Ewing, 1913

Creating the Panama Canal

Congress was central to creating the Panama Canal, one of the Progressive Era’s furthest-reaching strategic, trade, and technological achievements. In the 1890s Congress investigated potential routes for a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, deeming it essential for commerce and defense. After Congress authorized the purchase of a canal project initiated by France on the Isthmus of Panama, the Senate approved a treaty to acquire the Canal Zone in 1904. Appropriating $375 million for construction, Congress established a commission to oversee the project, which was completed in 1914.